Historic Architecture hidden in Camp Springs, KY

By Mark Ramler
Mark grew up in the small community of Camp Springs in Southern Campbell County, attended St. Mary Elementary and Bishop Brossart High School.  He graduated from The University of Kentucky, earning a B.A. in Architecture and a Masters of Historic Preservation.  Currently Mark is a parter at Mansion Hill Properties and lives in Newport’s East Row Historic District.  His company specializes in the renovation and preservation of historic properties.  Mark serves on the Historic Preservation Commission for the City of Newport, and is on the board of trustees for the Wesley Chapel Mission Center in Over the Rhine.

Reitman St. Joseph House

Historic photo of Reitman’s St. Joseph House, probably 1880s when it was operating as a tavern and stage coach stop.

Kentucky has many outstanding examples of architecture and iconic cultural landscapes across the state. We have distinct Federal style buildings in Frankfort, Shaker settlements in the Bluegrass horse country, restored Italianate homes of Newport, and the contemporary skyline of Covington and Louisville. But the small mid-nineteenth century settlement of Camp Springs, Kentucky is often overlooked and underappreciated. While it remains largely unknown to the general population of Kentucky, and even the tri-state, this area may be one of the most important enclaves of German vernacular architecture in Kentucky and the region.

Settled in large between 1850 and 1890, the community of Camp Springs remains much as it did over a hundred years ago, holding true to its German heritage passed down through generations. Many of the same families reside here; attending the same churches started by their ancestors, and some still living in homes built by their families over a century and a half ago. This rich heritage can be seen through its early architecture and cultural landscape around the Four Mile Creek Valley in Southern Campbell County. Stone buildings constructed by immigrant farmers and stonemasons, bare distinct German characteristics, while blending seamlessly into the hilly landscape of the valley. Outcroppings of bank barns, springhouses, and smokehouses remain, some still in use, others are a reminder of a past way of life. These buildings are a sharp contrast to other stone buildings in Kentucky. Camp Springs is an isolated example of Germanic stone architecture. The first builders relied heavily on local materials and built for specific functions in mind, as a result, the stone structures of Camp Springs have very unique characteristics. The historic resources and buildings in Camp Springs are an important and vital component of the rural landscape in Campbell County. These buildings and cultural landscape are a reflection of the county’s early settlers, their farming traditions, building techniques, and culture brought from the motherland.

Most of Campbell County is located in the Eden Shale Belt, and according to the Kentucky Heritage Council, this area is “Characterized by thin limestone soils, deep ravines, and rocky outcroppings, the Eden Shale Belt is considerably less fertile and productive than the Inner and Outer Bluegrass regions of Kentucky.” (1) This physiological makeup of the land is different from most of Kentucky and as a result, the settlers to the area had to adapt to these local conditions. The main valley in Camp Springs, where a majority of its historic stone structures are found, is located on Four Mile Creek, which is a tributary to the Ohio River and one of the largest watersheds in Campbell County. Four Mile Creek is located four miles from the mouth of the Little Miami River in Southwest Ohio.

Ritter Barn

Andrew Ritter barn – this is the only fully stone constructed bank barn in the state of Kentucky.

This unusual terrain, in a state know for its large tobacco and horse farms, could not support the typical Kentucky Anglo-American way of life, and therefore its inhabitants had to adapt. While the soil may be less than desirable in the Eden Shale Belt, it has an abundance of surface limestone for construction. (2) Camp Springs’ close proximity to the Port of Cincinnati about 10 miles away, made it suitable for early settlers willing to embrace these conditions and implement their traditional stone construction and farming methods in the area.

Political unrest in Germany in the late 1840s brought throngs of immigrants to Cincinnati and the Northern Kentucky area. These immigrants traveled upriver from New Orleans and frequently settled in or around port cities such as Louisville, Cincinnati, or Covington. By the middle part of the nineteenth century, most of the desirable farmland in Northern Kentucky had been claimed, so the German immigrants had to settle in areas with more hillsides and valleys, such as that of Camp Springs. According to the United States Census Bureau, by 1870 nearly one third of Campbell County’s population was of German descent. This was in harsh comparison to that of Kentucky, whose population was only six percent European born in 1870. (3) Although the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati area had a very large German population, most of it was urban. Several German enclaves existed such as Covington’s Main Strauss neighborhood and Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, but these were neighborhoods in larger cities. The buildings in these areas reflected popular styles of the time, and were constructed with more common materials such as brick and clapboard. Outside of these river cities, the settlers had to adapt and build differently. And thus, the natural resources (stone) combined with skilled laborers in Camp Springs resulted in a distinctive enclave of vernacular stone buildings.

Ritter Farm

Andrew Ritter house and farm – view of hillside that was originally used as a vineyard.

Most of the settlers to Camp Springs were from hillside farms and wine regions located along the Rhine River. As a result of their backgrounds and the interesting topography of the landscape, the settlers began to establish hillside farms and vineyards in the Four Mile Creek Valley. Many of the distinct stone buildings in Camp Springs are bank constructed. ‘Bank Construction’ refers to buildings that are built into hillsides, for the purpose of having access at two levels.  Many of the buildings in Camp Springs are bank constructed for utilitarian purposes.  Several stone buildings along Four Mile Road had taverns on the first floors, and living quarters above, since they were bank constructed, the entrances could be kept separate.  This type of construction also allowed for vaulted cellars built into the hillsides and accessed from the ground floor taverns.

In contrast to the rest of Kentucky, the stone houses and farms in Camp Springs were different. The Bluegrass Region of Central Kentucky has an abundance of limestone, but all of it is quarried limestone. The construction practices in Central Kentucky varied, but mainly implemented slavery or Irish immigrants to construct stone buildings and fences.  The stone buildings in Camp Springs use rubble limestone from the fields and creeks, and only have tool marks on the buildings corners.

In the mid-1800s, while Camp Springs was being settled, the emergence of grape vineyards and the production of wine became a thriving industry. By the 1860s, one third of the United States wine output came from greater Cincinnati and the surrounding areas. Kentucky was the third largest wine producing state behind California and Ohio. (4) With these economic and agricultural factors in place, Camp Springs became an area heavily rooted in vineyards and a wine producing culture. Hillsides in the valley were often terraced off, and farm complexes included wine press rooms and vaulted cellars for wine storage.  Most of the farms in the valley also grew grapes to be sold off and made into wine in surrounding cities such as Cincinnati, Maysville, and Augusta.

Kremer House

Nicholas Kremer House – this is an iconic farm setting in Camp Springs

Unfortunately, this early wine culture would not last. By the 1880s, most of the vineyards in the region had been wiped out due to a severe blight. This blight caused a shift in the economic condition of the region, and as a result the area became producers of more domestic crops and livestock to be sold in the Cincinnati and Newport markets. This shift in farming also had an impact on the architecture of the area. The emergence of stone smoke houses and banked barns appeared in the area to accommodate the new reliance on domestic crops and the raising of livestock. Along with the new structures in the area, vaulted stone cellars, which are commonly found in Camp Springs, were adjusted from their use for wine storage, and used for food, vinegar, and beer storage instead.

Blau House

Blau’s Four Mile House is a bank constructed stone building along Four Mile Road that originally served as a tavern and residence.

Today, many of Camp Springs historic resources can be seen driving down the main thoroughfare of Four Mile Road.  The community has 26 properties that are individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the valley is a National Register Historic District.  This is an incredible feat for such a small community.  Most of these properties include stone houses, bank constructed barns, smokehouses, and agricultural buildings.  The community still has many working farms, and more recently has had a renaissance of vineyards and wineries in the valley.  The uniqueness of this community, and its natural beauty are showcased each October during the Camp Springs Herbst (Autumn) Tour.  This self-guided tour highlights many of the stone houses, churches, wineries, and working farms in the community. The historic resources of Camp Springs reflect a small but determined group of settlers, and the lifestyle that they brought with them. Many residents of Camp Springs can still see their ancestors’ hard work in the surrounding buildings and landscape in a place that is truly unique to Kentucky.

More from Mark on Camp Springs, KY can be seen here:

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1. United State Department of Interior. Kentucky Historic Resources Inventory. National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination: German Settlement Properties in the Four Mile Creek Area of Campbell County, KY. Frankfort: Kentucky Heritage Council, 1979.

2. Johnson, R.W. “Land Use in the Bluegrass Basins.” Economic Geography 16 (1940): 315-335.

3. U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of the Census, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880: Population.

4. U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of the Census, “Vineyards and Wine Making in the U.S.” Eighth Census of the United States, 1860: Agriculture.


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