Brucetown - W.W. Bruce


On December 7, 1829, the heirs of John McNair sold a five-acre outlot identified on the initial town plat as No. 105 to Robert Wickliffe. Around 1838, Wickliffe had the notable nineteenth-century local builder John McMurtry construct for him a residence at the northwest corner of Mulberry and Seventh streets on outlot number 105.  

McMurtry acquired the property himself in 1844, but conveyed the property later that year to a man named W.W. Bruce. The property in the deed was described as such:

bounded on the South-east side by the Maysville Turnpike, on the South-west side by 7th St., running with 7th St. North-west from the Maysville Turnpike into Mrs. Hickey’s lot, formerly owned by Oliver Keene, thence North-east with Mrs. Hickey’s line to Dr B.W. Dudley’s line (which is Fairlawn), thence South-east with Dudley’s line and West’s line to the Maysville Turnpike, thence South-west with same to the beginning.

W. W. Bruce was the son-in-law of the first millionaire west of the Allegheny Mountains, John Wesley Hunt. Hunt’s residence, Hopemont, was built in 1814 and is located at Gratz Park at the northwest corner of Mill and Second streets. Much of Hunt’s fortune was amassed as a hemp manufacturer, an industry and occupation that Bruce seemed to have inherited and continued to develop from his father-in-law.  Much of the family's wealth was generated largely through forced slave labor, prior to emancipation. Following the Civil War, many small neighborhoods were formed across Lexington to house former slaves that were now workers who had few other options than to work for many of their previous owners. 

Brucetown Hemp Factory area c. 1976

Brucetown Hemp Factory area c. 1976

In 1865, W.W. Bruce subdivided old Outlot No. 105 into what would become known as Brucetown. The land, consisting of “a low field,” now includes the area north of Seventh Street including properties on Jenkins Alley, Dakota Street, Florida Street, N. Upper Street, and Idaho Avenue. This land would likely not have been suitable for the construction of larger residences due to the problems with drainage in the area and was probably not suitable for a residential use at all. That notwithstanding, W. W. Bruce built housing on this land for his newly freed slaves, many of which became employees of Bruce’s hemp factory, located at the northwest corner of Limestone and Seventh streets. 

Bruce’s home received the assignment of residence number 1 in the subdivision, and was the “prize for a lottery” of homes in Brucetown for his employees. In reality, the sheer size and ornate detailing of the structure made it impossible for newly freed slaves to afford to maintain, and as a result it fell into irreversible disrepair. According to Dunn in his undated typescript, Old Houses of Lexington, the house was “shorn of its early glory and today ensconced in a junk yard.” The home was demolished in 1965.

Following the emancipation of slaves at the close of the Civil War, there were numerous acts of racial violence against newly freed slaves throughout Kentucky. In George Wright’s book Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940, he details one such incident perpetrated against the newly-freed slaves living in Brucetown.

In January 1878, an African-American man by the name of Stivers was suspected of having killed a white man, and was immediately hanged. After two weeks, some white men in Lexington determined that justice had not been fully served, and that Stivers must have had accomplices. A white mob descended on Brucetown and the home of Tom Turner, who was shot and killed in his home in the presence of his wife. 

Next, the mob turned to Edward Claxton and John Davis. These two men, who had no known association to Stivers, were dragged to one of the nearby trees and were executed by lynching. Because no jury convicted any party, no culpability was determined. The incident was profiled in the New York Times to assail the scourge of lynching across the South.

Incidents like this were not uncommon in the area. While many former slaves now had their freedom, some had to rely on their previous owners for employment, often at sub-standard wages. These substandard wages allowed hemp and agricultural production to dominate the area for the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bruce’s hemp factory continued to exist and operate. The still extant brick Warehouse No. 3 from the Bruce Hemp Factory, appeared on the 1890 Sanborn map and remains standing along Upper Street just south of the power plant. William Loughridge would then take over the Bruce Hemp Factory from his father-in-law and continue the family trade.

Two other brick structures from the Bruce Hemp Factory survive on land that functioned as a junkyard for much of the twentieth century. These structures have been “considerably altered and enlarged” from their original form, with the older structure dating perhaps to before 1855. That structure runs parallel to the Warehouse No. 3 and perpendicular to the other brick structure that first appeared on the 1886 Sanborn map. 

Each of these two buildings was described by Langsam in 1980 as a one-story “brick gabled structure [with] various additions and alterations, but basic structures apparently intact” albeit in poor condition. The 1886 structure was a hackling house, the 1855 structure a warehouse (Langsam: FANE-162). Together, as observed by Walter Langsam, these three structures are “among the earliest surviving from this once-major industry in Lexington.”

Eddie Street - Rev. Greene, and the Fish & Bibbs Families

Eddie Street & 128 York Street

After the Civil War, many outlots in the North End were divided by narrow alleys, with small parcels upon which small-scale housing was constructed over the ensuing decades. Many of these structures are not considered “historically significant,” however, the close proximity of these freestanding houses is important to the tight-knit nature of the North End community. 

One structure that embodies this archetype is the home at 165 Eddie, likely built prior to 1900. It was once the home of a “United Methodist minister and Lexington civic leader” named Horace Henry Greene. Among Rev. Greene’s accomplishments included his stint as the first African-American president of the Louisville Ministerial Association (1961), the first African-American to sit on the school board in Lexington, and the first African-American to run for city council in Lexington. Rev. Greene and his family owned the property for several decades. It is currently a rental property owned by an out-of-state landlord.

Around the corner from Eddie Street stood 736 North Limestone, built around 1905. This duplex house was an example of box frame construction, a low-cost type of wood construction for workforce housing at the time. According to the 1911 city directory, the house at 736 North Limestone was the home of Joseph and Hattie Fish. Joseph Fish was a laborer and, by 1912, the couple had moved onto Eddie Street.

In the 1921 city directory, 736 North Limestone was occupied by Benjamin and Lena Bibbs. Mr. Bibbs was a “well-known” citizen when he died in 1931, and his family name often appeared in the “colored notes” section of the Lexington Leader. According to the Notable Kentucky African American Database, Mr. Bibbs was a shoe shiner at NY Hat Cleaners in 1931, had registered to serve his country in World War I, and had been a “tinner at State University on Limestone [now the University of Kentucky].” The Bibbs would later relocate to 167 E. 7th Street. 

736 North Limestone was demolished in 2015.

Eddie Street also suffered from the same problem that much of the North End of Lexington still does to this day - poor drainage and stormwater issues. The Lexington Leader reported in January 1913 of flooding that drove out Eddie Street’s residents: “the recent heavy rains have caused a great gathering of the waters in the low section of the city around Eddie Street, and many of the families were forced to leave their homes at a late hour Saturday night to escape being drowned in their beds.”

York Street - J.W. Miller

During the rehabilitation of 128 York Street by the North Limestone CDC, a handwritten ledger was discovered which was incredibly informative about a small aspect of the North End’s history. The double entry ledger was contained in a Herald Square Account Book which, according to the frontispiece, was “Made Expressly for F.W. Woolworth Co.” Handwritten above it read: 

J. W. Miller
Radio Service
128 York St
Yearly Record

An examination of Lexington’s 1943 City Directory identified J.W. as James W. Miller. He and his wife, Susanna, lived at 128 York Street, and James was a painter at the University of Kentucky. A couple with the same names, living in Lexington on American Avenue, appeared on the 1940 census. In 1940, the couple had two children: Goldie, 14, and Louise, 2. James Miller, 40, was listed as a painter who had attended school through the eighth grade while Susanna, a homemaker, had attended school through the sixth grade. 

At some point between 1940 and 1943, the young family relocated from Lexington’s south side to the North End. The property on American Avenue was a rental property, and York Street consisted primarily of rental property as well. 

The ledger began in January 1943 and continued through May 1944. Most of the accounts were paid, though several accounts remained due in a list compiled at the rear of the ledger. 

Miller’s entrepreneurial spirit found him four customers in his first month. In June, that number had risen to eighteen. His second customer was Mrs. Ethel Peel. She paid $2.25 for parts and service of her radio. Her husband, Mr. Homer Peel, returned the following month to have a radio serviced at the cost of $1.25. 

According to the city directory of 1943, Mr. and Mrs. Peel resided on Forest Park Road which is just south of Waller Avenue on the city’s south end – near Miller’s former residence on American Avenue. Relationships developed in multiple areas of town, as well as his University connections established as a painter at UK, helped to support his enterprise. And, Mr. Miller must have done good work: in addition to being repeat customers, Homer Peel sent family members to Mr. Miller for radio repair work. 

The ledger itself is a unique snapshot into 1943 Lexington, revealing connections between parts of town and individuals that would otherwise be unknown. Miller identified many customers by name, though often the identifier was less specific like “Lady on Maple Ave.,” “Paper Boy,” or “Man in Country.” Other times, he might reference an address, a street name, or an occupation. 

James Miller conducted this side business of repairing radios in an era when radios were a primary source of household entertainment. The radio was introduced to Lexington in the 1920s and, by the mid-1940s, the appliance could be found in most households. It isn’t known how Miller learned this craft, but it is clear that this occupant of 128 York Street took initiative and had an entrepreneurial spirit. His connections to various parts of the community benefitted him financially, though the ledger also reveals that he repaired the radios of his neighbors, irrespective of their racial identity, as well. 

Unlike Miller, most lived in the North End because of the industrial employment opportunities that existed up until the 1950s. These large factories - including hemp, tobacco, and malt brewing - provided walkable and reliable employment opportunities for neighborhood residents.

Spalding's Bakery

In 1929, Bowman J. Spalding and his wife, Zelma, started baking donuts from their home on Rand Avenue. Five years later, they opened the B.J. Spalding Bakery, located at the southeast corner of North Limestone and Sixth streets. Their donuts became famous across Lexington, with workers, church groups, and others from across the city. In an interview with the Herald Leader in 1990, B.J. Spalding’s son said that his father, then 85, was still going strong “so I guess we’re going to be here for a while longer.” 

Spalding’s Bakery was there a little longer. It wasn’t for another fourteen years that Bowman J. Spalding would retire and the family would close the neighborhood bakery. Fifteen months later, the family reopened at a new location on Winchester Road with a façade designed to mimic the old location.