Seven generations of the descendants of Revolutionary War soldier Thaddeus Bennett have farmed in the valley along Tygarts Creek, first building and later guarding the covered wooden bridge that straddles the swift moving water.
After purchasing 3,000 acres surrounding the former Globe Iron Furnace with his son Joseph Bennett, Thaddeus Bennett sent his grandsons, Benjamin Franklin and Parmoley Bennett, to Greenup County to build a bustling family business in the area that later became known as Argentum.
Both master carpenters, the brothers first built a massive grist mill to grind corn, flour and cut lumber. Then after realizing half their potential customers could not reach the mill they built the Bennett’s Mill Bridge, according to Kathryn Secrest Penkava, the great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Bennett.
Today, the brother’s mill is long gone. It burned a decade after ceasing operations in 1914 and was subsequently washed away by the flooded creek, according to the Bennetts descendants who still live in the valley.
The covered bridge remains. It was restored a decade ago and is the last known — and oldest — bridge constructed in the Wheeling Truss manner. It and the remaining 550 acres of Benjamin Franklin Bennett’s estate is now watched over by Penkava, her older sister Frances Secrest Roberts and their cousin, William “Bill” Bennett Secrest.
“We are the guardians of the family — of the family graveyard and the bridge. We’re the guardians,” says Penkava, seated on the front porch of her sister’s home. The bridge is visible behind her on a recent sweltering summer afternoon and the trio observes every car that passes over it.
“God gave us the most beautiful place,” adds Roberts, who moved into the house where she and her sister grew up after her mother’s death. “It is our duty and our heritage to keep everything up. Somebody had to come back to the farm. It’s been here seven generations.”
The sisters came back to the farm first to care for their mother Kathryn, after their father Frank Secrest died. Their mother died shortly thereafter but the sisters remained to look over it.
Bill Secrest returned 30 years ago. Although he was born just up the road from where it sits, he spent most of his childhood and much of his early adult life away from eastern Kentucky.
His father, William Bennett Secrest Sr., was murdered by the family’s farm foreman when Bill was just 3-years-old. The man shot his father at the Argentum Post Office following a disagreement with Secrest’s grandfather, Bennett Secrest, over used tires in 1943. Although his mother stayed on the farm immediately following her husband’s death — even building the home on whose porch her son now sits — she eventually moved her children to Michigan, where she remarried.
Bill Secrest visited often during his youth. He spent summers on the farm with his grandfather — the son of Benjamin Bennett’s daughter Isabelle and her husband William Boggus Secrest. The sisters laugh as they recount his visits and all the attention Bill garnered from their grandfather and father as the only male heir in their generation. The cousins were tight knit then and they continue to be today. “There is just something about being on the family farm,” Bills says, of his decision to come home all those years ago.
There is something too about the family’s long history in the region that fascinates the trio and has driven them to carefully guard it and pass it along with pride. The original deed to the farm is locked away in a box that takes two keys to open. Heirloom photographs and other family keepsakes are also carefully kept and preserved.
“I never carry any of the originals with me,” explains Penkava, as she flips through a three ring binder that contains copies of photographs, newspaper clippings and other written accounts of happenings along Bennett’s Mill road.
The trio has collected a lot of information about their ancestors over the years, both through stories told to them by other relatives as well as pieces they have stumbled upon. They are always looking for additional details to flesh out the ancestor’s lives.
Benjamin Bennett enlisted with the Union Army during the Civil War while his brother Parmoley remained at home to manage the mill and farm. According to the story passed down from their great Aunt Emma Secrest Bennett, the men had drawn straws to see which one would remain to care for the business and each other’s families.
At some point during the war Benjamin Franklin Bennett became ill and returned home without the use of his arms. He was subsequently listed in the 1870 census record as being disabled and no longer a master carpenter.
Benjamin Franklin Bennett then set about to studying law, which he learned from a single Blackstone Law Book that a cousin in California still has, according to the cousins.
In 1866, B.F. was admitted to the Kentucky Bar Association and became a prominent local attorney. He then went on to become a well-known legislator, who was chosen to serve as a delegate during the 1890 rewrite of Kentucky’s Constitution and was subsequently elected to serve as a state representative in the General Assembly.
One of the family’s more colorful pieces of lore comes from this period of his life while he was commuting back and forth to Frankfort by train.
Bill Secrest recounts the tale told to him by relatives. “During this time his honey dos began piling up,” he begins. After one legislative session, he arrived in Greenup and was met at the station by one of the family’s hired hands, a former slave, who then drove him to Argentum by horse and buggy.
“As he comes across the bridge, he looks at his house and it is in smoldering ruins! And his wife Sally Snodgrass, she is sitting out here in the front yard in her favorite rocking chair with her prize possessions all around her. So Benjamin, he pulls up and says, ‘Well Sally, I guess you took care of the bed bugs!’” exclaims Bill Secrest, pausing to catch his breath.
“She kept saying, ‘BF we have bed bugs, I can’t live with bed bugs,’” adds Roberts.
“‘Build me another house!’” adds Penkava, recounting the story they have told and retold since childhood.
“And he did,” says Bill Secrest, resuming command of the tale. “He went up into Greenup and built a house.”
It wasn’t until the mid-40s that another home was built next to the bridge by Secrest’s mother and maternal grandfather. Some of the same stones used in the original house make up the foundation.
The house has been a constant work in progress, explain the sisters. Their parents added on frequently and Roberts is in the midst of a renovation herself.
Their parents also raised the tobacco barn that sits behind the house near the creeks. The family grew the crop until the buy-out of the early 2000s when they sold the farm’s tobacco base. Like many who grew up when tobacco was Kentucky’s cash crop king, the family has fond memories of the crop and harsh words for the decisions that lead to its demise in the state
Today, the cousins each own a portion of the farm, which is still used for agriculture. Bill Secrest jokes he grows only “trees and weeds” on his roughly 200 acres located on the other side of Rt. 7 from the women’s holdings. Penkava and Roberts are both master gardeners and continue to plant and grow vegetables in some of the very same fields their father and grandfather tended.
The family also has large hay fields, which they have cut and baled to sell. Most of the hard labor is done with the help of Opie Fiffe, who for more than 50 years has been the family’s beloved farm hand.
Roberts is a member of the Kentucky Proud program and sells her vegetables and basil pesto to clients including the Kentucky State Parks. Her dream, however, is to move the remains of the Argentum post office to her property beside the bridge and open a small tourist shop that sells locally made craft and food items to visitors who come to see the covered bridge.
“I can see it. I can just see it,” she says.