Home Sweet Home

"Home Sweet Home" in coal camp company housing consisting of unpainted clap board siding with no insullation, no underpinning and limited roofing.  Holes in the walls allowed insects in during the summer and snow in the winter. Some coal companies provided electricity to their coal camps. Others did not see the introduction of electricity until the late 1940s to early 50s. There was no indoor plumbing, except for water lines that were usually attached to a community well which delivered water to the housing by gravity in metal pipes that often were rusted inside and out and frozen on most winter days.  

Wash day was a particularly frustrating experence when washing cloths on a wash board in a round #3 wash tub. This was during the pre-dispisable diaper days. So the number of wash loads was multiplied by the number of children still in diapers. Some camps had a bathhouse for the miners. If not, bathing that horrible coal dust off was done in the same round #3 wash tub...minus the washboard and the dirty diapers that were manufactored that day. Removing the black coal dust from around the eyes was a daunting challenge. If there happened to be a traveling salesman in the camp one day (usually one selling Rawleigh products door-to-door) he stuck out like a rabbit at a raccoon rally. 

The camps had dirt streets in dry weather and ankle deep mud streets in rainy weather. Which ususlly posed little or no difficulty since most strip mining was not done on rainy days allowing miners a day off to worry about "how and where the next meal is coming." The shanty housing had no air conditioning in the summer and window fans only helped to circulate bugs (if one was  fortunate enough to raise one of the single glass-pane windows that were usually dry-roted shut). Winter heat was provided by a coal/wood burning stove in the kitchen and/or grates (a smaller version of a fireplace that could only burn a very few pieces of wood at a time) in every other room. The kitchen was often unbearably hot while the remainder of the house was uncomfortably cold. 

On a high note, one rarely, if ever, had to mow grass. If there was an inch of tillable soil it was occupied with a vegetable garden in the summer that often was the difference between eating and going hungry. If there was no garden, grass often did not grow due to smothering from the collection of coal dust. Coal dust had the same affect on shrubs, trees, flowers, and if not shaken off, the vegetable plants died too. 

To relieve stress, boredom, and occasional depression families often visited the company's recreational center...the company commissary. There the family could enjoy spending the spoils of their labor in company "scrip" (often miners were not paid in U.S. currency, rather in pieces of worthless metal, embossed with the company name, that could only be exchanged for goods at the company commissary). This early rendition of a shopping center housed the grocery store, barber shop, gas station, doctor's office, post office, and most often the only location within miles where one could access a public telephone. All these services were conveniently owned and provided by the coal company. When Tennessee Ernie Ford sang "Sixteen Tons" he expressed the plait of every coal miner, "Another day older and deeper in debt....I owe my sole to the company store."

harlan coal camp.jpg

"What's in a Name?" 

Shakespeare said that a rose by any name smells as sweet. In the Southern Appalachian Region, that is somewhat true. We all hold our family name as being almost sacred. Except in the case where we are convinced that we are of a different "set". I don't know where this denial of family connection originated. Perhaps, there were some savory family members in our family tree a generation or two back that we would rather not admit a relation. I  would maintain that the most common reason is simply not knowing the family connections of the past.

Few people truly realize the historical significance of the Cumberland Gap. During the years from 1775 to 1830, it is estimated that 300,000 settlers passed through the Gap to begin the Westward Movement and ultimately going all the way to the west coast to fulfill what was known as "Manifest Destiny".

To demonstrate my point in this posting I would like to share a brief story from my past. In 1988 I had the privilege of attending the Century 21 Real Estate Training Academy in Irvine, California. One evening my travel companion and I took a short trip north to Los Angeles and to Beverly Hills. As we were sightseeing and experiencing those landmarks that we had seen on television all our lives, just for the hell of it, we decided to eat at the Beverly Hills Kentucky Fried Chicken.

As we were seated in the dining room one of the restaurant employees came to our table and asked if everything was okay. As I was giving my response to that question I noticed an eyebrow raised when she realized we were not from California. I am sure my Southern dialect blew our cover. So she asked, "Where are you guys from?" I replied by saying, "Oh, you probably have never heard of the little town that we are from, but it's located at the intersection of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.  The name of the town is Cumberland Gap."  Her reaction to my response surprised and somewhat startled me when she said, "I can't believe it. I have family that's from that area." Being the true Appalachianite that I am, this is where the genealogy interrogation begins by saying, "Oh, really! What is your family name?" Had I not been in view of the Hollywood sign atop the Hollywood Hills I could have imagined that I was dining at any of the many KFCs located within the Cumberland Gap Region when she replied, "Hensley."

I was stunned to hear this. However, I refrained from delving into the disection of that response by questing, "Which Hensleys? The Virginia Hensleys, the Tennessee Hensleys, or the Kentucky Hensleys?" However, if I had been seated in one of this region's KFCs, I assuredly would have continued with the interrogation and would have most likely gotten a decisive answer such as, "Oh, my family is the Kentucky Hensleys. The Tennessee and Virginia Hensleys are of a different set."

For demonstration purposes I will be using Hensley as the family name. Regardless of your last name, be it Gibson, Chadwell, Collett, Garnett, Cosby, Bussell, Daniels, Saylor, Jones, Davis, Kirkland, Overton, Seabolt, Scott, etc. the implications are the same.

Let's take a brief ride back into history a couple hundred years or so prior to the signing of our U.S. Constitution and 14 years prior to George Washington being elected as our first president, 

At that time Daniel Boone was in the process of creating his historical legacy. The Westward Movement had begun, but there was one small obstacle that stood in the way of this westward expansion. That one thing  was 1,500 miles of the Appalachian Mountain Range that ran from what is now Maine to what is now Birmingham, Alabama. For hundreds of centuries no European had ever stepped foot west of the Appalachian Mountains. One of the leading reasons for this was due to the expanse of this mountain region with no way over, under, or through. This huge obstacle became less of a deterrent in the mid-1700s when Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Boone learned of a gap in the mountain that Native Americans had used for centuries for hunting expeditions. It Was through this Gap  that Daniel Boone began the westward expansion in 1775. 

When Daniel Boone left Northern Virginia on his quest to follow the Holston River shed to the Cumberland Gap, he brought with him the Davidsons, Harrisons, Hursts, Rays, Singletons, and all the other previously mentioned including the Hensleys. 

At that time in history it was very common for families to have ten to even twenty children. So  as Boone led the settlers westwardly, many of them,  fresh off the boat from their mother country,  may have become disenchanted with their travels. They may have decided that they loved this region and chose not to follow the group any further. So family members broke off. Some followed the Holston River into what is now Knoxville passing through what is now Grainger County and Union County, Tennessee. Other family members may had ended their quest at any point in between. Once in the Knoxville area some continued on into what is now Campbell County and perhaps took a northernly turn to what is now Claiborne County. Some family members though continued with their Westward Movement and passed through the Cumberland Gap. Once through the gap they were now in the western frontier. Some then decided to follow a northeast vector into what are now Harlan and Bell County, Kentucky. Some continued following the Boone Trace into what is now Knox County, Kentucky. While others took a more westward movement into today's Whitley County, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and all points west. Many along the way married into the Native American popolation whos roots trace back to the anciant tribes consisting of the Inca, Aztec, and Maya.  

As the group of Boone's followers traveled along the Appalachian Mountain Range, which formed Powell's Valley, other members of the group stayed in what is now Lee County  Virginia. While others broke off and went in the direction of what is now Hancock and Claiborne County, Tennessee. 

So you see this Hensley family consisting of ten to twenty children,  some of which were teenagers and young adults, split and went in every direction. Yet, whether they started their family in any of the three states (or even in California) they were all of the same seed. Therefore, of the same "set".

We would rarely, if ever, think of our genealogy in mathematical terms. Yet a mathematical study may be applicable.

Consider YOURSELF, a person of one, as the first generation. Your two parents will make up the second generation. Your four grandparents will make up the third generation. In your 4th generation you will have eight great-grandparents. While in your 5th generation you will have 16 great great grandparents. If we continue with this mathematical progression, in your 12th generation you will have 2,048  great great great great great great great great great grandparents. 

If we consider that most people marry and start the next generstion around the age of 20, then we will say that a generation is approximately 20 years. So your 12th generation would put you approximately in the year 1775 when Boone first brought your family through the Cumberland Gap. If we go back three more Generations to approximately the year 1700,  you would have in your family tree 16,358 (repeat great 12 times and then say grandparents). 

I, therefore, surmise, not only are all the Hensleys, all over the world, of the same set, and all the Bolingers of the same set, and all the Robinsins of the same set, etc.. . . we are ALL related in some way to each othet due to the thousands of past grandparents who planted our family tree. 


Carl Nichols, President

Cumberland Gap Tourism Association

Amos and Laura

We all have that someone that has been an important part of our life that we reflect upon and think, "How would my life have been different had it not been for this person or persons? "Most often when we think about how they first came into our lives the only reasonable explanation is fate.

Two such people in my life were Amos and Laura Johnson. Although our time together was short, both left an indelible impression upon my life.

In March of 1960 my family and I moved from Black Star, Kentucky, in Harlan County, five miles down the road, to Black Snake Kentucky, in Bell County. We moved into an old dilapidated building that had served as the community school up until 1959 when the community schools consolidated to form Blackmont Elementary School.

grave stone.jpg

Not long after settling into our new environment I met our new neighbors, Amos and Laura Johnson. Amos was born in 1894 in Bell County. Since a young man, he had served as Constable on Puckett's Creek. He was the only representative of law and order in that isolated rural area. The road along Puckett's Creek ran from U.S. Hwy. 119 in Blackmont through Tugglesville, Insull, and Pathfork to the head of the creek at Alva , Kentucky. The road passed through the backwoods and lawless communities that straddled the Bell and Harlan County Line. The mountain people who lived up every stream and hollow along the creek were hardy people that were the roughest and toughest God-fearing people on earth. They made their own laws, they raised their own food, they sewed their own clothes, they had their own unique mountain dialect, and they manufactured their own corn liquor. Most had no need for the outside world that extended beyond the Cumberland River. From the early 1900's until the 1960s Amos was the law in that community.

The first day that I sat down with Amos on his front porch I soon became mesmerized with the stories he told about his younger days enforcing the laws on Puckett's Creek. I remember him talking about forming a posse  to go after a law breaker. Of course in that creek valley everyone knew everyone. Amos may have been the law, but he was also a neighbor. So the rebellious ones in the community respected him as much as all others. However,  if on occasion laws were broken, Amos and his posse would ride up a hollow along the creek bank on horseback to flush out the would-be lawbreaker. Many times punishment was quickly served as Amos served as sheriff, judge, and jury. He would give the law offender the scolding of their lives and threatened their lives if it ever happened again. Then everyone rode home, put the horse in the barn, and went to bed resting assured that justice had been served.

The one thing I remember most about Amos is that he smoked a bent billiard tobacco pipe. He would turn that pipe sideways, strike up his lighter, take a puff or two, gather his thoughts then he would become lost in his memories of a bygone era and I too became lost in awe as he told the adventurous stories of his younger days. 

After repeated times of going to visit Amos, my mom said I would have to stop going everyday, as I had been. She said I would begin to bother Mr. Johnson and that I would neglect my homework. So we set Thursday as the one day every week that I could visit with Amos during the school year. (Summer term was a totally different arrangement). 

I don't know how or why this next thing happened.  However, every day when I came back from my visit with Amos I would excitingly tell my mom the stories he had told me. I also talked about him smoking his pipe and the smell of the tobacco.  One day, out of nowhere, my born again Pentecostal Christian mother who believed that anything that happened outside the church building was a sin and that all users of tobacco, alcohol, card playing, and foul language were going straight to hell, told my dad that he was to buy for me, every Thursday and bring it home when he came home from work, a Gladstone Cigar so I would have it to smoke with Amos. I do not know  that this conversation between my mom and dad actually took place as I have described. However, I do know with great assurance that my dad would never have bought for me, at any age, a cigar without my mother's blessing. 

I don't think I need to explain what this collaboration did to a young boy's ego and self-esteem. Every Thursday, Amos with his pipe and me with my cigar.  I felt that I was as big as Amos and that I, living vicariously through his stories, "was" the Constable rounding up the lawbreakers and hauling them off to jail. That was a unique feeling of pride and accomplishment that I don't think I have ever felt since.

Amos was special to me in many ways. He was also the first amputee I had ever seen. Amos was a severe diabetic. About a year after we moved next door to him, he had to have a leg amputated just below the knee. This put him in a wheelchair but it did not slow him much. However, a few years later he had the other leg amputated in about the same place. By this time, I was 10 or 11 years old. So I would push Amos in his wheelchair to the front porch or into the house whenever I went to visit with him.

His wife Laura was a character all her own. Yet everyone loved and trusted her because she was the only midwife available between Brownies Creek and Wallins Creek. Probably 95% or more of the population born on Puckett's Creek between the early 1900's and 1966 passed through Laura's hands as she assisted with child birth. The closest resemblance to a medical facilities was about a twenty-five mile ride by horse back into either Pineville or Harlan. Even in the 1960's, a large part of the population did not own automobiles.  Of those who did, most found it easier, due to the road and/or weather conditions, to get Laura in than it was to get a woman in labor out.  So Laura became the guardian angel on Puckett's Creek.

Often people would have need of Laura's services in the late evening or sometime in the middle of the night.  When she was ready to go she would come over to our house and knock on the door to tell us where she was going. If it was during the night, Mom would then wake me up and say, "Laura has to go deliver a baby. Amos is alone.  You need to go stay the night with him."  No sooner said than done. I was out the door. I really liked it when people came for her in the early evening before Amos had gone to bed.  During those times, before we went to bed, we would always open a quart Mason jar of tomatoes that Laura had canned from her garden.  We would divide the contents of the jar, salt it lightly, then consume the delicious nectar of the earth with Saltine crackers and a glass of milk.

Unfortunately, my world came tumbling down the morning of January 1, 1966 when I learned that Amos had passed away the evening before. I was devastated. I turned 12 years old the next day but that was the last thing on my mind. For the first time in my young life I had lost the closest person to me besides my parents. I had been raised in the church, so I fully understood what death was, but this was the first time it had a face. Today, more than 50 years later, I think of Amos often and will always hold a special place in my heart for Him.

The story now takes a new and unpredictable turn that brought another special person into my life. Just a few months after Amos's death Laura remarried a man named Herbert Parker. He was from East Bernstadt, Kentucky and was a distant relative of my future to be brother-in-law, JB Robinson. 

My sister, Brenda, was nine years older than me. She had on occasion accompanied Laura on her birthing calls. So they developed a special bond. Brenda had experienced a disastrous six-month marriage at the age of 16. The cruelty of that marriage did not bode well with Laura. She pledged to Brenda that she would help her find a good man to marry. Alas, Laura married and moved away to East Bernstadt with her new husband. 

Shortly thereafter, Laura and Herbert were visiting with his relative Hubert and his wife Lucy Robinson. While they were there the Robinson's son, JB, came home to visit. JB lived in Connersville, Indiana and worked at the Ford Philco plant. He had recently divorced and had four small children ages 2, 4, 6, and 8. During the visit that day Laura overheard JB saying to his mother that he would raise the kids himself the best he could but he was not going to marry again until he found a good woman who would be good to him and who would be a good mother to his children. Hearing that, Laura sprung into action. She started telling JB she knew the perfect woman for him. She laid on all the accolades she could possibly mention about the fine characterists of Brenda. She bragged on Brenda so much that she made her sound like the blue ribbon-winning hog at the Kentucky State Fair. But it worked! JB wanted to meet Brenda. So Laura arranged the first date. Since JB worked all week, and sometimes even overtime on Saturday   the only time that he and Brenda had together was an occasional weekend. As far as I can recall, I only remember them having two other dates after they initially met until they got married on December 23, 1966 and they remained married until her death on October 23, 2000.

Laura,  being the negotiator that brought these two together, was to accompany Brenda and JB to the Pineville Courthouse on wedding day. So Brenda took the auspicious task of taking Laura shopping for new clothes to wear to the wedding. Brenda had no idea that Laura had never worn a slip, either short or full-length, had never worn a pair of store-bought panties, and most certainly had never worn a bra. When this revelation was unveiled in the lingerie department of Montgomery Ward's, Brenda lost it! From that day forth she could never tell the story fully without breaking into hysterical laughter. But I gleaned from bits and pieces that the new store-bought panties and the slip were no problem for Laura. However, the bra was asking a bit too much. My sister had a very loud and exuberant laugh and a personality to match. If the bra situation wasn't enough to cause her laughter to be heard throughout most of downtown Middlesboro the next story Laura told her that same day . . . did.

It was a warm, clear, cloudless  summer day. Perhaps the summer of 1910. Laura was a young girl.  She was in the yard watching over her many younger siblings as they played. Her mother was inside the house  preparing a meal and her dad was in the cornfield adjacent to the house . At that time in history there was no electricity, no radio, no television, and no one in Laura's family was literate so no one looked at or read a newspaper. Because of this informational deprivation there was no means of them knowing what was going on in the world that existed outside of their Appalachian isolation. They were oblivious to the new inventions that were beginning the modernization of America. 

As the children played in the yard, unsuspecting that their lives were about to change, suddenly they heard a strange sound. One by one the mood of the children changed from jollity to fear.  The grinding sound, of which they had never heard before, was coming from the east from the back side of the hill in front of their house on which the family cemetery was located. They all stopped and listened as the hideous sound grew louder and their fear became inconsolable. 

Suddenly from over the hill above the cemetery came this huge shiny bird with a wingspan that was unbelievable. The sound was deafening. The children ran screaming hysterically to the cellar, under the house, to the barn, and to the mountains not knowing why or from what they were trying to escape. They ran haphazardly in all directions. 

When Laura saw the apparition burst into sight, rigor mortis instantly overtook both her body and mind. As she stood lifeless in a vegetative state she saw her mother run from the house into the yard and, at the same time, saw her dad come running from the cornfield. They were both crying and praying and screaming and shouting and praising God for they knew it was the second coming of Christ and they were in the presence of Jesus himself as he circled above the cemetery separating the dead . . . It was the end of time!

Carl Nichols, President

Cumberland Gap Region Tourism Association