By Jan Sparkman
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The coming of Swiss immigrants to establish a colony in Laurel County was a watershed event in the history of our area. There is no way to write about it completely in this short column, so I won’t try. The following four paragraphs are from a paper I wrote on the subject several years ago and will give a short background on the subject:
“The final attempt by Swiss immigrants to develop an independent colony in the United States was made in Laurel County, Ky., in 1881. This settlement was the result of an effort on the part of Kentucky’s newly-formed Bureau of Immigration to compensate for the fact that the state had been all but ignored by European immigrants in the past. This effort was assisted by the active intervention of three men in Switzerland – Otto Brunner, Paul Schenk, and Karl Imobersteg – who were anxious to capitalize on Kentucky’s deficiency.
During the first three months of 1881, with the help of John Proctor, director of the Kentucky Bureau of Immigration, Brunner and Schenk searched for appropriate land on which to establish their Colony. They worked out a deal with local landholder Jarvis Jackson to purchase a large acreage “on the plateau between Woods, Hawk, Pine and Sinking creeks.” Brunner then went back to Switzerland to recruit the necessary immigrants. Schenk stayed in Kentucky to oversee preparations for the settlers. Karl Imobersteg, the other partner in the venture, provided capital in exchange for assurance that all immigrants would book passage to America through his steamship booking agency.
In the spring of 1881 the immigrant families began to arrive in Kentucky. Initially, 42 families, 75 percent of whom were from Bern, Switzerland, made land contracts with Brunner and took up residence in what was to become known, among Laurel Countians, as Swiss Colony. The official name given the settlement by the Swiss was Bernstadt. Between 1881 and 1890, several hundred Swiss immigrants came to Bernstadt and other areas within Laurel County to make their homes.
Misrepresentation of the primitiveness of the area and the quality of the land by both Kentucky officials and Swiss agents made life in Bernstadt extremely difficult for these early colonists. Many of the families were forced to sell their land and move to urban areas of the state where it was easier to make a living. Those who stayed built schools, churches and businesses, gradually merging with the broader community. Some reminders of Bernstadt remain today, and many descendants of the original immigrants still reside there. (From “The Last Swiss Colony” by Jan Sparkman, 1999.)
The Mountain Echo reported the event as follows: May 6, 1881: “On last Thursday 58 immigrants arrived at the Swiss Colony in this county. One half of these Swedes* are adults; the men mostly cattle raisers and farmers, though they have among them one schoolteacher, one carpenter and one butcher. They are enterprising and industrious people and have considerable means with which to begin life. They came over from Europe under the guidance of Mr. Alolphe Ott, a cultured and sociable gentleman, and an editor of a newspaper in Switzerland. These colonists originally intended to locate in West Virginia, but after a thorough inspection of both States through their agents or experts they gave Kentucky the preference. We welcome them with great pleasure and with the satisfaction that they have made a wise selection.”
* Confusing Switzerland with Sweden by referring to the Swiss families as Swedes was an error on the part of the Mountain Echo.
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Interviews with Laurel Countians over the age of 80 have begun. Subjects are only asked to answer a few questions about their childhood and youth and their connection to Laurel County. If you or someone you know would like to participate, contact the society at 606-864-0607 during library hours, or 606-224-3767 at other times. Email the historical society at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jan Sparkman at email@example.com.
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The Laurel County Historical Society is located at 310 W. 3rd St., London, (formerly the Laurel County Health Department). The library is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 12 noon. For further information, contact 606-864-0607 during library hours, or 606-224-3767 at other times. Email the society at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jan Sparkman at email@example.com.