Maysville Kentucky – Tobacco, Freemasons, Miniatures & Clooneys!

September 2015 – We stayed in Maysville Kentucky for two weeks, and every day was filled with fun things to do. Some of our favorites were various tours we took around town.

Dawn Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge Maysville Kentucky

Dawn in Maysville, Kentucky

Kentucky is tobacco country, and Maysville once flourished as the heart of the burley tobacco industry. Burley tobacco leaves are what give cigarettes their flavor, and the climate and landscape here is ideal for growing this kind of tobacco.

Tobacco fields mural Maysville Kentucky

A mural on the Maysville floodwall shows the view of a tobacco field during the harvest
as seen from inside a barn where the cut leaves have been hung for drying

This is a very labor intensive industry, and it seemed that all the guys we talked to had worked in the tobacco fields at some point when they were younger. It almost seemed as if it was a rite of passage to spend some teenage years making money out in the hot sundrenched tobacco fields or climbing high up in the barns where the leaves are carefully hung to dry.

Tobacco drying in a barn Mason County Kentucky

Tobacco leaves drying

Our friend Norbert wanted to be sure we experienced this unique aspect of Maysville life, and he took us out to some fields to see the harvesting in action. We’d never seen tobacco fields before, but in no time we could recognize the broad, yellowing leaves from a distance. We wandered in and out of a few barns utterly wide-eyed at the painstaking effort it takes to cut and dry a tobacco plant’s precious leaves.

Tobacco leaves hanging in a barn Maysville Kentucky

Burley tobacco, which gives cigarettes their flavor, is the leaf that is grown here

Apparently, farm machinery has been developed to take some of the back breaking effort out of the cutting process, but it doesn’t do the job nearly as well as human hands. As sweat poured down our brows in the sweltering Kentucky sun, we watched a bunch of strapping young men bounding on and off of tractors, cutting the leaves, loading them up on trucks and driving them off to the barn.

Cutting tobacco leaves Maysville Kentucky

Cutting tobacco is very labor intensive work.

As we followed a truck to one of the barns, we noticed other trucks loaded with tobacco leaves on the roads too. This was cutting season, and now that the plants were ready to be harvested, it was all hands on deck to get it done.

Cutting burley tobacco leaves Maysville Kentucky

Harvesting tobacco

In the barns, we watched in amazement as these young men leaped up into the rafters effortlessly. They were nimble, strong and quick on their feet. Sidestepping out along the beams, they each took a wide stance facing the racks of leaves, and then the bucket brigade began.

Guys on the ground unloaded the leaves from the truck and passed them up to waiting hands in the rafters that, in turn, passed them higher. And so it went, up and up and up until the guys at the top placed the leaves on the racks to dry.

Burley tobacco leaves drying in a barn Mason County Kentucky

Young men climbed high in the rafters and passed the tobacco leaves up from hand to hand

The tobacco industry has all but disappeared today, but the elegant buildings of downtown Maysville are testament to a time when the local industry thrived. One particularly beautiful building is the Cox Building

When we first arrived, everyone kept sending us to the Cox Building. Afterall, not only is it home to the College Cafe, with its yummy desserts and inexpensive gourmet Friday lunches, but it also houses the visitors center on the second floor.

And everyone kept telling us, “Make sure you take a tour of the Cox Building too!”

When we poked our heads inside the door of the visitors center, we saw an enormous corner office with a big desk and huge windows overlooking the town.

Cox Building Maysville Kentucky

The elegant Cox Building.

Suddenly we heard a perky, welcoming voice greeting us, and we quickly got caught up in a rapid fire conversation with a petite and vivacious gal named Suzie. As she talked to us about how much she loved living in Maysville, we were struck that she didn’t have even a hint of that leisurely, drawn out Kentucky drawl we’d been hearing around town. She spoke with a British accent!

She was talking so fast about the history of Maysville and the history of Kentucky that I was still scratching my head to figure out out how a Brit came to be the visitors center’s hostess of this very cool and quintessentially American town as we found her leading us up the stairs on a tour that would soon reveal the many hidden secrets of the stately yet mysterious Cox Building. But how unique and special it is that a small town filled with people who grew up together welcomes not just tourists but new residents with such open arms!

Cox Building Maysville Kentucky

You’d never guess what lies inside this building!

It turns out that the Cox Building is a Masonic Temple and that the Freemasons of the York Rite Knights Templar built it to their very unusual specifications over a century ago. In the last few years, the building has been lovingly restored, and by some stroke of luck, what might have been a very superficial makeover was given a chance to become a very detailed restoration.

Masonic Temple stained glass window Cox Building Maysville Kentucky

A beautiful stained glass window in the Cox Building.

Back in 2010, the Cox Building suffered a terrible fire caused by the heat of a workman’s light igniting the tinder dry interior wood. The whole town watched in horror as flames shot out of the turrets (there are heart wrenching photos of the fire on the first floor of the building).

That fire could easily have been the end of this magnificent building. However, a wise insurance agent had insisted that the town guard against disaster and insure the building for its true value. So, when this disaster struck, they were financially prepared.

But of course! This is, after all, a town that has been trained to prepare for disaster by the Mighty (and unpredictable) Ohio River!

The insurance claim allowed the town to attend to every detail in the building’s reconstruction, and what details there are. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings are exquisite!

Masonic Lodge Cox Building Maysville Kentucky

The Asylum is an enormous room that is decorated with fabulous frescoes on the walls and ceiling

I won’t give away all the secrets of the Cox Building here, because the mysteries of the building and its Masonic origins are best experienced in person. The unusual architecture, bizarre staircases, and obscure symbols etched on everything from interior door hinges to exterior stonework all left us reeling.

So, we’ll join the chorus: When you visit Maysville, take a tour of the Cox Building!

Maysville Kentucky Cox Building Masonic Lodge Knights Templar

Unusual symbolism of the York Rite Knights Templar

Another special tour we enjoyed was through the Kentucky Gateway Museum. The entire history of Maysville is written out and shown with pictures in great detail, from the arrival of Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone, who settled the area, through the rise of industry, to the rise of the Ohio River floodwaters. (By the way, the Boone family tavern was down by the river and you can see headstones of the Boone relatives buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in town).

Our favorite part, however, was the miniatures exhibit. The Kathleen Savage Miniatures collection is a stunning display of building replicas done in exact one twelfth scale, that is, where one inch equals one foot.

Jewelry store Miniature collection Kentucky Gateway Museum Maysville KY

Photos of the miniature replicas belie their size because the scale is perfect unto itself.
This jewelry store is just inches tall.

There are living room interiors and dining room interiors complete with furniture and table place settings (imagine a fork or spoon in perfect 1/12 dimensions!). One of our favorites was the jewelry store. Peeking into the well lit store through the windows and door, you can see jewelry on display. Every piece is crafted with real gem stones!

The centerpiece of the whole exhibit is a replica of Princess Diana’s ancestral home.

London Spencer House Lady Diana Ancestral Home Miniature Collection Kentucky Gateway Museum Maysville

The extraordinary London Spencer House,
Princess Diana’s ancestral home

The exterior of this building is extremely grand, and I found that while I was peering at the enormous dining room and luxurious bedrooms I could almost imagine what life would be like inside such a home. Being served at the long dining room table or relaxing in the library almost seemed possible!

All of the miniatures have paintings on the walls along with candles and vases and all the other decorations that go with an elegant home. The surprise in Spencer House was seeing miniature portraits of Diana herself!

Miniature Display Kentucky Gateway Museum Maysville Kentucky

The table settings and wall decorations are all exquisitely made.

Maysville boasts another wonderfully skilled craftsman who brings antiques to life, but in full, lifesize scale. Joe Brannen replicates antique furniture in a wonderful workshop at the end of the main drag in town. We stopped by to visit and were instantly enveloped in the deliciously pungent smell of wood.

Joe Brannen Antique Furniture Reproductions Maysville KY

Joe Brannen showed us his fine furniture reproductions workshop

Joe has every woodworking tool imaginable, and there are pieces of wood on the workbenches that are in every stage of transformation from raw wood to fine works of art. Out front we saw the finished products: beautiful pieces of museum quality furniture.

Joe Brannen Antique Furniture Reproductions Maysville Kentucky

Each piece is expertly made, bringing 1790’s furniture to life today.

Maysville boasts its own homegrown Hollywood celebrity family fame too. Singer Rosemary Clooney was born in Maysville in 1928, and her nephew, George Clooney grew up in the area.

Rosemary Clooney Flood Wall Mural Painting Maysville KY

A mural on the Maysville floodwall honors hometown sweetheart Rosemary Clooney

Celebrity sightings are fairly common in Maysville, and when we had dinner overlooking the river at Caproni’s, we admired a huge display of dinner plates signed by all kinds of dignitaries that have eaten there. Front and center, of course, was a plate signed by George Clooney!

George Clooney Plate Caproni's On The River Maysville KY

Rosemary’s nephew, George Clooney, ate at Caproni’s too!

We thoroughly enjoyed Maysville, Kentucky, but what really surprised us during our stay was how many events there were going on. It seemed that every day there was some kind of special gathering, and in no time our usually empty Day Planner was full to overflowing with activities. We just had to stick around!

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NOTE: The timing of this post is really unfortunate. I discovered after publishing it that in the same moments that I was writing about the Cox Building fire above, another horrific blaze was burning in a group of row houses in downtown Maysville. These were buildings we knew well from our runs and walks in town. Tragically, five people died in the fire, a mother, her three young children and a neighbor. Words can’t express the grief we feel for our special friends in this beautiful and vibrant town as they rally together once again in the face of unspeakable loss.

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Here’s a little more info about some of these special spots in Maysville:

If you take your RV to Maysville, there are two RV parks across the river in Aberdeen, Ohio, that have a great view of the town:

Other posts from our RV travels to Maysville, Kentucky:

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