Sunday, November 29, 2015
Where Rock Fork Used To Be--My Favorite Places In Appalachia
At Garrett, KY, which is actually in Floyd County, you will find the mouth of Rock Fork Creek most of which lies in Knott County. Actually most of what used to be Rock Fork Creek lies in Knott County Kentucky. In my childhood and youth, Rock Fork Creek was a small creek about five or six miles long which wound away from Garrett, crossed the Knott County line and ended on one of the highest ridges in Knott County lying up against the area that my good friend, Kentucky poet Albert Stewart knew and loved as The Kingdom of Yellow Mountain. But in the 1970's, the Kentucky Department of Highways decided to convert Kentucky Route 80, a serpentine two lane road, into a four lane highway between Prestonsburg, the county seat of Floyd County, and Hindman, the county seat of Knott County. Nearly no one who lived in the areas affected wanted to see the road expanded except a few business people and coal operators. Albert Stewart fought valiantly to stop the road but lost. It demolished nearly all of Rock Fork that was meaningful and paved it over with only a few house sites and ridges left of what had been one of the most beautiful little creeks in Appalachia. In many ways, this is a story about road construction which can be told of hundreds of little creeks in the mountains. But the destruction of Rock Fork and Yellow Mountain was personal to Al Stewart, most of residents of Rock Fork, and to me.
Rock Fork is and will always be in my memories and my heart. It is also literally in my DNA. My great grandfather, Hence Hicks is buried in the Chaffins Family Cemetery beside the Rock Fork Freewill Baptist Church which survived the highway destruction. Hence Hicks's grave, and those of several other members of my family, are not far from the hillsides where Hence Hicks scratched out with a hoe the $4,100 for which he was murdered in a cornfield in 1935. My maternal grandfather, Woots Hicks, was born and raised on Rock Fork and so was my mother, Mellie Hicks. Somewhere on Rock Fork, lost to the sands of time, are the graves of an aunt and uncle who died in childhood. Their sandstone markers are long gone. Probably only dust remains of their bodies. Rock Fork Creek is literally in my DNA.
In my misspent youth, I became quite close to several people my own age who grew up and lived on Rock Fork. Several of us were then and still are proud to have been among the first hippies in Eastern Kentucky. We spent time together, sometimes partied together, railed against injustice together, and formed opinions which still direct our lives today. Two of the young men who were in that group were Avery Chaffins and Snap Conley who both died in a car wreck at the Mouth of Stone Coal Creek about a mile from the Mouth of Rock Fork Creek as they were returning late one night from a trip to Vicco in Perry County, the closest wet county at the time. The last time I ever saw Snap Conley alive was within sight of the Rock Fork Freewill Baptist Church where their funeral was held. They are buried in a little joint Chaffins & Conley Family Cemetery on Rock Fork which the two families began upon their deaths along the line fence of the two little family farms. During the youth service which was held in the church, with their caskets sitting end to end in front, I sat with Maude Chaffins, the mother of the Chaffins boys who were a part of that group of young hippies. Maude Chaffins often comes to my mind because she went out of her way to take care of many of us not just her own children. If you were able to keep your mouth shut and sleep it off, when you made it to Maude's house you knew you were safe for the night.
Maude had a habit of not always wearing her dentures and leaving them in a coffee cup of Clorox water on the back of her stove. Snap Conley had a habit of eating and drinking anything he could get his hands on and, since he grew up next door, was always in and out of the Chaffins house. Many of us will never forget the time he reflexively grabbed the cup holding Maude's dentures and drank Clorox water from it thinking it was coffee or some other edible drink.
Rock Fork Creek was destroyed by the highway but still technically remains with the four lane highway cutting its way up the entire creek to the ridge into Yellow Mountain. Only the mountains on the sides of the creek and a few house sites on level ground remain of the Rock Fork that used to be. But for those of us who lived some portion of our lives there, Rock Fork Creek will forever be in our hearts and minds. Rock Fork Creek is literally in my DNA.