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Nancy Hill may not have a time machine at her fingertips, but you'd never know it from talking to her.
The Shelbyville native’s passion for researching historic buildings in her community is so all consuming that she can tell you about every building in the downtown district-complete with details so intricate as to be incredible.
"People call me all the time when they have a question [about an historic building]," she said, laughing.
"One day while I was at the Welcome Center, this woman came in and told Gail Reed [former historic district coordinator] that years ago her father had a radio shop and furniture store but she didn't remember where they were, and I said, 'He had a radio shop on 6th Street in the 1930s, and then he later opened a furniture store with another man, Paul Radcliff, where Tracy's [Furniture] is now,'" she said.
The astounded woman was thrilled that Hill knew of her father, and Hill further astonished her by promising to send her some copies of advertisements that her father, Carl Bryant, had taken out in the newspaper.
"I collect those [old newspaper ads], too," she said, with a shy smile.
Her collection doesn't stop with old newspaper advertisements.
"Oh, I'm a very organized person," she said with a chuckle.” I have them [files on historic buildings] in boxes. I have a five-hundred north and a five-hundred south and a four-hundred north and a four-hundred south and the rest of them, I do them by parts of town, and they're all labeled by lot number."
Hills' files are very complete, with not only the dates when buildings were constructed, but also much more.
"I just like to know everything about them," she said. "I like to know when they were built, and if there were any fires, or any changes on facades, any kind of remodeling. I have their addresses, old photos of them, and little details, like when they had air conditioning put in, that type of thing."
Sometimes she runs across details that are rather bizarre, she said, such as finding that an old grave still exists between Main and Washington streets where a tavern used to stand just west of the courthouse in 1866.
“This is creepy, but when John Felty's wife [Elizabeth] died, they buried her behind that building," she said, explaining that the woman's husband had been killed outside the tavern years earlier in an argument with another man, and she was buried at the spot where he was killed. "It's in an old deed book in the courthouse about her grave being there," she said. "She's buried under the blacktop."
Shelbyville attorney Gilmore Dutton said he was not aware of the grave in his parking lot, but he did know that the building his law office is located in was built in 1890 and that his uncle, Luther Hall, had bought the building around the turn of the century and operated an apothecary there.
“I’m open minded about the possibility of spirits wondering around, but I have not experienced any hauntings around here,” he said.
Of course, it was probably not news to Hill that Dutton’s family owned the buildings back to the early 1900s.
"I have obituaries from back in the 1880s of some of the business people, a lot of them were from different countries, Germany, France. And I like to keep up with when there were changes, like in the 1930s, that's when there were changes in some of the facades because that was happening in Louisville and people here were trying to keep people shopping here in town, and they wanted the buildings to look more modern."
Then there's her postcard collection.
"I have a big postcard collection and the museum [at the Shelbyville Historic and Heritage Center] has had some of them enlarged," she said.” They have one street scene of the five-hundred block, and they have enlarged it so much it's as big as a refrigerator," she said, laughing.
Fred Rogers, historic district coordinator, described Hill as “a tremendous asset to the community.
“She’s kind of an anchor for understanding historic buildings,” he said. “She has researched them much more thoroughly than anyone else has. She’s definitely a go-to person in that capacity.”
Hill said she keeps her postcards in scrapbooks. She is currently helping Bill Matthews put together a book on postcards, she said.
A decade of research
How long has it taken Hill to amass all this knowledge?
One would guess all her life, but surprisingly, she has only been at it for the past 10 years, since retiring from a 35-year career at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
"That's when I started to realize that I'd lived here all my life and I suddenly wanted to know more about all the places I'd grown up with," she said. "Like the old Smith-McKinney drug store, where my family shopped and got our medicine, and like this building here," she said, pointing to a photo of an old building of 610 Main St. she had pulled out of her collection. "The original structure was the old public stable, it was built in 1903, and then in 1920 it was the BonTon Theater and in 1934, it was changed to the Shelby Theater," she said. "When I was growing up, that's where I used to go to the movies."
The theater went out in 1968, Hill said, and the last business to occupy the building was Computer Hawks, which moved after the fire where it suffered extensive smoke damage in March, and 612, 616 and 618 Main Street were destroyed.
Hill doesn't do much research by Internet, relying mostly on looking through old newspapers and doing research at the courthouse and the library.
History of burned buildings
The buildings at 612 and 614 Main St. were built in 1903 by Dan O'Leary using bricks from the old Armstrong Hotel, Hill said. In 1929, Jerome Mitchell Lederer opened a restaurant at 612 Main St. called White Tavern No. 1, as it was the first of many he opened around the state. When drive-in restaurants became popular, he changed the name of some to Jerry's Drive-in. Donohue's Bowling Alley went in the basement in 1938 to 1945, and Dr. Charles Chatham's office was installed upstairs in 1959.
Several different pool halls and restaurants existed in the building. The last occupant was Creative Spirits Counseling from 2010-13.
At 614 Main St., Kentucky Utilities occupied the building from 1913 to 1956; Dr. Rodney Whitaker's first dental office was upstairs from 1946 to 1959 and Time Finance Co. was there from 1956 to 1971. The building's last occupant was Fiesta Mexicana from 2000 to 2013; the owners were working on expanding the business into 616 Main St. when the fire occurred.
The building at 616 Main St. was also built in 1903 and was a funeral home from 1907 to 1937. Bill's Food Market moved in in 1938 to 1963, and the Dollar General Store was next from 1963-74. It was occupied by Half Time Bar from 2005 to 2008.
The structure at 618 Main St. was built in 1866 and was best known for Puckett's Men's Shop from 1949 to 1971, sporting a necktie sign out front, Hill said. Jessie Puckett, mayor of Shelbyville from 1958 to 1970, had his office at the rear of the building the entire time he was in office, she added.
A fire in 1972 damaged the second floor, which had to be removed. Fat Tony's was the building's last occupant, which went out in 2011.
Hill said one of the most exciting aspects of researching the history of old buildings is gathering all the details, such as dates, names and other facts and then trying to assemble them into a sort of documentary for each building.
“It’s like trying to put a puzzle together,” she said.
Hill's favorite building?
"People have asked me that before, and all I can say is, that's a tough one," she said. "I just can't pick one. It's like somebody asking you, 'which is your favorite child?' Like when these buildings burned, I felt like I'd lost a friend or a family member. It was like a death to me."
Her current project is researching the history of the soldiers whose names are listed on a monument at Veteran’s Park at the corner of 5th and Main streets.
“I am trying to locate photos of the soldiers, so if anyone could help with that, I’d really appreciate it,” she said.
Photos can be taken to the Shelbyville Historic and Heritage Center, located at 627 Main St.