Owensboro-Daviess County History
Owensboro is located on the south side of a deep bend in the Ohio River and is the county seat of Daviess County. The city and county population together are 114,752. Inside the city limits, the population is 60,131.
Owensboro’s first settler was William Smeathers, popularly known as Bill Smothers, who in 1797 built a cabin on the south bank of the Ohio River. Original settlers arrived in flatboats coming from the northeast, the flatboats naturally drifting to the south side of the riverbank with the swift river currents. The original site was called “Yellow Banks” in reference to the color of the soil along the banks. In 1815 the Kentucky General Assembly passed an act creating Daviess County. The new county was named to honor the fallen hero Joseph Hamilton Daveiss, who died in the Battle of Tippecanoe. (A clerk misspelled the last name in the draft of the act, and so it became Daviess County.) In 1817, the General Assembly provided for the planned town and specified that it should be called Owensborough in memory of Col. Abraham Owen, who also fell at Tippecanoe. In 1893, the spelling was changed to its current Owensboro.
Coal mining and agriculture have played a large role in the history of Daviess County. We are included as part of the Western Coal Fields region of the state. The southern part of the county along the rolling hills of Panther Creek was rich in coal and was mined for years. Agricultural production includes corn, soybeans, and tobacco. Along with the corn production came the distilling of spirits, chiefly Kentucky bourbon. During the 19th century there were 18 distilleries in Daviess County.
One of the earliest manufacturing companies was the Owensboro Wagon Company, which was established in 1884. It was one of the largest and most influential wagon companies in the nation. The Kentucky Electrical Lamp Company was established in 1899, became Ken-Rad in 1918, and then General Electric in 1945, and finally MPD in 1987. Modern Welding Company was founded by John G. Barnard in 1932 and produces steel tanks and structural steel fabrication. Texas Gas Transmission Corporation was created in 1948 and headquarters were established in Owensboro. Field Packing Company, Ragu/Unilever, and Swedish Match are currently all vital companies in Daviess County. The Owensboro Medical Health System is the county’s largest employer.
Owensboro is full of charm, history and Southern lifestyle. Festivals abound in our area all year offering unique visitor experiences. Bluegrass music and Daviess County barbecue are the centerpieces of our tourism industry.
In 1860, the Daviess County agricultural records show 11,000 sheep compared to 6,750 beef cattle. If barbecue was in order, it would naturally be mutton since it was much more plentiful than beef. Although the Catholic picnics have been a part of our heritage for many years, the first documented barbecue was held by Reverend Reuben Cottrell, a Southern Baptist, in 1834. Political gatherings and community celebrations included barbecues as far back as 1844 and have continued to this day.
Barbecued mutton and burgoo are the two foods that distinguish Daviess County barbecue from other areas. Although pork, chicken, and beef are prepared, the preference of locals according to the barbecue restaurant owners is mutton (sheep) and burgoo (stew made from mutton, other meats and vegetables). Our region has developed a unique style of pit barbecue featuring vinegar-based sauces mopped over the meat during its lengthy smoking process. The result of this process is a delicious, tangy, and very tender meat.
Festivals and Picnics
The International Bar-B-Q Festival began in 1978 and is held on the second full weekend in May each year. The cooking teams at the festival prepare as much as ten tons of mutton, 3,500 chickens, and many gallons of burgoo and serve to the general public. The teams represent Catholic churches and philanthropic organizations. The competition among teams is intense with each team having its own special techniques and mopping sauce. The judges award prizes for the best mutton, chicken, and burgoo.
This festival is the kick-off for the barbecue season during the summer and fall. The Catholic church teams host picnics at their respective churches nearly every weekend until late September. These picnics are favorite family gatherings as well as fund-raisers for the groups. A schedule of these picnics is available at the Visitor Center.
Daviess County barbecue is also available any day of the week at all of the barbecue restaurants in Owensboro. The cooking method is basically the same as food prepared at the Bar-B-Q Festival and is available to eat in the restaurant or carry out. One of the local restaurants, Moonlite Bar-B-Q, has made the local specialty known nationally by serving Presidents and going by invitation to New York City.
In January 2013, John Foreman, owner of Old Hickory BBQ, Owensboro’s oldest barbecue restaurant, was named Kentucky Champion of BBQ Pitmasters, a program on The Learning Channel. He competed against another Owensboro native, Roy Henry of Henry’s Boogalou BBQ Sauce.