Thursday, April 26, 2012

Road trip - Appalachia days

I've never been to Appalachia. But my father's mother's family lived in eastern Kentucky for several generations, and I'd discovered a number of them through my online genealogical research. I wanted to visit Harlan County, where they lived. I'd read about the music and the crafts the people created, and their hardiness. I also knew many parts of Appalachia are quite poor, and that drugs are a special problem.

I was curious. So we've spent some days of this trip in Appalachia.

Our first stop was last Saturday in Clinton, Tennessee, at the Museum of Appalachia. This fine restoration was the life work of John Rice Irwin. A number of structures were moved from their original locations, restored or reconstructed, to create this living history museum. Also on display are items of everyday use. It's a fascinating place even for me, a woman not wild about museums.

You can find out more about the Museum of Appalachia here:

We drove parts of The Crooked Road, which celebrates the music of Appalachia. Last Saturday night we attended an event in Hiltons, Virginia, where the White Top Mountain band played, to the delight of both locals and visitors. Find out more about it at

Yesterday (Wednesday), we crossed the Virginia border into Harlan County, Kentucky. The road was old, winding, and narrow, crumbling away in places. We descended into a valley where a new "four-lane" took us the rest of the way into Harlan. The town's heyday is in the past. In the 50s it was a rough place, nicknamed "Bloody Harlan". Now it's a town in slow decline, augmented by a few strip malls. We stayed at the Little Inn of Harlan, a charming place. Check it out at

At the suggestion of the Inn's proprietor, we went to the Harlan library and found a paper-bound, indexed book listing all the gravestones in all the cemeteries in the county. Many of the names looked familiar from my research; I descend on my grandmother's side from families named Brock, Howard, and Saylor. I met two Saylors in the first half hour. I found Jesse Brock, my ggggg grandfather. Following the book's directions, we drove to Wallins Creek, about ten miles south of Harlan, ascended the hill behind the Baptist Church, and found his grave in the lower Masonic cemetery.

Wallins Creek is in much steeper decline; here's a photo of the old main street.

We went to a 12-step meeting in Harlan last night. To our surprise, there were over 60 people in attendance; 50 of them were young women from a nearby treatment center. Nearly all of them identified themselves as addicts. I'm thinking meth or oxycontin. In a depressed area, employment options and chances for improvement are very limited. I wondered how these young women would find the motivation to get clean and start out on a new life.

We left Harlan this morning and stopped at the Kentucky Coal Museum in Benton, Kentucky. Benton is so small it has no restaurant, not even a fast food place. The coal mining industry came to Kentucky in the early 20th century and provided employment in return for hard, dangerous work. Read about the museum at

Our drive today was about a hundred miles, through coal mining country. Our server at lunch told us coal mining is still the primary industry. Wages start at $17.50 an hour, "but if you're a plumber or an electrician you make more - about $23." It's still rough, dangerous work.

Tonight we're at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. Here's the view from our back deck:

We'll be leaving Appalachia tomorrow. I am so grateful for my life - and for the people who came before me.


Sally Wessely said...

You are really have another trip to remember. I bet you were very excited to find the marker for your ancestor's grave. Connecting to your family history must really be neat.

Muffy's Marks said...

What a fascinating blog! I enjoyed reading about your ancestors and where they once lived!

Travels with Emma said...

Finding that headstone is amazing.

Nebraska Outback said...

Excellent read Linda! I love sharing your adventures.

Bob Lowry said...

Appalachia is beautiful country with down-to-earth people living a simple life. My wife's family was was from West Virginia. I learned to love it while living there for a few years.

Enjoy your time in the hollows and green countryside.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

How wonderful to explore a part of your distant past and to see the gravestone of an ancester, Linda. It looks like a part of the country that is both beautiful and haunting. I really enjoy reading about your travel adventures!

Arkansas Patti said...

What a find to locate that head stone. Dr. Kathy said it for me. It is beautiul country but with hidden misery.
Really good post.

DJan said...

I am so glad that you share your adventures on here, because I enjoy thinking about my ancestors, too. I am glad I live here and not in Appalachia, which does indeed look very depressed. That meeting was an eye opener; I too wonder what would pull me out of addiction when I didn't have any options.

Ms Sparrow said...

What a lot of history you have captured in your visit. It must be terribly sad to see the decline of all those little towns--but I guess that is happening all over the country.

Grandmother Mary said...

How grateful we can be for all that our ancestors did to make our lives possible. And what a fascinating journey for you as you trace all this.