Mae Boggs has enjoyed a long life of proving doubters wrong.
When she was 17, her father refused to sign papers allowing her to marry her 21-year-old boyfriend, doubting the marriage would last. After finding a way to wed despite her father’s objection, she and her husband, Harrison K. Boggs Jr., went on to have a happy and productive marriage, rearing nine children along the way.
Later in her life, at a time when she was in need of a job but lacking the high school diploma thought necessary, Mrs. Boggs was told she hadn’t been chosen from a large number of applicants seeking employment with Head Start when the federal preschool program was still in its early years. Just a few days later, she learned she had won the job after all. She kept it until she retired 31 years later.
But if you ask Mrs. Boggs which doubter she has been most happy to prove wrong — so far — she will probably tell you about the time her husband’s uncle told her she would never finish building a new house she had started here in Letcher County while her husband had to be away in Louisville for work.
“ He said, ‘ Mae, you might live to build it, but you’ll never enjoy it,’” she said while recalling her conversation with the uncle, Sam Boggs. “It took me about two years, but I got it built.”
Sixty-seven years later, the 96-year-old Mrs. Boggs is still enjoying the house she built on Kingscreek — a project she started with only $20 in cash, dozens of boards of homegrown rough lumber, and “a crosscut saw, a hammer, and a level.”
Mrs. Boggs said the lumber she used to build the house came from trees cut on the property she and her husband had purchased a few years before. She said Hayes Stamper, a Kingscreek sawmill operator at the time, volunteered to saw the logs into the 8-inch, 10-feet boards of rough lumber that keep the house sturdy today. She got help with laying the foundation and some other work that required stronger hands than hers from the aforementioned Sam Boggs.
“I told him, ‘I’ve got four kids and I need to put a roof over their heads,’ and so I built it,” Mrs. Boggs said of that 1951 conversation with Uncle Sam. “I had to hire a carpenter or two to help put the roof on.”
Mrs. Boggs, who stands four-feet, nine-inches tall, appears much younger than her age and has a sharp memory to match. She was born on Valentine’s Day in 1922, the seventh of eight children brought into the world by Kelly Hogg, who worked in the logging business at Kingscreek, and his second wife, Jane Hall Hogg. Among her earliest memories is the Flood of May 1927, which resulted in deaths of at least 17 Letcher County residents, many of them in the Kingscreek and Roxana area.
“I remember as far back as the 1927 flood when several were drowned,” Mrs. Boggs explained to a Mountain Eagle reporter visiting her home recently. “The rain started that evening after my family had hoed corn all day. It was a hard rain. We lived out in a bottom and we all had to leave the house because the water was hillside-to-hillside. There was no road. We had to walk about 300 yards to a hillside and by the time we started up the hill the water was already up to the knees of the older ones. “We got up to a flat and my brother started counting all us children. We were sitting under a tablecloth to keep the rain out. He thought one of us was missing, but about that time he (her baby brother) said, ‘Here I am.’ He was the youngest and he had fallen into the creek but grabbed a railroad tie and pulled himself out.”
Mrs. Boggs said three neighbors — Mrs. Green Callahan and her two young children — were drowned during the flash flooding, but that she and 15 other members of her family returned home late the next afternoon and found that the floodwaters had barely reached the top of the front porch, leaving the house mostly undamaged.
“Dad was married twice,” she said of the large number of family members who fled her parents’ house when the water started rising. “He had eight children by his first wife and eight children by his second wife,” whom he married after his first wife died of an illness.
Mrs. Boggs enjoys sharing the more pleasant memories of her days growing up on Kingscreek, even though some of them were a little scary as well as seen from the eyes of a little girl.
She remembers well the many times when she and her siblings “had to run for our lives” while walking to classes at the Lower Kingscreek School. Why? Because a neighbor’s sheep — the rams in particular — would chase them.
“ Dishman Hogg had sheep that would chase us,” Mrs. Boggs said. “As soon as we turned the curve they would start getting up and we knew we were in trouble. We had to run for our lives until we got to the railroad bridge. We would hide behind the posts and the sheep would head-butt those posts.”
Those episodes weren’t the only “sheep” scares for Mrs. Boggs and her brothers and sisters. She also recalls the time when she and other young family members hiked to the “sheep rocks,” a rock formation that is said to have been named after a sheep died there after jumping onto a smaller rock to eat grass the grass that had grown on top and then being unable to jump back up onto the larger rock that connects with the hillside. In the case of Mrs. Boggs and her brothers and sisters, they also ran into trouble after jumping down from the larger rock.
“We loved to go to those big rocks called sheep rocks,” she said, “but this time we jumped over from that big rock not thinking about how we would get back.” The problem was eventually solved when her older brother Willard “took his ax and cut little poles and built us a bridge so we could get back.”
“When I was young we always played in the hills and we always took an ax with us,” Mrs. Boggs explained.
Speaking of axes reminded Mrs. Boggs of another incident in which she and her brothers and sisters were involved, but in this case it was her father who wielded the ax after the children discovered an active moonshine still on a hillside above a rental home on the family’s property.
“We smelled it and it smelled like whiskey,” Mrs. Boggs said. “After we told Mom and Dad what we found we looked out and Dad was going with his ax. He chopped holes in the barrel.”
Later that same day, her father went to feed the family’s hogs, not knowing the animals had already helped themselves to the fermented mash that had been in the still. Upon returning he told his wife, “I got rid of the still but I believe I killed my hogs.”
Mae Hogg, then 15, and Harrison Boggs, then 19, met for the first time when Harrison was one of several volunteers who attended a “working” Kelly Hogg organized to help clear brush from a field.
“Dad told them he’d let them have a square dance that night in an empty house he owned,” Mrs. Boggs said. “There was a big crowd of square dancers. The creek had gotten up pretty high and we were on opposite sides of the creek. He picked me up and carried me across the creek. That’s where we met.”
Two years later, the couple married in the Letcher County clerk’s office after her mother signed documents giving her permission and a sister forged her father’s signature.
Before the marriage, Mrs. Boggs was attending Whitesburg High School, where she arrived each day from Roxana by train. She fondly recalls those train rides, especially the two-mile trip to Roxana from Kingscreek on a railroad “hand car” the boys powered with their arms and stopped by using a 2×4 board for a brake. She would arrive in Whitesburg by 8 o’clock on most school mornings.
“It was fun, especially the flat push car,” she said.
One year later, Mrs. Boggs gave birth to her first child, son Kelly. By the time she and her husband had their fifth child, Eula, work was extremely slow in Letcher County and Harrison, after leaving Mae with the $20 in cash she used to start her building project, went to Louisville to look for a job. Soon after, he wrote a letter to Mae (there still was no telephone service in Kingscreek in the early 1950s) telling her he had gotten on at DuPont plant in Louisville and would return home as often as he could. It was on one of those trips back to Letcher County when Harrison discovered that Mae was building a house by herself.
“ My husband came home and said, ‘Mae, you haven’t started building a house, have you?’” Mrs. Boggs recalled, joking that she had to do the family’s carpentry work because her husband “couldn’t drive a straight nail.”
Mr. Boggs was eventually able to find work again in Letcher County and the couple and their five children moved into the house before it was finished to escape the leaking roof in their first home. A proud moment for Mrs. Boggs came when her husband returned home one afternoon from his coal mining job and found that she had built a frame for a double window and cut a hole in the wall where it was to be located. After looking the situation over, Harrison told Mae she had her measurements wrong. Instead, the windows and frame fit the intended space perfectly.
Now settled in their new home, Mae and Harrison Boggs went on to have three more children. Along the way, Mrs. Boggs began working with son Kelly, who had landed a job teaching about 50 elementary school students at Lower Kingscreek.
“He said, ‘Mommy, I think I’m going to start a lunchroom,’ and I was the cook,” said Mrs. Boggs. “It was the first lunchroom Lower Kingscreek ever had.”
The lunchroom became so successful that a room was added onto the school to house it. Parents furnished the vegetables the students ate, while Kelly Boggs purchased the meats. After Kelly moved to Louisville for a better-paying job, the Letcher County Board of Education assumed operation of the lunchroom, with Mrs. Boggs remaining as its cook. The school building burned a short time later and was closed permanently.
In 1967, Mrs. Boggs read a job notice in The Mountain Eagle that said applications for 23 vacant jobs in the federally-funded Head Start program were still being accepted and that interviews would continue into the next week. Mrs. Boggs applied at the last moment and was called in for an interview by a local Head Start personnel selection committee.
Several days after the interview, Mrs. Boggs called to ask whether she was among the candidates chosen from dozens of applicants. A few days after being told that others had been selected instead, Mrs. Boggs went to check her mail at the Roxana Post Office. Awaiting her was a letter from the Letcher County Head Start Policy Advisory Committee informing her that indeed she had been selected for a job.
She began working in 1968 on what would become a 31-year career with Head Start. During the years before she retired at age 77 in 1999, Mrs. Boggs obtained her general equivalency diploma and completed eight hours of college courses. She would go on to become known as “Miss Mae” to the many students she helped care for at Head Start centers in Blackey, Fleming, Colson and Cowan. In addition to being a presence in the classroom, she also served as a substitute bus driver and volunteered to transport large number of children to counseling sessions and doctor’s appointments outside of Letcher County.
“I loved every minute of it during those 31 years,” she said. “I never missed a day. Children I had in the centers early on, I had their children before I quit.”
Mrs. Boggs notes that when she first started working with Head Start, poverty was so severe in some parts of Letcher County that families lived in houses with dirt floors and little heat.
“I thought we were poor, but I didn’t know our county was in that bad of shape at the time,” she said.
Even today, former Head Start students who remember all of the support Mrs. Boggs gave them tell her or one of her children about how much they appreciate what she did for them.
“I didn’t realize I was helping people that much,” she said. “I’ve had some good experiences. I lay at night and think about some of them. I guess I enjoyed it as much as anybody. I was never late a day in those 31 years.”
Harrison Boggs Jr. died in January 1985. Before then, Mrs. Boggs and her husband were able to hire paid carpenters to add rooms and some new windows to the house she still lives in — the same house that many of her nine children, 20 grandchildren, 38 greatgrandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren will visit during the coming Fourth of July holiday.
“I know all their names,” Mrs. Boggs said. “I’ve had as many as 30 of them here at my house at one time. We all enjoy being around each other very much. We’re a close family.”
Her oldest child, son Kelly, is now 77 and living in Middletown, Ky. Her youngest child, son Tim Boggs of Lexington, is 62. Daughter Priscilla Jo “Bokey” Hogan lives in Tennessee, while daughters Sonja Kohl and Rebecca Mohn both live in Shelbyville, Ky. Daughter Eula Brown lives on Cowan. Son Harrison III lives on Kingscreek, as do her daughter Dallas “Deanie” Pack and son Kendall “Bill” Boggs.
When asked if she had any advice for others who hope to live a long, health and productive life, Mrs. Boggs offers the following advice: “A little hard work never hurt anybody. Set your mind to whatever you want to do and you’ll accomplish it. Whatever you want to do, bear down and do it.”
Is her choice of diet responsible for her enjoying such good health at age 96? That depends, said a smiling John Cornett, who helps Mrs. Boggs with her meals and other household chores.
“She loves fried foods,” said Cornett, the brother-inlaw of Kendall Boggs. “If it’s fried she’ll eat it. She loves her honeybuns and Moon Pies. She says, ‘I’m 96; I’m going to eat what I want.”