I grew up in Eastern Kentucky–born and raised as we say. What is Eastern Kentucky? I guess you’d call it a region or sub-region of Central Appalachia. It is not, as you might think, simply the eastern half of the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. Here’s my personal map of the area:
This seemingly random boundary results in some folks calling it Southeastern Kentucky which, geographically speaking, is more accurate. A few notes:
- We can’t include any counties on the Ohio River. They aren’t isolated enough. This excludes Boyd, Greenup, Lewis, etc.
- I-64 runs through Montgomery, Bath, Rowan and Carter Counties. Again, they are excluded because of lack of isolation. Elliott County is an exception because–well–you just have to visit there to see.
- Once you push too far north, you get out of the mountains, and we have to exclude you. Goodbye Fleming, Nicholas and Robertson Counties. Robertson County is the toughest to exclude. It definitely has an Eastern Kentucky feel to it, but it’s out.
The qualifications for Eastern Kentucky status include:
- Mountains. You have to have mountains, not hills. Fleming County has beautiful, rolling hills, but they aren’t mountains.
- Isolation. It has to be kind of tough to get there or at the very least it’s just on the way to somewhere else. Rarely is an Eastern Kentucky county a destination. On this criterion, Robertson County would qualify, but again, it’s just too far north.
- Coal Mining. You need some coal mines, either now or in the past. We’re from coal mining stock.
- Accents. You have to sound like us. Now, people in Carter County pretty much sound like us, but they have that Interstate.
I hail from Harlan County, the Eastern Kentuckiest of all counties. We’re isolated. Very isolated. Harlan County is not on the way to anywhere. If you need to go someplace that can be accessed through Harlan County, I guarantee that there’s an easier, quicker way to get there. Harlan–that’s what we call it–isn’t a destination, either. There aren’t any hotels to speak of, really. No Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, etc. There are a couple of places to stay, and they’re okay. If you’re spending the night in Harlan, you probably have family there anyway.
We have mountains all around us. We’re hemmed in. We mine coal and have for over 100 years. We also have accents, heavy mountain accents–the kind that can be indecipherable even to natives of the area.
I don’t live in Harlan now, but I’m still a Harlan Countian. Always. So, I speak of how it was 30 years ago. One of the great things about Harlan is that changes very little. It’s still pretty much the same.
Now, don’t confuse Harlan County with the town of Harlan, our county seat. If someone tells you that he or she is from Harlan, they could mean any town from Pathfork to Holmes Mill to Cumberland to Cranks. Only if we’re talking to another Harlan Countian would we narrow the description to the town. Myself, I’m from Loyall which is three miles from the town of Harlan.
Unless you lived in the town of Harlan, you don’t go to the “city” schools–Harlan High Elementary and Harlan High School. I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High and James A. Cawood High School. Cawood was named after James A. Cawood, long time Superintendent of the Harlan County Schools. None of my schools still exist. Now kids go to Harlan County High School which consumed Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland High Schools. We used to be territorial based on our schools. When we went to high school, we identified as being from Loyall or Hall or Wallins. We rarely hung out with anyone from Evarts or Cumberland–in those days, they had their own high schools. They might as well have been in different states.
WE ARE BAD
The vast majority of Harlan Countians are proud to be from Harlan. We are our own world. We like that it’s called Bloody Harlan by some folks even though that name is based upon events which occurred 70 years ago. Bloody Harlan is just badass. We like being the badasses of Eastern Kentucky.
Many people watch the FX series Justified. Justified portrays Harlan as a lawless frontier of wanton violence. Harlan Countians like Justified. We like people to think we’d kill them for some trivial reason.
Before Justified, many people got their image of Harlan from the award-winning documentary Harlan County USA which followed the Eastover coal mine strike at Brookside, Kentucky. Harlan County USA divides us into two groups: Those that love it and those that hate it. The ones who love it love the depiction of rough and ready union brothers and sisters ready to wage war with the coal company thugs. The rest of us (that includes me) hate the image of Harlan Countians as violent, uneducated hooligans. They point to the many fine folks in the county who were (and still are) horrified by the goings on at Eastover. The truth, of course, probably lies somewhere in the middle. The folks in Brookside were surely Harlan Countians as was the chief gun “thug,” Basil Collins. Basil was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid, so I know he was real. My mother drove through Brookside to go to work every day, so I also know the strike was real. Harlan has always been divided into pro- and anti-union. It still is in some ways, although it has been many years since the United Mine Workers Association held great sway.
That bastion of journalism, Hustler Magazine, once listed Harlan (the town) as one the three meanest towns in America. It was described as a place where people only smiled when they heard that someone had died. Harlan Countians did not like that. Not at all. I suspect it’s mostly because they didn’t care much for Hustler, at least not publicly.
Overall, we like the stereotypical portrayal of Harlan. Harlan is tough. Harlan is mean. Harlan is total badass.
Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly tough. Then, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky and found out that I was pretty tough by Lexington standards. For instance, threats didn’t faze me. I knew that truly dangerous people don’t threaten much. They just inflict harm. Of course, there’s a downside. A mouthy little man like me finds out the hard way that bad is good, but big is better. Bad and small isn’t a recipe for success.
WHO ARE WE?
Who are the Harlan Countians? Besides the accident of birth, we have certain commonalities:
- We know that houses have winders and chimleys
- We mispronounce light, fight, white and night.
- We all know someone named Lonzo.
- We have accents which are obscured by our penchant for mumbling.
- We know at least one person who has been shot with a gun by someone else or by themselves accidentally.
- We own guns.
- We are related to at least one coal miner.
- We say Papaw and Mamaw.
- We know trash when we see it, and I’m not talking about garbage pick up.
- We know at least one person whose mother was really their grandmother, and sister was their mother. Trust me on this one.
Harlan Countians can be found everywhere. Who are we?
- The Stalwarts
These are the folks who stayed in Harlan. They are either Harlan by birth or moved there at a young age. They might have gone to college or joined the military. Regardless, they came back. Maybe they never left.
These are small town people just like in every small town. Small town life can be hard or easy. If it’s hard, it’s hopeless. If it’s easy, there’s nothing better. In that regard, Harlan is Small Town, USA. There are doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, coaches, laborers, deadbeats and criminals. There are good people and bad people. Like anywhere else, you have to hope to you don’t cross paths with the bad ones at the wrong time.
Among this crowd are those that my father called “off the grid.” He said we had a sub-culture of people “so far off the creek” that they weren’t plugged in to the modern world. That is certainly true, but I must say that those unfortunates (if that’s what they are) are the in minority.. They may be from such places as Shields, Jones Creek, Smith, Cranks, Punkin Center or Happy Top, although I can name you folks from all those places who have done quite well for themselves.
Harlan is no more defined by any subculture than Chicago should be defined by its sad history of public housing or New York by the worst of its slums. Yes, we have folks living in poverty–too many (as though there is an acceptable level of suffering) but most folks live just fine.
My parents were stalwarts. My Dad was born in Evarts and–expect for military service and college–never lived anywhere else. My mother moved to Harlan County from Pike County at around age 12 and never left except to attend college. They had no desire to ever live anywhere else. And they didn’t.
- The Outlanders
I am an outlander. An outlander is someone who used to live in Harlan. We’re still Harlan Countians. We just live somewhere else. There are a lot of us spread over the country, but we still think of ourselves as being from Harlan. I haven’t lived in Harlan in 30 year, but if someone asks where I’m from, “Harlan” is the immediate response.
Some are like me. I went to college and had personal and professional opportunities that pulled me away. Others leave to find better opportunities.
We outlanders like our Harlan roots. It’s a kind of mountain street cred. If we meet anyone else from Eastern Kentucky, we can get instant acceptance with a simple “I grew up in Harlan.” Translation: “Despite appearances, I will kill you if necessary. So, watch your step. I’d hate to have to kill you. Just kidding–about the ‘hate’ part. I am a badass.”
- The Pretenders
There are people who will pretend to be from Harlan or any place else in Eastern Kentucky. That’s right–they’ll pretend. They have cousins or in-laws or remote ancestors who hailed from the mountains. This, so they say, makes them mountain people. Of course, it doesn’t. We laugh at them but let them have their fun. They’re usually the folks who dream of turning all of Eastern Kentucky into a massive tourist destination by having all the people who live there pack up and move. Then, they can come back and pay admission to see where they used to live.
Sometimes, these people would show up to help us. We were always suspicious of outsiders, especially those offering “help.” We could tell if you were from Ohio or Michigan or some other exotic place. You talked funny. You weren’t one of us. Go help someone else.
- The Loathers
These folks are Harlan Countians, but they don’t like it. They might even live in Harlan, but it doesn’t suit them. It’s too dull. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. There’s no future. It’s bleak. But they don’t always leave. They just hang around and complain. Most of us pass through this phase at some point. Many never leave it.
Some of these folks do leave Harlan–a lot of them, in fact. They go to other parts of the state or country and live as ex-Harlan Countians. They don’t like being from Harlan. They don’t want to sound like Harlan or look like Harlan. They pity Harlan. They know what’s best for Harlan, though, and won’t hesitate to tell you. Even though they know what’s best for Harlan, we don’t really like them.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
My children are fascinated and perhaps slightly horrified that I grew up in Harlan. Even though they have visited my homeland many times, they remain baffled by it.
Even though I haven’t lived there in many years, I still visit. I’m fortunate that my job regularly takes me to Eastern Kentucky. Harlan is quiet, unless you grew up near the railroad tracks like I did. Then it was quiet except when the trains ran, which seemed like every 15 minutes or so.
Loyall had a school, a railroad yard, one stop light, a movie theater (at one time), the Corner Store (a genuine soda shop), a gas station, a barber and a couple of stores. A convenient store replaced the gas station and stores. The school closed. All that’s left is the yard and that light. We had our own post office, City Hall and fire station. They’re still there. About 1,000 people lived there when I was a kid. Maybe 700 or so now. It was quiet then. It’s quiet now.
We once had a train full of nerve gas pass through Loyall. People gathered at the railroad tracks to watch it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they were hoping to see (or experience) some kind of catastrophe. Maybe they just didn’t have much else to do.
Sometimes you hear gun fire in the distance, but that’s in the woods. There aren’t running gun battles anymore like the famed Battle of Evarts many decades ago. Oh, people still get shot occasionally but at much lower rate than we’d like you to believe.
The county is big, about 50 miles across, but sparsely populated. Like much of Eastern Kentucky, the population has declined for decades. One can argue that it’s always been over-populated what with the chronic high unemployment and high poverty rate.
The “first of the month” is a big time in Harlan. That’s when people get their checks. Government checks. Disability checks. Welfare checks. Food stamps, too. Town is flooded with people. When I was young, the Government Cheese truck looked like a scene from an African relief mission. People were practically hanging on it. Although we certainly weren’t poor, Government Cheese is excellent, and my Dad would get us a block whenever he could. I miss Government Cheese.
We only periodically had a movie theater, the fabulous Margie Grand in Harlan. It would occasionally be condemned but re-open at some point. It was an old theater whose best days had long past. Plaster would fall from the ceiling and you could throw popcorn on the stage in front of the screen and watch the rats scurry out to eat. It was tough to find two functioning seats together. It reeked of Pine Sol. It was a movie experience like no other. Sometimes, the film would jam and you could watch it melt. It even had an old balcony where–rumor had it–black folks used to be seated. Loyall also had a theater–the Roaden–until I was about 6 years old. For many years now, Harlan has had a multi-screen cinema. Sweet.
Mostly, we didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much to do. Oh, you might go to Gary’s Lounge and Roller Rink sometimes. Gary’s was a fun place. One side was a roller rink. The other side was the Lounge, a long, narrow open room with a dance floor. A friend of mine once drank a beer from a girl’s cowboy boot at the Lounge. You don’t see that every day.
Mostly, we just hung out. Funny thing is, that’s what my kids do, even though they live in a small city with a million things to do. I guess teenagers everywhere just hang out. Oh, and we moaned and complained about not having anything to do. My kids do that, too.
IT’S NOT ALL GOOD
When I went to college, I befriended other Eastern Kentuckians. One guy said we were like Indians who left the reservation. Even though I had been lots of places, leaving Harlan took me out of my comfort zone. Honestly, it took me years to adapt. I went from a county of about 35,000 people spread over 1,000 square miles to a campus of 20,000 + crammed into a few blocks. No wonder I was overwhelmed.
Since I’ve been gone, Harlan–like all of Eastern Kentucky–has been devastated by prescription drug abuse. We didn’t have that problem when I lived there. If we had a problem like that today in my slice of Suburbia, there would be a full-blown panic. Now, sadly, it’s a way of life in the mountains.
Coal mining runs in cycles. Right now, it’s in a big down turn. That hurts everyone.
There is a bleak side to Harlan, as anywhere else. Like inner cities, there are generations locked into a poverty cycle. Some escape, but most don’t. There has always been tension between those who work and those who don’t or won’t. Nothing will get a hard-working coal miner or school teacher fired up like a discussion about those “drawing a check.” That’s how it was when I was a kid, and it hasn’t changed.
We also suffer from stereotyping. Our teeth aren’t all that bad, although mine aren’t great. We didn’t all drink Mountain Dew as babies. I’ve never known anyone who didn’t wear shoes–and I knew some pretty rough characters. I knew no one married to his own sister and just a handful married to their cousins.
We’re also the last of a breed–and this applies to all of Appalachia. We’re the last group that can openly derided. We can be called ignorant, inbred, genetically inferior, toothless, shoeless–you name it. If you do so, you won’t be called a bigot or a phobe of any type. You might even become a best-selling author or reality TV producer.
My life is very much divided into two parts–before and after Harlan. Now, far in the past, at least until I visit. Give me about 30 minutes, and it’s like I never left. That’s pretty cool.
If you live in Harlan, I can’t say that I blame you. If you don’t, I can’t fault you for that, either. It’s a nice place. Different, but nice. If you don’t believe me, I just might have to kill you.
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I had to laugh at your reference to “government cheese.” It really was good stuff! My mom (Joyce Abraham) was a home ec teacher at JACHS at the time of government commodities, and she had students who always offered to sell her their cheese for $5.00 a block. She always bought some, even though she was never sure if doing so was legal. She used it for many recipes, everything from casseroles to sauces. Thanks for reminding me of a great memory of my mother! (She died in 1995, and I am so glad to have such good and often funny memories of her.) By the way, I think grilled cheese sandwiches made from “government cheese” were the best!
Cheese is the only thing the US government ever perfected. Thanks
I grew up in Wilhoit and went to Loyall High for the first part of my freshman year, then moved to Indiana, but I still go back to Harlan often, my sister still lives there. I love being from there. I’m from a family of 12, but no inbred’s here, but I do know cousins who married.
Hollywood Bledsoe from “the mouth of Cloverlick ” in HC, once wrote a song about Government Cheese. It rated right up there with his song about Jim and Tammy Baker, pretty good actually.
That’s some good cheese!
I remember commodity butter. My mom always bought margarine but our housekeeper would get the butter and we thought it was “strong.” Nowadays, I would love to have some! In Atlanta, some of the New Yorkers that worked with me at the ad agency used to continually ask me where I was from just to hear me say it. Although it’s closer to Hazard than Harlan, I would reply, “Bean Patch Holler on Irishman Creek!” They loved it!
My Dad used to talk about when they distributed commodity margarine. It was gray and you had to add the coloring to it.
I also have those wonderful memories, of making grilled cheese sandwiches in the evening, after supper when we as children, never seem to be really full. We used to sprinkle sugar over the cheese, before grilling them! We were not eligible for the government cheese, but my aunt was, & she would always bring us some, every month. I have enjoyed these old memories!!!
We weren’t eligible for cheese, either, but my Dad would get it anyway!
Your mother was my teacher at Hall High for four years. She was one of my favorite. I graduated in 1964.
Great description. I am a born and raised harlan countian. I left here when i was 15 came back in my late 20’s. You hit the nail on the head. I LOVE where i am from and am harlan county proud even when i dont have much to be proud of.lol
Absolutely loved this!! I was born in Pike Co. in 1960 and in my 53 yrs. of life I have lived in Chicago, IL., Ypsilanti, MI., Charleston, W. Va., so I know all to well about the differences of living in Eastern KY & a big city. I was mostly raised In Floyd Co. KY & did live in Grundy , Va. at one time. But I have lived in Harlan Co. since 1986 & now I couldn’t imagine living any where else.
Thanks. My grandfather was from Island Creek, and my grandmother was from Harold. I know that area, well, too.
I’ve really enjoyed reading this article. I was born and raised in Harlan, KY a lil place called Sunshine. Very proud of my heritage. I live in Northern KY now but all my family still resides in Harlan so I visit a lot. Thank you so much for sharing.
ENJOYED YOUR ARTICLE, WOULDN’T TRADE THE PLACE I GREW UP FOR ANY PLACE IN THE WORLD . NEAR CLOSPLINT KY AND I AM PROUD TO BE FROM HARLAN CO THAT IS HOME ALTHOUGH I LIVE IN CORBIN KY NOW
Love the article. I am from Wynntown, went to Evarts High School and live in Richmond Ky. I was blessed to have been raised in the mountains.
My Mom taught at Evarts from 1951 to 1980. Dad was born and raised there. My Aunt Pauline is 95 now and still lives there.
You hit the nail on the head ~ Love this! born & raised Pathfork Ky~
Thanks. I had friends in Pathfork. In fact, when I was down there on business a couple of years ago, I saw a couple hanging out in front of rock store. Sadly, they didn’t seem to be doing well…
Ruby did you know a family named Clark? My Grandfather/Grandmother was Floyd/Janie Clark.
Mrs Abraham was my Home Ec teacher @Hall High. I was in her class the day JFK was shot in Dallas. I knew the Clark’s well. Abe was in my class @Black Star when it was an elem.
I was born, raised and still live in Pike County. My Dad was a coal miner, was on oxygen from 2007 until 2010. Black lung finally got the best of him but legally these days black lung doesn’t exist. He was the hardest worker I have ever known. Nothing came easy for Dad but he never complained. My husband is a retired coal miner. I have been told that he worked harder than 3 men. That’s probably why he is disabled now at a a young age. I respect ALL coal miners. No one should have to make a livin’ working between 2 rocks. My husband has worked in low coal where one had to crawl to get to your section. I don’t think I have an accent but get me out of Pike County and they all say I do. Where you from?..Pike County…lol. I called some place the other day, got an automated machine….your name, address, (I’m sorry…I didn’t get that could you repeat that again. Finally I tried talking like a city slicker but I was too Eastern Kentucky that way. Finally I hang on long enough to get a real person. I told him apparently his computer did’t speak “Hillbilly”….I am proud of my head of the holler rasin’. We lived the last house in the head of the holler with my poppy and granny our only neighbors. When we heard a car coming we knew we were having company….we usually hid to see who it was. If we didn’t know them, well they were at the wrong house. Me, my brother and sister went to church every Sunday…we weren’t allowed to even go to the toilet until after church. We got spanked when we needed it…didn’t hurt us one bit but sure made us better kids growing up and better adults today. I am a brand new grandma and I am Mamaw to that beautiful baby. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else.
My Papaw was raised on Island Creek.
Jenny Lynn (Saylor) Moore I was born and raised in Wallins ,lived there until I was 28 moved to Florida w/ My husband David Moore from Graysknob, we both graduated from James A. Cawood, My heart is still in the mountains, you can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl, we long to come back some someday Lord willing, I am a Harlan girl to the bone. Love love love Harlan County Kentucky and the people. (:
I’m JACHS Class of 1980 myself.
Did you know Jo Alice Chitwood or Lance Johnson? They are my parents. I believe they graduated for there on ’83.
I’m pretty sure I remember Lance. Didn’t know him well, but I remember him.
Did you know Jimmy C. Morgan? Graduated Wallins about 1956.
I didn’t know, but that’s before my time. I not THAT old!
Jenny, I worked in Harlan Co. in the 90’s on the railroad and worked with a Saylor but can’t remember his first name. He was a clerk there. One hell of a nice fellow. Helped me so much when I worked there.
I’m from graysknob, pine branch was were I lived till I was 17 then we moved to Putney. Finished my last year in high school from there. I worked as a car hop from Denny rays rite out of high school. Graduated from jach in 78
Born and raised in Cumberland.I live in Florida now loved your article.Proud of my roots!
My Mom graduated from Cumberland High School.
I still tell people I am from Harlan because it brings instant recognition. I do find a lot of people think Harlan is Hazzard from the TV show, so they ask me if Harlan is in Hazzard county and if I knew Luke and Bo Duke???? I go there to visit, and it has improved somewhat, but I like my central Ky home in LaRue county much better. I grew up in Sunshine too. The wrong side of the tracks to the “town school” crowd of the 1960’s. We got segregation in those years, and I never knew the difference, we all got along. Good memories there. Sherry Jones Hall.
My grandfather worked in the Sunshine mines in the 20’s and 30’s. I had friend in Sunshine growing up. It might have been the wrong side of the tracks, but I knew some good folks from there.
Fine set of words here! now let me add to your story, Harlan has taken a step ferder, and now has a Huge new Comfort Inn Hotel….Yep, John this is LONZO, and we now have more southern hospitality hure…..Come see us sometime. , we’ll leave the porch light on…. LOL LOL…..enjoyed the article……
One way to prove that someone is from the mountains is if they know someone named Lonzo! John
Love your response, I live in central ky for a lot of year’s now, but when I can go home I stay at the Comfort Inn Hotel, it is a Blessing to us out of towners, I think this page is right on, and I don’t like the way most people think of Harlan, we are just like anyone else, even if we have a little accent, awesome page, and I lived in Loyall a few year’s also, my mother died there, thanks for letting people know that it’s not all justified, although I have never watched a full episode, they are awful. Miss the trains.
Join us …. https://www.facebook.com/groups/WallinsCreekers/
I volunteer as a cashier at a nonprofit’s ReStore. One day I kidding with a guy about something he was buying and at some point he says that he’s from Mingo, West Virginia. My reply was that he didn’t scare me, I am from Harlan, Kentucky!
Enjoyed the article. I was born in Pike County but grew up in Flatwoods in Greenup County. I loved all your rationale for your boundary lines. Whitley County has an interstate so are they still Eastern Kentucky?
Whitley County is troublesome. The people certainly are of Eastern Kentucky stripe, but they do lack isolation.
This is the first time I stumbled across you blog. Really enjoyed the read.
Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate it.
Loved this! My mom is from – Cote (Evarts) – I can’t wait to read this to her!
My Dad and his six siblings were all raised in Evarts. I have a 95 year old aunt who still lives there. My mother taught Home Ec at Evarts for 28 years.
I was born in Pineville, Ky but grew up in Pathfork. I live in Lee Co,Ky. now but have family still in Harlan Co. I loved growing up there and go back frequently. There was nothing like sitting on the front porch swing drinking RC’s from my uncle’s one room store. I graduated in 71 from JACHS. Okay, now I’m homesick!
born and raised in harlan ky live in northern
Enjoyed the article. Well written and interesting. A man that loved
I lived in Harlan for many years just ended up there one day and loved it and stayed I was not born or raised there just lived… Place is wonderfull I’m 25 so I would love to go back I call it home I feel home there I moved bout a year ago to Indiana…. I have all the respect in the world for the good people in Harlan county it’s rough with mines getting shut down and people loosing what they know best and that’s coal I’m sorry it rough that is a reason I moved but keep strong everyone in Harlan has a big heart and I promise they are some the best people u ever meet in ur life
I was up at Holmes Mill just a few months ago.
As usual… John you nailed it!! I loved living in Ages,Ky for the 2 years I was there!! Well….. I loved it AFTER the mob left that came to my door the day I moved in, demanding to know “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
NOTE TO SELF: Don’t move to Ages,Ky,Home of Brookside Mine, during a strike……
Great story and oh so true, every word of it. I lived across Pine Mtn. Bledsoe, so we limped, if you know what I mean 😉 Born in Leslie Co. and graduated James A Cawood in 81′. Have lived in SC for the past 25 yrs but everyone who knows me knows where I come from. Thanks for the great story.
I graduated in 80. Lots of good folks from “across the mountain.”
Your article is awesome! I have to say, I know of nobody named Lonzo. That is perhaps because I hail from off the grid (Smith). I am an Outlander (orlando), looking to be a Stalwart. It is funny how people from all over the Country know where you are talking about when you say you are from Harlan Co. and many of them visibly tense on that statement. Most of them have never even been to Ky let alone Harlan. Our reputation precedes us. I once met a police officer who worked in the State Police in Harlan, he visibly tensed when I said I was from Harlan, went ashen when I said I was from Smith, and excused himself when I said I was a Middleton. I used to try and derail the presumptions, now I just embrace them. It tends to work to my advantage.
Someone told me that the best way to commit suicide was to stand around in Smith and act like you’re counting money!
I remember an encounter with the business end of a 38 special at the Smith lake boat ramp late one night. Cats and Harlan Countians have 9 lives.
Hi aurea, I’ve helped ur grand paw make many many gallons of moonshine just over the hill from ur mom n dads house. Wayne brought u shea and ur mom n I think he took pictures. U may or may not remember it and I also did alot of the fencing around the many many acres he and ur mom’s own. U and I are related. Probably like 4th or 5th cousins. I left Ky in 1990 but go back very very often. U can take me out of Ky. but u can’t take Ky out of me!!!!!! U take car cuz.
Yes I remember you, vaguely, it has been a long time. I have more memories of the younger Britton’s that are closer to my age. We currently have a lot of re-fencing to do, interested :). LOL
You nailed it. My ancestors settled Smith, hence its name, and I’m proud of it being “off the grid.
I knew some fine people from Smith. The late Norman Smith was a classmate of mine at JACHS.
Christy, I believe we may know each other. I am Wayne Middleton’s daughter. Isha’s Smith’s 2nd cousin. And Misty, April and I grew up together. Ring any bells?
Thank you so much for this, it came at a time when I needed to count my blessings, and being born in Liggett, and raised in Pansy, I truly was blessed. I left first to attend Cumberland College, then only a two year school, and later was forced to leave and gravitate “north” for employment.
I still call Harlan home, and as our family decreases, we return to our home to rest in Resthaven until we are all reunited in the hereafter.
I just found this wonderful Blog! Brings back so many memories. You are so right, except I don’t know anyone named Lonzo. Knew a few Edsel’s which I never met outside Harlan! Doris, do I know you? I was born and raised in Liggett. So so sad to see that head of the Holler non existent now, all overgrown. It was a thriving community in the 60’s-70’s. The general store, a thriving Coal community. I graduated Harlan HS, UK, then moved to NYC, culture shock! But my Harlan upbringing gave me my core values. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I grew up in the town of Harlan, at the bottom of Ivy Hill. I moved to the Tampa Bay area as a teenager and it was a bit of a culture shock. I still have family in Cawood and Baxter but I don’t get up there much..
Jennifer, I moved to the Tampa Bay area when I was four and a half. I was born in Harlan and I remember living there, but I didn’t have the experience that my parents had (who were both born in Harlan County) since I didn’t grow up there.
My dad was a teacher at JACHS from 1962 to 1968. We still have relatives in the area.
JACHS did not open until the ’66 – ’67 school year. My dad taught there from ’66 – ’96.
I was raised on Rhea straight, where the old airport was. I was one of the Hensley girls that lived on the strawberry farm. I have never been to a Harlan County Bears football game, but I have been told that the team enters the field to Brad Paisley’s “You will never leave Harlan alive” song. The field is backdropped by some beautiful mountains, right at Tunnel Hill. I pass by there to go to my mothers home, it is amazing to see in Harlan Co. The children of Harlan are blessed to have such a nice school. I was just in Harlan County this weekend. I was in Wallins Creeks all day Saturday visiting my niece and stayed at my Mothers in Rhea. I didn’t want to leave. I live in Nashville now, it seems like everyone here know someone from Harlan.
I own a piece of railroad track on the Rhea Straight. I know it well.
TO JIM CONNOR, jimmy c morgan lives in the big town of sawbriar, near wallins creek
I married a Lady, born and raised in Harlan. Daughter of a preacher. Moved to Indiana at about 15 or 16 years of age. Much later in life we got married and we were on vacation going south to visit her sister who lived back home. We were driving down the road from Pineville toward Harlan and I was looking for the turn off to get to sister Norma’s place. I was looking for the turnoff to Loll. As I was merrily driving along, I was suddenly chastised soundly for missing the road. I found a place to turn around and get back down the road and get my act together. I made another U turn and started back toward Harlan at a much slower pace and was directed to take the Loyall turn off. Why turn here, I ask? This is where Norma lives, was the reply. This was the day that I learned that when we turned the corner at Pineville, my wife changed languages and I needed an translator..
I know exactly where you were driving. You went up 119 to the Loyall turnoff, and you’re absolutely right: Any Harlan Countian who turns the corner at Pineville changes languages!
I remember when you had to take a gravel road from Pineville to Loyall when they were building the new 119
I’m not from Kentucky — saw this blog post through a friend’s facebook — but I’ve really enjoyed reading it and the comments! I’m from Tennessee (save your boos for later, lol) and grew up in a very small, rural town with a lot of “off the grid” inhabitants. I live in the “city” now, and raised my daughters here. They tease me that my accent changes when I cross the county line going back “home” :-). And the tell me they can always tell when I’m talking to a relative on the phone for the same reason. I love your wife’s “Loll” — great story!
If I go back to Harlan for even a day, even my family can’t understand me when I get back.
I was born and raised in Harlan County and we moved to Alabama in 1952 when I was 12 years old. We lived in Yancey when I was born, moved to Brookside, then moved to Evarts (Woods Mine Area) before moving to Walker County, AL. I was in the 7th grade at Evarts when we moved. I am still Harlan County thru and thru. Been back very few times. Have a cousin who lives in Evarts and cousins in middle KY. I am a faithful Kentucky Basketball fan and follow them year in and year out, through good and bad “GO BIG BLUE”.. I have many good friends I have met through the Hall High Gamecock web site. I am also a faithful Alabama Football Fan “ROLL TIDE”.
I wonder if you’re related to Clarence Leonard who lived near Evarts. He’s married married to one of my first cousins for many years.
I’m sorry but I don’t think so. I have no information on a Clarence Leonard in our family tree. I am doing a genealogy study on the Leonard’s, McKendrick’s and Boteler families who lived at one time in Harlan County and some that still do.
If he is still living can you ask him about any Leonard relatives he know about or put him in touch with me. As you know we lived near Evarts.
There were several Leonard families in the county in my day. Clarence’s family was pretty small. I’m sure you’d know if you were related.
I went back through my Ancestry.com files and I found 2: Clarence Leonard, born 24 May 1914, Walker County, AL and died 27 July 1985 at Corbin, KY, it shows he had no wife or children, and his father was John D. Leonard and his mother was Jeanette McKendrick Leonard. Clarence had one brother Howard P. Leonard and Howard P and his wife Lucille had a son named Clarence Edwin Leonard. I have no other information on these two at this time. Do you think either one of these fits into your family. If so, let me know so I can fill any dates, places, names and information you may furnish to me.
My Uncle Ralph Leonard was Pastor at the Baxter Methodist Church before it was moved. He lived there with his wife my Aunt Hazel and their children Laura Jean, Stanley and Mickey.
My name is Julie Crowder-Ward. The previous mentioned Clarence E. Leonard is my Uncle. Howard and Lucille Leonard are my grandparents. My mother is Drena Crowder-Leonard. Jeanette McKendrick Leonard was my Me-maw and the best lady you to have ever been born! My uncle Clarence still lives in Ky. My mother and her Sister Yuvonne live in TN. SO neat to see my family talked about on here!
Hi Julie, Yes I know your mother. We have corresponded back and forth for several years about our Leonard connections. We have exchanged information over the years. I have neglected my research of the Leonard’s and McKendrick for some time because of my health problems. Your Great Grandfather John D. and my Grandfather Brack H. were brothers and my Grandmother Geanie and your Great Grandmother Jeanette were sisters. In fact, I got up this morning with the intent or renewing my research. I have got too much time and information invested in my research to keep up with to just ignore my research. How can I contact your Uncle Clarence E. to find out if he has any information to help with my research? It is good to hear from you and I hope to hear from you again. Charles Leonard – Birmingham, AL
When I started reading this blog I thought well this is alright, but as I continued I came to realize that you don’t know what the hell your talking about. If you ever lived in Harlan you have been gone so long you don’t know what the hell is going on. I’m actually kind of offended by your antics and false information. So if you have a iota of respect for you mom and dad, grandma and grandpa you will correct this mess and actually write something that isn’t from fifty years ago. Their isn’t anyone who acts the way you have described them in this concoction, Nor is the area the way you have presented it. You say that you came here now and then, but if you did you would know that we have many amenities and hotels such as a holiday inn express and a comfort inn. People may had been living on Government cheese when you grew up and the first may had been like a amusement park, but all that has changed. I just know that by writing all this misinformation as if it were this day in time, you have disgraced and embarrassed your people, an you should be ashamed of yourself. If I knew them personally I would surly let them know about it too. So please you out landing, loathing spectator, Keep your thoughts on the area you live in now, and the goings on there, we don’t need or want you perspective of the people that actually live, work and die here. For you truly aren’t a Harlanian, to show such disrespect.
Thanks. I appreciate all comments–positive and negative. If you read it carefully, you’ll note that I said I haven’t lived there in 30+ years. I’m not sure where you found this, but most folks realize that some of it is tongue-in-cheek. The government cheese, however, is real. Everyone I knew (including my family) ate government cheese–the best cheese ever. No worries. Rest assured that no one in my family considers me a disgrace or embarrassment, but your concern is noted. Take care.
Don’t be offended by one person’s response that could learn and use some respect compared to the many nice responses. I know you as a Harlan Countain and also as a fine person. E Hudson
I am sure he is talking about when he grew up and how times were then I am from Harlan live here now .I loved the article and haven’t read anything disrespectful .
Awesome story. I lived in Harlan and Loyall. My parents who were also my papaw and mamaw owned Tiny Jo’s market in Baxter. I used to sleep on the bread racks.
Haven’t lived there since the late 70s, but Harlan is always home.
Although I left Harlan County in 1968, and grew up in Florida, I am still proud to say, I am from Harlan County!
Loved the blog… I’ve told many people about the gov’ment cheese. You haven’t had a grilled cheese sandwich until you’ve had one made with gov’ment cheese, gov’ment butter and fresh Bunny Bread. Of course you have to wash it all down with whole milk from Chappell’s Dairy! Do you remember the Chappell’s Dairy slogan? On future blog give Watts Creek a mention. Take care!
I really hacked off one guy about the government cheese. He said that I was making the county look bad. Hell, it was the best cheese ever–the only thing the Federal Government ever perfected! I don’t remember Chappell’s slogan, but I do remember: “That’s what I said–Bunny Bread!” I also remember the 1st grade field trip to Chappell’s, Bunny Bread and Harlan Ice. I need to work Watt’s Creek in to a future post, for sure. Thanks for the comments. Check out some of my other posts. I’ve got a few more Harlan County memories.
John,I also remember those 1st grade field trips. I think we also went to RC Bottling Plant at Loyall. I’m sorry my great-grandchildren don’t have such memories. Theirs will be more like trips to King’s Island, etc. BTW I live on Watts Creek and have most of my life..off and on. Did you live here? And should I know you? Have you checked out “Welcome To Watts Creek” site? If not, you should.
Grew up in Loyall. Two of my best friends were Steve Farley and Jamie Helton. Spent a lot of time at the top of the hill up Watts Creek.
Alan Creech, such nice thoughts and memories of this beautiful part of God’ earth that I am proud to call home. Its nice to read good thoughts of Harlan County.
The Chappell’s Dairy Slogan: “It may be good and not be ours, but it can’t be ours and not be good”. That I can remember but I can’t find my car in the parking lot? What’s up with that?
It’s called age, my friend. Read my post about growing up in Loyall sometime.
Spent many an evening in Tiny Joes!!!!!!!
I have lived in Evarts since age 7 this is my home (sal’s Branch) I had your mom in home Ec. loved her. my husband was raised knowing your dad and all your family I love your blog.
It’s amazing how many of Mom’s students I still run into. Thanks for the kind words.
John, enjoyed your comments. You brought back a lot of memories.
“Crow” Drums 70 (CHS)
Outlander here… Born at HARH, raised in Grays Knob- attended Hall Elementary and Junior High, JACHS and then “got out” to attend UK. Loved your blog and thought it to be an accurate description. Brought back some memories. It is true that you can take the boy out of the mountains but never the mountain out of the boy. Wouldn’t trade my youth spent in Harlan County for any other in the world.
That’s pretty much the consensus of people I know. There are a few folks who left and don’t care to ever hear of Harlan again, but that’s true of all small towns.
I enjoyed your blog ..I too left Harlan to find work …..I recently got turned down for a job doing private duty nurses aide for a new client because I was from Harlan ..The job interview started out very well until she ask where I was from… I had an accent …24 years later I still have that accent …I think she was worried I was packing a gun..to funny ..love my Harlan county roots ..from Wallins.. …..Oh yeah agree with everyone loved that Gov, cheese…
I just tried a case in Illinois. Before we started, I told the court reporter that I’ve been told I have an accent of some kind. She agreed.
Stalwarts, outlanders, pretenders, loathers… you left one group out. You’d be surprised how many of us moved here from other places (quite a few from other countries), were welcomed as friends, made our homes here and raised our families here. Glad that you’re happy in whatever metro area you moved to. I’m happy living here.
I was raised over the mountain at Little Laurel. Went to JACHS then moved to Indiana an I haven’t went home in a long time. But my roots are still strong an a country girl. Really enjoyed the article
My Mother, Reba Campbell, was born in Liggett. My grandparents, Elve and Flaura Campbell, moved to Sunshine and eventually to Loyall. My Mother married her high school sweethart Robert Kitts right before he left for the army as WWII started. My Mom then joined the WAC. She was stationed in Newport News, Virginia when the war ended. Her husband had been killed during the war. She went back to Harlan as soon as she was discharged. She stayed there for a few months but felt things just weren’t the same so she moved back to Newport News where she had made some good friends. There she met my father and I was born in 1952. I have always considered Harlan my second home. We visited my grandparents every summer. I would sometimes go out and spend a month or two with my grandparents and spend some nights with other family members in Harlan and Bell counties. My Mom and grandparents are gone now but I have always continued to visit with relatives in Harlan every summer. The people of Harlan are among the nicest people I have ever met and I have traveled all over the country.
Raised up on Happy Top, Back Street and Creech’s. Happy to be an Outlander!
I’ve often heard that anywhere you go on Earth you can find someone from Harlan county. My best friend (not from Harlan) went to Saudi Arabia as a traveling nurse. I instructed her to be on the lookout for a Harlan countian. She laughed. Each letter she wrote me held the news. ” No one from Harlan “. After 8 weeks or so the letter came with “I found your Harlan countian!!!” What’d I say? 🙂 😉
Good stuff, John. Crackin’ me up. I’m definitely a Harlan County boy. My “people” have been there for over 200 years, since before it was Harlan. It’d be hard to sneeze and not hit a Creech with the spray. ha!
I think we overlapped at Cawood for a year. I’m class of ’83. My Dad taught English there for a long time (Mr. Creech). My Mom was a nurse at the hospital there (where I was born in ’66). I live in Lexington now as well – have since 1990.
My Pappaw Creech was a coal miner, as were most of his brothers. They lived near Dionne along the river there. I grew up in “Browning Acres,” just down the street from both the hospital and Cawood High School. I went for a while to Holy Trinity School, Harlan Elementary for one year, then to Hall before Cawood. I saw a little of all of it.
Lots of memories from Harlan. I am definitely proud of my heritage, both generally mountain/Appalachian and Harlan County in particular. Anyway, thanks again.
– Alan Creech
I remember your father well, especially his hair! He was my English teacher–and a good one at that. My mother grew up in Cumberland and knew tons of Creeches from up that way.
You must’ve been a good student, John. The good ones liked my Dad – if not, oh well. 🙂 His hair was infamous! ha! You should’ve had to breath half a can of hairspray in the morning after he got out of the bathroom. I’m surprised I didn’t end up with some kind of lung disease. Many who knew of “the hair” would be shocked to know he wears it pretty much buzzed these days.
Oh, and that knife fight deal down there: I saw a big one at Hall once, in the yard in front of the school – crazy watching the teachers try to break that one up. And hell, I was taken at knife-point down into the creek at Hall when I was in 6th grade. I got away. I even remember who it was, but let’s let bygones be bygones. ha!
My little brother had a knife pulled on him at Cawood. Ben Joe Harris disarmed the guy so that it would be a fair fight. Your dad was a really good teacher.
http://www.kentuckytourism.com/places_to_stay/holiday-inn-express/73/ just saying
I do think this is good stuff. First time reading it. I can relate to alot of it. Brought back alot of memories.
your a fuckin mooron ive lived here all my life ,my family pioneered this place ,both sides, why arent u still living here? why dont u come back?i know why ,because it is to political and if your not a doctor or a lawyer or have plenty of money ,you aint shit …yeah the mountains are nice and this is a beautiful place, but if you aint in the click you aint shit …and thats the way it really is …you just like the bloody harlan shit and it makes you look “BADASS” to tell people your from here .your a joke dude and quit livin off a place that you evidentally really no nothin about …..post this “DUMBASS” …
Thanks for the kind comments. I don’t believe I’ve ever been called a mooron before.
Ha, Ha. Moo-ron. John I can’t believe you didn’t even mention the “no nothin about.” What do you suppose that would translate into? “No” as in stop, do not, negative, etc and “nothin” slang for nothing – not anything; no single thing; having no prospect of progress; of no value; not at all. So translation you perhaps “do not have no prospect of progress” which would mean you do have prospect of progress….. you are right few have paid you such complements. LOL!
Honestly, I laughed out loud, because it was so venomous. I couldn’t quit reading it.
Just discovered your blog. I am an outlander from Bell County and so enjoyed reading this!
Stumbled across your post. Fun read. I live in Lexington, but always tell people “I’m from Southeastern Kentucky, Knox Co” (not to be confused with just “Eastern KY” or Knott Co.
I remember it seemed like every time my high school played Cawood there was a knife fight. “Bad-ass” wasn’t the first word to come to mind, but I sure didn’t want to mess with those folk!
Also, I find the surest way to know someone is from SEKY is after telling them where I’m from they follow up with, “do you know so-and-so?” I love that.
Girl fights were always the best. My brother actually had a knife pulled on him at Cawood.
Yes, Big_O,, I remember the man you asked about. His name was Arthur Johnson, he was from Cumberland, but lived at
the Ackley Hotel in Harlan until he retired and moved back to Cumberland. Arthur died when his house burned a few yrs ago
Just curious, if you struggled with the inclusion of Whitley county…..what was your rationale for the inclusion of mccreary county? I’ve lived a few places in east ky, but never been to Harlan.
McCreary just has that Eastern Kentucky feel to it.
My parents married in Harlan County in 1949. He was from Leslie, she from Perry. I wonder why they went to Harlan to get married. . .I didn’t think to ask them while they were alive.
Elliott County. My first trial was in Elliott County. Our client was suing the City of Sandy Hook. Took the jury about 5 minutes to find against us, lol.
Delivered babies at ARH back in ’87 while doing my Family Practice residency at UK. I can connect with “outlanders” here in Georgetown by telling them, “I was there the day that McDonald’s opened”…..great times!
I would have loved to have had that McDonalds there when I was kid.
Would I be a pretender? All my mother’s family is from Harlan (Baxter, Big Laurel, Loyall) and my heart is there. We live in McCreary Co now, so still SEKY. I also have no desire to change this wonderful region….am I forgiven? =)
Fantastic post, though. Everything is right on! Pretty accurate for McCreary Co, as well.
McCreary County is definitely East Ky.
I ain’t convinced about mccounty
I first saw the light of day in Oneida, tn because that was the closest hospital & the road l.P. looPwas better
The only tv stations the antenna could pick up were out of knoxville
Most OUTSIDE THE COUNTY shopping, doctors visits, etc were in Tennessee
So, I guess I’m just arguing it is in the wrong state……
The road to lexington did get better tho
We’re originally from Letcher County and had to leave in 1995 due to the coal mines shutdown. We’ve been in the Lexington area since then, but we still say “back home” when we are talking about Neon and Jenkins. We still miss it!
I happened across this blog through a friend. I must say it is a great read. I live across the mountains from Harlan in a little off the map place called Leatherwood in perry county. I have lived here all my life and even tho at times i feel like due to work i may have to leave, i doubt i ever could. My dad and papa were both coal miners for blue diamond mining for years. My great granny and grandpa lived in Harlan when they first married but moved to Leslie county. They were pretty quick to tell you that they were from Harlan. And they were well respected. I ate government cheese as often as we got it. I would make mom break me off a chunk. I have a heavy heavy accent. So much that even some locals have a hard time understanding me. And of that i am very proud. I do not intend to change it now and I am NOT ashamed of it. Well, I have rambled enough. Thanks again for the good read.
My sister in law was born over in Leatherwood. I know that area well. Thanks for the kind words.
John, this is really good stuff! I’m very impressed by your writing. I have always been proud of being from Cawood in Harlan County. I have many relatives there, but I’ve been gone since I graduated from high school in 1979, when my family moved to Corbin. I went to Cumberland College, Austin Peay Univ for my first masters, Trevecca University for my doctorate, second masters, and administrative certification. However, I always tell my two teenagers that some of the smartest people they will ever meet come from the mountains of Kentucky and may have never finished high school! Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I go back once or twice a year to visit relatives. It will always be “home.”
Thanks. I feel the same way, even though my sons say they can’t believe I grew up there!
Loved reading your blog and reminiscing…I was raised in Harlan County – both parents having been from there. I’ve been gone for 20+ years now. Still have a few family members there and many friends. I don’t get back as often as I’d like but always thoroughly enjoy coming back to visit. Nothing like the beauty of a snow covered mountain, springtime with sprinkles of dogwoods and redbud blossoms or the beautiful fall foliage!
Brenda (Ball) Weber
I was born and raised in Floyd County,I always heard my family came out of Harlan or Harlan County over a hundred years ago.I don’t know if there are any STAPLETON family in Harlan anymore,I am proud to be from the HILLS OF KENTUCKY !!
I was born and raised in Harlan County-Cumberland. I visit very often, as my father still lives there. Ironically, my daughter found a boyfriend from Loyal(the ones in Georgetown are apparently not her type) so she visits him a lot. No complaining here though. I love the fact she loves a mountain boy, just like her Momma did:) This is a great article!!
My Mom moved to Cumberland from Pike County when she was 10. She graduated from Cumberland High School. My dad’s cousin J.R. Williams owned a shoe shop (“cobble” shop) in Cumberland. He made shoes.
Moved to Lynch in the summer of 1969. Our football coach , Ed Miracle, was shot in the foot playing golf three weeks later . Welcome to Harlan County!
I lived there 6 years and worked in the mines . Still consider Harlan County as home.
Your ignorant, evidently you don’t much about Catlettsburg in the early 1900’s . Don’t say we are not eastern Kentuckians because we don’t speak your slang, or live the life that people from harlin county do. Just so ya know Boyd County is further east than Harlin!!!!
I have to admit that I enjoy the irony of a sentence like “Your ignorant.”
It’s like the guy who commented that I’m a “fuckin mooron.”
I just can’t get enough of the haters. I am simultaneously entertained and offended. Entertained by the tendency to call you a “mooron” and ignorant while not fully grasping the importance of grammar and spelling. Offended by the possiblility that outsiders will use them to measure the intelligence of my people.
What Mountains besides the one on the border with Virginia, Black Mt.(?)? And—as for the grid: Morehead is east of Middlesboro. Greenup is east of Harlan, Ashland is east of Whitesburg, and if Catlettsburg gets any more east it`s going to be West Virginia, are you seriously arguing with the lat/ and longitude? As for accent and all that, I never noticed having any problems understanding anything anybody said, strange utterances, etc. There are differences: we`re north east, you`re south east. THIS is just funny. And a little c.r.a.z.y.
And of course, I mean that in a funny, “I`m laughing” kind of way. I get the isolation, and the coal mining( although Boyd , Greenup, and a lot of the others have had some minor strip mining now and then.) as differences, real ones, but the rest is a little over stated, like JUSTIFIED, eh? I REMEMBER govt. cheese. My grandfolks, originally from Johnson Ct. lived up at the end of a holler. Oh, well. Are we still allowed to be in Appalachia? LO
LOL , I meant…
I love your blog, it is a great read. I too are from Harlan I left in Jan. 1975. I was born and raised in Sunshine. I left to go to school at EKU, meet my wife there, she is from Ohio. We have live all over Eastern Ky, moved south to the Carolinas, then back to eastern Ky for a couple years. Lived in Hazard then, after Hazard we came to Ohio. I have been gone from Harlan now for 40 years, One thing I will say is you are accurate in your writings of Harlan. God do I ever remember the Government Cheese and all the other free food provided by the gov. We were poor and I will say very poor. Oh the cheese made the best grilled cheese, My wife from Ohio and my 2 children even loved it. I was able to buy it when we lived in the Corbin area for $20 a box. So my family got to enjoy it even tho they never lived in Harlan. I will say Harlan is a great place to be from, I would not want to raise my kids there because of all the struggles I went through, and all the people I knew while growing up there. I wanted more for my kids and wife. I thought Harlan was great as a kid but my wife told me if I ever wanted a divorce all I had to do was move here to Harlan. Glad I did not move here and my kids there, My children have been able to say they are from Eastern Ky as both were born down there. I have been gone for 40 years I still have my Harlan Co accent and the kids have lost their Eastern Ky accent. Everywhere I go here in Ohio I run into people from Harlan or people who have relatives from there and some still living there.
Thanks for the reads I have read most of your blogs. Keep writing as I do enjoy it. Again I will say Harlan is a great place to be from but I would not want to live there today.
Thanks! Life in the mountains is easy or hard–very little in between. Today, there’s not much there for anyone, unfortunately. The economy continues to contract and isn’t likely to get much better. They deal with a drug problem that I can’t imagine. Like you, I loved growing up there but couldn’t see myself living there now. It’s nice to remember, though.
Used to go to Cumblin every Fride and satdy nite. The Fuzzy Duck, the Corner and the VFW. After hours we would head to the American Legion behind the Post Office. Like to have all the money I spent in those places back!
I didn’t like a lot of your article, some of it is accurate. But you also are basically running down the place you were born. First, there is a Holiday Express in Harlan, and a few other places to stay if you want to visit our town and county. Next, everyone is not here because we can’t “escape”. I live here because I truly love this beautiful part of Kentucky and America. I was born in Atlanta and moved here when my step-daddy (forevermore referred to as “daddy) and my momma met when he was proudly serving this country.He a handsome young man from the mountains–she a beautiful divorced young woman with two small children. She would forever remain his “Georgia Peach”. We moved here from a comfortable city life to having no electricity (a new three bedroom house with one bath and hardwood floors. Construction on the house beat the power company by a few years. We also had to carry our water from a water-pump in buckets, so the new bathroom was a good conversation subject with its only use was the bathtub that we would heat water to bathe in. And we DID bathe just like people from “up north”. My momma cooked on a coal fired cookstove. To her credit this pretty “city girl” took these inconveniences in her stride and made this mountain man a very good wife. They had four children..and not once did he ever treat me nor my older brother like “step-chilldren”. Never making any differences in us. My brother and I thought we had died and gone to Heaven. A bazillion of cousins to play with..mountains to explore..farm animals to learn about, a total difference than city life on a quiet street just across from Fort McPherson Army Base. I grew up in this wonderful town, going for summers and Christmas’ in Atlanta. Also attended and graduated from Loyall High, where I was cheerleader and fairly popular. I was even sent back to Atlanta to attend Agnus Scott College, and didn’t stay because I actually missed my family AND Harlan County. While my friends and fellow graduates were leaving here, I was happy to stay in a place I loved. I went to Business College, married my daddy’s cousin (you had to know that was coming didn’t you). You do remember he is my step-daddy?? We had a wonderful daughter and divorced when she was nine. Eastern Ky is not privvy to divorce is it?? She married a coal miner who also was educated and chose that life. They had two fabulous sons who have college education with degrees in medical field and other fields. Daughter has owned her own business in Harlan for thirty years. I have three amazing great-grandbabies. We drive Chryslers, BMW’s, Honda Van, Subaru sports car, Chevy pick-up, Harley’s, Hondas, Yamaha V-star’s-4-wheelers. Vacation at Hilton Head, Tybee Island, Myrtle Beach, Hawaii, have an American Spirit Coachman that sleeps ten and a pontoon. So you see, all of this rambling I have just done is to state the obvious because you have made us sound like we are backwoods, unlearned, in-bred no accounts. The obvious being…we are just like you and every one else. There are a lot of Harlan Countians that are very happy to be called just that. Oh yeah, one last thing…I am a coal miner’s daughter…..and damned proud of it.
I appreciate your comments but must, of course, defend myself. First, much of what I wrote is tongue in cheek. Second, my parents lived in Harlan County their entire lives, as have aunts, uncles, cousins and many of my closest friends. I suggest you search my blog for my many other posts about life in Harlan County. This one in particular may be of interest–https://thetrivialtroll.com/2013/07/13/hometown-loyall-ty/
I believe you will see that I have great affection for Harlan, much more than many of the people who still live there. I’ve also been criticized for making Eastern Kentucky sound too good–and that came from a guy who lives there!
Holmes mill was actually named after my family. It used to be called Klondike many years ago. My great grandpa ran a mill there. His name was Wiley Holmes. The name of the area now came to be because the truckers that hauled from the mill just refrerred to it as Holmes’ Mill!
Enjoyed reading your blog. I’m one of those that left for work but I have a brother who still lives there and I occasionally visit. Dickens said it best . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . The experiences never leave me about growing up poor and the shame and humiliation that I felt as a child. This has been the driver to be obsessive about work and a career. I am so grateful to the educators in Harlan who worked so diligently to open our minds, expand our thinking and develop our talents especially in music. I am also thankful for the brief time that I knew my grandmother on Turner Hill who taught me how to grow strawberries, to make jelly, string shuck beans, quilt, crochet. She was a great homemaker and was full of wit, wisdom and love.
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit but my parents were from Harlan County, my dad born in Holmes Mill growing up in Highsplint, my mother born and raised in Black Mountain eventually leaving and lived in Corbin. Both my Grandfathers worked in the mines their younger years and I still have a 1st cousin working the mines. I still have a lot of family living in Harlan, Evarts, going all the way to Holmes Mill (Alias. The “Short ” area), my last name being “Short”
I spent at least a week during the summer vacation every year growing up visiting the Harlan area and family enjoying every visit which included rail road tracks and slate dumps on one side of house and the Cumberland River on the other side all residing in a big holler off HWY 38. Being 60yrs old now, I am very proud of my ancestors and family heritage.
I know that area well. My dad grew up in Evarts. I have a 94 year old aunt who still lives there.
I JUST RAN ACROSS YOUR CONVERSATION AND THOUGHT I WOULD COMMENT ON HARLAN KY. I WAS BORN AND RAISED IN HARLAN,CO. SOMEONE MENTIONED SMITH. I KNOW A LOT OF REALLY GOOD PEOPLE AT CAWOOD AND SMITH, KY. I USE TO WORK IN THE COAL MINE AT THREE POINT, CRANKS AND HARLAN. IM RETIRED AND LIVE IN TN NOW BUT I GO BACK TO HARLAN ONCE OR TWICE A MONTH. HARLAN WILL ALWAYS BE HOME TO ME. ITS GOOD TO HEAR FROM OTHER HARLAN CO PEOPLE. I DO HAVE A QUESTION FOR YOU ALL, DO ANY OF YOU REMEMBER A LITTLE BLIND MAN THAT USE TO SELL NEWS PAPERS IN THE LOBBY OF THE HARLAN HOSPITAL? GOD BLESS YOU ALL. .
Good to hear from you. I knew a bunch of Napiers (“Napper”). You’re probably thinking of Arthur Johnson. He died in a house fire a few years ago. He tell the difference between bills by touch.
Just found your blog while attempting to refresh my memory about the name of the theater, the Margie Grand, in Harlan. I was born and raised in Leslie County. When attempting to explain to someone where I grew up it was easiest to say “somewhere between Harlan and Hazard.” I actually grew up on Beech Fork in Leslie County. I have resided in Knoxville, TN for 26 years but Eastern Kentucky will always be home because that is where my extended family and my husband’s extended family continue to reside. Imagine trying to explain where Cutshin is located!! That is where my husband grew up. Both our families are made up of longtime coal miners and school teachers. My husband and I are the “black sheep” as I am an attorney and my husband is an accountant. I must admit, however, that we have had few issues adjusting to Tennessee except for the color orange. I plan to continue reading your blog. I will never be ashamed of where I grew up. The hills and hollers made me who I am today and the people I love still call Eastern Kentucky home. And so do I.
I know all those places. I still get over through there for work sometimes.
my growing up years were behind the old telephone company next to Robinette Chevrolet which was across from the old Macks Supper Market and down the street from Hackney’s. Any of that sound familiar…
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I stumbled across your blog and enjoyed much. I was rather disappointed to read all about my competition Garys Lounge. I owned a genteel little social club called “THE CLIFFHANGER” up on pine mountain, and had some of the finest folks i ever knew as customers, although mostly they considered the Garys crowd a little on the gentler side. In fairness, many went to both joints. I am now in Knoxville tn, happy as a proud old grandpa can be, and thankful the good Lord saw fit to bring me through times i cant tell about. I dont need tattoos, i have scars. Most of my old mean crowd are dead. Not many folks have a clue of my history, and thats fine. Congrats on a good job describing a little bit of what most folks cant imagine happened. Oh, i think these shows are a joke, they couldnt do the truth,,, thank you, Lane
Hey, I actually remember the Cliff Hanger (by reputation only), but it was not for my younger crowd. I definitely would NOT have fit in. Thanks for your comments.
Bell county baby.We got the mountains here too.
There is no Holiday Inn Express in Harlan. The motel next to Holy Trinity was a Holiday Inn Express at one time, but now it’s a Comfort Inn. It was a Best Western when it was first built. The other motel in Browning Acres is Mount Aire Motel. It was originally the Bays Motel. The original Mount Aire Motel was on Pine Mountain, and it burned down in the 70s. I’m pretty sure Lane’s Cliffhanger was in the old Mount Aire building. The old structure is still up there on Pine Mountain. You can see it in Google Street Views here: https://goo.gl/maps/QoyKa
Hey my cousin owned the fuzzy duck my papa had a poker house there and boot legged beer iwas raised in the first house coming down black mountain love it go back all the time
Right before you get to lynch golf course coming down black mtn there was a house to the right my great great grand pa had a saw mill there and built the house where my great grand pa lived then my mama got it love it there if I ever hit the lottery ill be back to live and put alot of people to work I love the mtns go there every christmas and summers thanks for the memories cool blog sorry for the grammer lol periods commas all the same to me it
What happened to Basil Collins in the end? What did he end up doing after the strikes? What year, and how did he die (or is he still alive)?
He worked at Eastover for several years after the strike until Duke closed the mines. I don’t know exactly when died, but it was sometime in the 1980s.
I loved reading your blog and all, or at least most of the comments! My cousin posted the link on Facebook and I have not been able to move till finishing the read. I grew up in Sunshine, graduated from Harlan High School in 1972 and after going to Southeast and U.K., headed to California. I was in Harlan last October, visiting my aunt that still lives there and yes, my sister and I had a lovely stay at the Comfort Inn! Harlan is not what it used to be and I would never want to live there again, but your blog awakened the beautiful memory of what it was. Even though life was very hard at times, it was filled with family and friends and it’s been fun thinking about them this morning. My friends still tell me “you can take the girl out of Eastern Kentucky, but you can’t take the Eastern Kentucky out of the girl”. They don’t say that because of my accent, since I only have one when I go back there. They say that when they see I use Scotch Tape, staples or safety pins to fix a hem in a pair of pants.
They find it hard to believe we had no fast food restaurants. We hung out at Denny Ray’s, Ken’s and I can’t remember the drive in on the road to Loyall?? Remember all the men that used to hang out around the courthouse, sitting on the little wall? My dad was one of them, outside Tommy Lee’s barbershop. My mom grew up in Cutshin, my dad was from Martin’s Fork, they met at The Court Cafe.
Basil Collins was Uncle Basil to us. He was actually the son of my aunt’s husband, so that technically makes him a cousin, but age-wise he was more of my dad’s generation so that made him an uncle. I lived through that strike, my dad was in charge of security for Eastover, so I guess that made him the head gun thug to many. To the men that worked at the Highsplint mine, where the majority of filming took place for the documentary, he was the one responsible for making sure Basil and his men got through to work every day. My dad was certainly a bad ass, growing up in a time and place that required that to survive. He died in 1978, I don’t remember the year Basil died, but early 1980’s is right. When I first saw the documentary, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how my dad would be portrayed, but his name was never mentioned. One of the women told her story about him telling her about the gun he had on the seat next to him, under a rag and that if she brought that stick down on his car, he would use it. We knew who it was, because he told my mom about the encounter, but he was quietly scary, like a lot of the men from his era.
I didn’t mean to turn my comment into a mini blog, but you inspired the flood of memories! Thanks again for the trip back to the Harlan of my youth!
Mike’s Drive In was in Loyall. I guarantee you that my Dad knew your father. Dad was a good friend of Norman Yarborough’s. He used to go visit with Norman during the strike. I made the mistake of posting a picture of Basil on a Harlan County Facebook page. I got cussed up and down over it! I just said, hey, he was my neighbor. We liked him!
I’m sure they knew each other. Norman was good to my dad, especially during my dad’s troubles with alcohol – yet another commonality of that age. If you were Basil’s neighbor, then you lived in Rio Vista, right? My great aunt Alafair lived there till she died and her beauty shop was still there, run by one of daughters the last time I was there.
Good old Mike’s drive in, where one of Harlan County’s finest young men threatened me with a belt when I stepped in to defend a younger friend. One of the only times I “used” my dad’s reputation, telling the guy to go ahead but it was going to be his last night on Earth, because if I didn’t kill him, my dad would. I guess this was one of many reasons my dad thought California was a good choice for me. He told me if I stayed there I would either be an alcoholic, like him to survive, or I would end up dead.
You probably know others of my family, like my sister Lisa, that worked at the Enterprise for years and now works for Corrections and lives in Georgetown; or my cousins that went to James A.Cawood, Ruth Ann and Gary Cox.
You’ve made me think about Harlan all day today and it’s been a good day.
I lived in Rio Vista until I was 12. Then we moved up on Park Hill in Loyall. I knew Lisa vaguely. We’re about the same age. I’m on the state Corrections Commission, so I’ve seen her name. I remember Alafair. We knew Jimmy Meeks very well. Dad used have him mow for us sometimes. Look at my blog post Adventures in Hitchhiking, and you’ll see a story about JImmy picking me up hitchhiking one night. Ruth Ann was my older brother’s age. I think they graduated in the same class at Cawood.
Help me out with what category to look at to fi the hitchhiking story.
here’s the link:
Never mind. I found the search function and found the story. It captured the essence of Jimmy.
Born and raised as you said in Lynch… You pretty much hit the nail on the head.. great write-up. Proud to be from Harlan County..
man now i’m so homesick!! i bet you knew my father in law – he worked at the loyall store and was the fire chief for a number of years. art halcomb. he passed away in 2013. his wife, jan, passed back in february of this year. preston and i have lived here in lexington since 1999. bu i consider loyall and that little house my adopted home. it’s more home to me than anywhere ever will be.
I knew your father-in-law, and mother-in-law. I worked with them both at Harlan Appalachian Regional Hospital in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s. Janice and I were both switchboard operators and admissions clerk. Art worked in one of the maintenance departments (can’t remember which one). They were both sweet, kind, honest, decent people. I also would talk to Art at the store in Loyall, where I would stop to get gas. We always found lots of mutual interest things to gab about. I rarely saw Janice after I left the hospital,
but was always glad to talk to her by phone. I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to keep in closer touch with them both as we grew older.
Pat – your name seems familiar. I bet I heard them talking about you. Jan had so many stories about the hospital. 🙂
John you are a very talented writer!!!!
Thank you, Mrs. Unthank!!
I absolutely LOVE this! I, too, am from Harlan – an outlander like yourself, and I was left laughing and shaking my head at all the things only people like us would know to be true 🙂 I would love to include a link to this in my own blog, but I don’t yet know how to do it, lol. I am VERY new to the blogging world. Anyway, I just had to leave a note. Thank you.
loved this. I was born and raised in Harlan County, from Jones Creek, graduated from Evarts High. I live in Texas but will always be a Harlan Co Ky girl.
I go back to Ky at least once a year. We were just there in July , I love going back to visit. We meet in Williamsburg, but I love going back to the Creek. Still have family there.
My mother taught at Evarts for many years.
I had Mrs. Williams for health, would it be your Mom?
Yes. She taught Home Ec, but also taught other classes. She retired in 1982.
My mom was from Lynch and my dad from Without. My older brother and sister were both born at Lynch Hospital. Parents moved to Dayton, OH in 63. My younger brother and I were born and raised in Dayton. We often visited Harlan as most of our relatives were there. I do not claim to be from there so I am not in any of your groups. Thanks for the article.
Great article!! Born and raised in Harlan, graduated from HHS in 1974, and UK in 78….went to work in Washington DC….talk about culture shock! They didn’t know what to do with me! Grew up in Sunny Acres, now across from the “mall.” My grandfather was the engineer that laid out most of the old County roads, was one of the 10 founders of the Harlan Country Club, and my dad owned the Tway Tipple for years…yes, coal will always run in my veins! No matter where I’ve traveled in this great country, I never fail to meet someone that is either from Harlan, or knows someone that lives there!! I feel blessed to have grown up in Harlan, at a time when people actually cared about each other, and would not trade it for anything!! Sally Simonton
I’m sure my dad knew your father
You hit home with many of your comments being born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, Sandy Hook, Elliott County to be exact. Eastern Kentucky isn’t for everybody, it isn’t even for a lot of the people who live here their whole life. It has always been home for me.
I love your article! I am a Harlan Countian, born in Harlan at the “old hospital” as they call it. I was raised in Wallins Creek and Cumberland by my Mamaw as a child. I graduated from Cumberland High School in 1975. I left a long time ago and went back to live there once for a few years. It will always be “home” to me. I’m proud of where I’m from and yes my Daddy was a coal miner for a time. By the way, Cumberland had the Novo Theater and the drive-in theater as well. Lynch had a skating rink when I was a teenager. Also as a child there was a Ski Lodge and slopes on Black Mountain.
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Loyall kid here…loved finding this. Very funny (and true)
I was born in Harlan County, Louellen specifically, but moved away when I was little due to my dad being in the Navy. I was born in my grandmothers house, in those days hospitals were few and far between. In response to your statement about “pretenders”, I personally feel I’m still a Harlan resident at heart even though I don’t live there and don’t visit very often. My roots and my heart are there and for me that’s important. In talking about monthly checks, I can remember visiting my family in Louellen, a coal mining camp in those days, and going down to the the company store and watching people get their cheese in blocks and their commodity meat which was actually spam. That brings back fond memories.
myname isronnie saylor i lived in fairview hollow i was 11 years old,went to haran grade school i remenber my gym treacher they call him doc , he would paddle you for saying the word shit ,does anyone remenber that .i will never forget the family that live accross from us the kids name was buck and peggy thomas,peggy was my frist she was beauitful to,the boys lived next to me , i remender one of thems name phiplip,i still got a scarefrom where he hit me with a rock.we used to take car hoods cut them off and float down rivier on them.my dad work out of town in ohio,my mommy would slip around with a taxi driver,she drink alot ,we move to wallins after that , thats where i never went to school,started working in coal mines at 16 years old dad sign so i could work under ground.we lived in wallins for a little while then move to molus ky thats where my dad was risedthey were about all kin florks back then they all live in camp houses granmam and jack brock lived next to each other they were family to, i remenber my brother got lock in a rc cola mach out on granmam poach. jack brock ha d 21 dogs and 21 kids, he got kill by a drunk man he was taking home that was about like the earth quake in los ang years ago it was bad , for those who know my grandpa honey bill saylor and my dad and my friend big al ,arnold lee saylor he was a damn good man i miss alot cause he is in all my boys alot i see him every day yours trunly ronnie gene saylor of molus ky aka molus hollow.
Doc Gray? I had him for a health class. If he called on you and you missed the question—BOOM! Paddling.
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I lived in Cumberland for 2 years from ~ 1974-1976. My Mom taught at SE Community College. I was about 11-12 and I remember we played outside constantly. We hiked deep into the woods for good sled trails in the winter. In the summer a friends Dad (The Blantons) would take us up the river in his pickup and we’d spend the day floating back in rafts in the summer or we’d spend all day at the city pool. We went to the movies most weekends and to every football and basketball game. Tons of great memories and good friends. Not a native but my ears always perk up when I hear Harlan. Loved Justified.
Rich Montjoy, I am replying to your post because you didn’t say anything bad about Harlan, (Harlan County), Ky. I can’t read some of these posts because of the negative way they talk about MY hometown. It is my hometown by choice….I love it, I retired from Ky Dept of Trans (engineering). I raised my daughter here…BTW she has owned a successful swimming pool and fence company here for 35 yrs. Both my grandsons have degrees in med profession PT and Massage Therapy. I am origionally from Atlanta. My much loved step daddy moved us to his hometown after he was discharged from the Army. I grew up here, went to school here and am still here by choice. One person wrote that people visiting here didn’t have hotels or anywhere to stay unless they stayed with family. He evidently hasn’t been to Harlan lately. In reference to going swimming in the river and the city pool, we did that too. But today, thanks to my daughter and another pool company, there are more privately owned pools at homes, per average, than in Fayette County (Lexington). Therefore, the kids of this county today only have to step out they’re door and into a pool. I feel like they are missing something that we experienced, but so is life. BTW until barrack obama declared war on our coal mines,…a fact, there were more millionaires in Harlan, Pike,Perry Counties, per capita than in our largest cities. It is a tragedy what Black Jewell Coal company has done to honest, hard working coal
miners in this county AND other states. I guess you can tell by my rant that I CANNOT stand anyone putting this beautiful part of God’s earth down. And to the ones that moved away (say to the north) or wherever, it shows very little respect and class to put down the place you came from. How do we know they don’t live in a ghetto. After all no one I know would go north of the Ky border to see. Thanks for letting me rant.
I’m an outlander, living in Pulaski County. Btw, the Mount Victory part of this county feels very Eastern KY. Just found the blog and enjoyed it. My maternal grandparents grew up in Black Star coal camp and Papaw taught at Hall High. I spent a lot of hours and burned up a lot of powder and boot leather grouse hunting in Pathfork and Black Star. I try to go back a couple times a year, for nostalgia as much as bagging those elusive, scarce birds. Nobody has ever even looked at me sideways up there; they’ve always treated me well. Maybe it’s the camo/orange. I’ve been trying to read up on as much as I can on the people in the documentary. I’d love to learn more about the people, especially on the other side of the strike. I need a shirt like that.
My grandad lived and mined Stone Ky, in Pike County. My dad spent much of childhood there in the 30s. When he grew up, he moved west to Colorado and became a hard rock miner for the next 40 years. The culture you describe in Harlan is very similar to Leadville-only the accents are different-except for my dad–he never lost his.
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My parents (James Depew & Thelma Randolph) grew up in Harlan in the late 20’s-30’s My Grandfather was Bill Randolph, one time police chief, Constable and apparently gun thug for the man. My parents didn’t ever say much about their lives or or about my Grandfather’s as both of them met violent deaths back then. Being a descendant of such a controversial character of those times I may be asking for a social beating on here. It has been both fascinating and sad as well to learn so much about the history, struggles, strength and resilience of the Harlan countians.
To add to my previous comment above, my other Grandfather was Elijah Depew (nicknamed Lidge? He had a taxi service called “ Do me right” He was found on the side of the mountain with many bullets in him and his taxi. I never got a straight story from my parents and possibly they didn’t know why or what happened. I guess I’ve waited too many years to ask, but it would be nice if someone knew of him or my other Grandfather Bill Randolph.