Jobs were hard to find in Dawson Springs. Then a tornado struck.
Once a destination because of its mineral waters, this town has remade itself before. This time residents wonder where people will work.
DAWSON SPRINGS — A long line of cars and trucks trails out of downtown, waiting to pick up bags carried by volunteers, cartons of eggs and more from a food pantry giveaway on a cold November morning.
The need is there, said Lisa Barnes, one of the volunteers loading food into each passing vehicle. As an occupancy specialist for the local housing authority, she knows many of the town’s 2,500 people live on fixed incomes; life-long residents who don’t have a lot of money. About 21% of the city is in poverty, above the state and national averages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I think this is like a lifeline to them this year — especially this year because of the disaster,” Barnes said. “This may be their only hope right now.”
The community was one of several small Western Kentucky towns in the line of a violent EF-4 tornado that stayed on the ground for more than 165 miles one night in December 2021, tearing through homes and livelihoods along the way. Fifty-seven people died in the path of that one tornado, contributing to the at least 80 Kentuckians who lost their lives from multiple tornadoes in the outbreak.
Along the small park in downtown, holiday lights set to illuminate snowmen and the phrase “Merry Christmas” surround the cast aluminum fountain that was donated earlier this year. Just up Main Street, the impact of the tornado is apparent along residential streets: homes in various stages of reconstruction and a landscape of twisted, broken trees.
Nineteen people died in Dawson Springs and up to 75% of its housing was estimated destroyed. The large majority of public housing was also damaged or destroyed by the tornado.
In community listening sessions earlier this year, a few concerns came top of mind: the need for housing, the need to keep the city school district strong and the need for good-paying jobs that can support families.
Almost a year after the night of destruction, housing is still a slow undertaking. It’s also something that can be seen: concrete foundations being laid, roofs being repaired and walls going up. The city’s largest employer, Dawson Springs Independent School District, has also maintained most of its student population, imperative because state education funding is tied to enrollment. But where new jobs will come from is a question that worries local residents, trying to see a future that seems imperceptible at times.
“We’ve got to have jobs in this area in order to keep this little community going,” Barnes said. “Everybody is a tight-knit-like family here, and we want to continue to be able to keep everybody here as much as we can.”
Life-long resident Tommy Joe Fiddler, 64, is not sure how Dawson Springs will bring in new economic growth. He pulled his truck into the food pantry line to take some food to his granddaughter who lost everything in the tornado. He considers the pantry a “blessing” for his town.
“There’s people here in Dawson that really need a job because we’re hurting right now,” Fiddler said.
Finding business in downtown
Mark Williamson has turned one of downtown’s historic brick storefronts into his own.
Quartz, amethyst and other colorful rocks line the shelves along with soy wax candles. Williamson’s wife, Melanie, picked cattails from their nearby farm and spray-painted them a sparkling gold to go in holiday arrangements around the shop. A room in the back, dubbed “Merlin’s Corner,” is planned as a hangout space to drink herbal tea.
“We’ve very excited about all of it, man,” Williamson said.
It’s been a work in progress — he said the place used to be a bank — slowly building a retail space for their natural remedies business, and their grand opening is just days away to take part in a small-business open house for Dawson Springs.
The hope is that when tourists visit Dawson Springs from Lake Beshear and the nearby Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, they’ll stop to shop. Along those lines, Williamson has helped put on weekly dances in downtown every Friday evening during the fall to bring the community together.
“We were doing the dancing in the streets thing, and people were here from Wisconsin and places like that, different states — just happened to be here that night,” Williamson said. “And man, they stayed and just had a blast.”
But Williamson admits his family is taking a risk opening up shop here, given what the town’s been through with the tornado. He knows there isn’t much to do in Dawson Springs at times.
“There’s not enough population here to support our businesses without some type of economic growth down the road,” Williamson said. “We can sit here and be an online business, but we’d rather be, I’d rather be a brick and mortar store.”
He recently started a small business association for downtown businesses — about 11 in total, he said — with monthly meetings to create activities and events in the community. It includes new businesses like his own and a bakery started by a couple from out of state.
Lindsey Morgan is a part of that association. She’s run Beauty Shop on the Square here for over a decade. In the weeks after the tornado, she warmed the space with a plug-in electric heater because her gas furnace hadn’t been reconnected yet. For a couple days while it was warm enough, she was able to meet with individual clients for private sessions, the front windows papered over with Christmas wrapping paper.
“I had a client tearfully tell me while she was in here … ‘This is the first time I felt like I’m home,’ ” Morgan said.
Even with the activity of small businesses, Morgan and others believe it’ll take a larger economic development announcement to lift the community’s fortunes.
“Our community at large I think they’re holding their breath,” Morgan said. “The other shoe has to drop.”
Past booms, current challenges
Dawson Springs has seen economic booms and industry come and go over the decades and centuries, its namesake coming from a period of prosperity spurred by the water beneath the ground.
In the early 20th century dozens of hotels and boarding houses accommodated the thousands of visitors, many of them sick and ailing, seeking the alleged medicinal properties of mineral wells near the town. The 150-room New Century Hotel was well-known among those lodges, hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team at one point.
But that era is long past; the New Century Hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1960. The coal mining that supported the larger Hopkins County community is also a shell of its former self; Hopkins County employed almost 1,700 miners in 1988, down to 465 in present day.
Industry has left in recent decades: the local plastics manufacturer Buckhorn Inc. closed down in 2007, the second-largest employer in town at the time. Ninety-five jobs went with it.
A seed-storage company AllSource Logistics, which employs fewer than a dozen full-time workers, occupied the two buildings vacated by Buckhorn in the industrial park. The tornado demolished one building, and the other was eventually torn down this year due to damage. The company has now rebuilt a sprawling 100,000-square-foot warehouse in its place.
Despite that comeback, AllSource Logistics president Keith Rohling said he’s been disappointed at the lack of communication between the city and his company as he rebuilt.
“I think Dawson Springs as a community has got a long way to go. I think they need to develop a three-to-five-year plan for what they want to try to accomplish as a community,” Rohling said. “There has been zero communication with me or what my plans were, or even a thank you for taking the opportunity to rebuild in your community.”
Jenny Sewell, the incoming mayor elected unopposed in last month’s general election, previously served as mayor in the 2010s and ran the local chamber of commerce for 14 years. She said one of the reasons she ran again was because several residents had told her the engagement with local businesses by city hall was lacking, particularly from the outgoing mayor, Chris Smiley.
“There’s a man on Main Street that took on a couple of buildings, and it’s a lot of work he’s had to do. And he’s yet to have had the mayor to even say he was glad he was in town,” Sewell said. “He’s just not proactive. I don’t know how to say that in a nice way.”
Smiley said he wasn’t aware of such criticism. He said while he hasn’t spoken with Rohling, he’s helped the local AllSource warehouse manager troubleshoot past internet problems at the facility.
The West Hopkins Industrial Park also had a spec building before the disaster, a 50,000-square-foot facility designed to attract a large company. It has sat empty since it was built in 1999; Sewell said problems with existing sewer infrastructure and other issues have limited past prospects.
But Ray Hagerman, an economic development director in Muhlenberg County who’s also serving as the executive director for the industrial park, said a deal was ready for a company to move in before the tornado. Hopkins County Judge-Executive Jack Whitfield mentioned this summer the deal could have brought in about 100 jobs.
It fell through after the tornado destroyed the building, leaving just an empty property today.
“They had cold feet about whether or not they thought that they would have enough workforce that would return to Dawson Springs to really benefit them,” Hagerman said.
Yet Hagerman is confident that the industrial park can recruit a new company to the site, leaning into Dawson Springs’s strengths: access to the Western Kentucky Parkway, a strong local school system, housing that is slowly coming back and the opportunity for a company to be part of a comeback story.
“If we can tell them and show them, ‘Look, here’s what we’re doing to bounce back, here’s what we’re doing to be resilient. And oh, by the way — these 100 jobs that you’re adding to the equation? You’re part of the solution,’ ” Hagerman said. “It becomes a really good, feel-good story, and companies are not immune to those feelings. They like to feel like they’re making a difference.”
“As silly as it may seem, I pray about it very often because I’m so worried that there’s not many jobs. ...When you’re already poor and your town gets leveled…if we don’t have jobs, people don’t have places to live, which is kind of — it’s a scary thought.”Mary Beth Drennan
Charting the uncertain future
From the view of one local gas station in town, the uphill challenges to bring jobs and growth to the small community lay apparent.
Mary Beth Drennan manages Casey’s General Store and her 36 employees at the 24-hour gas station along the main drag of Arcadia Avenue. Her business is busy as ever with housing construction contractors coming in for supplies and food.
But it’s the local park across the street, wrecked by the tornado, that reminds her of the community’s reality.
“For years and years and years I could watch kids play at the park … you could go outside and take the trash and you can hear a little laughter,” Drennan said. “It’s so depressing to walk outside and you hear nothing, and see nothing and everything across the street is black. There’s no park for these children to play in.”
She sometimes sees children walking up and down the street and worries about them and their families lacking a baseball field to play on or a swingset to use.
The Minit Mart gas station across the street from her also closed down earlier this year. She’s heard people joke that she “put it out of business,” but to her it’s no laughing matter — every job is important in a place that doesn’t offer many to begin with, whether that’s the local grocery store or nursing home.
She said she’s recently had more than 20 applications every week from people, all locals, wanting jobs at her gas station. She wonders what may happen when home construction slows down, less traffic comes into her convenience store and the specter of layoffs looms.
“As silly as it may seem, I pray about it very often because I’m so worried that there’s not many jobs,” Drennan said. “When you’re already poor and your town gets leveled…if we don’t have jobs, people don’t have places to live, which is kind of — it’s a scary thought.”
For now, many residents are putting their faith in mayor-elect Sewell.
“She’s top notch. She will put this city first,” said Barnes, the food pantry volunteer. “Her heart is this city.”
Sewell’s passion for Dawson Springs shines through when she speaks on the history of the mineral wells that brought tourists from far and wide, and she believes the town can again thrive on tourism generated by its surrounding natural beauty. The community was designated the state’s first “Trail Town” by former Gov. Steve Beshear — a Dawson Springs native, Sewell’s relative and the father of Gov. Andy Beshear — to showcase it as a hub for outdoor recreation.
“We’re working on making plans as we speak, and there are things happening as we speak, and we are seeking new industry as we speak,” Sewell said. “Dawson was built on tourism. I think we have a wonderful opportunity.”
She’s well aware of how hard her small town’s economy has been hit by the tornado and how the town has emptied somewhat as homes continue to be rebuilt. She knows it’ll take time to heal. She remembers when Anita Black, the manager of the city’s only bank, spoke at the recent unveiling of a local tornado memorial.
“What she said was lovely because Planters Bank was one of the sponsors for the memorial itself. But when she got to a certain point in it, all she could do is cry,” Sewell said.
This story was originally published by the Kentucky Lantern.