Van Buren Village: Anderson County log cabins hidden from public view document Kentucky's history
A gravel, private road meanders along a ridge line in Anderson County near Taylorsville Lake. There are no signs posted announcing you are about to see a one-of-a-kind, recreated historic village from the 1850s. About a quarter mile down the road, you come upon the first building.
The country store is made of dark wood slats, with a red metal roof, and a large 90-foot porch with a couple of benches. Etched in glass on two of the doors are the words, “Van Buren Village Country Store,” and “Phelps Apothecary.”
I peek inside, and the store is empty. Up until two years ago, it was filled with all the items you would have found in a country store from the 1800s.
Back then a country store typically had a post office, a drug store called an apothecary, and general merchandise from toys to clothes and seeds.
A retired doctor from Louisville spent five decades collecting authentic items to fill the store. Dr. Jerry Phelps says, “when I wasn’t practicing anesthesia, I was in my Ford F150 truck at some auction.” His wife, Imogene Phelps, says the apothecary was authentic down to the medicine bottles. “He had some medicine bottles that were one of a kind.
Many people would take the labels of the medicine bottles off so you could see the bottle. But Jerry left all the paper saying what kind of medicine it was, and how to take it.”
I can see seven log cabins, an outhouse, and three small corn crib structures just past the country store. Phelps rescued the log cabins that were being torn down from Jefferson, Madison, and Anderson Counties.
He says they date back to the mid-1800s. Each one was moved and rebuilt on Phelps’ property. He even knows the family history of each cabin. “The family graveyards were right there adjacent to the cabins, so it was not hard to find them.”
Phelps also filled the cabins with historic items like tables and pie safes. Also called a pie chest, it was used to store pies and other food items.
As I wander through the village the only thing that seems to be missing are people. Phelps dreamed of making this a “working village.” He wanted the public to see people in period clothes of the 1800s working and living in the village.
But that dream was never realized.
Phelps and his wife had retired and moved to the property where they built a beautiful home down the hill from his village. He has 63 acres with a stunning view of Taylorsville Lake. Imogene says they worked seven days a week maintaining and caring for the property. “Jerry mowed it all. He mowed about forty acres, and it looked beautiful. It was like a park.”
Time and age has caught up with the couple. Now 86 years old, Phelps made a difficult decision to sell most of the historical items in the store and cabins.
I asked if it was heartbreaking to see it all go. Imogene says, “It was. It was Jerry’s decision. It was Jerry’s collection. It was enormous.” Jerry agrees. “Difficult. It’s taken two years to auction and sell off what’s taken me 52 years to collect.”
That still leaves all the log cabins and the country store plus the couple’s private home on 63 acres with a lake view.
It’s all for sale at a price of just under two million dollars. Jerry hopes he can find someone to buy it who will keep the village and find a way to open it up to the public.
“I’ve been battling with this for several years, talking to people. I don’t know of any place that has ten log cabin buildings. Number one. Number two all from the state of Kentucky.”
Van Buren Village has the attention of Robbie Morgan, the Director of Tourism for Lawrenceburg and Anderson County.
“Jerry made this place out of a collection of buildings that had historic value but weren’t seen as valuable until he saw them. If we don’t foster it, and if we don’t nurture that, and help whoever has the will and the money and the determination to turn this into what it could be, then I think we will have missed the boat if we don’t assist in that process.”
Time will tell if future generations have the opportunity to step back in time and experience 1850 at Van Buren Village.
Extended Interview: Robbie Morgan, Director of Tourism for Lawrenceburg and Anderson County, talks to Sam Dick about historic Van Buren Village, and the man who created it