The following article by Charles Hartley originally appeared in The Courier-Journal on 7 Mar 2012. It is archived here with additional information for your reading enjoyment.
When Thomas McGee laid claim to 450 acres on the north side of Salt River in 1782, it is possible that he knew it included a small salt lick, but he could never have imagined what would develop there over the next century.
A small stream crossed his land and emptied into the river. It formed small springs at various points, and attracted wildlife including flocks of Carolina parakeets. These colorful birds, since hunted into extinction, caused the locals to name this stream the Parakeet Branch, and the little lick, the Parakeet Lick.
Saltmaking was the major industry in this area, and people came from far and wide to obtain it; but Parakeet Lick was too small and of too poor a quality of salt water to be profitable. This changed in 1802 when the owners of Bullitt's Lick decided to close down to force up the price of salt. James Burks and John Dunn rented the lick from McGee and proceeded to make salt. Later John McDowell joined them.
When Bullitt Lick started production again, the Parakeet Lick saltmakers abandoned the lick, and it lay idle. Meanwhile John McDowell purchased the property that included the lick, and made his home on the northern end. When his daughter married Reuben Morgan, he settled them on the south end where the lick was located.
Morgan was the first to see the commercial potential of the mineral spring water. In the mid 1820's, he interested some locals in its possibilities and a road from town was opened to a well dug beside the stream. They built a shelter over the well, and advertised the healing properties of the water. However, it was mainly used by people living nearby, and Morgan gave up on it and moved away. In 1836, John McDowell sold the tract to Humphrey Simmons who kept part of it and sold the rest, including the well site, to James Guthrie.
Guthrie acted as trustee for Sarah Colmesnil, wife of John D. Colmesnil who actually put up the money to purchase the land. Colmesnil, whose business took him frequently to New Orleans, purchased the place as a retreat for his wife while he was gone. A shrewd businessman, he also saw the potential for a mineral spring spa on the site. By 1839 he had made sufficient improvements that he was able to advertise "neat and comfortable accommodations for 200 people" at his Paroquet Springs Spa.
In 1844, he advertised, "The cottages are beautifully situated in a delightful grove of 20 acres, which is laid out with taste, and intersected by various walks, affording delightful promenades under the cool shade of the forest trees. There are bath houses for ladies and gentlemen. Warm showers and vapor baths can be taken at any hour of the day."
The spa's reputation spread throughout the region, and for at least a decade business prospered. Then, in the years leading up to the Civil War, the number of visitors declined, and when the war began a Union camp took over the site. Considerable destruction occurred, and many of the stately trees were cut down for firewood during the war years.
In 1871 the spa site was sold to a group formed as the Paroquet Springs Company. Repairs were quickly made, and an "Inauguration Ball" was held in July. According to newspaper reports it was a grand affair.
The company invested heavily in the spa, including a new two story building 110 by 70 feet with a 12 foot porch around it. It contained 84 guest rooms. However, the investment was not met with sufficient income, and the company went bankrupt the next year. Also, a spring flood in 1872 washed away some of the smaller structures.
The buyers continued to expand the facilities, claiming to have accommodations for 800 guests in a grand new hotel. The following years witnessed significant numbers of guests, but never quite enough to offset the costs. Then, in May 1879, tragedy struck. The grand hotel went up in flames. Only quick action by residents of Shepherdsville prevented nearby buildings from burning as well. Fortunately no lives were lost.
The spa area continued to be used for picnics and occasional parties, but its days as a fashionable spa were over. In time the remaining buildings crumbled, and the land returned to nature. Things remained that way until the mid 1950's when the Kentucky Turnpike (now I-65) was opened between Louisville and Elizabethtown. The road passed through McGee's original tract, passing just east of the old spa site.
The interstate brought changes, and by 1980 the spa site had disappeared beneath fill brought in to build Trucker's World. The old stream bed was moved to the east, to make room for parking. Gone forever was the mineral spring well that had attracted so many visitors a century before.
But the Paroquet Springs name was not lost. In 1999 the abandoned Trucker's World building was rebuilt into a convention center which today proudly bears the name of the old spa. Within it you will find a beautiful model of the old Paroquet Springs hotel which was made by Lloyd Mattingly of Lebanon Junction, one of many models of older times made by him.
The next time you visit the convention center in Shepherdsville, take time to gaze eastward toward the interstate and imagine the spa and grounds as they were in their glory days.
Copyright 2012 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.