As you drive down Kentucky 464 in northwestern Calloway County, the road drops down a steep hill and crosses a creek before running across fields flat as paper. Unless you’re a local, you would never know a little town once stood here over 100 years ago.
You might even be surprised to learn an ancient village from 1,000 years ago sat in the vicinity. Not to mention a legend of buried treasure. This just keeps getting more interesting, doesn’t it?
Sam Watson is the earliest known European settler in the Backusburg, Kentucky area, arriving sometime in 1818. He settled somewhere just to the south of the future site of Backusburg, along the banks of West Fork Clarks River. This new territory, recently acquired by the United States from the Chickasaw Indians, began to fill in with pioneers eager to move west.
Mr. Watson was not the first person to call this area home, however. A well-known Native American settlement, identified today as the Backusburg Mounds, is located on a hill just above the river. The settlement is believed to date back to the Mississippian period from a thousand years ago.
A large mound, or a perhaps a merged series of mounds located deep in the woods, measures 150 feet by 75 feet. Since the earliest arrival of Europeans, the site has been pillaged of artifacts and other relics. The property is privately owned, but efforts in the past have been made to restore and protect the mounds.
As settlers moved in and farmers plowed the fields below the mounds along the river, numerous skeletons, stone tools, and other artifacts have turned up through the 19th century.
There was even talk of buried treasure. This came about with rumors the Chickasaw buried some of the money received when they were paid $20,000 per year for 15 years for their lands. It’s similar to the rumors I highlighted in the Linton, Kentucky feature. No treasure has ever been found.
Commerce Begins in Backusburg
Historical accounts report the first post office known as Clarks River came here on April 27, 1846. However, several Civil War era maps show a village named Clarks River on the other side of the county, near where Almo is today. I haven’t been able to find any information on a community called Clarks River in Calloway County other than the postal reference and the maps.
The Clarks River post office shut on July 6, 1860 and nothing appears to be recorded throughout the Civil War for this area. Some maps from this period refer to a place on the river very near here called “Williams Mill”, but I haven’t been able to find anything about it.
Two men arrived here in 1869 – Jac Thomas and Asa Backus – and built a saw and grist mill along the side of the river. A post office opened up on November 7, 1873 with Backusburgh as the name, after Mr. Backus. For some reason the “h” was dropped in 1894 for simply Backusburg.
During the late 1800s, the community grew to include a blacksmith shop, a couple of churches, a lodge hall, and a school. It became the site of reunions, with Confederate soldiers having at least two there in 1897 and 1898. The West Kentucky Confederate Veteran’s Association based in Mayfield like the place to meet for their annual gatherings.
The post office closed on October 14, 1905 with mail service coming from Kirksey. It’s possible that poor roads and frequent flooding of the river caused folks to move out over time, looking for other places to settle.
One of the few photos of Backusburg appears in the Jackson Purchase Sesquicentennial publication in 1969, printed by the Mayfield Messenger and supplied by Mrs. Carl Usrey. The photo shows a covered bridge across the creek with three men in the photo. Folks built the bridge in 1896, only to be destroyed by a flood on April 1, 1912, according to the photo’s caption.
At some point another bridge was built on this site, a little higher than the previous and was supported by concrete pilings. The replacement bridge appears in a 1955 arial photo of Backusburg before the state put in a new two-lane bridge in 1965 as part of the creation of Kentucky 464. The old concrete pilings can still be seen today from the current bridge.
A grocery store continued into the early part of the 20th century at Backusburg, according to historical accounts. About a half dozen homes and other buildings can be seen in the fields in the 1955 aerial photograph, but today, all those structures are gone. According to a 1977 interview with Brown Tucker, who was a local historian, the only building left at that time was the abandoned store. It, too, is now gone.
Massive Fourth of July Homecomings
Backusburg received regional fame in the mid-1930s with massive Fourth of July homecoming celebrations. As many as 20,000 people attended these star-studded events, with the likes of famous Grand Old Opry stars making appearances for concerts. These reunions apparently were short-lived but drew thousands of people to Backusburg for the celebrations.
Backusburg is ancient history today – literally speaking, with man having lived here for a thousand years. If you happen to cross the creek going west, you will notice the old bridge pilings to the north. Otherwise, absolutely nothing remains of this little town that sprung up after the Civil War.
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- Owensboro Messenger Inquirer – Mon, March 2, 1981
- Mayfield Messenger – Jackson Purchase Sesquicentennial special publication – 1969
- Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
- The Paducah Sun-Democrat – Monday, June 22, 1934 edition.
- Kentucky Place Names – Robert M. Rennick