Note: The following writings, which appear in the August 19, 1926 edition of The Mountain Eagle, indicate just how hard it must have been to live life in Letcher County before the Civil War, when the Kentucky mountains were isolated in ways that seem unbelievable today. The first part is a letter to the editor, with the second part consisting of Eagle editor Nehemiah M. Webb’s answer to the writer.
Sixty-six years ago I was born within three miles of Whitesburg. It is with greatest pride that I read of the wonderful improvements and progress of my old hometown, for I will remember when it had but one store and the post office.
One of the first merchants was D.I. Vermillion, succeeded by John A. Richmond & Son, and later by W.H. Nickels, who was one of the most successful merchants and businessmen of our day. He sold out to Monroe Webb and J.H. Frazier, who were the proprietors when I left.
A short time ago I read an article in your paper relating to the Bull Hole from which a bull was taken some 50 years ago. I might add that I was one of the witnesses to that event. I wonder how many readers remember the horse race that took place on the farm of my grandfather, Henry Polly. A man named Hall now owns the farm. The names of his horses in the race were Kate Witcher and Red Bill, the race being won by Red Bill.
This is one incident not yet written up in The Eagle. RICHARD RILEY ADAMS 1819 Agnes Avenue Kansas City, Missouri
The above letter, when read, may
call to mind a number of other oldtime incidents in the life of this county just before and after the Civil War. Let it be remembered, however, that the many awful things enacted during that war are long since dead and should never have a place in our memory. People whose memories reach back 50, 60 and 70 years ago are now scarce. They are as leaves clinging to a bough, ready to drift to the earth. Many of the old incidents are worth calling to mind, others are not. Many of the children of our day [believe] that feuds once existed in our county, which, in fact, was never true except in the minds of fiction writers. In some counties in the mountains [feuds] did exist. Upon the whole, however, from Letcher’s earliest days — to say nothing of the conditions here during the Rebellion — our people have always been on the best of terms and at all times ready to contribute muscle
and means to help each other along. They were far from the big centers of population and knew nothing and cared nothing for the fashions, habits and customs of these. They made their own ways of life and they sought instructions from no one. The stranger seldom came inside their gates, but when he did he found a ready welcome.
This writer remembers well when everybody went out and spent a whole day at an election. Men, women, children, old, young and gay, went to enjoy the gingerbread, apple cider, fiddling and dancing — sometimes a fistfight. They gathered on the ground at sunrise and stayed generally until the stars began to peep and often later.
Now and then someone would imbibe too much whiskey, which was always plentiful, raise a howl and start the police officers after him. His arrest meant that he was to be kept guarded until he got sober. He was the talk and the laughingstock of the county for months afterward.
Except at the “stews” at old women parties, no woman ever permitted her lips to be scandalized with whiskey. There were no cigars or cigarettes, and if a few old men and old mothers did smoke, it was a cob pipe only.
Did people sell their votes in those days? Why yes — in a way. Every man who cared to get pay for his day and to take the old woman some gingerbread did so. They thought it no harm.
In county elections, several people heard how the election went, but the state and national election results were known to but a few. It didn’t matter, for offices such as Congressman, Legislators and President and the like were of no benefit to them. They voted right out by giving their names to the clerk and for whom they wanted to vote. If a voter voted different to how he had sold, he was downed and the money and gingerbread taken from him. This was seldom. The man who sold was generally as good as his word and delivered the goods.
If a man sold several elections to one political party he finally considered himself well and good bought and ever after called himself a Republican or Democrat as the case might be.
After the war, strange as it may seem now, nearly everybody were Democrats. Letcher, Pike and Floyd were overwhelmingly so. Now and then, however, a Republican was elected to office, but usually partisanship entered very little into county elections.
For 20 or more years after the Civil War there were no banks in the mountains. As most of the money was silver, it became a burdensome commodity. People who were lucky enough to become the owner of real money had very little used for it, and there were men in those days who had sack-loads of it lying around. What goods were bought at the few stores were purchased with ginseng, hides of all kinds, dried fruits, corn and wheat.
All goods were purchased in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Merchants generally went once a year to these markets to buy their goods. Goods were hauled over the rough roads from Catlettsburg, Winchester, Portsmouth, Ohio and Abingdon, Virginia. Later, goods in certain seasons came up the Big Sandy River on push-boats to Prestonsburg and Pikeville. From the points, ox teams brought the goods into Letcher County.
It is not much wonder that education in the county 40 years ago was at low ebb. Schools then lasted on three months of the year. Teachers were very poorly paid, usually not averaging more than one-dollar a day. Boarding, of course, was proportionally cheap. The writer stayed with one our best-to-do farmers 10 months in one district and paid him for board only $16. The first year the school “draw” was $96 and the next year $130. Of course, the teacher helped take care of the fodder, helped do the ’possum hunting and killed hundreds of squirrels.