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Summer/Fall 2018

Eastern Kentucky in Four Figures


by Billy Joe Stratton


Fig. I.

Brought into the world on a dirt floor in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, my grandma, Bertha, often said that we were rooted to the hills. “It don’t make nary bit of difference how far you go, these hills’ll always draw you back,” she’d said. Her words cut through the cool, humid air of the serpentine hollow at the end of two miles of a winding dirt road, mingling with the scent of simmering greens collected from the slovenly edges of forsaken mines. Every few years an aunt or uncle would pack up their belongings and set out for work in distant cities. Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit; grasping at the promise called America, or just a different kind of life where one’s shoes might be free of mud. “They’ll come home d’rectly,” she’d say, rocking creaky on the front porch where she sat on Summer days stringing green beans between sinewy, liver-spotted hands.

They always did, too, within a few years. They’d usually, “settle down and stay put” after that, she’d say. “No need to wander off and get lost in the tangles of them big cities when ever’thing you need is right here.”

These were convictions expressed with a wry smile and twinkling dark eyes that carried a certainty drawn from an intimate connection to the land. What brought them back, exactly? she never explained. But there were always hillside gardens to tend, the impossibly clear water to haul from the coalbank, the ubiquitous morning fog that dawdled with the clatter of waking squirrels, and the whisper of the rolling hills drifting through the dark of humid nights.


At the mouth of Mare Creek, where US 23 follows the course of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River connecting the mountain towns of Pikeville and Prestonsburg, there stood an historic marker that told of the “Stratton Settlement.” Detailing an obscure bit of roadside history, the placard identified the place where in 1796 Solomon Stratton cleared a piece of bottomland to lay the floor beams for a cabin. He’d gone west from Henrico County, Virginia across the rugged mountains accompanied by two sons. Why he decided to stop just where he did is a mystery. Maybe one can understand all the same after witnessing the din of activity that bursts forth after a spring rain, the rush of wind through the trees in the fading weeks of Summer, the sight of the sun dropping down over the soft curving ridgeline, mottled with hues of gold, yellow, and auburn in the Fall, or the motionless fury of an icy waterfall in the depths of Winter.  It was a place of abundant life; the Wyandot are said to have called it Ken tah neh: “the land of tomorrow.” Solomon’s body rests in an unmarked grave 500 feet east of a highway that now bustles with travelers who share the road with trucks loaded with coal. According to the Kentucky Historical Society the marker is now missing.


I remember a day when my father pulled his truck onto the wide shoulder at the curve of the highway at the mouth of Mare Creek. I must have been around six years old. He pointed to the marker with pride, and while he told me about an obscure ancestor I wondered what the place would have looked like before the clearing of the forest for the road. It was the first time I recall an awareness of the past’s weight and substance, and this experience helped me to better understand why my father had quit the small house in the suburbs of southwestern Ohio where we’d spent three years, before returning to the Kentucky hills of his birth. He had been away for five years, including a stint working at a tire plant in a now dying city in Michigan. After coming to know the story inscribed on the marker, what it meant to be from such a place became just a little more clear.


Fig. II.

Fifty yards northeast of where grandmother’s tin-roofed house had clung to the mountain, supported by stacked rocks and stanchions hewn from felled trees, now only a denuded landscape remains. The creek, which started as a seep from a hillside spring and grew on the descent to cut the hollow between two mountains, was buried soon after the mining began. It had been contaminated with a toxic runoff laced with heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic anyway.

The mining operation, and the logging that preceded it, devoured three entire mountains whole. Where a dense forest of yellow poplar, beech, and white oak previously gave shelter to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, the land had been blasted and upturned, with huge shattered stones pushed beneath a world of dead earth. The birds, squirrels, rabbits, possum, foxes, bobcats, and other animals fled the place en mass when the machines arrived.

Dry thistle and black locust, adorned with sharp thorns, now prevail on the beaten, sun-baked land that once held a living mountain. These treacherous trees and weeds persist as an emblem of its reclamation. In some ways growing into and merging with the mythology of dark and bloody ground. On a map this area remains covered with thin blotches of watercolor-like green; the rhododendron still blooming, a creek making its way down between mountains, cool, clear water flowing over slippery moss-covered slabs of dark granite, and the long-eroded peaks still spiraling high in topographic grandeur. How long will it take the cartographers to correct the shape and shading of these contour lines?


The disturbance of the landscape wrought by strip mining is a familiar scene and one never far from the minds of those who call Eastern Kentucky home. On the other side of the mountain that stood behind the place of my father’s birth, the effect was forceful and disturbing. From the ridge facing west, the vista opened into what appeared as a different world: a landscape stark and barren, marred by erosion, mining roads, and stepped highwalls. Endemic to the Southern Appalachian region, black locust has become a favored species in surface mining reclamation projects. Known also as False Acacia, this hardy tree is used to stabilize the loose surface layers of earth made more susceptible to erosion in the initial period following the cessation of mining operations. These thorny trees also facilitate the fixation of nitrogen essential to life through the bacteria contained in nodules of its root systems. In addition to stabilizing the land it is also an important source of forage and shelter for a variety of wildlife species. Its pinnately compound leaflets are a favorite of white tail deer, while its seeds attract bobwhites and squirrels. Black locust are often the only trees growing in places marred by mining, where their dark rough bark and sharp thorns are regarded with an admixture of fascination and dread. For me the thorns recalled stories of the crucifixion I heard in monthly Bible study sessions in our small rural school, while at the same time evoking wonder at the agility of squirrels in their scurried movements over thorned branches with tranquil and measured grace.


The dirt roads connecting abandoned mines to the outside world were favored places to hunt since the deer had become abundant after the black locust and grasses had taken hold. I’d experience my first hunt before I was old enough for school. One of my earliest memories is of a headless pheasant running in circles as I tried to fight back the tears while men laughed at the spectacle. Later, I’d range with my father through the mountains surrounding our home and over into the places where the miners had been in the years before. The boundary was a saddle known as Buffalo Gap. It often seemed as if an entry into a different world. Although we’d taken numerous squirrels in the early mornings when the trees were thick with fog, never did we kill a deer, or even fire at one. He said he liked to watch them as they bounded through the high grass before stopping to turn back, their damp, black noses searching the air. One time we came across a tree stand overlooking Buffalo Gap. Within a few minutes it had been pulled down and broken into pieces; we never knew who had placed it there. “That ain’t no way to hunt,” he said.

The mining roads were also a favored place to ride motorcycles and ATVs. When I was twelve or thirteen my father bought a red four-wheeler allowing me to explore the more distant network of abandoned mines. It was an uninhabited territory where the most common signs of human presence were from trash dumped at places where the roads led out of the hills. At Ivy Creek and the coal tipple across the river; a derelict farmhouse, east towards Pike County; a valve station for a natural gas pipeline. Among these markers of civilization there was also a crashed Cessna. The pilot was flying at night and misjudged the height of the mountain. I rode up to the site after hearing of it. I didn’t know what I would find, but when I came upon the crumpled plane I wondered how much force it would take to move a mountain.



Fig. III.

Black lung, crushed and mangled fingers, amputated limbs, and lost lives have been the recompense of those who work the coal mines of Southern Appalachia. Before surface mining became the favored method of mineral extraction, one could travel to any of the small communities spread across Eastern Kentucky’s landscape and see bands of slouching men making their way up narrow, winding roads to their homes in the hollows. Their faces, clothes, shrouded in layers of finely ground coal dust.[1] These places, reflecting maybe a counterbalance to the gloom, darkness, and danger of the mines, were festooned with colorful names such as Halo, Slemp, Wheelwright, Gulnare, Rowdy, Yeaddiss, Ary, Hi Hat, Majestic, Ashcamp, Mousie, Drift, Sassafrass, Beauty, Fleming-Neon, Topmost, Decoy, Thousandsticks, Coalgood, Jackhorn, Wonder, Fisty, Closplint, Lothair, Gunlock, Jamboree, Paw Paw, Odds, Etty, Lookout, Dwale, Eolia, Tom’s Creek, John’s Creek, Mare Creek, Mud Creek, Beaver Bottom, and Mouthcard. Mining has been a way of life in these parts for generations, but the rewards have done little to improve the standard of living for those who work the often temporary jobs the industry provides. The people’s lives more often mirror the ecological disruption and dislocation that spreads like a moldy stain on the ceiling long after the coal has been shipped to power plants that light the menacing streets of cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Wheeling, West Virginia. It’s not uncommon for grandfathers, sons, and grandsons to work the mines from generation to generation. Many quit school early to join their kin in digging at the coal lying beneath those rolling verdant hills.


On December 30, 1970, a series of explosions at the Nos. 15 and 16 mines operated by Finley Coal Company reverberated through the small mountain community of Hyden, Kentucky. According to the official report on the accident completed by the Bureau of Mines it was concluded that the explosion was caused when “coal dust was thrown into suspension and ignited by detonating cord or by permissible explosives used in a non-permissible manner or by non-permissible explosives during the blasting of the roof rock for a boom hole.” [2]  Whether permissible or non-permissible explosives, neither the officials from the mining company nor state mining inspectors were concerned enough to investigate the matter further. Once the fires had burned out, the bodies of thirty-eight miners were removed from the scorched shaft. The work of extracting the remaining coal resumed shortly thereafter.


The menace of deadly accidents was never far from the minds of those who had family working the mines. Living under the perpetual threat of disaster, a palpable apprehension rolled in each morning as the men set off to work, especially those who went below. I remember being called to the principle’s office when I was in the fourth grade and told that my mother was on her way to pick up my sister and I from school. There had been an accident at my father’s mine. Although this one was a surface mine, such operations harbored their own unique set of dangers. My father was lucky that morning; an acetylene tank had exploded as he was using a cutting torch while working on a loader. The explosion had blown out the cylindrical wall of the steel tank on the opposite side from where he was crouched. He was lucky, escaping the accident with only second-degree burns from the resulting flash and fireball to his chest and abdomen. Eating breakfast the next morning, I watched as he left out the door on his way back to the mine–the tightly wrapped white gauze protruding from under the neck of his navy blue coveralls, a decal on his helmet, “Coal Miners Strip On The Job.”



Fig. IV.

Pop is the commonly used term for cola or soda pop across Eastern Kentucky, while Coke® is used as a generic term regardless of the brand referenced. The consumption of untreated and unfluoridated water drawn or collected from wells and springs is associated with a susceptibility to childhood tooth decay. This hazard is intensified by insufficient dental care. The growth in the popularity of soft drinks as a staple of American diets exacerbates these effects, and has become indicative of poor nutrition and higher incidences of conditions such as diabetes, while the joke image of toothlessness has become a ubiquitous emblem of hillbilly culture. Fake rotted or missing teeth marketed with such associations are also popular Halloween accessories. Despite soda pop’s lack of nutritional value, the marketing divisions of soft drink companies have been adept at creating new ways to promote their products, while many schools have soda and snack machines for the convenience of students. The use of instant-win bottle caps has proven to be an especially effective marketing strategy, operating as a kind of ad-hoc sweepstakes with randomly distributed cash prizes ranging from twenty-five cents to hundreds of dollars. Some also included games with more generous prizes requiring the collection of multiple caps inscribed with letters that consumers use to spell advertising taglines such as, “catch the wave” or “catch that ­­Pepsi spirit.” Catchy, right? These campaigns offered the hope of fast cash for impoverished people in a game even a child could play, predating the establishment of the state lottery[3]. Ale 81, or “A Late One,” is a soda pop produced in Winchester, Kentucky, and the state’s unofficial soft drink. It has a unique flavor similar to ginger ale, but they abstained from the use of instant-win caps.


Poverty, substandard education, and a paucity of opportunity are synonyms of a sort for Eastern Kentucky. Based in lurid accounts of frontier conflict and cycles of revenge typified by the famed feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families of the nineteenth century, a taste for casual violence has also become a presumed trait of this region’s people. According to the Kentucky Department of Education, over 22% of the population of Floyd County, Kentucky lived below the poverty line in 1980. Ten years later, in the midst of the deregulation of environmental protections and safety standards in the mining industry, the figure had risen to over 31%. In the same year, 1990, the state-wide poverty rate was just over 19%. The national rate was 13.5%. The result of the disparities highlighted in these figures impact a host of other social problems, which are only aggravated by a lack of educational achievement and high rates of unemployment, combined with the lack of high paying jobs. Inadequate access to medical care and the commonplace incidence of alcoholism are also strong contributing factors. More recently, the problems caused by alcoholism have been overshadowed by epidemics of substance abuse from the use of crack cocaine and heroin, to opioids and methamphetamines that function as increasingly lethal forms of self-medication and escape. The resulting conditions, and the impacts that they combine to have, along with a persistent neglect from state and national leaders and policy makers, contribute to a growing sense of frustration, hopelessness, and despair. Feelings often expressed in destructive patterns of behavior reflected in increased rates of crime, violence, and suicide.


My father walked me to the classroom on my first day of school after we’d moved back to the hills. I was midway through the first grade. The imposing two-story brick building appeared more a factory than a place of education, and presented a stark contrast from the modern design of the school I’d attended in Ohio. He introduced me to my teacher, and I was amazed to learn that she’d also been his first grade teacher. He gave her four quarters before he left–for the pop machine that week. The price of a can: .25¢. The regional companies often ran instant-win contests, making the opening of each bottle an exciting activity. “Try Again” was the usual result, but you’d get lucky sometimes. Typically, with a .25¢ or .50¢ winner, but I also found a few $1 caps, too. Mom would split a bottle between me and my siblings, drawing out the suspense of each carton for up to a week. This was an unjust restriction compared to my friend, Rodney who got a bottle a day–his father was a delivery driver for one of the bottlers and got cases for a discount. One day Rodney and I were shooting hoops on the sloping dirt court next to his family’s hillside trailer, and after an errant hook shot the ball bounded over an embankment, vanishing into the weeds below. As we mulled the ball’s path, he suggested we go in and get some pop before looking for it. The thrill of another chance at winning made me forget the search. When I opened the bottle and pulled back the seal: $10; I was elated! “What’s it say?” he said. “Ten bucks,” I exclaimed! Extending his own cap, “me too,” he said. Grabbing a cap from a dish on the kitchen table–he showed another $10 winner! Mumbling from in front of a TV, his mother glanced up and yelled, “better not lose any of those damn caps or he’ll be in trouble.” Several cases were stacked on the linoleum-covered floor, and under each cap, a winner. Ten dollars, all. These were distributed to employees with the stipulation that all of the caps had to be returned to the company. Odds of winning: 1:12; odds of winning: never mind; this is what it’s like living in Eastern Kentucky.


[1] Coal dust is defined as particles of coal that can pass a No. 20 sieve, the inhalation of which is the cause of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung.

[2] Westfield, J., Malesky, J.S. and Crawford, J.W.U.S., Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines Official Report of Major Mine Explosion Disaster, Nos. 15 and 16 Mines, Finley Coal Company, Hyden, Letcher County, Kentucky, December 30, 1970.

[3] The modern Kentucky Lottery was approved by the vote of citizens in the 1988 state-wide election. Wallace G. Wilkerson, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was a supporter of the plan and was elected handily.


[Check out Billy Joe Stratton’s back porch wisdom]


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