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In my searches through Carrollton’s history, I have come across the names of many families who can no longer be readily found in the phone book. Whether from death, disease, opportunity in other parts of the country, or simply being left without a male heir to pass on their family name, their memory is still visible throughout many parts of the community on street signs, parks, public buildings, and old houses. Through pure happenstance, one such family, the Howes, would become a major focal point of my research and ties to Carrollton.
On a cold spring day several years back, I was heading to see my father on his birthday. Since moving to Carrollton, it had been difficult to visit him in Memphis, Tenn. While on my way there I saw an estate auction being set up downtown on Third Street, at the corner of Highland Avenue. I had always been drawn to that house, though I had never seen anybody living there. I was possessed by the idea of getting a chance to see inside.
After looking at the items being stacked on the tobacco wagons, I called my dad and told him this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and asked if he would mind if I came later in the day. He, being an auction lover as well, told me to come in the afternoon after the auction was over. With his approval, I eagerly looked over the lots and, when I got the chance, went inside.
The auction was truly a buyer’s wonderland. Some items, as is usual, sold for much more than they might at other sales, but most sold for very reasonable amounts. In all, I came away with pictures and letters from the Howe family, very old newspapers from Carrollton, a parlor set, a library table, and some family silver – enough stuff to fill a small museum. I have always had a strong desire to collect the history of the places in which I have lived, but this singular event instilled in me a great desire to learn more about the history of the area and discover who the Howe family was and what part they played in the history of Carrollton.
After exhausting the resources available at the Courthouse to find out the history of the Joseph B. Howe house, I found the house had three owners prior to 1866, when John Howe bought the property – Fred Caswell, William Root and Dr. S.W. Taylor. The house then passed to John’s son Joseph B., after whom the house is named, then to his son James. It then passed to James’ wife Marie, and finally to her niece, the current owner, Dorothy Wolfe. Having been built in the mid-1850s, the house has only had eight owners.
Researching online, I found several census records for the family while in Carrollton, but it wasn’t until a friend of mine encouraged me to talk to the late Katherine Salyers that I was able to find out the rest of the story.
John Howe, the patriarch of the Carrollton Howe line, was born April 24, 1823, son of Root Howe, a farmer, in Ireland. After immigrating to America in the 1840s, he would eventually come to Kentucky and open a tailoring business. Though not originally in Carrollton, he moved here in 1859. Within a short while John opened up a bank that would remain in service until the First National Bank was organized in 1881 with John as the Vice President.
In 1870, the Howes built the Carrollton Woolen Mills, which made primarily blue jeans. As the 19th century closed, the Howes would open up Howe Department Store (across from what is now the JCTC on Main St.), which at one time stood 3-stories tall. Though the building would change names periodically, it later became a theater and also a 5-and-dime store before being consumed by fire in the 1970s.
The Howes were lawyers, merchants, bankers, tailors and soldiers, but, most of all, they were entrepreneurs. They sought opportunity and made their way in the world. Though their names can no longer be found in the Yellowpages, their legacy has left an indelible mark on Carrollton in the businesses that they helped found that are still in operation, the houses that bear their names, and indeed even in the empty space where they once sold their wares.
Ben Collett is the president of the Port William Historical Society and resides in Carrollton.