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Monday, September 21, 2015

Amy Leigh Brings Fort Thomas History to Life

Amy Leigh shares Fort Thomas history with local fourth graders.

As a group of fourth-grade students walk through Tower Park toward the historic water tower, they shout "Mrs. Leigh! There's Mrs. Leigh!" 

This past Friday students from all three Fort Thomas Independent Schools elementaries gathered at Tower Park for the culmination of their two-week stint studying Fort Thomas history. Earlier Amy Leigh took groups of fourth graders on historical walking tours of Fort Thomas. Friday she was stationed at the water tower to, once again, time travel with children.

As far as Fort Thomas history teachers go, Leigh is near perfect. She grew up in Fort Thomas. As did her parents. As did theirs. And her love and knowledge of the city once called the District of the Highlands is evident.

Leigh, a former Woodfill elementary teacher for nine years and now substitute teacher, helped introduce a Fort Thomas history unit in fourth-grade curriculum along with teacher Tina Reynolds. Eventually a small committee formed, including Moyer principal Jay Brewer; Leigh's father, Rich (Dick) Thompson; then-teacher-now-Moyer-assistant-principal Norma Lawless; and Bill Thomas.

Leigh talks fondly about the legacy Thomas, who died in 2014, left behind. Co-founder of the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy and vice president of the Fort Thomas Tree Commission, Thomas was instrumental in laying out and constructing the Fort Thomas Landmark Tree Trail. He also started the Fort Thomas Garden Tour. Thomas wrote many articles covering Fort Thomas and authored three books on Fort Thomas history.

Thanks to this committee's efforts and a Fort Thomas Education Foundation grant, fourth graders now use Thomas's historical photo book Fort Thomas (Then & Now) in their studies, Leigh says.

Leigh's father, Rich Thompson (left) pictured with his older brother.

Today Leigh takes groups of Woodfill, Johnson and Moyer fourth graders on walking tours of Fort Thomas during the month of September. Starting at the City Building, Leigh uses the story of her father—who was in the first kindergarten class at Moyer—as a central character in the story of Fort Thomas. Through him she offers students "little windows to the past," Leigh says.

She starts in 1885, asking children to imagine things differently. "Erase the buildings and concrete," Leigh says. Most of the houses were gone, the automobile was not yet present and the roads were dirt. The area was called "Highlands" because it was located, literally, high, on a hill.

An image of the old City Building, which Leigh uses during her presentations.

Leigh talks about the Stegeman house on South Fort Thomas Ave., architecture, stained glass, Rookwood tiles, carriage houses and the importance of porches. She tells how one of the area's first one-room schoolhouses was located in the city building, along with the police and fire department.

She talks about the big changes that came in the late 1880s. In 1887 the US Army moved the Newport Barracks to Fort Thomas, and in 1893 a streetcar line connected Midway to Newport. Suddenly, the streetcar made the District of the Highlands accessible to all people. Fast forward 40 years, Leigh says, and the quiet hill was filled with houses—a town was born.

Images of the theater and roller rink.

Leigh is both teacher and storyteller. Sure she shares that the District of the Highlands was officially named Fort Thomas in 1914 but she also talks about how boys would take the streetcar down to Bahlman Shoes in Newport during the Great Depression to buy boots that featured a small pocket that held a knife. They would use their knives to whittle during recess. Vignettes like this, along with stories about the old roller rink and bakery, the three local grocery stores, Al Stegeman's Garage, Weber's Bar & Grill, and the old theater, make history, especially for fourth graders, come alive.

Local fourth graders visit learning stations throughout Tower Park.

During Friday's all-day outing at Tower Park, students visited various learning stations at locales such as Fort Thomas History Museum, the armory, mess hall and officers' quarters, Carmel Manor and the Veteran's Hospital. Leigh, stationed at the historic water tower, looks forward to the event each year "It's one of my favorite days," she says. Seeing the excitement of the children, it's clear it's a favorite for them, as well.


  1. Kudos to Amy Leigh for keeping our history and the legacy of Bill Thomas alive among our youth, our Fort Thomas future! I had the opportunity to research and do a history walk like this for my daughter's class at Johnson elementary a few years back. Due to class constraints, we were limited on scope and time, but I was able to, among other things, show them the Talliafero, (pronounced "Tolliver") home, still standing as the "PENDERY" home across from St. Catherine's, which served not only as the 1st settlement of Fort Thomas in 1815, complete with slaves, (Mrs Talliafero was the sister of Newport settler, Revolutionary War General James Taylor) but where the back room also served as Mount Pleasant's first school and church, (hosting services alternatively for Baptists and Methodists, before what would become the Highland United Methodist Church, located between Holly and Tower Hill on Mount Pleasant Avenue, (North Fort Thomas) would become the first permanent church congregation and school. The basic structure of our first free-standing church and school was later moved, but still stands today as the home of long-time Johnson Teaching Assistant Betty Cooper on Mount Pleasant, (N. Ft Thomas) Avenue. Gen. Taylor was said to have been perturbed at his sister for converting from the Episcopal, (Church of England) to the "commoner" Methodist denomination, but Mrs. Tolliver insisted that so the Holy Spirit had moved her. :-). Also close by, Greater Cincinnati's 2nd golf course can be found on the home sites of West Southgate, Dixie and Hartweg, including remnants of the original tee boxes in the back yards between West Southgate and Hartweg. The route of Memorial Pkwy traces the old Green Line streetcar which developer Samuel Bigstaff used to open up the District of the Highlands after he successfully lobbied to have the Fort moved here in the 1890's. Kudos, again, to Ms. Leigh

  2. Nice program to offer. I wonder if they would offer an adult education class, would be nice to take.