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History and education in those Highland County hills of yore, Part 15       

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By Steve Roush
HCP columnist

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been discussing the family of the Rev. Joseph McDowell Mathews, a pioneer of Highland County education. 

Last time, we talked about the good Reverend’s daughter, Sallie Mathews, who was born in 1856 in Hillsboro and passed away Aug. 9, 1907 at the age of 50 or 51 in Nicholasville, Ky. She married James Trimble Mathews, who was her cousin. They didn’t have any children. 

James T. Mathews, according to reports of the time, was a farmer and also served as a district magistrate. The Mathews’ home reportedly burned down in early 1900, but they built a new home, and later a barn, near the Bethel church.  

Apparently, the Mathews’ had livestock, because an article appeared in the 1894 Jessamine Journal I can’t help but share one more time right now. The Sept. 21, 1894 piece was entitled, “A fight for life,” and here it is in its entirety: 

“Nicholasville has a young Toreador in its midst, who may yet surpass the record of any modern bovine fighter the world has ever produced. While crossing the pasture of Mr. James Mathews Tuesday morning of last week on his way to the store, Charley Denman had an encounter with an Alderney bull, which almost turned his brown locks to silvery whiteness in the short span of about three minutes.  

“The bull was standing in the pathway along which Charley was passing, when he picked up a weapon of defense to frighten his new acquaintance with. But instead of the bovine stepping aside as Charley thought he surely would, he threw his head defiantly into the air, gave his tail a kind of incurve, his voice sounding like a western cyclone and made his advance on Denman.  

“Charley bellowed and so did the bull, the fight was a desperate one for a few seconds, when the infuriated animal was driven off by a terrible lick across the eyes. Charley goes around by the road now.” 

Isn’t that something? That’s an article pushing 130 years old, and because of the creative way it was written, we can picture in our heads young Charley tussling with the bull and coming away victorious – but smart enough not to try it again! It also makes one wonder what became of Charley Denman because no one during that time is still alive (Wikipedia tells us the oldest person in the world is 116 years old and was born in 1907).  

There is a Charles F. Denman who was born in 1875 in Nicholasville, who would have been in his late teens during the “classic bullfight.” He died in 1924 at the age of 48 or 49 and was buried in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Nicholasville. He had a wife, Carrie Lee, who was born in 1875 and died in 1971 in her mid-90s, and they had a daughter, Francis Lee Denman, who died in 1899, aged 15 months. In his obituary, Denman was described as “one of Nicholasville’s prominent and substantial citizens” and was “a successful merchant.”  The obit also noted, not once but twice, that he had lived in Nicholasville “all his life” so there’s a good chance that’s that “Toreador” from 1894. There are more than 10,000 memorials in the Maple Grove Cemetery, also known as the Nicholasville Cemetery – including James Trimble Mathews and his wife, Sallie.  

Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next time.

Steve Roush is president of the Highland County Historical Society and served as chairman and vice chairman on the HCHS Board of Trustees for two terms, a board member of the Highland District Hospital Foundation, a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press. He can be reached by email at

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