|Wayland Post Office (formerly a bank)|
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Kentucky Route 7--My Favorite Places In Appalachia
Kentucky Route 7
After having spent a major portion of my life somewhere along the winding road which runs from Jeff in Perry County in Southeastern Kentucky to South Shore in Greenup County in Northeastern Kentucky near the shores of the Ohio River and the northern edge of Appalachia, I have a great deal of attachment to Kentucky Route 7 and many spots along its serpentine route. I was born at the old Lackey Hospital just across the Knott County/Floyd County line about a quarter mile from Route 7. On the day my parents took me home from the hospital, they turned right after crossing the railroad and onto Route 7 and went through Estill, Glow, and Wayland, on the way home to Steele's Creek about two miles from Route 7. We lived there until I was 6 and, although I do not remember much about it, I am sure most of the trips I took in those first years of my life were up and down Route 7. When I was 6, they took me on another trip up Route 7, across the Knott County line at the mouth of Caney Creek, to my home for the next 14 years in a country store they had built on the edge of Route 7 at Dema.
Following the deaths of my parents when I was 18 and 20, I left the area and only came back sporadically to visit until I moved to White Oak in Morgan County in December of 1992. The home I own there sits about 100 yards from Route 7 at the mouth of Big Spring Branch where it enters White Oak Creek. For the past 19 years, I have been able to look out my front windows onto more than a mile of Route 7 where it winds down White Oak Creek toward the Licking River and West Liberty. I have lived 39 of my 60 years up and down Route 7. I have driven thousands of miles on its winding tracks literally from end to end. I spent more than three years working in Magoffin County and regularly drove up and down the 38 miles of the road in that county. I walked up and down Route 7 for 7 years while I was in grade school going both to and from school by foot. I used to visit foster care homes, located on or near Route 7, in Carter and Greenup Counties on a regular basis. I attended the inaugural summer of Upward Bound at the old Stewart Robinson Campus at Blackey on Route 7 in Letcher County. Route 7 is literally in my blood, bones, intellect, culture, and DNA.
I have seen many things along Route 7 which I did not like. But I have never seen a mile of the road that I do not like. Route 7 is as much a part of Kentucky and Appalachia as any other highway in the region. I have travelled many of those other highways and have varying degrees of love or appreciation for them. They include US 23, WV 10, US 119, US 52, US 421, KY11, US 60, US 460, KY30, and lot of other roads all over Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, North Georgia, and Northeast Alabama. But none of them have the deep seated hold on my heart which Route 7 will hold until the day I die. It is highly likely that when I die the hearse will carry me on one last trip up or down Route 7. Route 7 was the first road that led many of my family and friends out of Appalachia to the industrial north or life in the military. It has also been the road which has begun to lead many of them back home after long lives and careers in places they did not enjoy nearly as much as the hills surrounding Route 7.
I have had an idea for several years to attempt a collection of short stories to be titled "Route 7 Stories". A few of those stories have been written and many more remain to be completed before that idea can become a reality. Most of those stories will be rooted in or simply retelling of events I have either seen or heard of along Route 7. I have seen and heard these stories in country stores, city halls, funeral homes, doctors offices, court houses, churches, flea markets, auction barns, homes, graveyards, water holes, cow pastures, and corn fields all up and down Route 7 all the way from Jeff to South Shore. They involve drunkards, preachers, liars, thieves, undertakers, law men, outlaws, teachers, social workers, public officials, judges, mothers, fathers, sex offenders, murderers, foster children, and dozens of other people, horses, mules, cows, cats, and stray dogs who lived at least part of their lives on Route 7. And I have not found much difference between any of the protagonists whether they be man or beast.
I have not spent a great deal of time on the road in Perry County but I have driven every mile of it north to south at least a few times. Perry County used to be the source of legal alcohol for most of the bootleggers in Eastern Kentucky since it was, for many years, the only wet county in the region. Small time bootleggers in several Eastern Kentucky counties would often drive over sections of Route 7 to transport their alcohol home from Hazard and Vicco in Perry County.
I went to Letcher County for the initial summer of the Upward Bound Program which was held on the Stewart Robinson Campus at Blackey. For 8 weeks, I would leave home on Sunday afternoon with a school mate and his parents who hauled me to Blackey since my parents did not drive. After staying the week, we would get picked up on Friday afternoon and wind our way from Blackey to Dean and across the Knott County line to the head of Beaver Creek on our way home. I learned a little about Letcher County during that summer. I also went to a dentist, payed for by Upward Bound, in Whitesburg to have my teeth pulled and a set of "store bought" teeth made. On one of those trips, I was actually taken along by a bootlegger who went on to Virginia for a load of whiskey while I was in the dentist's office. I also spent a night or two over the years at the Carcassone community center at square dances. Sometime during that period, I remember hearing of a terrible wreck on Route 7 in Letcher County which killed several high school students when they missed a bridge. I also remember the old dairy bar at Dean and the Dean stockyards where my father and a friend of his used to take me now and then.
I learned many things in Knott County on the 20 miles or so of Route 7 on Beaver Creek. I fished, gigged, and swam several miles of the creek and walked several miles of the road with my two cousins (more like brothers) Johnny and Jack Terry. It was also common for teenage boys in those days to make car top boats and pole up and down the few semi-navigable stretches of the creek. You needed to find a junked car from the thirties or forties which had the best rounded tops, cut off the top, and float the open stretches of water. I also remember the incident when Dickie Layne died by diving in a hole of water which was too shallow at the mouth of Patton on Right Beaver not far from where Viola Handshoe bootlegged for many years. My cousins and I covered Route 7 from about Kite to Garrett while we were growing up. I remember several incidents from riding the Kerns Bread Truck with Harold Purkey, Jr. in summer. I learned a great deal during those years on Route 7.
I also spent a great deal of time on the Floyd County section of Route 7 from the Knott County line to Garrett. We almost never ventured on the remaining few miles from Garrett to the Magoffin County line up Salt Lick because it had a reputation for being too dangerous due to several well known miscreants who lived in that area. Yet for several years my half-sister Lucy Hicks Moore and her family lived on Salt Lick and today they still own that land. More recently, my cousin Jack Terry lived on Salt Lick for a few years. That section of road in Floyd County held the old Wayland Fountain; the little gas station at Wayland where Marion Ed Moore died of a heart attack in his twenties; the Wayland jail which has since been a fruit market for a while; the Wayland Post Office which used to be a bank in which my father lost his life savings in October of 1929; the Green Bradley Curve where Elmer Morrison once wrecked his flat bed truck, Bloomer Curve where a notorious local alcoholic always seemed to drive in the creek and a tanker truck driver once died due to a Halloween prank gone wrong; the original Dema post office run by John Barney for many years; the Estill Livestock yards where I also went with my father; Marlon Combs' 5 & 10 where I bought comic books; the curve entering Garrett where my close friends Avery Chaffins and Snap Conley died way too young in a wreck; the offices of Doctors Dempsey and Wicker where my parents took me for a penicillin shot when I was down with flu, croup, or whatever seasonal ailment was prevalent at the time. Just off Route 7 near Garrett, where Rock Fork used to be before Route 80 destroyed the whole hollow, is the grave of my great-grandfather Hence Hicks who was murdered in a corn field because he had $4,100 in his hatband in 1935. That was a massive fortune in the Great Depression. The Floyd County Times stories from the time say that he had accumulated the money "through a life of hard work and frugality". That is not bad for a poor hillside farmer. That section of road holds hundreds of memories every time I drive it.
So does the 38 mile stretch in Magoffin County which runs from the top of the mountain where Salt Lick heads up against the Licking River to the head of Bloomington Branch at the Morgan County line near the home of my neighbor Willie Isaac. The memories in Magoffin County accumulated in a much shorter time frame than those in Floyd and Knott County. I worked there for more than three years for Social Services doing abuse and neglect investigations and managing ongoing cases. What I learned from most of those experiences is that most clients of that system are no worse than the judges, attorneys, and social workers who work with them. They may be less well off, less educated, and less fortunate. But they are no less human and many of them are fine individuals.
That stretch of road goes past Gunlock, Royalton, Salyersville, Lakeville, Elk Creek, Elsie, and Bloomington. At Royalton, it passes the old location of an auction which used to take place in my childhood. I remember hearing people in Knott County, less than 30 miles away, talk about going "way down on Licking River" as they were leaving for the auction.
The memories in the Morgan County section of Route 7 have accumulated over the past 19 years as I have lived here and gradually gotten to know the people around me. Beginning near Willie Isaac's house where Big Spring Branch heads up against Bloomington Branch, Route 7 wends its way through White Oak, Cottle, West Liberty, Wrigley, Little Sandy, and on to Sandy Hook in Elliott County. Morgan County marks the real end of the mountains and the beginnings of the rolling hills leading to the Ohio River. Tobacco used to be a leading source of income for small farmers. Now it is nearly all gone with the end of the price support system. A few small patches still get planted and cut. But most of the former tobacco farmers have moved on to other crops or just quit growing anything for sale.
I do not know the Elliott County section of Route 7 nearly as well as I know the rest. But sometimes I will drive that way to visit my cousin Jack who owns a farm near Blaine in Lawrence County. I like the overland route instead of the simpler way through Salyersville and Paintsville on 4 lane roads. Until the Little Sandy prison was built, Sandy Hook managed to do a pretty good job of remaining a small, quiet, country, courthouse town. Now it has grown and traffic is more prevalent. Progress is not always a good thing.
Although I have made several trips over the route from Sandy Hook to South Shore, I also have not spent nearly as much time there as I have on the southern end of the highway. Much of that is the country that Jesse Stuart wrote about in his many books. It is more affected by the proximity of I64 and Ashland. But it clings to the edge of Appalachia and often manages to manifest the characteristics which are more common among the mountain communities with which I am more familiar. It is also often the country that Tom T. Hall and Don Rigsby have written about in song.
Route 7 is a wonderful way to spend one day or several. For those of you who live somewhere along the route, it can be productive to spend a day or two off the bigger highways and take a trip or two from home in each direction to see what is left from better times. For those of you who do not know Kentucky Route 7, it can be a wonderful way to gradually immerse yourself in Appalachian culture. Begin at South Shore and drive slowly along the road. Stop at spots you like. Take a few pictures. Listen to a few stories in the remaining road side restaurants and stores. Read tombstones in some of the graveyards along the road. It can be a great way to grow closer to Appalachia.