While 2020 will mostly be remembered as the year of COVID-19, the virus wasn’t the only big story to happen in Hancock County this year.
From the start of alcohol sales to the loss of a major industry and the addition of another, a WWII sailor coming home and bank robbers finally being caught, 2020 was a year about more than just a virus.
But of course, the year was dominated by the story of COVID-19, which was arguably the biggest story of the year.
The first mention of the coronavirus in the Clarion was on March 5, in a story titled “Former Hancock couple caught in corona virus web.” The story was about Chris and Ashley Cook and their children Coleton and Jillian, who were living in Italy during an outbreak of the virus there.
The family moved to Longare, a province of Vicenza, in May 2019 for Chris’ work as a civilian cyber security employee at the Caserma Ederle base. The virus outbreak was in the Lombardy region about 30 miles west of them. In a sign of the changing attitudes and scientific guidance on the virus, Ashley Cook said the family was following the CDC recommendations to not wear masks, which was the widespread advice as of early March.
In the March 12 Clarion, another former county couple was part of the wider virus story, after they were stuck on a cruise ship that had been circling the ocean after an outbreak onboard, which led to no one wanting them to dock in their ports.
Chris and Nikki Hall were aboard the Grand Princess, where Chris was interviewed via Skype by NBC News, and where the ship’s eventual docking in Oakland, Ca. was shown on live TV as it was greeted by swarms of workers in full hazmat suits.
By mid-March the county had its first positive case of the virus and much of the county began to shut down.
March 19 Clarion front page was mostly dominated by stories of closures.
The schools had announced they’d be closed for three weeks and students would learn via NTI, non-traditional instruction, from their homes. Schools increased their deliveries of meals and began offering more healthcare options through the contracted health service.
Local library branches opened up their Wi-Fi signals by removing passwords, so students and parents needing to download or upload homework could connect from the parking lot. They also eased limitations on library cards to encourage greater use during the shutdown.
Senior citizens centers also closed, but the number of home delivered meals increased more than 125 percent, but the meals were delivered with new restrictions like being left on the porch for those who were mobile.
State regulations shut down restaurants to indoor dining, so restaurants and customers had to find new ways to buy and pick up the food, although the restrictions simply led some to close their doors entirely while they waited out the virus.
Nursing homes, churches, the Vastwood campgrounds, and even the court system closed to most of the public, and there was a run on toilet paper and disinfectants that led to price gouging online for those in desperate need for them.
In March the Hancock Clarion began offering free subscriptions to anyone who requested one, for the duration of the virus, in an effort to disseminate vital coronavirus information.
The annual county fair was at first canceled and then modified to only allow participants to enter the fairgrounds, and the county’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display was canceled.
Restrictions on daily life came and went, with businesses deemed “non-essential” shut down, but then reopened later, and the guidance on masks and disinfecting surfaces changed over time too.
The first positive case in the county recovered without issue, but as of December 30 the number of positive cases has risen to 428, and while 309 of those have recovered, 12 have died as a result of the virus.
In December, vaccinations for the virus began around the country.
Hancock County’s oldest industry, Dal-Tile, announced on May 14 that it would be ceasing production at the Lewisport tile plant and laying off all 67 employees, bringing an end to the plant that first kicked off the industrial boom in the county years before any aluminum plant located here.
“Dal-Tile, the largest manufacturer of ceramic tile in North America, today announced it will consolidate its quarry tile manufacturing to align its production with market demands,” the company said in a May 14 press release. “As a result of this restructuring, its tile manufacturing facility in Lewisport, Ky. will discontinue operations in the third quarter of this year.”
In the August 19, 1954 Hancock Clarion, the headline announcing the new Murray Tile plant read “Half-Million Dollar Tile Plant To Be Built At Lewisport,” and continued with a subhead saying “This will be a major industry for Hancock County – the first to be located here in many years.”
It promised to hire 50 people and use a 300-foot electronically controlled kiln to produce quarry tile, and it opened for business on July 1, 1955.
Producing tile required a large amount of natural gas, so by 1958 the city of Lewisport bought and operated its own natural gas system, partly on the promise that it would have at least one large customer, which over the years largely funded the operations of the city.
In 1959 Murray Tile merged with other companies and became American-Olean Tile, and in 1996 they merged with Dal-Tile. In 2002 Dal-Tile was bought by Mohawk Industries, but the Lewisport plant kept its name.
Over the years the number of employees swelled into the hundreds, but market forces brought them back down to 67 at the time of the July 17 final day of operation.
With the closure of the plant the city of Lewisport lost its biggest gas customer, and the city estimated it would lose approximately $1 million in revenue annually.
Alcohol sales begin
After an overwhelming number of county voters in the November 2016 general election approved a ballot measure to make the county wet, stores began filing for liquor licenses and the first sale of alcohol in generations was made on February 24 at 10:18 a.m. at Bill’s IGA. Shane Eckles bought a 30-pack of Budweiser Select.
Bill’s and Weber Store were the first two businesses in the county to file for licenses after January 6, the first official day the county went wet, after the requisite waiting period after the election.
Bill’s installed a 16×10 foot walk-in cooler at a cost of $27,000 and stocked it with various kinds of beer, hoping to find out what sold best to fine-tune their selection over time.
Regulations for the sale of alcohol also required fine-tuning, and the county’s alcoholic beverage control administrator Rachael Emmick and Lewisport’s ABC administrator Kevin McManaway learned quickly that the rules were confusing at best.
“I’ve read tons and tons and tons of crap but there’s no real training online to tell me exactly what to do,” Emmick said.
“There’s no such thing as just a package license or just a liquor license or just a malt beverage license,” McManaway said. “There’s a bunch of different licensures. And an establishment might have upwards of two to three to four licenses. It depends on what they’re doing.”
Envision Modular brings 85 jobs to county
On February 27, Envision Modular, LLC, a startup owned by investors out of Owensboro, Ky., announced a plan to spend $25 million to bring a new industry to the county that would also create 85 jobs.
The company bought the 300,000 square foot former Alcoa building at 2870 River Road in Hawesville and began renovations to begin production of prefabbed modular sections of commercial structures that would be connected together on a construction site to save time and money on things like building a new hotel.
Each modular section is built complete, with drywall, electrical and plumbing in the factory in Hawesville, and then shipped to where a project is being built to be connected to other modules that can be as complete as even including furniture.
“(And) in some cases all the way down for a hotel room where the beds and the linens and the curtains and the TV mounts, everything is exactly as if you walked into that hotel room and rented it the first day it was open,” said Ed Ray, COO of Gulfstream Commercial Services, Inc., which shares common ownership.
Envision also looked at sites in Henderson County and Southern Indiana, but in those places they’d have to build from scratch, and they liked the fact that the former Alcoa building was already in place and it was already set up for manufacturing, including the high ceilings the company needed.
An ongoing major story in the county, much like COVID-19 because it was so closely tied to COVID-19, was the closure of Hancock County’s schools and the use of NTI, virtual learning, and A/B models of in-person classes.
The 2019-2020 school year ended early for students, after they went home for spring break and never returned to in-person classes, and even the senior graduation became a drive-thru parade around the county.
But hopes for a return to a normal school year for 2020-2021 were dashed when, after the local school board had formulated a plan to begin in-person on August 26, Governor Andy Beshear issued a stern recommendation that all schools begin with virtual learning instead until September 28.
During multiple public hearings and regular school board meetings parents expressed frustration at the virtual start, citing lack of childcare, lack of internet, and lack of their children learning at home on their own. The board, however, stuck with the state’s recommendation, citing, in part, the possibility of losing lawsuit protections if they didn’t follow the recommendations fully.
By late September the board voted on an in-person model that split the students into A and B groups, with both groups alternating days to attend in-person and to stay at home and study virtually.
After following the A/B schedule for only a short time, the state measurements of COVID-19 incidents rose to above an average of 25 per day per 100,000 of population on a seven-day average, which meant that by late October the schools closed again to in-person classes.
Currently, the schools are planning to return to in-person learning on January 5, barring any changes.
]After more than four years and three buyers, Aleris Lewisport was finally sold and took on a familiar new name: Commonwealth Rolled Products.
The company was sold to American Industrial Partners, a private equity firm out of New York, for a net cash price of around $171 million, far less than Novelis, the company that bought the worldwide holdings of Aleris for $2.6 billion, before being required to sell the Lewisport mill due to competition concerns.
Aleris had originally reached a deal with a Chinese buyer in August 2016, but that deal fell through when U.S. regulators wouldn’t approve the sale. Then in October 2017 an Indian billionaire, Kumar Mangalam Birla, announced his interest in buying Aleris through his U.S. subsidiary, Novelis.
That sale was eventually approved, although European Union regulators required Novelis to sell a Duffel, Belgium auto body sheet mill over concerns of unfair competition, and later U.S. regulators ruled the same thing for Lewisport.
The sale of Lewisport was completed on December 1, when the Aleris Lewisport plant, an R&D office in Michigan, and sales staff in Ohio became Commonwealth Rolled Products, a name that harkens back to the 1990s and Commonwealth Aluminum, the name of the plant before it became Aleris.
Mike Keown, who was born and raised in Hancock County, was named the new company’s president and CEO.
Bank robbers caught
After nearly two years, two people suspected in the armed robbery of the Lewisport branch of Hancock Bank in June 2018 were arrested.
Sean Michael Curtis, then 31, and Jessica Marie Howard, then 29, both of Hardin County, were arrested and charged with being two of the three people who robbed the bank at gunpoint before fleeing in a getaway car.
At around 2 p.m. on June 7, two people entered the bank, one waving a handgun, and demanded money from the tellers. Staying in the bank just 45 seconds, the two ran out the front door to a waiting grey Toyota Corolla, driven by a third person.
The three fled down Highway 60 and out state Route 657, where they either dropped or threw out some of the clothing they used to cover their faces, which was found by Clarion reporter Dave Taylor and turned in to police.
The clothing, along with other items found on Freesilver Road, were sent to the Kentucky State Police lab in Frankfort for DNA analysis, which wasn’t begun until November of that year.
Both Curtis and Howard were convicted felons and their DNA was in the national system, so the lab was able to match the DNA on the clothing to the pair.
The two were arrested in March, 2020 and taken to Breckinridge County Detention Center, where they were tested again for a DNA match, which again pointed to them.
The third suspect has not been arrested and no information has been released on whether there’s any DNA on that suspect.
WWII sailor coming home
Nearly 80 years after he was lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor, a former Lewisport resident was identified as having been recovered from the wreckage of the USS Oklahoma and he will be returned to the county for burial beside his twin sister.
Martin Daymond Young, who was just 21 on December 7, 1941, was a Navy Fireman 2nd Class assigned to the Oklahoma when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The ship sustained multiple torpedo hits and capsized.
Young was presumed lost in the attack and the Navy spent three years recovering all remains from the ship, which were buried. In 1947 work began to try to identify the remains after they were disinterred, but that only identified 35 men, and the rest were buried in 46 plots in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known at the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In 1949 Young and others were deemed non-recoverable.
In 2005 work began anew to identify those from the Oklahoma, and after DNA testing, including getting samples from family in Hancock County, Young was identified in August 2019.
“They had contacted me like five or six years ago and had to get DNA from Harvey and I and then some of our cousins,” said Layman “Sonny” Hawkins, whose mother Mary Daisy Young was Daymond’s twin sister.
Young will be returned to Lewisport for burial on May 15, 2021, a date which was delayed due to COVID-19.
“May the 11th was my mother’s and his birthday,” Hawkins said. “We tried to do it this year – but the virus prevented that from happening – because they would’ve been 100 years old.”
By Dave Taylor