By Eric PilgrimFebruary 1, 2018
Billy Ray Alvey picked through several old pictures sitting in a pile on the table. She smiled at some of them, puzzled over others. One photo caught her attention.
Ten workers stood in the middle of a gooseberry field -- a gooseberry field owned and operated for several years by her grandfather, W.P. Ray.
"He was so proud of [the gooseberry field]. Papaw thought there was just nothing like it," Billy said. "It broke his heart when he had to sell it."
The Rays are considered one of the oldest legacy families to live in the area. For Billy and her husband Thomas, married 64 years, memories of those families and the lives they lived have been fashioned by the worldwide events of a century ago.
Before the U.S. Army's entrance into the area in 1918, the Rays and other families worked the land as their ancestors had as far back as 1776. In fact, the earliest known attempt by pioneers to inhabit the land came in July of that year.
As American patriots declared their independence from England, a group calling themselves Share, Sweeney and Company and led by Samuel Pearman, traversed the Salt River on a flatboat and docked at the mouth of the river.
"Pearman and his companions laid claim to several thousand acres along the Ohio and Salt Rivers," wrote historians from the Environ-mental Management Division at Fort Knox. "They built a small log cabin at the junction of the Salt and Rolling Fork Rivers, but numerous American Indian attacks forced them to retreat to Virginia."
It would be another two years before an encampment was constructed on Corn Island in the Ohio River. Soon after, naturally occurring salt licks were discovered in the area and exploited by entrepreneurs. One of the most significant of these was Bullitt Lick, named after well-known pioneer Thomas Bullitt. That lick was located near the northeastern boundary of Fort Knox.
As more settlers moved into the area, efforts were made by surveyor John Severns to establish a more permanent settlement in what would later be called Severns Valley in Elizabeth- town. Trails were also established, the most notable being a major road called the Cumberland-Ohio Falls Trail that connected Severns Valley with Louisville via Bullitt's Lick. An optional trail north of Severns Valley would later become Dixie Highway. Sometime after 1786, a smaller community was established in Stith's Valley.
By the 1790s, while settlers worked the land and lived out their lives, Revolutionary War veterans armed with military land grants began to settle in the West Point area. Chief among them were Thomas and Samuel Pearman, Henry Ditto, George Ball, Isaac Vertrees, Joseph Enlan, William Withers, John Hay, Thomas Barbour, and John Campbell, according to military historians.
"Fort Knox now encompasses large portions of these original grants," wrote Fort Knox historians.
Prior to the Army's arrival, many economic pursuits in the area included various forms of agriculture, timber cutting and salt harvesting. Salt was particularly important in the beginning because Britain had cut off the usual sources of salt for the troops. Bullitt's Lick established a commercial salt venture, which helped grow the economy in the area for many years to follow.
Later, as threats from Native Americans subsided, farmsteads took hold and began to crop up throughout the area. Within this backdrop, W.P. Ray established his gooseberry fields and followed it up with a mercantile store frequented by many in the area. He also had walnut trees.
Success continued to reward W.P.'s efforts.
"He was proud of this place," said Billy, pointing at a photo of a stately mansion.
Life for the Rays had focused around the house and its adjoining farm. The home would later become the commanding general's quarters after the Army moved in.
Life also focused around church. The Rays made their own bricks and built a church that would survive to today -- what today is known as the main post chapel.
Years later, a world war like nobody had ever seen before drew America in. Known as "the war to end all wars," it required American leadership, American determination; American lives.
World War I required the sacrifices of young American men, who were expertly trained to fight and win against insurmountable forces. That kind of training required land and resources capable of accomplishing the mission. The Army looked to West Point, Stithton and other nearby areas to purchase the needed land.
The Army found a willing W.P. Ray.
"Papaw was so patriotic, he just took what they gave him," Billy said. "He thought you should."