Fitzpatrick on Boyd, 'Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community'

Douglas A. Boyd
Benjamin Fitzpatrick

Douglas A. Boyd. Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community. Kentucky Remembered: An Oral History Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 236 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-3408-6.

Reviewed by Benjamin Fitzpatrick (Morehead State University) Published on H-Kentucky (August, 2012) Commissioned by Richard C. Smoot

Douglas A. Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, has written an intriguing examination of Frankfort’s notorious and seemingly forgotten community of Crawfish Bottom, which was located on the city’s north side along the bank of the Kentucky River. Crawfish Bottom stitches together oral history, local history, and folklore to explain how former residents defined both their places in the community and the identity of the community as a whole. As Boyd illustrates, residents of Crawfish Bottom rejected the reputation of their community as the “bad” part of the city where gambling, prostitution, and homicide reigned supreme. This dominant view of Crawfish Bottom was created and perpetuated by local newspapers, police officers, and politicians. Instead, Jo Beauchamp, Mary Helen Berry, and other former denizens, decades later, remembered the day-to-day activities of the community--going to work, attending school, gathering with family and friends--that made the flood-prone bottom land their home.

Crawfish Bottom was not unique in that it shared a similar characterization (labeled a slum by city officials) and fate (systematically razed by urban renewal) with other communities throughout the country. Crawfish Bottom began to take shape following the Civil War as an influx of recently freed slaves, poor whites, Irish and German immigrants, and the families of inmates in the nearby Kentucky State Penitentiary settled in the inexpensive homes in the fifty acres of land that comprised the community. By the early 1880s, Frankfort newspapers began to carry sensational headlines of violence and crime in Crawfish Bottom that tagged the area as a den of debauchery. The focal points for violence were primarily the saloons and taverns that catered to neighborhood working men’s tastes for alcohol and gambling. Furthermore, as Boyd explains, some of the vice committed was the work of visitors--loggers from the eastern mountains, as well as senators and representatives from the state capital--who visited Crawfish Bottom to drink, gamble, and use the services of prostitutes. Another factor that shaped Crawfish Bottom was the routine flooding of the Kentucky River. In their interviews, residents consistently discussed how floods, especially the 1937 flood, submerged and washed away homes and displaced many of their neighbors. Despite the dangers of the river, most residents returned when the waters receded, and as interviewees recalled, clean up and rebuilding was a community-wide effort, a ritual, “a nearly annual reality well understood by members” of Crawfish Bottom (p. 107).  

For the majority of residents interviewed, Crawfish Bottom was a safe place where families, black and white, looked out for each other. “I don’t remember my dad ever locking the door,” Henry Goebel McCoy stated (p. 113). Growing up poor was the most salient memory for the interviewees and the constant battle to deal with poverty seemed to hold the community together. According to some residents, integration was a reality in Crawfish Bottom long before the civil rights movements made integrated neighborhoods possible in the rest of Frankfort. Remembering Crawfish Bottom was a public exercise with multiple counternarratives. However, Boyd effectively illustrates that the dominant memory of Crawfish Bottom as a red light district and a slum was created by outsiders--newspaper reporters, police officers, and local politicians--who, in some cases, sensationalized the negative aspects of the community to make the history of Frankfort more entertaining in contrast to the “city’s more mundane, politically dominated historical identity” (p. 112).

In many ways, the book is just as much about the craft of oral history as it is about remembering Crawfish Bottom. The foundation of the study is interviews with former residents conducted by James E. Wallace of the Kentucky Historical Society in 1991. Wallace intended to use the interviews “to dislodge and overturn negative outsider perceptions” of the community and “to uncover and report the tragic injustices of urban renewal” (p. 7). Many readers may have a problem with Wallace’s lack of objectivity; after all, interviewers play an integral part in shaping public memory through the choice of questions asked, topics discussed, and participants interviewed. Indeed, in their recollections many of Wallace’s subjects sounded nostalgic about James “Squeezer” Brown, who bought neighborhood children candy with his World War I pension, and Ida Howard who, although she ran a house of prostitution, was well respected because of her generosity. Furthermore, many of the interviewees pointed out that they were either children or teenagers in the 1920s and 1930s, so what they remembered was limited and tinged by their youthful experiences. To Boyd’s credit, he dissects Wallace’s interview technique throughout the book. Furthermore, the book’s thesis is supported with a strong selection of other primary sources, including Boyd’s own interviews with former residents of the community, police reports, newspaper articles, court cases, and maps. Also, Boyd contextualizes the interviews with a solid assortment of secondary sources from a variety of fields, from oral history to local studies of Frankfort.  

Despite Wallace’s attempt to overturn Crawfish Bottom’s reputation for violence, Boyd presents evidence that the neighborhood had its fair share of crime. In chapter 5, Boyd focuses on one of the community’s most beloved yet violent figures, John Fallis, the so-called King of Craw, devoting the entire chapter to his exploits. Feared and admired by both blacks and whites, Fallis, who was white, lived a contradictory life of legitimacy and criminality. Known for his quick temper, Fallis was a political boss in the Bottom and for many years ran a grocery store from which he also sold bootleg liquor. He died violently, gunned down during a craps game in 1929. Nevertheless, residents fondly remembered the compassionate side of Fallis, who bought coal for needy black residents and paid for the funeral of a child whose family was penniless. The duality of Fallis’s character--violent yet compassionate--also rested at the heart of residents’ recollections of Crawfish Bottom as a whole. Residents never denied the shootings, bootlegging, and prostitution that marred the reputation of the community. Yet they also remembered the positive aspects of their neighbors. Nevertheless, the neighborhood’s bad reputation led Frankfort’s progressive element to call for the rehabilitation of the area. Boyd pinpoints efforts to clean up the area that began with the1909 saloon ordinance that outlawed taverns and saloons in Crawfish Bottom, and continued with urban renewal in the1960s that ultimately destroyed the community.

Overall, Crawfish Bottom is well organized and, for the most part, Boyd accomplishes the task he sets for himself. However, the book does have a couple of shortcomings. Readers hoping to learn more about the history of Crawfish Bottom after circa post-World War II will be disappointed as the bulk of the work deals with the period from the 1870s to the 1930s. Despite the use of some court cases from the 1950s, there is no sustained examination of the Bottom during the 1950s or 1960s, although the introduction states that saloons, such as the “Blue Moon, the Peach Tree Inn ... thrived throughout the 1960s” (p. 8). How did demographics in Crawfish Bottom change over time? How did residents, black and white, react to the civil rights movement? Did incidences of crime and violence increase or decrease from the 1930s to 1960s, and did those changes affect former residents’ memories? These questions and others perhaps could have been answered with a chapter focused on the post-World War II period. Furthermore, Boyd devotes little attention to urban renewal, which besides the flooding of the Kentucky River had the most devastating effect on the history of the area and its residents. Once again perhaps a chapter singularly devoted to the 1950s and 1960s would have shed more light on how residents felt about urban renewal and what happened to them after Crawfish Bottom was destroyed. 

Crawfish Bottom is a worthy addition to the Kentucky Remembered Oral History Series and to Kentucky history in general. Along with such works as Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009) by Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K’Meyer, and Food and Everyday Life on Kentucky Family Farms, 1920-1950 (2006) by John van Willigen and Anne van Willigen, Boyd’s book uses the numerous interviews that have been conducted over the past several decades to reclaim the forgotten histories of everyday Kentuckians. The work also provides important insights for a number of fields of historical study, including southern history and African American history. The book will prove a useful guide for historians who are interested in using oral history in their own research to rediscover communities similar to Crawfish Bottom.

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Citation: Benjamin Fitzpatrick. Review of Boyd, Douglas A., Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community. H-Kentucky, H-Net Reviews. August, 2012. URL:

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