In 1750 Thomas Walker noted a rock on a mountain above Livingston that resembled a castle and in 1767 Isaac Lindsey named this rock Castle Rock. The river below was named Rockcastle River and when the county was formed, it took the name of Rockcastle County. Two pioneer trails, Boone’s Trace and the Wilderness Road intersect in Rockcastle at Mt. Vernon which became the fork in the trail as Daniel Boone made his way from North Carolina to Boonesboro.
There are three incorporated towns in Rockcastle. Livingston is located seven miles southeast of Mt. Vernon on the Rockcastle River – at the foot of Wild Cat Mountain, the site of a famous Civil War Battle. Widely known as the home of the Little World’s Fair, Brodhead is located seven miles northwest of Mt. Vernon at the head of Dix River. Named for the home of George Washington, Mt. Vernon is the county seat and largest of the three. Incorporated in 1818, Mt. Vernon presently has a population of approximately 2,607.
Rockcastle’s past is filled with tales of early settlers, hunters, and explorers who were passing through the area and decided to stay and make their home in this wild, scenic spot in the foothills of the Cumberland mountains at the edge of the flat Bluegrass region. The seemingly endless forest of trees – virgin timber- became the first natural resource and sawmills, tanyards, and gristmills sprung up all around. With the coming of the railroad, the lumber industry boomed, small businesses were opened in what later became Livingston, Brodhead, and Mt. Vernon, and farms began to dot the countryside throughout the county. The towns thrived for many years as agricultural settlements with tobacco being one of the main crops.
Through the years, Rockcastle County has been fortunate to have a high-quality school system including a Vocational school, which has been recognized at the local, regional, state, and national levels for outstanding achievement. On September 1, 1937, the first Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department was formed. Today all three towns and one community (Brindle Ridge) maintain well-trained fire departments. The Rural Transit Enterprises Coordinated, Inc., located in Mt. Vernon, is a non-profit corporation, organized exclusively to provide public transportation in the area.
The health care sector plays a vital role in the economy of rural communities and Rockcastle County is blessed to have the Rockcastle County Hospital and Respiratory Center, the Rockcastle County Board of Health, the Cumberland Valley Comprehensive Care Center (including Hospice services), a Home Health Care Center, and the Rockcastle Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Through the efforts of the local economic development board, Rockcastle County has been able to attract some industry. Rockcastle Manufacturing, Mt. Vernon Plastics, Image Entry, and B & H Tool are located in the Industrial Park. Two recent additions are Integrity Mold and Die and ESTI in Brodhead. However, like other rural communities in the mountains, the people of Rockcastle County have suffered from the lack of economic development, primarily through the loss of talented young people. This forced Rockcastle to become a bedroom community where good job opportunities are relatively scarce and development initiatives suffer from a lack of funds.
Since the early forties, Rockcastle County has benefited from the tourist trade provided by Renfro Valley, located two miles north of Mt. Vernon. If you take Exit 62 from Interstate-75 and head north on U.S. Highway 25, you will find yourself entering a serene and peaceful valley, where gentle winds whisper of summer nights filled with banjos, guitars, and the sweet, pure voices belting out the sounds of the traditional Appalachian and bluegrass music. This is a valley with a mood and history uniquely its own that has cast its magical spell on millions who have stopped here for a short while and found the spell to last a lifetime. In the late thirties and early forties, this was a valley that played host to local people and unknowns, who under the direction of John Lair, became prominent country music stars. These were big-name entertainers such as Red Foley, Slim Miller, Lily May Ledford, and the Coon Creek Girls. Some of the biggest names in country music are still performing at Renfro Valley today, and this continued success has impacted the economy of the surrounding towns, especially its closest neighbor, Mt. Vernon.
The Renfro Valley barn dance, created out of the vision of its founder, John Lair, began broadcasting its shows from the old barn in Renfro Valley in 1939 over WLW radio station. From this first Saturday night, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance was a success. These early performances, along with those on the Sunday Morning Gathering not only represented an economic opportunity for the organizers and the county but also represented a major development in radio history.
This valley is a stone’s throw from I-75 making it easy access for tourists that flock to the Barn to experience and enjoy the rich, musical heritage, which exists here. Beautiful Lake Linville, located behind the Renfro Valley Lodges, adds to the beauty of the area as well as providing water, recreation, and fishing for the local residents and tourists. This 480-acre lake has the potential to be further developed to add to the economy.
There have been additions and positive changes made in the valley with the current owners preparing for future growth while successfully maintaining its original concept that made the area so special. The dream and vision that began over ninety years ago with John Lair and the neighborhood boys playing string instruments in a barn loft along the Big and Little Renfro Creek, has become a reality that has been nurtured and sustained into the twenty-first century. Many people half a world away who hear the sweet sound of the melody, “Take Me Back to Renfro Valley” written by John Lair, are still transported back to their roots and too precious memories that are so worth preserving.
The movement sponsored by a group of interested citizens to preserve this heritage and to document the history of Kentucky’s country music has been successful in receiving funds from the Commonwealth of Kentucky to complete the restoration, construction, and development of a Kentucky Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to recognize Kentuckian’s accomplishments in the country music industry. This facility is located in Renfro Valley with a portion of the exhibits housed in a restored horse barn donated by the Lair family. The project was kicked off in 1999 when Loretta Lynn joined Governor Paul Patton and others in a very successful groundbreaking ceremony. In February 2002, twelve Kentucky musicians were inducted into this Hall of Fame with others to be added each year. The Grand Opening for this facility was held in May 2002 and busloads of tourists visit the museum each week. With Renfro Valley in the city limits of Mt. Vernon, it is easy to realize that the history and heritage of this entertainment center play a major role in the success of our Appalachian Community Development initiative.
Rockcastle County culture is characteristically one of honest, hard-working folks who have high regard for “God, Home, and Country”. As we pursue our dream of- restoration, revitalization, and beautification – planning and building new education center attracting new tourists – attracting new industries – supplying better jobs for our young people – we find ourselves not so different from those early settlers in the 1800s, who saw a good thing in this region and set about searching for ways to narrow the gap between available resources and opportunities.
Today citizens and elected officials in Rockcastle County are beginning to join together with determination and optimism to reverse the negative trends that have plagued so many small towns across Kentucky and America. Rockcastle County people have begun to awaken to the realization that the seemingly high cost of tackling the problems in our area is much cheaper than allowing them to further deteriorate.