Horse cave’s new mural highlights the town’s history, and every letter has a story!
Local artist/muralist Jesse Sims didn’t have to travel far to create this newly completed mural on the corner of Water Street and Main Street, just a few doors down from his own business, Sims Studios and Art Shop, in Horse Cave’s National Register of Historic Places Commercial District, but he did travel back in time.
The mural is on a building in the heart of downtown that is currently owned by Earlene Branstetter. The historic building has housed Pierce’s Market, Village Corner Dress Shop, and most recently Gypsy’s Closet. Originally built in 1906 as a portion of an adjacent department store, the building is located on a prominent corner of the district and originally had a tower that was removed in 1911.
The mural celebrates the history and culture of the tiny town built on top of a cave. Sims researched historic photos and conferred with community members to capture the historic scenes that are arranged in the fashion of a colorful historic postcard – a perfect photo spot for visitors and locals. He was assisted with the project by his wife/artist/ business partner Jennifer Sims and their son Draven.
The “H” is the original facade of the Horse Cave Theatre that was built to resemble a local tobacco barn. Horse Cave Theatre (later known as Kentucky Repertory Theatre) was one of seven professional repertory theatres in the rural US. Locals Tom Chaney and Bill Austin recruited Artistic/Producing Director Warren Hammack to make the dream a reality. The theatre brought professionals from around the country to live in Horse Cave during the summer seasons and staged plays for 36 years after its first season in 1977. Pillars of the theatre included: an audience of tourists in cave country and local residents within a 250-mile radius; a true repertory season with different plays performed on succeeding nights; a professional company who are members of Actors Equity Association; and a promotion staff to get the word out.
The “O” is the Owens Hotel that stood on the west side of the railroad and welcomed travelers, tourists, and salesmen to the area. There has been a hotel on this site since the railroad was first built in 1858. This hotel replaced the one that burned in 1929. Built in 1930 with poured concrete floors and a long two-story gallery supported by square columns, the Owens Hotel was named for its owner and developer, Clarence Owens. Owens also built a service station and a restaurant/beauty shop in the two yellow brick buildings near the stoplight in downtown when US 31-W was rerouted in the 1930s. There was a tumultuous relationship between Owens and the Thomas family about pollution of Hidden River Cave in the early 1940s that resulted in a lawsuit and the eventual closure of the cave for 50 years.
The “R” is the historic Thomas House that sits right across the street from the mural. The Thomas family-owned Hidden River Cave, Mammoth Onyx Cave, and Floyd Collins Crystal Cave. Originally built in 1860 by William Wilson, grandson of Horse Cave founding mother Elizabeth Wilson who brought her family to claim her deceased husband’s Revolutionary War land grant, the house was also owned by Major Albert Anderson, who incorporated the town in 1864, and it was then in the family of dentists Dr. George A. and Harry B. Thomas and their descendants until the property was purchased by the city with grant funding as part of an expansion of the Hidden River Cave complex In 1999. The exterior was subsequently restored funded by grants from the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Dart Foundation. The city has completed first-floor interior renovations, and the building is available as a community meeting space.
The “S” is the Twin City Drive In that was located on US 31W where Dart Container is now. Built and operated by the Kenneth Bale family, the drive in was a favorite entertainment spot in the region for decades.
The “E” shows “hands” of tobacco in baskets displayed for auction in the interior of a tobacco warehouse where local farmers brought their product to sell to buyers who came from across the US. Horse Cave was once the 5th largest burley tobacco market in the world. Tobacco season was late fall and early winter when the summer tourist trade had almost died down, and local businesses were in dire need of customers. The buyers would stay in local hotels and eat in local restaurants. The farmers would bring the money from the sale of their tobacco to deposit in local banks and shop in local stores. This vital pipeline helped the economy of the area.
The “C” is the Floyd Collins monument that used to stand on US 31W near the former site of the stone entrance piers to Hidden River Cave by the stoplight where The Feeder Restaurant parking lot is now. Collins was hired to install steps and paths to Hidden River Cave. The cave explorer died trapped in Sand Cave (now inside Mammoth Cave National Park) in 1925. That media coverage about that event has been called the first worldwide news story because it occurred near the time of the development of transatlantic communications.
The “A” represents Ocean Breeze citrus soda. “Refreshing as an Ocean Breeze” was just one of the mottoes of Dr. W.A. McGuire’s light, carbonated drink bottled here briefly in the 1920s. McGuire’s friend and partner Charlie Branstetter built a two-story brick building on Main Street to house the bottling works. For those who could remember having tasted Ocean Breeze, it was a delicious lemony drink, not unlike Sprite or Fresca. Tradition has it that the drink might have found a wider audience had not 7-UP come on the scene just as Dr. McGuire was ready to market Ocean Breeze nationally. Local lore says that their recipe was “borrowed” by Ski Cola. Currently the building houses Hensley and Ross Attorneys.
The “V” and “E” portray a wintry Main Street scene of “the big snow of 1960”. On the right with the green and white awning is the Cave Office for Hidden River Cave. A portion of this stone wall is the only remnant of the small building, irregularly shaped to fit the site between the cliff and the street and the driveway. Behind the building is the remnant of the standpipe from the first town water system, established in 1889. When the limestone walls began to crumble, the previous owner demolished all but this remnant of the old Cave office.
Dr. George A. Thomas bought the cave from Major Albert Anderson in 1888 and installed the first successful water system for the town within a year, pumping water up from the cave. In 1892, Dr. Thomas installed an electric generator that supplied the town with electricity, making Horse Cave the second town in the state, after Louisville, so served. In 1916, a series of stone steps were constructed to provide access to the cave. In a local contest the name Hidden River Cave was elected. The cave was closed in 1944 due to water pollution and reopened in 1993.
In the background of the “E”, past the Cave Office on the right, are the Patterson and Austin buildings built in the early 1930s, the First National Bank building that was built in 1910. All of these buildings are now part of the American Cave Museum. In the far distance is the Western Auto building. Constructed in 1923, it was once the home of the Horse Cave Post Office, Kentucky Utilities and Western Auto. On the left side of the street in the snowy scene in the letter “V”, you’ll also see signs for several businesses along Main Street at the time – Ben Franklin, Dorsey Drugs, Houchens Market and Midway Café.
NOTE: The muted, flat background of the mural represents the ridge of the local knobs in the distance. Can you find the fire tower hidden in the background?