Growing Up in Harlan County

Written by Partner & Attorney, John M. Williams

I’ve been told that I had a rough upbringing – not because I had bad parents, but because I grew up in Eastern Kentucky. Apparently, that’s rough.

It’s been about three decades since I’ve lived in Eastern Kentucky, but it is just as much a part of my life today as it was then. It will forever be my home. Eastern Kentucky is a region (or sub-region) of Central Appalachia (and to clarify, it’s pronounced Appalah-chuh). Eastern Kentucky is known for its isolationist location (far from the interstate), mountains (not hills), coal mining (we’re all from coal mining stock), and accents (you ought to sound like us – people in Carter County sound a lot like us, but they have that Interstate). I grew up in a small town in Eastern Kentucky called Loyall.

Where exactly is Loyall? As I told a guy who picked me up one day while I was hitchhiking, “It’s three miles outside Harlan.” To which he then responded, “Where the hell is that?” Harlan is the county seat of Harlan County, Kentucky in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields. When I was growing up in Harlan County, we had about 40,000 people living there. Today, that number has dwindled down to around 30,000 and is dropping more and more everyday.

Here’s what you should know about Loyall:

  1. It’s pronounced kind of like “Lole.” More accurately, “Lowell” but without the “w”.
  2. It had around 1,000 residents when I was a child. Now, the welcome sign states 776 (and, frankly, that might be a bit of a stretch).
  3. Trains ran day and night out of the CSX Railroad Yard (known as the Louisville & Nashville Yard when I was growing up).
  4. We had only one traffic light (it’s still there).
  5. We had a full service gas station (now long gone).
  6. We had a soda fountain at the Corner Store (that sat on the corner, of course, by the one traffic light).
  7. We had a movie theatre until I was about 6 or 7.
  8. We had a barber, Gene Harber. He always asked, “How do you want it? ‘Bout the same?”
  9. The Cumberland River ran through Loyall and washed us away in 1977 (thanks to the largesse of the federal government, the river now runs through a man-made channel so it won’t flood again. Of course, they cut the town in half for that bit of engineering.
  10. We had a school – Loyall High School. In the late ‘60s it became Loyall Elementary and Junior High. It stands to this day, though hasn’t been a school for years now.
  11. We had a post office, City Hall, Fire Department, and Chief of Police.
Artist’s rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office. This was done from an old photo.
I lived in this house until I was 12.

To summarize, it was Small Town, USA. You knew almost everybody, slept with your windows open, and your front doors unlocked. I must confess that I was not raised within the city limits of Loyall. I spent my first 12 years in Rio Vista, a neighborhood just outside Loyall. I spent the last years of my childhood on Park Hill which overlooks Loyall. Still though, we thought of it as Loyall.

So then, what made life so “rough” in Harlan County?

I thought it was a pretty good place, but I quickly learned differently. My first lesson was when I attended University of Kentucky. I talked funny. Evidently, I had (and have) an accent. I never noticed it; I did know people at home with heavy accents, but I wasn’t one of them… or… was I? I was also a redneck, at least by Lexington standards. Trust me on this one, I was NOWHERE close to being a redneck by Harlan County standards.

I took a class at the University of Kentucky called “Appalachian History” or something along those lines. It was taught by an odd fellow who had visited Harlan County on several occasions (to study the area). He had read Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He had been to Evarts (where my father grew up), which he pronounced EE-varts. So, he was some kind of an expert.

I was told three things that I didn’t know:

  1. I was the victim of abusive Robber Barons who operated coal companies OR I was the victim of a well-meaning but misguided government which institutionalized poverty  (OR both).
  2. As a result, I lived in stifling poverty.
  3. It was likely that I was too ignorant to comprehend points 1 and 2.

And thus often goes the narrative of Harlan County outsiders.

According to most, I had substandard education and healthcare. Bad teeth, too. Inadequate clothing. WOW. You’d think that I would’ve noticed some of that, but I didn’t–maybe all the inbreeding made me less perceptive.

After I graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Finance and Law, I continued to learn about my homeland. It was bad, terrible, just a rough place. Bad coal, bad government, bad drugs — just bad, bad, bad.

Honest to God, it sounds like Somalia. How the Hell did I survive?

Welcome to Reality

Fortunately, I grew up in the Real World. It wasn’t a perfect world, mind you, but it was far from what was (or is) portrayed. Imagine if your hometown was always portrayed according to its lowest and worst performers.

I now reside in Lexington, Kentucky; the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World.” We have about 300,000 people here, but it’s a college town at heart. It’s a nice place to live and I’ve enjoyed raising my family here. We don’t promote Lexington by showing our homeless shelter, the rundown shotgun shacks that litter downtown, the hobo jungle or our public housing projects. If we did, one would wonder why anyone would set foot here–except maybe for the horses (who just wouldn’t know any better).

I don’t see Lexington being that much better than Harlan County. Lexington has poor people–a lot of them actually. Unlike my life in Harlan County, I don’t see them here. They don’t live near me. My kids might go to school with some of them, but they don’t really socialize with each other. That’s just how it works. You won’t see Lexington’s homeless shelters (unless you go looking for them). The last time I went to one of them, I saw two men I know–LIVING IN THE SHELTER! I never knew anyone who was homeless in Loyall.

In Harlan County, there was no insulation. Your friends might live in poverty. I had a good friend who lived in a housing project–housing projects in Harlan County are no nicer than anywhere else. His father was, unfortunately, chronically unemployed, but it didn’t matter. We were friends; same with my friend whose father was illiterate. He was a good man. He just couldn’t read or write at any functional level. Sure, I don’t see that here in Lexington, but it’s not because it doesn’t exist. It’s just well-hidden.

Little League team in Harlan County. Author is on the front row, far left.

My friends’ parents were teachers, railroad workers, coal miners, government workers, politicians, dentists, doctors, lawyers, and just about every other walk of life in the mountains. Both of my parents were college graduates (that certainly wasn’t common in those days, but I was hardly the only kid with that distinction).

Growing up, we lived like kids. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League Baseball, school, dances, young romances, fights and all the rest. I have raised two sons to adulthood and have been surprised how they occupied their time much like we did–chasing girls, hanging out with friends, watching TV, and all the while complaining about having nothing to do. Like my kids, we had all the teen angst that exists everywhere else–wanting to leave our small town, broken hearts, drinking, drugs, and general teen mayhem. We just happened to be in Harlan County while it was going on.

What about all the “bad” stuff?

There were (and still are) plenty of people who live hard lives in Harlan County and elsewhere in the mountains. Poverty and unemployment rates have always been high and, in remote parts of the county, people could live bleak existences.

As far as I know, my parents weren’t cousins. I did know a guy who married his cousin, but I know someone who did that in Lexington, too. That kind of thing is frowned upon everywhere (unless you’re in the monarchy).

I knew some people who didn’t have indoor plumbing. My uncle in Pike County, Kentucky had an outdoor toilet until the mid-70’s. By the way, my wife’s grandparents had an outdoor toilet too, but they lived in Franklin County, Kentucky (home of our state capital). That’s just not as sensational as one in Harlan County.

Did I know people on food stamps? Of course. I knew people whose only goal in life was to “draw a check,” or, as we say in Harlan County, to “be on the dole.” My dad called them “people living off the grid.” They were cautionary tales.

Did I know any criminals (or, as we like to say, outlaws)? You bet. A bunch of them too. My dad had a friend who killed his own father-in-law. Our across the road neighbor even served time for attempted murder. For a short time, we lived next door to a notorious bootlegger. I knew a bunch of people who had been shot, but, like I said, it’s a small place. You don’t get to hide from people.

Some parts of our county were so remote that most Harlan Countians never saw them. Jones Creek, Bailey’s Creek, Smith, Black Star, Holmes Mill and many such places were off the beaten path. Still, those folks went to church and school and had jobs–a good number of them, at least.

The funny thing, though, is that most folks didn’t fit these extreme profiles. Most people had jobs and took care of their families. Some families, like mine, had two working parents. Just like parents everywhere, most wanted something better for their children and tried to help them. It wasn’t anything unusual, just the typical American life… and dream.

What’s Harlan County like now?

Things have changed since I left Harlan County. Time has a way of changing things. When I grew up, good jobs were plentiful, but that’s just not the case today. The economic base in Eastern Kentucky is shrinking more and more everyday and may not recover. The population continues to decrease and is likely to drop even more as Baby Boomers fade away. Growing up, we didn’t have the prescription drug scourge that has devastated Eastern Kentucky in the past few years.

Regardless of these changes, when I make my frequent trips back home, I see the same sorts of folks I knew growing up. These aren’t characters from a Norman Rockwell painting nor are they the “salt of the Earth” or any other overblown characterization. They’re just good, solid people for the most part. They don’t see themselves as victims nor are they trawling for handouts. They’re just living their lives as best they can.

I had an uncle who was fond of saying “Mountain people have mountain ways.” He meant that there are certain things about life in the mountains that were different, and not always “good.” We had a county trash dump on the side of a mountain (not a landfill). People would line up on the side of the road and shoot the rats. It was really fun, but you definitely don’t see that everywhere.

Some people don’t take care of themselves or their families (and that’s true now just as it was back then). They don’t go to the doctor or dentist, or do much else for that matter. They live the same way their ancestors did. Some people are born into bad circumstances and struggle and sometimes they can’t overcome that. They aren’t bad people; they just start life with two strikes against them. That still happens, but it happens everywhere.

Are some of my fond memories skewed by the prism of nostalgia? Of Course, but aren’t a lot of our childhood memories? I remember the good people and the nice life we had. Like a lot of people, I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time and probably spent too much time wanting to “get out.”

You may never have been to Eastern Kentucky and, maybe after reading this, you might not ever want to make a visit. Maybe you have have lived there in rough times or under bad circumstances. Maybe you don’t have those fond childhood memories, but consider this: People from every part of this country have the same experiences. Perhaps, we shouldn’t condemn their culture or treat them all as victims. I leave that to you. All I can tell you is what happened to me and most of the people I grew up with. We were just fine.

These Stories were originally told on Coal Troll’s Blog listed here and here.

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