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In 1818 Hodgenville was founded on 27 acres of land donated by the Hodgen family, two years after the Lincolns moved to Indiana. The land was filling up. Kentucky was losing its frontier flavor. In 1826, Hodgenville got its first post office, and people began saying Hodgenville should have its own county. The following year Ben Hardin, running for Congress, told a cheering crowd that Hodgenville should be not just a county seat, but also the nation’s capital, because of its central location. It was not an idea whose time had come, but it hurt no one and probably got Ben a few votes. The next year, 1843, the state legislature formed a new county, the state’s 98th, and named it LaRue. A lot of people wanted it named Lynn, for the frontier figure, but Gov. John Helm favored LaRue (a family name), and the people were not about to argue the point. LaRue became a smiling land of 288 square miles, with Hodgenville its county seat.
As a county, LaRue had to have a courthouse, and one was duly finished the next year. A year after that, Louisville distiller J. M. Atherton built a distillery on the Rollin Fork River on the eastern edge of the county, and later ran a rail spur to the village, naturally named Athertonville. Because they had a courthouse and a distillery, the town fathers thought it time to establish a school. In 1849 the LaRue Seminary was opened.
These were good years for LaRue, darkened only by the approaching Civil War. LaRue Countians apparently wanted no part of the war. There were few slaveholders in the county. The people were descendants of those who had fought to found the Union, and most of them wanted to stay with it. The most memorable thing that happened during that tragic conflict was a raid by rebel forces who set fire to the courthouse, which was badly damaged but quickly repaired. Just as it escaped the major fighting during the war, LaRue escaped much of the violence that wracked postwar Kentucky, though farm prices fluctuated wildly. The county’s economy recovered slowly, and its growth was slowed.
By 1885 Hodgenville had two banks, the Classical and Normal College and a newspaper. Three years later the Illinois Central Railroad touched off a massive celebration by opening a spur to Hodgenville from Elizabethtown. L. L. LaRue opened the town’s first ice-plant, and the ice-wagon began its rounds. Edward Creal founded The LaRue County News, and later bought The Herald and merged the two. (He was elected to Congress five times, and his son Dalph, later ran the paper and served the county in the legislature.)
Placid times. Perhaps the most note-worthy event of 1895 was the crowning of W. M. Bryant as county checker champion. The following year William Jennings Bryan, making one of his many runs for the presidency, spoke in Louisville to a throng including many LaRue Countians. The News proudly reported that among all those from LaRue, there had not been a single drunk. The year 1900 was greeted with the formation of the Hodgenville Lighting Corp. and the coming of electric lights to Hodgenville. The new century was hailed with a poem by one Hal Z. Cox, who wrote:
Every county in Kentucky
Has its part to do
But none in all that number
Has the fame of Old LaRue.
Cox, the local paper noted, was not only a poet, but “also a useful citizen.” In 1902, the Lynn Hotel was built where the Lincoln National Bank now stands. The paper noted that interest was developing in Washington to establish a memorial to the assassinated President Lincoln, possibly on the site of his birthplace. The Lincoln Farm Association had been formed in 1900 by Mark Twain, Samuel Gompers, Ida Tarbell, Charles Evans Hughes and others, and with the help of Robert Collier, publisher of the influential Collier’s Weekly’, had raised more than $350,000 to design and build a Lincoln memorial. With this sum the association bought some of the old Sinking Spring farm and recovered what it believed (and hoped) were the logs of the cabin in which Abe was born.
In 1909 Teddy Roosevelt came and laid the cornerstone for the memorial, which was dedicated two years later by President William Howard Taft and accepted in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson. Heady stuff—three presidents coming to Hodgenville! Meanwhile, a fire almost destroyed Hodgenville in 1914, knocking out 23 business firms. Most of them had been rebuilt two years later when President Wilson visited.
In 1917 LaRue men marched off to World War I. The same year the town got its Lincoln Library, and two years later the Hodgenville Women’s Club was formed. (It has been a factor in the community ever since, and today is involved in a half-dozen major projects.) And celebrities visited. In 1923 British Prime Minister Lloyd George came to Hodgenville to visit the Lincoln Memorial, and three years later Queen Marie of Romania created a furor by sailing through with her entourage.
The Depression hurt LaRue, which was still primarily a farm community. Though Congress ended Prohibition, LaRue Countians voted the county dry in 1937.
In 1938 electricity came to the farms of LaRue when the Nolin Rural Electric Co-operative was formed, part of the national Rural Electrification Administration.
Since, World War II, LaRue has enjoyed modest growth and moderate prosperity. Hodgenville has gradually been outstripped, in growth and wealth, by neighboring Elizabethtown. This is partly because the Hardin County seat is served by heavily traveled Interstate 65, and the Western Kentucky and Bluegrass parkways, and enjoys the economic stimulus of nearby Fort Knox. LaRue, on the other hand, remained a farm community, and Hodgenville a pleasant, if somewhat static county seat, spared the economic stimulation as well as the jolts of industrial boom. In 1951 it merged its high schools, though it was not until 1954 that county officials agreed on a property assessment that gave the new system an acceptable financial footing. School integration was begun in 1956, but was not fully achieved until 1967.
The 1970s have not been an exceptional decade for LaRue. At the beginning of the decade, a group of religious youths started a commune near the LaRue-Hardin line, disturbing some people with their ways, but the commune proved as short-lived as it was harmless. At the high school, students grew long hair, irritating their parents, and some smoked pot, irritating almost everyone. That scare, too, subsided, and Superintendent [E. G.] Sanders complains that today’s students are too apathetic for their own good.
Hodgenville got a new courthouse, an airy, attractive red-brick structure in a residential neighborhood about three blocks from the town square where the old courthouse (which was torn down in 1966) had stood, and a new library. It also got its first shopping center, Lincoln Plaza, the uniform plant and the Sunrise Manor Nursing Home.
History of Hodgenville and LaRue County excerpted from the Sunday, February 1, 1979 edition of The Courier-Journal Magazine.