Two major fires, both occurring about a decade apart in the month of February, left their mark on the communities of Neon and Fleming.
In the February 27, 1947 edition of The Mountain Eagle, published 66 years ago this week, an unusually large headline for the paper at that time screams across the top of the front page in all capital letters, “Disastrous Fire At Neon.” The fire, which broke out in a small restaurant, destroyed a whole city block including the post office and jail.
Today, the main topic concerning the Letcher County School System is whom the board of education will hire to take Supt. Anna Craft’s position when she retires June 30. In February 1958, talk about the county schools centered on whether the Letcher County Board of Education could afford the cost of building a new school to replace Fleming-Neon High School, which burned to the ground on February 12, 1958.
The 1948 fire broke out about 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, February 26 in Jimmie’s Grill, a small restaurant that had been purchased recently by Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Marcum. In addition to the restaurant, jail and post office, the fire destroyed Craft’s Cafe, The People’s Store, Charles Hazen’s store, and two small homes near the railroad that were owned by Sam Hush and N. Wise.
The fire apparently was started by an overheated stove and defective flue. Buildings damaged by the fire included Tucker’s Cafe, the Bentley Theatre, Sam Webb’s Barber Shop, the Mack Bentley building and restaurant adjoining W.S. Tolliver’s Hardware store, the N. Wise Store, the Sam Hush Dept. Store, Abdoo and McKinney Jewelry and Neon Drug Store.
According to The Eagle, the Jenkins and Whitesburg fire departments assisted Fleming and Neon firefighters. Together, said the paper, the four departments “helped save many other buildings and possibly the complete destruction of the entire town.”
“The heroic work and strenuous efforts of many of the town’s citizens was largely responsible in checking the raging blaze — a quick change in the blowing of the wind also possibly saved many of the buildings,” the report added.
The Eagle also reported that the Charles Hazen family suffered the heaviest loss in the fire. Not only did the Hazens lose their store and all the stock in it, they also lost their upstairs home and all furnishings.
“(The) next heavy loser was Mr. Sam Hush and family,” the report said. “They also lived in an upstairs apartment (and) lost all of their household furnishings, escaping with only their night clothes and one trunk. The Hush store was also severely damaged by fire and water.”
Losses suffered by Thomas B. Cury, owner of The People’s Store, were “also great due to his heavy stock of clothing and jewelry, estimated at $35,000,” the report continued. “James M. Caudill was a very heavy loser, his grocery stock, fixtures and building being a total loss and valued at $25,000. The post office of which Mr. Caudill is postmaster was a complete loss.
“The Neon City Hall and jail was demolished, brick walls being all that is left. A number of parking meters that had been stored in City Hall were destroyed by fire.
“Among others who were displaced because of the fire were: Mrs. Daisy Hazen, household goods and merchandise loss; Vido Burkovich and family, loss of household furnishings and clothing; Margaret and Mildred Hall, loss of clothing and personal items; Rosa B. Cury, sister of Thomas B. Cury, who was visiting her brother, lost clothing and jewelry; Miss Rose Wilson lost her home and clothes.”
The Eagle’s report also said “many people in Neon were high in their praise of Mr. Sam Franklin and Jack Craft Jr., who fought (the fire) constantly and possibly were responsible for saving the Bentley Theatre and the spread of the blaze to other buildings.”
“Those who witnessed the fire stated that the entire group of buildings were destroyed in about 40 minutes,” the report continued. “In the midst of all the excitement a number of persons stated that several articles of clothing and jewelry were stolen.”
The paper also indicated that few if any of the properties destroyed or damaged were covered by insurance.
The fire at Fleming-Neon High School in February 1958 was the second major building disaster to strike the county school system since shortly after Christmas, when the six-room Seco Grade School burned and forced the school system to other schools for classes. Both burned out buildings were among the best in the county.
Adding greatly to the troubles was the fact the county had no money at the time with which to build a new building to replace Fleming-Neon High.
On February 20, 1958, pupils at Fleming-Neon started attending classes on a double-shift schedule. Grade school pupils were in class from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. High school students attended classes in the grade school from 12:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The 380 pupils who attended Fleming-Neon High School had been left without a place to go to class since the fire, which occurred a week earlier. The fire was discovered in the teachers’ lounge at the school at about 6 p.m. on February 12. Firemen from Fleming and Neon, Jenkins and Whitesburg fought the flames but were unable to save any portion of the building.
The fire could be seen for several miles and attracted a large crowed of onlookers. Efforts to fight the blaze were hampered by frozen water supplies. One volunteer fireman, 33-year-old Calvin Tackett of Jenkins, was slightly injured when he fell from a ladder while fighting the flames.
Letcher Schools Superintendent W.B. Hall said he didn’t know what the county could do about building a replacement for the school.
“It would cost at least $400,000 to put in a building that would fill the need,” Hall said. “A lot of people think that we have lots of money and can do anything we want. But we don’t.”
Hall said the state had no funds available to replace the school, either.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. William Martin agreed with Hall, saying that if every school building in Letcher County burned down the state still could provide no help.
Supt. Hall called on the people of Letcher County to “start thinking” about the possibility of voting a special tax to replace the school.
Mountain Eagle editor Tom Gish wrote in an editorial that the rebuilding of the Fleming-Neon school “must be the number one objective of the county and its school board.”
“The school is known throughout Kentucky, and not without reason,” the editorial said. “Over the years it has built up a distinguished record in high school athletics. Equally important, it has graduated many pupils who have grown into men and women holding important and respected positions no only in Letcher County, but throughout Kentucky and in other states.
“The county cannot afford to do without a Fleming Neon High School,” the editorial added.
Eventually, the county school board chose to finance construction of a new Fleming-Neon High School and other new buildings and remodeling projects in the county through the issuance of 20-year bonds that could be used for classrooms only.
On May 21, 1960, a new 14-classroom building to house Fleming-Neon High School was dedicated. Supt. Hall was the master of ceremonies. Dr. Martin, who had left his state superintendent’s job and was now Kentucky’s commissioner of finance, was the guest of honor. The dedication was held at 1 p.m., four hours after the new 24-classroom Letcher Consolidated School buildings were dedicated near Jeremiah.
Both school buildings were designed by D.E. Perkins, an architect from Harlan. Because the county school system was broke and the bonds couldn’t be used on anything besides classrooms, it would be several more years before Fleming-Neon and Letcher got new gymnasiums.
Use of the old Fleming- Neon Gym ended after another fire heavily damaged the frame structure on the night of November 11, 1959.
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908
February 22, 1923
In his front-page column “Local and Personal,” Mountain Eagle editor Nehemiah M. Webb calls for repairs to be made on two very dangerous “winds” [curves] on the public highway above the Sam Blair place in Whitesburg [Tunnel Hill] and near the community of Sergent. “Considering the cost of fixing these places and warding off the probabilities of deaths occurring at them in the coming year this matter should be given attention,” Webb writes.
One front-page advertisement announces that Dr. E. Skaggs is selling his “5-cent to $1” store because he is leaving town. Another seeks buyers for one 57-inch mine mule, one 44-inch mine mule, and one 47-inch mine pony at Cowan Creek Coal Co. in the community of Ice.
The Bottom Fork community is mourning the deaths of two young schoolgirls, 10 and 7, who drowned while attempting to use a foot log to cross the headwaters of Pound River at Flat Gap in Wise County, Virginia. The 10-year-old is the granddaughter of the late Uncle Miles Webb of Bottom Fork.
Miners Motor Company of Whitesburg announces the availability of the 1923 line of Studebaker cars, priced from as low as $975 for a 40-h.p. model to $2,750 for 7-passenger, 60-h.p. sedan. Boone Motor Company of Seco announces the price of the Dodge Touring Car will increase from $998 to $1,025 on April 1. KYVA Motor Company of Millstone is touting the Oakland “6” and its 15,000 mile guarantee. Slemp-Buick Company of Millstone has for sale a 1923 Buick Roadster — two-passenger, four-cylinder — for $865.
In an editorial concerning the February 17 shooting death of Capt. Frank M. Horn, superintendent of Coneva Coal Company of Chavies in Perry County, Eagle editor Webb warns of the scourge of bootlegging and the danger of bootleggers, such as the two men who allegedly killed Horn, a World War I veteran and former Perry County sheriff from Leatherwood, while Horn was checking on “a racket” coming from a house in the coal camp he operated. “In every land, no matter how bright the sun, how sweet the music or how chivalric the men, poison festers (and) rancorous cancers eat into the heart of happiness or spread gloom along the patch,” Webb writes. “One of these and likely the most dangerous is the bootlegger. … The Eagle would not be fulfilling its great and noble purpose if it did not perch on high ground under such occasions and scream with all its might.”
In a second editorial, Webb voices his support for Gov. Edwin Porch Morrow’s “initiative” for public education reform in Kentucky by improving the way textbooks were selected. “By ‘initiative’ we mean the appointing of a School Book Commission that will divorce schools from politics,” Webb writes. “… Since the good old State has gone hobbling along for so many years crippled almost to death with partisan educational ways, at all times falling deeper in the rut, it was truly time for a halt.”
February 25, 1943
In an open letter to the public, Letcher County Attorney J.L. Hays announces that his office will be using its statemandated power to investigate all applications for roadhouse licenses filed with the Letcher County Clerk’s Office and to make a recommendation to the Letcher County Judge as to whether the license should be granted. “At the present time there is a public sentiment against roadhouses and it is my opinion that this sentiment is justified as a thorough check of the crimes committed in this county will show that more than 80 percent of these crimes originate in or about roadhouses or are committed as a result of a visitation to a roadhouse,” Hays writes, adding that roadhouses operating without licenses “will be padlocked.” In a separate letter to the public, Letcher County Judge B.F. Wright says he supports the new crackdown announced by Hays.
Plans are being made for the opening of a new coal mining operation in the Sergent-Thornton area of Letcher County. Elkhorn Coal Company has leased from the Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company, the Wright Land Company, and the Letcher Land and Improvement Company 600 to 700 acres of coal lands, a report says.
Rev. Tom Hale, chairman of the Letcher County Liquor Control Association, reported to the Letcher County Ministerial Association earlier this week about the progress being made in the educational campaign and circulation of petitions looking toward a prohibition election in Letcher County this spring. The Association’s February meeting was held Monday night in the basement of Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church, Whitesburg.
Fires last week destroyed the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thursa Franklin of Millstone and damaged the Hub Liquor Store in Neon and the home of Sie Correll in the lower end of Haymond. Mrs. Franklin, a school teacher, had gone to Whitesburg to pick up her paycheck when the fire began at her home. While her husband, who worked nights in the mines, was upstairs sleeping, a young girl caught a curtain on fire while playing. No one was injured. The Correll home was damaged only slightly after a faulty flue caught fire.
In a letter to the editor, J.L. Holbrook writes to clarify an earlier report on a Fleming vs. Whitesburg high school basketball game that ended in controversy. Holbrook says the contest was called in Fleming’s favor by a game official identified as Mr. Russell of Jenkins when Whitesburg refused to go back on the court after Fleming scored a free throw to take a 33-32 lead with 50 seconds left to play.
Columnist Virginia Combs reports “the Friday afternoon train carried away four Letcher County boys who has been here on 10 days’ furlough from Fort Riley, Kansas. They were Pvt. Ralph Fields of Whitesburg, Pvt. Morris Maggard of Big Cowan, Pvt. Kermit Amburgey of Whitesburg, and Pvt. Lloyd Boggs of Partridge.”
February 26, 1953
The upper sections of Haymond and Potters Fork suffered extensive damage from flooding Monday when a Consolidation Coal Company mine pond broke while workers were preparing a site for a new drive-in theater. Workers were using dynamite to help drain the refuse pond, but apparently let off a bigger shot than they intended. Damage was done to several homes, wells and yards along U.S. 119.
WTCW, Whitesburg’s new radio station operating on 920 kilocycles with a capacity of 1,000 watts, will begin operation Friday morning at 6:15, according to Ken Crosthwait, general manager, and Dave Jordan, chief engineer.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals has ordered a recount in races for two seats on the Letcher County Board of Education in the November 1952 election. Goebel Adams and Ben Brown petitioned for the recount after both men lost to Kerney Day and Ray Collins by 15 votes. The Court of Appeals became involved in the case after Special Judge Barney Baker ruled the recount couldn’t go forward because Adams and Brown didn’t post the proper bond when their lawsuit seeking the recount was filed. Adams told The Mountain Eagle the outcome of the races is important because the Letcher County Board of Education will be selecting a new superintendent. Adams said he is obligated to former Superintendent Martha Jane Potter.
Professor C.V. Snapp, considered as one of the top educators in eastern Kentucky, was the guest speaker at Tuesday’s luncheon meeting of the Whitesburg Rotary Club. The guest of Letcher Schools Superintendent Dave L. Craft, Snapp, of Jenkins, talked about the need for better roads, equalization of taxes, and better pay for qualified teachers as requirements needed before education can improve in the mountains.
William H. Blair, better known as “Bill,” has announced he will be a Republican candidate for the office of state representative. Blair served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. He is married to Doll Craft, daughter of Virgie “Mother” Craft. They have two children, Bill Jr., 10, and Bobby Lee, 4.
“Leave the county and find employment elsewhere or remain in the county and do all possible to improve conditions. Which will it be?” Willard M. Gilliam of Mayking asks in an article dealing with the economic condition of Letcher County. “The coal mines, our basic industry, are operating only part time, the demand for coal not being great enough to keep them working full time. Competition from cheap fuel oil and other fuels has played a part in this weakening demand.”
“Wolves in the movie theater will wilt when they see Marilyn Monroe taking a shower,” says an advertisement promoting the new suspense drama “Niagara,” which stars Miss Monroe and will play at the Alene Theatre on March 1 and 2.
February 28, 1963
More than 200 cases of Asian flu have been reported in Letcher County. One hundred and forty students were absent from Letcher School because of the flu, and about 50 were absent from Jenkins schools.
The Letcher County Board of Education has voted to drop its redistricting plan. In a special called meeting, the board voted to leave the district boundaries as they area.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the subject of a book discussion planned at the Letcher County Public Library. The Rev. Charles Hansel, of Neon, is the leader of the discussion group.
Sharon Heights Hospital in Jenkins, one of the oldest hospitals in eastern Kentucky, announced it will be closing its doors March 7. The hospital has been operated by the Sisters of Divine Providence, a Catholic order, since 1948, when Consolidation Coal Co., which had built it, sold its Jenkins holdings to Bethlehem Mines Corporation.
March 1, 1973
Names of Letcher Countians killed in the Vietnam War are to be added to the war memorial in front of the courthouse. The fiscal court voted to add the names on motion of I.D. Back, who said he had preached funerals for a dozen Letcher County Vietnam War victims.
Mr. and Mrs. J. Harold Short made an emergency landing in their small airplane at Whitesburg Municipal Airport. The couple were flying to their home in Oklahoma City when the plane began to collect ice on its wings. Air traffic controllers in Indianapolis had directed them to the Hazard Airport when the Shorts spotted the Whitesburg Airport on the Letcher-Knott county line near Colson and landed.
An exhibit of works by Kentucky artists is on display at the Letcher County Public Library. Included are paintings by Letcher County native Doug Adams, Prestonsburg native Russell May and C. Don Ensor of Louisville.
Letcher Fiscal Court accepted and approved a plan to divide Letcher County into five magisterial districts, replacing the three-district commissioner system.
March 3, 1983
An increase in theft and burglary in Letcher County can be attributed to the county’s high unemployment rate, state police said. The county is average “10 or 12” thefts or break-ins a week, said KSP Trooper Ed Robinson, public affairs officer at Post 13 in Hazard.
Sheriff Ben “Buster” Taylor’s proposal to use county jail inmates to pick up litter was approved by the Letcher Fiscal Court. The court voted unanimously to begin the county’s first “Prisoner Community Work Program.”
The board of directors of the Letcher Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad voted to end the squad’s ambulance service, citing lack of funds. The organization is hopeful it can get an ambulance rolling again by July.
Ice correspondent Sara C. Ison says it will soon be housecleaning time. She says, “The old people really believed in a good quilt washing, house papering and sand scrubbing each spring.
March 3, 1993
Carolyn Smith and her husband, Anthony Smith, pleaded guilty in the murders of her parents and her mentally handicapped brother. The bodies of Sie and Judy Shepherd and their son Buster were found in the burned-out ruins of their trailer in August 1987.
The Whitesburg High School Yellowjackets defeated the Fleming-Neon Pirates in the opening game of the 53rd District boys’ basketball tournament.
Jenkins city officials are pressing for the Jenkins Independent Board of Education to refinance a bond issue and drop some of its taxes so the city can enact identical taxes to support a city ambulance service. The board of education has twice declined to vote on the issue.
Jeremiah correspondent Hassie Breeding says she has enjoyed feeding the birds over the winter. Among the birds she is feeding are crows and three cranes that appeared at her pond.
March 5, 2003
Houses that the Letcher County Board of Education paid more than $1 million for during the purchase of a site at Ermine for the proposed Letcher County Central High School sold at auction Saturday for about $13,000.
A bill that would eliminate any local regulation of the oil and gas industry is being pushed toward passage by the Kentucky General Assembly before its adjournment on Friday, despite opposition from local officials across southeastern Kentucky.
Jenkins residents will soon be paying more for garbage service. The city council voted this week to raise garbage rates by $1 a month for residential pickup and $1 per Dumpster per pickup for commercial users.
One of eight babies in Letcher County is born addicted to drugs, said Dr. N. Wade Baker.