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How much has changed here in 49 years?




Whitesburg’s Main Street was abuzz when former Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital physician John Engle took this photograph on a winter’s day 49 years ago, in January 1964. Much has changed since. Or has it?

Whitesburg’s Main Street was abuzz when former Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital physician John Engle took this photograph on a winter’s day 49 years ago, in January 1964. Much has changed since. Or has it?

Journalism has been famously described as “the first rough draft of history.” Nearly 50 years ago, Tom and Pat Gish wrote the following editorial for the January 2, 1964, issue of The Eagle. When we rediscovered it recently, we realized that it is both a timeless piece of heartfelt journalism and truly a rough draft of history — the history of our county, our region, our country . . . for better or worse. And something more. William Faulkner wrote: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We may like to think that our world of 2013 is very different from 1964. But is it really? You decide. We wish our readers a Happy New Year.

Will 1964 seal Eastern Kentucky’s fate?

The year 1964 is at hand, a year that may well seal the fate of Eastern Kentucky during the last half of the Twentieth Century. Will the area continue to fall into an abyss of total poverty, or will it begin the long hard climb toward equality with the rest of the United States?

The Letcher County Public Library was located in the old L&N Depot building in Whitesburg (located near the site of today’s Mountain Heritage Festival Village) when this photo was taken by former Appalachian Regional Hospital physician John Engle. The library would soon move into the basement of the new Letcher County Courthouse, being built in 1964 at a cost of $650,000.

The Letcher County Public Library was located in the old L&N Depot building in Whitesburg (located near the site of today’s Mountain Heritage Festival Village) when this photo was taken by former Appalachian Regional Hospital physician John Engle. The library would soon move into the basement of the new Letcher County Courthouse, being built in 1964 at a cost of $650,000.

We don’t know the answer. Indeed, we possess confl icting viewpoints. Sometimes, as we hear statements from various state and federal officials, and from local citizens, we feel that at long last the long-heralded new day is dawning for the area. At other times, as we watch when those words and promises are translated into action, we feel totally hopeless and helpless.

This week marks the beginning of the eighth year for us as editors and publishers of The Mountain Eagle. The seven years since we have returned to Letcher County have been seven years of constant change, with really significant progress in many fields, especially in the way of new school construction, new roads, constant remodeling and improvement of downtown Whitesburg. But they also have been the critical seven years when Letcher County and its neighbors Perry, Harlan and Pike have slid from near the top of Kentucky’s 120 counties in per capita income to near the bottom. Seven years in which the United Mine Workers union has disintegrated and half our coal miners have become jobless, with those still working frequently working for $12 a day or less instead of their former $25 a day. A period when hundreds of once stable families have been broken by joblessness and poverty, with their children by the thousands forced to scatter to the 50 states in search of a new way of life. A period when thousands of once proud men have had to swallow pride as they began swallowing government handout foods.

“Our coal industry has fallen apart,” The Mountain Eagle’s January 2, 1964 editorial said. “In seven years mining employment has dropped from about 5,000 to about 2,500.” (Photo courtesy of John Engle)

“Our coal industry has fallen apart,” The Mountain Eagle’s January 2, 1964 editorial said. “In seven years mining employment has dropped from about 5,000 to about 2,500.” (Photo courtesy of John Engle)

It might be well to look at some of the good things that have happened during those seven years . . .

Large, modern new schools have been constructed at Letcher, Fleming, Campbell’s Branch, Cowan and Colson, with major additions at Eolia and to the Whitesburg High School, and new schools planned at Kona and Whitesburg. This new construction and consolidation has brought about the closing of some 30 one- and tworoom schools, replaced by modern structures.

Teacher salaries in the county have nearly doubled. Since salaries still are at the bottom of the nation, this increase has not done much to improve the quality of instruction, but at least we have been able to hang onto some teachers and to keep our schools in operation.

South-East Coal Company decided against suspending operations as has been done by so many other firms and instead opened a new mine in the county near Colson, to employ ultimately some 200 men, and has made plans for someday opening another new mine in Letcher County.

The Blue Diamond Coal Company, through a subsidiary, Scotia Coal, opened a new mine near Eolia, which also will assure the county of about 200 mining jobs. In connection with this mine, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad built some eight miles of new track in the upper Cumberland River Valley, opening this section to development.

Whitesburg undertook a $2 million public housing and urban renewal program and became a leader among small Kentucky communities in planning and zoning.

A new motel, the Suburban, was built in downtown Whitesburg.

A new bowling alley was built in Whitesburg.

The First Security Bank was chartered and built a new building in Whitesburg. The Bank of Whitesburg remodeled and enlarged its quarters. Jointly, the two banks gave Whitesburg banking resources greater than those of any other town this size in the state.

Some 30 new homes, many in the $30,000-$50,000 category, were built in the Whitesburg area, and about as many were constructed in or near Jenkins.

The A&P built a large new store at Neon.

Whitesburg gained four modern new eating places.

Without exception, every business in downtown Whitesburg was remodeled, with most merchants adding both extra space and new lines of merchandise. Pigman Cleaners bought new equipment and moved into larger quarters. The town gained its first coin-operated laundry. Royal Crown Bottling Company expanded its lines and territory and built a large new addition with new equipment. The Coca-Cola Bottling Company added new products. Ashland Oil and Refining Company franchised a new distributor. Carrier Air-Conditioning set up a service center in Whitesburg, signifying the coming of air-conditioning to the mountains. Gulf Oil Company planned a large new service center in downtown Whitesburg and bought property for it. Whitesburg built a large new parking lot only to realize that business growth in town demands still more parking.

The county tore down its old courthouse in Whitesburg and started work on a new $650,000 structure including a new jail and library quarters.

The Letcher County library program was revitalized. Use of the county library quadrupled, and the Jenkins Public Library received an award as the best small library in the nation.

The county approved a special public health tax for an expanded public health program and planned construction of a new county health center.

Whitesburg received federal funds for a $350,000 improvement to its water system, and Jenkins got more than one million dollars for a new sewer system.

The state built a new four-lane highway stretching across the length of Kentucky from Paducah to Campton and promised an extension to Whitesburg, presumably to be started in the spring.

Whitesburg gained a new industry, the Whitesburg Block Co., and a new milk distributor, A&B dairies, and construction was started on a new Baptist church. Plans for a state office building in Whitesburg were announced.

A new $500,000 Whitesburg airport was constructed.

Jenkins became a distribution center for Kerns Bakery, and gained a new hospital, the Jenkins Clinic.

Truck mine companies by the dozen opened new small mines, modernized equipment, purchased new trucks, built new tipples.

These all have been significant accomplishments. Jointly they spell out growth and development in the county. In particular, they show Whitesburg to be a town with a growing, live economy with leaders receptive to, even seeking out, change. In those seven years, Whitesburg has emerged as the business center of the county, and has developed a business and merchandising community equal to that of many towns five times as large.

But this is only half the story, and to know where we are we must take a look at some of the bad things that have happened.

In brief, our coal industry has fallen apart. In seven years mining employment has dropped from about 5,000 to about 2,500. Almost overnight, the county lost half its employment, half its payroll, half its income. But the loss is far more than half, since hundreds of the remaining employed miners now work for $8, or $12, or $14 a day instead of their former $25 daily wage. Many miners who formerly worked six days a week at $25 a day plus overtime now work for $12 a day, two or three days a week. That’s a net loss of more than $100 a week in earnings for many miners, who still technically have jobs and are not considered unemployed.

This has happened in coal camp after coal camp. South-East Coal Company closed out its large stores at Millstone and Seco, and sold the hundreds of camp houses. Consolidation Coal Company sold out to Bethlehem Steel Company, closed its large stores in Jenkins, McRoberts, Dunham and Burdine, and sold the hundreds of homes in the Jenkins area. Miners by the hundred and their families have left the county. The population of Letcher County reached a peak of 47,000 in 1947, and has dropped steadily since, to a figure of 30,000 in 1960 and about 25,000 today. No end is in sight to the population loss.

This loss of population and jobs has taken a heavy toll. Automobile sales, clothing sales, new home sales and construction, food purchases, and so on, all today are less than half what they would have been but for the decline in mining payrolls.

These seven years have also seen the rise and decline of Whitesburg Memorial Hospital [built by the UMW and initially known as Miners Memorial Hospital]. For five years under the leadership of Dr. Huston Westover, Dr. Allyn Judd, Dr. Walter Owens and Dr. John Weiksnar, Whitesburg and Letcher County had what was perhaps the finest medical facility in the nation for a county of comparable size. That has faded into the uncertainties of today.

The Fleming-Neon Hospital has closed, the Seco Hospital has closed, the Sharon Heights Hospital at Jenkins has closed.

Heavy population losses in the Jenkins area, from about 10,000 to the present level of 3,000, have taken a deep bite into city revenues, raising the question of whether the city government of Jenkins can continue to function in the years ahead. Similarly, the population loss has drained pupils away from the Jenkins Independent school system to the point that attendance-based state allotments to the Jenkins system have been sharply curtailed, threatening the Jenkins system with extinction or a forced merger with the county school system.

As many as 12,000 Letcher County residents, more than a third of our population, have had to turn to free government food for survival; poverty and unemployment have forced a quadrupling of state welfare funds flowing into the county.

Literally thousands of young men and young women, in general those in the 20 to 35 age category, have moved to other states. All too frequently, these were the best educated, the healthiest, the ablest, the most competent people in the county. We have been left to a large extent with the very old — those too old to move and find jobs elsewhere; with the physically disabled, those crippled in mining accidents; with the untrained and the undereducated, without the education or training required for a successful adjustment elsewhere; with the widows, the orphans.

Gone to an alarming degree are those who, if here, would have been the leaders of today and tomorrow, the able young men who through efforts here at home could have helped the rest of us avert or dig our way out of the mess which now confronts us. These seven years have also seen the start and wildfire spread of strip mining, which destroys our roads, our hills, our valleys, clogs our creeks and turns one of the most beautiful areas in the nation into ugliness, ending hopes of building a tourist industry because tourists are not interested in ugliness.

These have also been seven years when our public officials — Governors Chandler and Combs in Frankfort, Senators Morton and Cooper and Congressmen Perkins, Siler and Watts in Washington — have witnessed the area’s decline and reaped political reward through empty promises of help and assistance. To this very day neither Cooper, Perkins, Morton nor any of the others has yet come forward with a well-planned program.

Studies, promises, plans, programs and speeches are legion, but as Frankfort and Washington have planned and promised, the situation has become steadily worse.

It has been a frustrating, rewarding, seven years, a period in which much that is good and much that is bad has occurred.

We possess no crystal ball that enables us to predict what will happen in the next seven years, but we have some thoughts about what is likely to happen.

Whitesburg, we believe, will continue to prosper upon the very corpse of the county, as the spread of poverty forces one by one the closing of the remaining stores and other service outlets throughout the county. The closing of stores in Haymond, Jackhorn and other towns forces people of the county to do the shopping they can afford in Whitesburg, resulting in a steady increase in volume in the county seat.

It is likely, also, that another round of automation in the coal industry, coupled with the closing of workedout mines, will reduce mining employment in the county to about one thousand miners. The recently announced plan of Bethlehem Mines Corporation for a giant new mine in Pike County is a clear forerunner. Bethlehem during the next five years will phase out its mining operations in Letcher County, and will tear down its giant tipple in Jenkins and withdraw much of its mining equipment.

This will mean the loss of several hundred more jobs in the county and will reduce the county’s tax base by some two million dollars. This may well be a killing blow to city government in Jenkins and to the Jenkins school system; it will also cripple the county government.

The loss of so many mining jobs will, some few years from now, catch up with Main Street merchants in Whitesburg, who will see a gradual tapering off of the flow of dollars into Whitesburg, and will face the possibility of seeing half of Whltesburg’s store buildings empty, just as those in Neon now are.

We also foresee many more glowing plans and promises of action to be forthcoming from Frankfort and Washington during the next seven years, but the total inadequacy of the president’s winter relief program and the Appalachian area development program indicate clearly that very little in the way of effective action will come our way.

We see but one hope for the area. The people of Eastern Kentucky could rise up in a form of rebellion. We could let our new governor [Breathitt] and our new president [Johnson] know we have had enough of empty words. We could oust Morton, Cooper, Perkins, Siler and Watts from office unless they cease playing games in Washington and grasp the realities of Eastern Kentucky.

We could also remove our Bill Jordans and our Billy Engles from the state legislature unless they too stop playing games and come forward with real programs and performance in behalf of Eastern Kentucky.

This type of rebellion would require an awakening in Eastern Kentucky on the part of every man, woman and child — every merchant, every city official, every county official, every coal company official, every citizen.

Ours could be a highly prosperous area if our politi- cians would permit us to have a type of development program similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, a program that would consume our enormous coal potential and produce electricity here for marketing throughout the Eastern United States, putting the profits into development of facilities to benefit all Eastern Kentuckians.

We must demand that we have a voice in the planning of our own future — a thing now denied us. Eastern Kentucky too long has had its hands tied by John Whisman and the so-called Kentucky Area Program Office, an agency that plans and talks, then tears the plans up before they are ever completed and plans and talks some more. Enough of the Whismans,* enough of the University of Kentucky Quicksand Area Redevelopment people who would substitute millions of words and meetings for program and performance.

The march of 100,000 Negroes in Washington demanding civil rights has made civil rights the number-one domestic issue in the nation. The contagious poverty of Eastern Kentucky and the Appalachians threatens to infect many other areas of the nation and is no less a national problem. Couldn’t we organize such a march?

Admittedly, we have to have help from both Frankfort and Washington. But it has to be the kind of help which will provide permanent improvements and not just fodder for political speeches.

In the final analysis, the job of rescuing Eastern Kentucky from its seemingly certain fate rests largely upon the shoulders of Eastern Kentuckians. We must insist that Frankfort and Washington permit Eastern Kentuckians themselves a voice in the planning of their own future. We must halt this business of permitting the years to pass as the Whisman-type expert plans unworkable program after unworkable program and then tries to impose the resulting nonsense upon the people of the area.

The time is not yet too late, although the odds against Eastern Kentucky grow greater every day. The closing decades of the Twentieth Century can still be a period of glory for the area if we, the people of Eastern Kentucky, will take our future in our own hands, chart our course and recognize no barriers. The burning question of the moment is whether we will do so, or whether we will leave our fate in the hands of incompetents in Frankfort and Washington.

* Editor’s note: John D. Whisman (1921-1995) embodied the kind of regional planning that Tom and Pat Gish came to distrust and then despise. After a stint as head of the Kentucky Junior Chamber of Commerce, Whisman moved easily from one state government job to another. Despite little experience in community development, in 1958 he was named head of the Eastern Kentucky Regional Planning Commission, then staffed the Conference of Appalachian Governors, and then directed the Kentucky Area Program Office, a statewide economic development agency. When President Kennedy and then President Johnson became concerned about Appalachia, Whisman staffed the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC), the agency that would become the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1965. Whisman was no visionary and PARC was nothing like the Tennessee Valley Authority of the 1930s, the bold regional development model that Tom and Pat Gish wanted to see replicated in Appalachia. Fairly or not, Tom and Pat came to view Whisman as a classic bureaucrat, far more interested in currying favor with the governors who oversaw PARC (and ARC) than in listening to and serving the people of Appalachia. Tom once said of him: “John Whisman never met a plan he didn’t like, as long as it was mediocre and inadequate and wouldn’t offend anyone in power.”


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