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Finding gentle people in the wilds of Eastern Kentucky

Maps are deceiving. A city or town that appears as a little dot on a map might be a thriving community filled with charming, interesting people. A thin black line could be a beautiful, well-designed highway winding through mountains and valleys, connecting one unique town after another.
That’s what Wayne Willis and I learned repeatedly on a two-day photographic foray into the wilds of eastern Kentucky. Actually, the wilds of eastern Kentucky turned into a series of nice little towns in the shadows of beautiful, green mountains that, except for the mountains and coal cars, didn’t look too much different from those in Southern Indiana, thanks to the profusion of McDonald’s, Wal-Marts, Shoney’s and convenience stores of all stripes. The homogenization of America is alive and well throughout the country. And Ashland looks like a scene from a modern version of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’
We wanted to photograph three specific places: the homeplace of Loretta (‘The Coal Miner’s Daughter’) Lynn, the homeplace of poet-novelist Jesse Stuart, and the West Virginia town of Matewan.
To get to Loretta’s hillside cabin, you follow the signs but first you have to stop at Webb’s General Store in the former mining town of Van Lear. There, surrounded by pictures and memorabilia of Loretta and Crystal Gayle, we met Madonna Webb, Loretta’s niece. She told us that her father, Herman Webb, was at home a mile or so up the gravel road in Butcher Holler, giving a tour of his and Loretta’s birthplace, and he’d probably give us a tour, too. It would cost $5 each.
We found the little four-room cabin with a nice porch in a pretty valley. Herman was there, talking to a banker from Newport, a Baptist minister from Alexandria, Ky., and another fellow, about how he, Loretta, Crystal and five other kids grew up there. Pretty soon, others joined us, and Herman gave them the walk-through, too, showing family pictures and Loretta’s guitar. He answered almost all of our questions, deftly dodging those about Loretta’s husband-manager ‘Mooney’ and how many visitors showed up each day. He must answer the same questions every day of the year.
At 69, white-haired Herman is handsome, charming, modest and apparently in good health. He once aspired to be a professional musician. He is living proof that some families produce people with the right blend of charm, personality and talent. That kind of innate ability, in the right hands and with the right motives and hard work, can be turned into extraordinary careers. At 70, Loretta is still going strong.
It was harder to find Stuart’s homeplace in Greenup County. We couldn’t precisely locate W-Holler but eventually drove down picturesque Stuart Lane and found Jesse’s attractive little bungalow, behind some iris. The home, which looks fairly new and comfortable, is private and occupied by his reclusive daughter. We thought we encountered Stuart’s elderly son by divine providence at the mailboxes but found out later that Stuart had no son. It was an in-law, and a stroke victim.
Matewan is a place that, when mentioned, usually provokes a blank look, ‘What?’ or ‘Where?’ But students of American labor history know it well. In 1920, it was the scene of a bloody shootout between striking coal miners, the local sheriff (a Hatfield of Hatfield-McCoy fame) and gunmen hired by the company that owned everything in that impoverished coal mining community on the Tug River. Ten people were killed and more wounded. Matewan is located in Mingo County, which often shares the descriptive adjective ‘Bloody’ with Harlan, Ky.
Now, Matewan is also famous for a massive wall put up to hold back the annual Tug River flood. The shootout is reenacted at festivals and marathon runs through the area. (Given all those mountains, it must be a mighty tough race.) Film director John Sayles made an excellent movie called ‘Matewan’ a few years ago, and I bought a copy at the well-preserved diner there. The diner has white tile floors, raised booths, a nice, long wooden bar, and many fine black and white photographs of the town’s vivid history.
The Dumb Question of the Day, normally an honor reserved for me, went to Pastor Wayne in Greenup. We were on the town square, taking pictures of the Jesse Stuart and Don Gullett monuments and later talking to a nice fellow outside a large wood furniture and antique store. As Louisville-area city slickers armed with a National Geographic Atlas, we thought we knew where we were, but we didn’t. We had noticed repeated relief images of the Belle of Louisville on the sidewalks in Greenup. Wayne inquired sincerely, ‘Is there a river that runs through here somewhere?’ The man gave him a quizzical look and replied slowly, ‘There’s a river over there called the O-hi-o.’