February 7, 2012

Our Neighbors: They are the keepers of Laurel County history

By Carrie Dillard
Managing Editor

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Shirley McCowan started volunteering with the Laurel County Historical Society after she began a search for her own family roots.

After using resources provided by the historical society, she found records about her grandmother on her mother’s side, an ancestor she knew relatively little about, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Afterwards, I became more interested in all of it, the history of the county and our state,” she said.  

McCowan is just one of seven volunteers with the Laurel County Historical Society who assist the public in historical research at their facility on Third Street.

“It thrills us all when someone says I found my great-grandfather on this Census record,” McCowan explained.

Census records, marriage records, birth and death records are all very helpful in a genealogy search.  And searching through old church minutes helped fellow volunteer, Anglee “Angie” Smith, find an uncle with a storied past.  

Through her research, Smith discovered an uncle, many generations removed, who was kicked out of church because he openly played the banjo.  He is buried in the Laurel River Cemetery.

“You can learn a lot from the old church minutes,” McCowan said.  “Back in the old days, if you missed two Sundays, they wrote it down and they wanted to know why.”

Smith retired from teaching in 1989; and McCowan from the Kentucky Telephone Company in 1968.  But neither have used their retirements for leisurely pursuits.

Besides volunteering with the historical society, Smith is a member of Friends of the Laurel County Public Library, treasurer for the Camp Wildcat Preservation Foundation and vice president for the London Woman’s Club.

McCowan keeps the books and runs the office at her daughter, Diane McCowan’s dance studio.  

“I like to stay busy because it keeps the mind working,” McCowan said.  “Any extra time I have, even if we aren’t open, I come here (historical society) to work.”

To some, the file cabinets full of local family records and old photos from events such as the Laurel County Homecoming wouldn’t mean much, but they know it could be priceless for just the right person.

“Very few people are interested in history, not just family history but Laurel County history,” McCowan said.  “We want to preserve this for future generations.”

Volunteers see the most visitors in the summer.

“We have people come from all over the U.S.,” she said.  “We get a lot of out-of-state visitors in the summer when they come here to camp (at Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park).”

In many cases, inquiries come via email, too.  

“If they have a name or a community, it gives us leads,” McCowan said.

Historical inquiries can be emailed to the historical society at

The historical society is funded through membership dues and the sale of their three book publications, including “A History of Laurel County” by Dr. Thomas Clark.

A large portion of their collection has come from benefactors who leave their personal memorabilia to the historical society upon their passing.

In their museum, under construction and not yet open to the public, you can find the original plat of London as well as a piano from the late George Sutton, former mayor.

“You’d be surprised what we’ve got under these roofs.  We keep everything,” McCowan said.

“Even we’ll be antiques one day,” Smith said.  “We’re getting there fast.”

“We welcome everyone to come and do research here,” McCowan said.  “It’s free.  And you don’t have to have an appointment.”

“We are bridging the gap,” she said.  “We will go as far as we’re here (on this earth), and then someone else has to take over that has the love for preserving Laurel County history.”

 The Laurel County Historical Society is open to the public Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.

To become a member of the Laurel County Historical Society, call 864-0607.  Dues are $15 per year.