Special to the Tribune-Courier
Nestled in the northeastern part of Marshall County along the waters of the Tennessee River, Gilbertsville is one of the oldest towns in Marshall County.
Once a thriving, incorporated community, it became a focal point when it was chosen as the site for Kentucky Dam in the 1930s. That brought a construction boom and new industry to Marshall County – and dramatic change to Gilbertsville.
The city charter has been dissolved and the original town is gone, relocated from its riverside origin first because of flooding and then by building of the dam near the site of the original town.
But the community identity has expanded and, if the post office address is used as a guideline, Gilbertsville now stretches some 10 miles upstream, southeastward from the present town limit sign on Highway 282 near the intersection with Lone Valley Road.
Gilbertsville has been not merely relocated, but reincarnated.
The town was founded in 1871 and was originally named Clear Pond after a nearby lake. The northernmost section of Clear Pond was known as Freedom’s Corner because the inhabitants were notorious for running the sheriff off during tax collection time.
During its first three years, the town steadily grew. That warranted incorporation and a new name, in honor of Jesse C. Gilbert, a local politician and attorney who served Marshall County as county court clerk, Kentucky state representative and Kentucky state senator.
Gilbert was a staunch Confederate supporter during the Civil War and served as a delegate to the Mayfield Confederate Convention that met in May 1861. He later served as delegate to the Russellville Convention in Russellville, which established Kentucky’s Confederate government. Ultimately, Gilbert was expelled from the State Legislature in 1862 due to his ties with the Confederacy. Gilbert returned to the state legislature as senator in 1871 before moving to Paducah to practice law. Gilbert later relocated to Texas, where he died in the 1890s.
With transportation access along the Tennessee River and the Illinois Central Railroad, the town which was named for Gilbert continued to grow. Numerous businesses began to pop up and a post office and jail were soon added. The town was governed by a town council and employed a town marshal and elected a city judge. Following the closure of nearby Pinnacle School, a school was built at Gilbertsville which housed grades 1-12 and the school mascot was the Yellow Jacket. In 1907, the Bank of Gilbertsville opened and remained in existence for thirty years.
Saloons did a vigorous business in the early days of Gilbertsville until the town voted dry in 1904. However, the local option election of 1904 which outlawed the sale of alcohol proved to be controversial when a group of saloon keepers claimed the election was not legal due to a paperwork technicality.
The issue was soon taken to court where Circuit Judge William Reed sided with the saloon keepers. Overnight, several more saloons began to appear in Gilbertsville and continued operation until early 1905 when the Kentucky Court of Appeals sided with “dry forces” and upheld the local option law.
Just south of town was a race track where many from surrounding areas would gather for horse racing, shooting matches and gambling. The area soon became infamous for the many fights and drunken brawls that ensued and the place became known as “Hell’s Half Acre.”
Throughout the town’s existence, the river had been the main source of its growth, but in January 1937, it doomed the original town when a devastating flood left turmoil along the Tennessee and Ohio rivers. Floodwaters reached record levels and many homes and businesses were flooded, some beyond repair.
The decision was finally made in 1938 by TVA officials to construct a dam at Gilbertsville in order to control the flood waters and bring much needed electricity to the area. The move caused the destruction of old Gilbertsville and the town was moved several miles west in order to make way for Kentucky Lake. The new community was originally named West Gilbertsville, but the “West” was soon dropped from reference. The dam completed construction and opened its gates in 1944.
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 1945, President Harry S. Truman visited Gilbertsville and gave a dedication speech for the Gilbertsville dam. Truman proclaimed in his speech, “This dam will hold back four million acre feet of flood water from the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The people behind the levees on those rivers know how much that will mean to them in protection from disaster. When the danger of flood is past, those flood waters are not to be wasted. They will be put through the water wheels here at the dam to produce great quantities of electricity. That electricity will rush to serve the people of the Valley, their homes and farms and industries.”
Lunell Culp Lovett, now 94 and living in Benton, recalled her childhood in old Gilbertsville before the waters of Kentucky Lake swept the town away. “I went to school at Gilbertsville where I was salutatorian of my graduating class of four,” Lovett remembered. “The courses I remember being taught were English, algebra, home economics, and history.”
Also, she added, “And one of my teachers, Aline Lovett, later became my sister-in-law when I married her brother, John Clay Lovett.”
Life was much simpler then in old Gilbertsville with the main forms of entertainment coming from church socials, pie suppers and school functions. The biggest event of the year was going to Benton for Big Singing Day.
“I remember ‘Toad’ Brien’s dad had a strawberry patch on the edge of old Gilbertsville and I picked strawberries there so I could buy a new dress to wear to Big Singing Day in Benton,” Lovett recalled.
Lovett’s parents were well respected citizens of the town of Gilbertsville.
“My dad was postmaster at Gilbertsville for many years,” Lovett said. “He was appointed when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected.” Her father, Oddie Culp, served as postmaster from 1934 until his retirement in 1964. Her mother, Mary, was appointed as his successor and served until 1966.
With the creation of Kentucky Lake in the 1940s, West Gilbertsville included many of the residents of old Gilbertsville and also began to add new residents from Birmingham, which was also inundated.
“I moved to what became known as West Gilbertsville in 1944 when I was 3 years old,” recalled Doris McCoy. “My family was originally from Birmingham but we were displaced much like the residents of Old Gilbertsville when the lake was flooded.”
In its new location, West Gilbertsville continued to thrive as tourism became the driving force of the area. “There were three grocery stores – Strickland’s, W.W. Joyce’s and a third operated by Mr. and Mrs. Glass,” McCoy remembered. “There were also two very successful restaurants here for many years too. People would come from as far around as Evansville to eat a fish dinner at these restaurants,” she said.
The dam which was originally named Gilbertsville Dam was later renamed Kentucky Dam, and soon after, Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park opened just a few miles down from West Gilbertsville. The new resort attracted hundreds of tourists to the area each year. Between 1949 and 1955, the state spent more than $1 million updating and improving Kentucky Dam Village, which included a convention center and an 18-hole golf course, making it one of the premier parks in the state.
The resort was host to the 1966 Southern Governors Association, with a guest list that included Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, the controversial presidential candidate in 1968. Before becoming president, Bill Clinton stayed in one of the cottages at Kentucky Dam Village in the 1980s.
After a referendum, Gilbertsville lost its incorporated status in 1976. The post office still remains today, but almost all other remnants of the town are gone.
Hardly anything remains of the town that flourished through the late 19th and more than half of the 20th centuries.
However, Gilbertsville now has even greater prominence, the home of the state park and all the features and amenities that go with it, including the marina, the golf course, motels and rental cabins and restaurants and other tourism-related businesses surrounding the state park property.
It boasts an airstrip serving small private and corporate airplanes and is home of the Kentucky Sheriffs Association’s Boys and Girls Ranch.
Change has left the original Gilbertsville behind. Eventually, all the first-hand memories of what it used to be will be relegated to historical archives and oral folklore.
But the community lives on with a new identity and vitality.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An effort is now under way seeking annexation of Kentucky Dam Village State Park by Calvert City. See story, page A1.