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Kentucky by Heart: Historic Keene might not be fancy, but it’s home… and always will be

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

For nice rides in the country, I often take Highway 169 in the central Kentucky part of the Bluegrass area from my home in Woodford County to Jessamine County. The grassy and rolling terrain of the area is one of my favorite scenic tours.

Small farms with grazing Thoroughbred horses and cattle, an abundance of pretty homes, and historical stone walls along the roadside make it that way. On that trip, I always look forward to passing through and often stopping at the tiny historical community of Keene.

I’d heard snippets of information about Keene over the years. I met several African-Americans around the Nicholasville area who attended Keene’s Macedonia Baptist Church, and that the spirit there is terrific. Firsthand, I knew the food at Dixie Café & Quick Stop in “downtown” Keene is amazing, and the tiny post office connected to it is actually quite cute, though its limited hours have not allowed me to yet be a customer.

I always wondered about that historical-looking Keene Springs Hotel with the formerly majestic look to it, and also the ancient-looking cemetery I’d driven by many times.

Downtown Keene in front of Dixie Cafe & Quick Stop (Photo Provided)

My recent research showed that the village of Keene was laid out near a grist mill in 1813 and called North Liberty (another source said plain “Liberty), but when they found there was another town in the state named the same, it was changed to Keene after three men, including Ephraim Carter, moved in from Keene, New Hampshire. Carter became the first postmaster.

Someone directed me to 83-year-old Bob Wilson, a life-long Keener who lives about a mile from the restaurant. His great-grandfather, F.S. Wilson, bought the Keene Springs Hotel after the Civil War in 1867, but didn’t continue the hotel operation. He kept boarders and opened a general store and also a saloon until liquor lost in a vote.

Previously, in the years around 1844 when the town was incorporated, the hotel was one of several known for offering the healing effects from the mineral water of the area. During that time, Keene boomed. The business partly profited from the fact that a great cholera epidemic had reached Lexington, and according to Bob, advertised that “no one had ever contracted the disease from the water at Keene Springs.”

Though the poor economy had badly hurt business after the War, F.S. Wilson held on to his property until sold to his son, Ben, in 1895. Ben operated it for the next 40 years. Bob owns the Keene Springs building today, though it is currently unoccupied.

Paul Sawyier print, called the “The Wilson Store” (also Keene Springs Hotel), commissioned in 1916 (Kentucky Historical Society)

“It used to have a restaurant in it,” he said. “A woman who ran it has health problems and hasn’t done it for a while.” He’s not sure she can return, but he thought it was a positive when she was there.

He’s trying to keep the building reasonably maintained, and when asked if he’d want to sell at some point, he seemed to be in no hurry, but noted: “If I had the right person…” He also owns the building across the street and leases it for the operation of the Dixie Café referenced earlier, which has a good following of customers at the address of 108 Keene-South Elkhorn Road.

On most any Monday through Saturday morning through 2 p.m., the restaurant/grocery store has customers often filling the parking lot and sometimes along the roadside across the street. “People have talked to me about adding more parking,” said Bob.

The knowledge that Keene has, in the past, been a largely African American community spurred me to ask Bob about it. It had a lot to do with the freeing of slaves, and much of the community activities revolved around the Macedonia Baptist Church, which still thrives today. I’ve talked to some members who speak highly about its positive influence.

“After the Civil War, the property was (often) abandoned or went cheaply and so a lot of black people moved in. It wasn’t like many of the other rural black communities in the area that established their own,” he explained. “When I was growing up, there was probably 80 to 90 percent black in Keene, and probably about 10 to 15 percent today.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

As we talked, he pointed out some of the common names heard around Keene through the years: Cleveland (built the grist mill that spurred the establishment of the town), Woods, and Mahin (with an ‘I,’ not ‘a,’ he noted). He didn’t mention the name Wilson, but it’s about as well-known in town as any. Bob is a soft-spoken and unassuming guy, and you know he is passionate about where he has lived his entire life, which has always been within a mile of downtown Keene.

I asked him about when the very nice residential development started on the outskirts of Keene, with several subdivisions within a few miles. “I’d say about 20 years…it got more away from strictly farming when they put in rural waterlines in the late ‘60s,” he said. But the Keene he knows isn’t fancy; it’s home, though, and always will be. “I’d like to see it continue as a viable community,” he said.

Lynn Alexander is in partnership with his daughter Kasi, having leased the Dixie Café business from Bob Wilson. Though Lynn is especially busy with his horse farm and automobile businesses, he enjoys hanging out there when he is free. Kelly Johnson and family members work and manage the restaurant and grocery store for Lynn and Kasi, which Lynn calls “growing.”

Kelly told me that a family regularly comes from Somerset, in southern Kentucky, to eat there, and a traveling salesman stops by every few weeks when he is in the area. The customer base is diverse. There’s no “one kind of customer who comes there,” he said, as he prepared fried potatoes on the grill.

Kasi shared how her family got involved socially and business-wise with the town. “We moved from Texas and lived in Lexington for a few years,” she said. “But we really liked it here and moved to Keene.” When her dad, through friends, brought her to eat at Keene Springs across the street, she developed a real interest and in time, the Dixie Café involvement started.

She described Keene people as “very friendly, laid-back, and humble.” She talked about the antique car owners who regularly meet there and the high schoolers who stop there for breakfast on their way to school in the morning.

I asked her what she’d most like to see happen in the community. “I’d like to see the Keene Springs Hotel restored,” she said, “so people could be more aware of the town’s history, but I wouldn’t want it to change too much…it’s our own little world out here.”

This article originally appeared at KyForward May 29, 2018.

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One Comment

  1. Joyce says:

    A lovely spot and a terrific story! Thanks for telling it.

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