January 16, 2014

Traces of Laurel: J.T. Williams

By Jan Sparkman

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I have researched the Williams families (my maiden name was Williams) and as far as I can determine there were two family groups by that name in early Laurel County.  My branch came from North Carolina and settled in the Raccoon section, migrating into what became the East Bernstadt/Pittsburg area.  The other Williams clan lived in the Laurel River section of the county and some of them migrated into London.  I can’t say for certain that these two families  were unconnected to each other but I’ve never found evidence of this.  J.T. Williams, the subject of this week’s sketch, was from the Laurel River branch and became one of London’s foremost merchants. 

Writing of him, Charles W. Kellogg said:  “Mr. J.T. Williams, who is so well and favorably known as a prosperous businessman, was born of worthy parentage.  His father, Harvey Williams, was one of Laurel County’s most respected citizens.  He (meaning J.T.) has held several county offices, all of which were filled with ability and such fairness as to guarantee to him the utmost confidence of his constituents. He served two terms as sheriff soon after the late war, when the country was in a very unsettled condition resulting from the strife.  Politics were at fever heat, and shooting scrapes of frequent occurrence.  His promptness in arresting and bringing criminals to justice no doubt had much to do with putting Laurel County to the front and giving her the peaceable and law-abiding reputation that she now enjoys.  On account of his promptness is settling the revenue, the State Auditor placed thousands of dollars in his hands for collection against defaulting officers in other parts of the Commonwealth.”

Kellogg goes on to tell of Williams’ terms as School Superintendent and Chairman of London’s Board of Trustees.  As a trustee, according to Kellogg, Williams arranged to have Main Street ‘macadamized’ which, says Kellogg, “is a great improvement over the impassible road we once had.”

But Kellogg saves is greatest praise of Williams for his business success, calling it “almost wonderful” and saying that Williams had “won a reputation for himself that is worth more than money.”

Williams and his son, James, ran a lumber and supply store.  From other research I find that this store sat about where Dr. Jim Huffman’s office now stands.  It sold lumber, cattle feed, wagons, tanbark, and staves, among many other things.  The store was destroyed by fire in 1889.  Williams had only $4,000 worth of insurance to cover his $12,000 losses but was back in business ten days after the fire.

Dyche writes in his “Laurel County History” that the Williams family lived on Long Street in a house built ca. 1850.  When this house was torn down 70 years later, the logs from it were used to build the Mountain Life Museum. This confuses me because if the logs were used for that purpose immediately then the Museum would have pre-dated Levi Jackson State Park which, according to Dyche, was established in 1931. Perhaps they were stored and used later.

Dyche also says that J.T. Williams had the first telephone in Laurel County.  It connected his store to his home.



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.    Visit the historical society’s website at