RVing in Maysville, Kentucky
In Maysville, Kentucky, a treasure trove of American history and a fun, friendly community await RV travelers on the banks of the Ohio River. When my husband, Mark, and I first spotted Maysville’s church steeples and brick buildings from our campsite across the river in Aberdeen, Ohio, we were enchanted and quickly crossed the bridge to check out the town. To our amazement, we were warmly welcomed by the locals who reached out to us like long-lost family, and a quick day trip turned into a two-week stay.
Oozing charm from every corner, Maysville’s downtown boasts beautifully patterned brick streets and graceful architecture dating back as much as two centuries. The buildings are colorful and varied, standing cheek by jowl throughout downtown. Each one is unique and lovingly maintained, and we had to smile at the jaunty, not-quite-square windows and door frames of yesteryear. Short, skinny buildings squeeze in between tall, wide ones, and we learned that the seven row houses at the far end of town, built in 1886, were named for the days of the week.
But it was the huge murals painted on towering concrete walls along the back side of town that caught our attention because these images tell a rich history. Although there are now nearly 9,000 residents in Maysville, Indian buffalo hunters once chased bison through this part of Kentucky. In the 1700s early settlers arrived on flat boats they dismantled to build their houses, and one of the town’s founders was Daniel Boone. He had a tavern on the water’s edge near what is now Limestone Landing, and his cousin lies in the town’s Pioneer Graveyard. By the 1800s paddleboats plied the Ohio River, connecting Maysville to towns up and downstream, and later in the century train tracks ran along the riverbanks.
We followed the murals to Limestone Landing where city worker Terry Stamper showed us that these murals were painted on the town’s side of a floodwall. The wall has protected Maysville from the mighty Ohio ever since the flood of 1937 wiped out all the buildings that once overlooked the river on Front Street. It was hard to imagine that the peaceful and serene waterway in front of us could inflict such destructive forces on this riverside town, but major floods in 1884, 1937 and as recently as 1997 left the town reeling.
Fortunately, Stamper explained, they’ve always had several days’ notice before a flood arrives, plenty of time to close the floodwall gate by placing hundreds of interlocking square panels into the opening in the wall that leads to the boardwalks by the river’s edge. In 1997, after sealing the wall shut, Stamper walked along the train tracks behind the top of it to watch the floodwater rise and saw a house, intact, floating downstream.
With that kind of natural foe lying in wait at the town’s doorstep, it’s not surprising that Maysville has a strong community spirit and gathers together in the face of adversity. The walls lining the tunnel under the train tracks are decorated with clay tiles made by local high school kids in the 1990s. Each tile has the imprint of a child’s hand, and the ones near the bottom are water-stained from years of the river overflowing its banks into the tunnel.
One day, as we watched huge barges transporting cargo in both directions on the river, we heard that a World War II battleship was due to pass by within an hour. A class of first-graders sat along the edge of the water waiting for its arrival while learning lessons from their teacher about the importance and history of the Ohio River.
Up in town we stopped at the Parc Café for coffee and muffins in a lovely outdoor garden. During our stay, we discovered that good eats are a part of everyday life in Maysville, and one of the best spots for a tasty morsel or a gourmet meal is the Maysville Institute of Culinary Arts where students show off their newly acquired baking and cooking skills to lucky patrons for pennies on the dollar.
The culinary school is located in the historic Cox Building, which also houses a gallery and the city’s visitor center. Photos in the lobby show images of the building with flames bursting out the upper windows when it nearly burned to the ground in 2010. When we poked our heads into the second-floor visitor center, a spacious room with huge windows, we were greeted by Suzie Pratt, an exuberant and petite woman with a huge smile. Urging us to follow her, she told fascinating tales about the building and local history, as she took us on a tour.
The Cox Building was originally a Masonic temple, and when it nearly burned down, the task fell upon Pratt to oversee its reconstruction and renovation. Prowling around the building’s nooks and crannies with the contractors, she found artifacts that revealed (or perhaps further mystified) the secret society of Freemasons. From door hinges engraved with the society’s square-and-compasses symbol to unusual stairways and hidden rooms, the building was loaded with icons of Freemasonry. When we entered the Asylum, a room where some of the most important rituals took place, we were stunned by the brightly colored murals that covered the walls and ceiling.
Around the corner, we stopped for a beer at O’Rourke’s Neighborhood Pub. We were simply looking for an end-of-the-day pint, but as we walked into the bar, a man drew a chair out from a big table and invited us to sit down and join him and his friends. It turned out, he was the owner of the bar, Norbert Gallenstein, and over the next few hours he introduced us to everyone who came into the pub. We felt like visiting royalty, and by the end of the evening we had met a complete cross section of Maysville society, from workers at the power plant to attorneys, business owners and even the mayor.
We were surprised that two strangers would be so warmly welcomed into such a tight-knit group, but we were even more astonished that everyone in the place had grown up together and had known each other all their lives. Not only had they gone to the same kindergarten, but their parents had, too, and in many cases so had their grandparents. Nowadays, many small towns are home to as many new arrivals as old-timers.
But Maysville is different, and its roots go deep.
Norbert invited us on a tour of the surrounding area, and history came alive as he showed us the sights. As we had discovered already, the Ohio River is what put Maysville on the map centuries ago and, ironically, that same river has threatened to take the town off the map with violent floods ever since. But it was the region’s soil and ideal climate for growing burley tobacco (the tobacco that gives cigarettes their flavor) that gave Maysville a valuable product and the means to prosperity.
We just happened to be in Maysville during the tobacco harvest, and Norbert took us to one of the few remaining tobacco farms. The tobacco harvest is best done by hand because the leaves are so delicate, and we watched a group of young men carefully cutting and carrying the enormous leaves to a truck and then driving each load to a nearby barn. At the barn the men nimbly leapt into the rafters and began a kind of bucket brigade, passing tobacco leaves from the ground floor to the highest beams, three or four stories up, to hang each individual leaf from the rafters to dry.
The tobacco harvest is backbreaking work in miserably sultry conditions, but Norbert smiled wistfully as he explained that just about every high school kid in town, college-bound or not, had worked the fields. Just as the Ohio River unified Maysville because of its constant threat of devastation, the tobacco fields brought generations of residents together in their young-adult years to harvest its most vital product.
With the waning of the tobacco industry, the region has had to get creative to find ways to replace it. As we passed endless soybean fields that had once been planted with tobacco, Norbert described how Maysville has overcome what could have been an insurmountable challenge. During the past 15 to 20 years, business and government leaders have come together to renovate the downtown buildings from their once deteriorating state and make the historic brick streets the heart of a vibrant community once again.
We saw this in action one afternoon when we participated in the Katie DeSpain Memorial 5K Run. After working up a thirst running through the streets of town, runners and other townsfolk took part in a huge block party in the streets, complete with barbecue grills churning out burgers by the dozen, a deejay with a lively lineup of tunes, and kids jumping up on a picnic table to dance like no one was watching.
During our stay, several outdoor events took place on the city streets, and each time we mentioned that we were thinking about moving on in our travels, our newfound friends would tell us we had to stay a little longer because of the fun things coming up on Maysville’s social calendar.
Each season the beautifully restored 1889 Washington Opera House hosts free performances as well as a full lineup of professional productions put on by the Maysville Players. We enjoyed a terrific free concert by an Elton John impersonator and were impressed by the variety of theatrical events scheduled for the coming year. The historic Russell Theatre at the other end of town is undergoing renovations but is still showing movies.
At Kentucky Gateway Museum, we were captivated by the famous Kathleen Savage Browning miniatures exhibit, which displays dozens of replicas of historic buildings from around the world built to an exact 1⁄12 scale. The centerpiece is a stunning miniature of Princess Diana’s ancestral home, London Spencer House. Peering inside, we could see tiny portraits of Diana herself.
A few miles from town, we stepped back in time when we visited the village of Old Washington where some of the buildings are originals made from the planks of settlers’ flat boats. Amazingly, two parents and 13 children lived in the modest George Mefford House. The antique post office, built in 1789, was the first one west of the Appalachian Mountains, and it is still in use today. Over in the nearby town of Augusta, we took a ferry across the Ohio River. Free for foot traffic and $5 for a car, this was a fun way to get out on the river.
We enjoyed Maysville so much, we found it hard to leave. If you take your RV along the Ohio River, be sure to pay Maysville a visit. Perhaps you, too, will find a quickie stopover becomes a much longer stay.
If You Go to Maysville
To reach the small town of Maysville from Cincinnati, travel southeast for an hour on U.S. Route 52, part of the Ohio River Scenic Byway. In Aberdeen, cross the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge into Kentucky.
City of Maysville, Kentucky