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City Of Horse Cave 


History of 

Horse Cave Library

Horse Cave Cemeteries

History of Horse Cave

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Horse Cave is located in the northern reaches of the Barrens, an area which, in the late 1700's, was covered with prairie grass and almost surrounded by tree-covered knobs. Eight miles south of the county seat, Munfordville, Horse Cave is the largest city in Hart County with a 2000 population of 2250.

There is evidence here of pre-historic Indian inhabitants, and legend says that it was used by historical Indian tribes as a hunting ground. Buffalo were in abundance, traveling through from grazing grounds to watering areas at Green River to the north.

The town is centered on a cave from which it derived its name and water supply. It was an oasis of water, cool air and shelter. There is no certain source for the name. Several have been suggested. The most plausible source is that the word “horse” was frequently used in the 18th and 19th centuries for something extraordinarily large: horse-laugh, horse chestnut, etc. The entrance to the cave is the largest natural opening in the entire cave area.

The valley was first settled in 1794 by Jesse Grinstead; his brother William built the first house in what is now the city limits in 1795. An intrepid early settler was Elizabeth Wilson, who came west with her eight children after the death of her husband to take up a land grant. Other early settlers were Martin, Lafferty and Amos. An early industry was a tobacco factory in what is now the center of town. It burned about 1853.

In 1850 Major Albert Anderson purchased all the land (535 acres) which is now Horse Cave. He marked off the streets and sold $40,000 worth of town lots. He also donated the land for the railroad and depot. It is to him we attribute our narrow, non-connecting streets. There was little growth until work began about 1857 on the L & N railroad and Green River bridge.

J. B. Mustain and John Lang opened mercantile businesses about 1858 to trade with both the railroad workers and the area residents. Mustain stayed after Lang moved on with the railroad. One historian says Horse Cave became the economic center of the area because these men traded for eggs, butter and other produce of the farmers rather than insisting on cash as did other area merchants.

Growth spurted when the railroad opened then slowed during the Civil War. Only one battle incident occurred here; the depot was burned in February 1862. The town was incorporated as Horse Cave on February 17, 1864 – one mile square with the depot as the center. Five trustees would be elected plus a police judge and town marshall.

In 1868 the name was changed to Caverna, but, since Anderson had given the land to the railroad with the stipulation that the railroad stop be called Horse Cave, the confusion was too great and the name was changed back to Horse Cave in 1879.

The town became a tourist stop of the stage to Mammoth Cave as well as a sales center for farmers and businessmen south of the river. From the first a salesman's hotel occupied the current site of the Owens Hotel beside the railroad.

Water was furnished from the cave, first by the bucket (10 cents), later by dam and turbine wheel pumped to the surface. In 1892, the dam and river were used to furnish electricity to the little city: the second town in the state to be electrically lights.

The first school was started about 1860 just east of town. Horse Cave Graded and Hart County High School was established by Moses and Ida Wood in 1898. It continues today as Caverna Independent Schools, formed in 1950 as the first district in Kentucky to cross county lines.

The first tobacco warehouse opened in 1907 and developed into the fifth largest burley market in the world with 10 selling floors and a yearly volume of 17,000,000 pounds. Tobacco is now primarily sold by contract and warehouse sales in Horse Cave ceased in 2003.

In 1916 the stone steps were put in the entrance to the cave, a contest named it Hidden River Cave, and it was opened to the public. It was shown for more than 25 years until it was closed in the early 1940's by pollution. The river in the cave drains the entire town plus a vast area to the south and east, emptying in several springs along Green River. In 1994, with sewage removed from the cave by the construction of a regional sewer system, the tourist attraction was reopened with the American Cave Museum as a joint venture between the city and the American Cave Conservation Association which has its headquarters here.

In 1920 the town became a fifth class city with a mayor-council form of government. In 2000 the town was named a fourth class city.

In 1933 the L & N Turnpike which had evolved into US Highway 31-W, was moved from its location at the western edge of town to the center of town, a major boost for both the tourist industry and the mercantile business of the city. For 37 years the highway funneled travelers through downtown Horse Cave until the construction of Interstate 65 two miles west of town again removed through north-south traffic.

Current Horse Cave industry includes tobacco sales, Ken-Dec (a metal plating factory), Dart Container Corporation (a maker of plastic foam eating products), and a machine and tool company. T. Marzetti Company has announced plans to build a manufacturing plant here.

Since the foundation of Horse Cave Theatre in 1977 (renamed Kentucky Repertory Theatre at Horse Cave in early 2004), the tourist business in Horse Cave has revived, joined by the American Cave Museum and Kentucky Down Under and supported by several new service establishments which cater to tourists as well as residents. In 2000 Horse Cave was named a Silver Renaissance Kentucky City, eligible for state and federal grants to preserve and maintain its history, culture and business center. The downtown historic district along with most of its early 20th century buildings has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.