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Old Pottery, New Treasure

Priceless jugs of yesteryear

By DON WARD
Editor


PEWEE VALLEY, Ky. – James Chilton Barnett sits in the back of his antique store, greeting visitors with a friendly, “C’mon in and look around!”

J.C. Barnett

Photo by Don Ward

J.C. Barnett poses
in his Pewee Valley
antique store with
his collection
of prized possessions.

The store is open only on Sundays, but Barnett is there every day. He lives in the apartment in back, close to his prized possessions – more than 440 antique stone whiskey jugs that line the walls of his shop. They range in size from miniatures to 5-gallon.
The jugs, some dating as far back as 1865, were used prior to prohibition. Customers would buy a jug and refill it each time they visited the general store or barrel house. Some people used the jugs for holding vinegar, but most of them contained whiskey.
Each of Barnett’s jugs is embossed with the names of whiskey sellers across Kentucky. “Ninety-eight point nine of them are from Kentucky,” he says proudly.
His favorite is an 1882-era Fible & Crabbs jug from Eminence’s only distillery. He won’t even tell you what it’s worth, perhaps because he wouldn’t take anything for it.
“It took me two years to get it,” boasts Barnett, who at 82 years old doesn’t seem the type to mark time. “The woman I bought it from finally came around.”
But whiskey jugs and their pre-prohibition history are only part of Barnett’s fascination with the past. A longtime member and past president of the Oldham County Historical Society, Barnett played a central role in the creation of the Oldham County History Center, which opened Aug. 1 in downtown La Grange, Ky.
“I can’t identify any other single person who had more to do with its success,” said Oldham County attorney Kim Snell, who also serves as the Historical Society’s vice president. “He’s put in his time, effort and money – he’s sort of the guru of it all.”
As the second-largest financial contributor of the project, Chilton Barnett was not only recognized at the History Center’s grand opening ceremony but celebrated his 82nd birthday on the occasion.
Asked about the center’s significance for future generations, Barnett says simply, “We wanted a museum that would pertain to all the people of Oldham County – their ancestors, tools, and the things they made when they came here. When we started this project, we had no idea we be able to accomplish what we’ve done. But with Louise Head Duncan’s family trust money to support us, it has all come together.”
Barnett said he hopes others will donate memorabilia to build an even larger repository of items.
Born in 1917, Barnett’s own ancestors on his mother’s side date to the late 1700s in Oldham County. “That was before it was a county,” he explains. “My people lived around Sand Hill, what is now Prospect.”
His father’s family, meanwhile, settled in the Brownsboro area. A farmer and dairyman, Barnett tended to milk cows as a young man until his family’s barn burned in 1955. ‘We sold the herd and I went to work for the railroad.”
In 1923, his father sold the family farm. It is now part of a housing subdivision off Hwy. 22.
Barnett worked in the freight office of the L&N Railroad Co. in Louisville for 18 years. During that period, he co-managed a Pewee Valley amateur baseball team, which in 1949 won the Louisville Amateur Baseball tournament.
He retired from L&N in 1973 and, a few years later, opened his antique store. “At first, I was in a little store in what is now Pewee Valley Auto Parts.”
He purchased his current building – a former doctor’s office – in 1986. Besides antique whiskey jugs, he has a general line of antiques and collectibles, including Kentucky Derby glasses and various bottles, signs and glassware.
Because of his poor health, he doesn’t travel to auction much anymore. “I’ve got enough stuff in storage to keep me going for a long time, anyway,” he says.
The youngest of three children, Barnett has outlived his brother, John, and sister, Louise. He underwent prostate cancer surgery two years ago and in 1995 spent 45 days in the hospital for a stomach block.
Regarding his health, Barnett says, “If I was an 8-cylinder automobile, I’d be operating on about two cylinders today. It’s just hit and miss.”
He was honored in 1995 as the grand marshal of the Oldham County Day parade and is regarded as a key contributor to the county’s historic preservation.
“He was among the early pioneers of the historical society, back when they just started thinking about creating a place such as the museum,” said Patricia Michael, the society’s executive director. “Without his leadership and money, this would not be possible. He believes in it and he wanted it to happen.”

Back to September 1999 Articles.

 

 

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