In Touch With the Past
The trip down memory lane came early for Sherman Cahal. In fact, it started in the back seat of his parents’ van.
“I grew up along the Ohio River, where there’s a lot of steel mills, a lot of coke plants, and just general factories that had been closed down over the years, mostly in the 1970s and ’80s,” said Cahal, 30, a native of Raceland who now calls Lexington home.
“I traveled a lot with my parents and I begged them to stop because I just wanted to see what these places were like.”
Cahal’s passion for the past found an outlet in photography and a healthy interest in exploration. For more than 15 years, he has displayed his work on Abandoned, a website where he documents the past, one old building at a time. (See it at abandonedonline.net.)
The lure of such structures drew him, both for their visual impact and the thrill of exploration, he said.
“They were just amazing places to see and it led to my obsession today of going out and just seeing what I can discover,” he said.
And when that curious kid in the back seat turned on the television, he found a program that mirrored his interest in his surroundings: Kentucky Life, KET’s long-running program that has made it its mission to travel the byways of the state in order to share our rich heritage with all Kentuckians.
“When I started watching a lot of television I came across KET’s Kentucky Life and that really spurred my interest in knowing more about my state,” Cahal said from the interior of the abandoned Old Crow Distillery in Franklin County, the site of one of his recent explorations.
“Kentucky Life and other KET programs, like Kentucky’s Last Great Places, really explore more of the natural world and more of these small towns and museums and amazing places to eat. Just these awesome attractions that I had no idea even existed!”
Today, Cahal, who has a day job at Kentucky State University, where he puts his computer science degree to use, searches for his subjects from Kentucky to states within a day’s drive—from Virginia and Tennessee up into Ohio and Pennsylvania, predominantly. Of particular interest to him is Eastern Kentucky, an area he calls “untapped,” where tucked here and there are buildings no one has taken the time to explore.
On a hunch that “there might be something down there,” Cahal recently came upon the empty David Snowden Jr. house in Lee County in the former town of St. Helens near the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River.
“As I rounded a corner and topped a small hill, past two closed schools, I spotted a looming and forlorn residence in the distance,” he wrote on Abandoned.
“Set amongst the trees atop a dirt driveway, it didn’t resemble the newer houses near it. It had wooden siding, a tin roof, and a linear back porch. I could only imagine in my head what it must sound like inside on a rainy day, looking out onto the world with a peaceful demeanor, being put to sleep with the idling of the rain on the metal canopy.”
Friendly owners are often happy to show him around, Cahal said. And when it comes to interiors of closed factories or distilleries, he’s always careful to obtain permission before entering, he emphasized.
Much like the producers of Kentucky Life, Cahal enjoys the process of research and documentation that accompanies the storytelling involved in preserving these structures. He learned that the Lee County house, for example, dates back to 1825 and began as a one-room cabin that had been added to over the years.
“Kentucky Life allowed me to gain a broader insight into more of the inner workings of all these locales,” he observed. “That really inspired me to get out and explore the state more and to learn more.”