Mabel Kiser’s Millstone Sewing Center changed lives for the better
An excerpt from a 40-year-old Mabel Kiser column that ran in The Mountain Eagle’s “Way We Were” section triggered memories. Like other regular Eagle correspondents such as Siller Brown and Sara Ison, Mabel combined deep insights with graceful wording, shifting easily from redbud winter and woolly worms to family reunions and recollections of hard but valued old days and ways. To read Mabel and Siller and Sara was to understand all that was right about eastern Kentucky. “There’s something about a mountain that makes you know that God’s God,” was typical Mabel.
But she was also keenly aware of what was wrong and worked to change it. In an era when poverty – let alone dealing with it – has fallen (or been pushed) off the national stage, we need to remember that Mabel and her Millstone Sewing Center proved how relatively small federal investments in locally run and managed program can reap lasting, even life-changing benefits.
Born in 1913, Mabel remembered crossing the mountains into Letcher County on the back of the family mule during the Great Depression. In 1930, she met her future husband Blaine. “The first time I saw him, he was coming down the hill as black as he could be from working in the mines,” she told me when I sat down with her in the early 1980s to record some of her memories. Blaine kept digging coal until black lung forced him to quit 40 years later. The Kisers built a home at the head of a hollow in Millstone, growing as much of their own food as they could and hoping the mines would stay open. But the mines began to close, and like so many others in Letcher County, the Kisers faced long cycles of very hard times.
Not that Mabel ever felt sorry for herself. Or impoverished. “I didn’t know I was poor until the government told me,” she used to say. But by the early 1960s, with eastern Kentucky making it to the front lines of the federal war on poverty, Mabel wanted to take part. Not out of some sort of liberal zeal – Mabel was Republican and conservative – but as a matter of personal conviction shaped by her deep religious faith. So she got involved in community meetings and went to work at a Salvation Army store on Main Street in Whitesburg, next to the old Mountain Eagle office.
In December 1964, CBS aired “Christmas in Appalachia,” a documentary that portrayed the reality of poor children and struggling families in stark black and white. “Coal cars roll on through Christmas week, carrying the wealth of Appalachia away,” reported Charles Kuralt from Letcher County. “The cars carry coal, never people. The people wait. A million people wait.” Other national news outlets were discovering Appalachia. Reporters, politicians, college and church groups, and other visitors began flocking to Letcher County to see the rundown houses and slag heaps and to talk to Eagle publishers Tom and Pat Gish, whose powerful stories and editorials screamed far beyond the borders of Kentucky, and Harry Caudill, whose book, Night Comes to the Cumberland, helped thrust Appalachian poverty into the national consciousness.
One tangible result of all the publicity was the donated clothing – tons of it – that came pouring into the county. Though well-intended, much of it was useless. Men’s suits in size 46-long. Silk dresses for mountain winters. Shredded sweaters.
At the Salvation Army one day, Mabel borrowed 90 cents to buy two patterns for boys’ jackets, which she used to cut others from old newspapers. “Then we ripped up some old coats and made jackets the boys needed to be able to go to school. I’ve always felt that one reason so many poor children don’t get through school is because they’re ashamed to go if they can’t dress as well as the other students.”
Mabel’s idea for what would become the Millstone Sewing Center was simple: employ local people who need jobs to provide clothing to people who need it. But she had to convert concept to actual pro- gram. Beneath her always perfect bun of silver hair and kind eyes, Mabel could be tough and dogged. She persuaded a variety of sources to donate sewing machines and the Letcher County school board to turn over an abandoned school house on a hillside just over the bridge into Millstone. With the help of Tom and Pat Gish and powerful Congressman Carl D. Perkins, the Hindman Democrat and poverty war general, Mabel and her local Millstone board applied for funding to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Washington’s anti-poverty agency.
Mabel, who didn’t graduate from high school until she got her GED in 1964 when she was about 50, wasn’t fazed in the least about dealing with federal heavies. “I decided I’d just be me. If they liked me, that was fine and if they didn’t, that was too bad. They might notice my accent or bad grammar, but there would be no lack of communication between me and Washington as long as Washington was really wanting to hear what I’m saying.”
They heard and in 1967, the Millstone Sewing Center was officially born with an OEO grant.
Mabel started hiring people, many of them widows too young to collect Social Security survivor benefits. “Some of them were cleaning houses for 25 cents an hour just to get by. I couldn’t hire as many as I wanted on a full-time basis, so we had six women working two weeks at a time in alternating crews. For the first time in their lives, they had a job at federal wages. The jobs we gave them meant more than money. People cleaned up their houses, improved their standard of living and began to feel self-supporting. Some of these people had been poor for so long – three or four generations of poverty – that they were lacking in pride in a job well done. They learned that all over again.”
Mabel also worked with Millstone area boys and girls enrolled in another poverty war program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC). Those young people found much more than just work through the Sewing Center. Mabel took them far out of their hollows to fiscal court, to Frankfort, to meetings. “When they went out and saw what other people did and how they lived, they began to realize that these were people just like them who had strived to make something successful of themselves. The Sewing Center was a springboard from which these children could see things beyond the horizon. A door was opened up for them.”
And all the while, the Center was almost singlehandedly solving the problem of inadequate clothing for school kids and others in Letcher County. Take this excerpt from one of Mabel’s monthly reports from 1967: “Since November 1, the Sewing Center has serviced 20 families. Many large families. One order contained 16 shirts, four dresses, and three pairs of pants… A total of 208 garments have been made, 75 of these were for the County Board of Education…. An average of five quilts per week are made from old woolen scraps, such as worn out pants, coats and skirts. These are ripped up and [NYC] girls put them together. Then the seamstresses bind the quilt edges from an old shirt if we have the shirts and if not we bind them with whatever we have on hand.” (Several of us Eagle reporters used those quilts, which Mabel sold to us for $5 each, for decades).
“I believe in the chain of life,” Mabel said. “Someone would donate clothes and we’d end up with them. Then we taught people how to fix them, giving them pride in a job. The clothes would go to someone who needed them, which would inspire them to go to school or to do better.”
Mabel, who told all comers about not wasting even the squeal of a pig, got every ounce of service out of the Center. Besides jobs and clothes, the Center’s driver drove isolated people to their medical appointments. NYC boys learned carpentry and NYC girls made Christmas dinners attended by up to 50 people.
But the Center’s very success would end up dooming its future. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Washington wanted Mabel to enlarge her program, to extend it to surrounding counties. The Sewing Center was local and simple, but Washington wanted systemic and regionalized. Yet OEO never gave Mabel the budget she needed to scale up – and in any case, Mabel was never about big programs. By the early 1970s, the Millstone Sewing Center was out of funds and out of business.
“Maybe the name was a mistake,” Mabel pondered a decade later. “To Washington, ‘Sewing Center’ just meant a bunch of little old ladies in a sewing circle. But we did so much more.”
People like Mabel showed a nation that a war on poverty can be both worthy and winnable. “Poor people know what they need but not how to get it,” she said. “If the federal government really meant it when they said they wanted to help the grass roots, they’d have tried to listen to the grass roots. We were just local people trying to solve a problem.”
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1908
March 25, 1943
Whitesburg Mayor S.M. Childers is urging all residents and business owners in the city to give to the Red Cross War Fund Drive now in progress.
A Letcher County woman working in Detroit as part of the war effort was blinded recently while working for the Chrysler Corporation. Vella Banks Adams was doing precision work under a very high-powered light when she suddenly lost her sight, said her husband, Curtis Adams. Doctors are unsure whether she has any chance of regaining her sight.
An 11-year-old McRoberts schoolboy lost both legs and an arm when he was run over by an empty freight train headed to a mine. The boy, Alfred Whitt, was orphaned and staying with relatives here. He was taken to the Jenkins Hospital for treatment, but doctors had little hope he would survive the injuries.
Approximately one-half of the American housewife’s weekly food budget will be rationed when point-rationing of meats, fats and cheeses goes into effect March 29. The approximate amounts which each civilian can purchase are: Sugar, eight ounces weekly; Coffee, one pound every five weeks; Canned foods, four cans monthly; Meat, two pounds weekly; Butter, four ounces weekly; Cooking fats, eight ounces weekly. Foods not being rationed for the war effort include fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh and dried fish, bread and milk.
A Linefork infant, 1-1/2 years old, drowned when she was swept away by waters in the swollen Line Fork of the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The child went missing after she wandered too close to the creek bank and fell in. Family began searching frantically after finding the baby’s cap near the creek bank. Her body was recovered about a mile downstream.
A South East Coal Company employee was electrocuted in the company’s Seco mine on Sunday. George Johnson of Millstone died after he came into contact with a hightension wire. Survivors include eight children and his wife. He was buried in the family cemetery on upper Rockhouse.
Soldier Adam Moretz was reported missing in action in North Africa this week, about 18 months after he joined the U.S. Army. Moretz, who grew up at Partridge in Cumberland River area of Letcher County, had been married to his wife, Nancy Jane Mullins, only a short time before he went into the service. The couple have a three-month-old son.
Mrs. Lindsay Polly of Jenkins is sharing a letter with readers this week that she received from her brother, Pfc. H. Herbert Mullins, who is stationed somewhere in the Pacific.
“I don’t want to upset you, but I do want you all to know just what I have been through,” Mullins wrote. “I have faced problems I never through possible. Yes, I have been on the front lines fighting the Japs for a period of time. I fought shoulder to shoulder with some of my best soldier friends that I shall never see again.
“I have some Jap souvenirs, money, etc., (and) I will send them home later,” Mullins continued in his letter home. “The only souvenir I am anxious to take back home is myself, but we all have a job to do. … I have lost some weight, but hope I am in a place to gain it back now.
“Please don’t worry about me. I have come safely through dodging lead, bombs and shellfire so far, and with God’s help I will carry on and see you in the future. If I should go down with a load on my back, my chin will be up and I’ll be fighting like a man.
“I will close praying to see you all again in the near future.”
March 26, 1953
The House Public Works Committee will hold a hearing in Washingon next month on the proposed canalization of the Big Sandy River, a project long advocated by eastern Kentuckians. South East Coal Company President Harry LaViers has been appointed to a committee charged with hiring an engineer and rate analyst for the project.
A 25-year-old Jackhorn woman died became the first person to die in an automobile accident in Letcher County in 1953 after the car she was driving plunged over a cliff near Deane. Phyllis Joy Ring died March 22 after losing control of the vehicle when she swerved to avoid hitting a young boy on a bicycle. Her husband, Lee Graham Ring, suffered minor injuries in the mishap and was being treated at the Fleming Hospital. The couple were returning to Jackhorn after visiting relatives of Mrs. Ring in her native Floyd County. The couple’s three-year-old son was not traveling with them when the accident occurred.
Letcher County Judge Robert B. Collins, Road Engineer Roy C. Crawford and members of the Letcher Fiscal Court have been invited by Governor Lawrence W. Weatherby to attend the Kentucky Highway Conference in Lexington April 2 and 3.
Serving in Korea with the U.S. Army Nurse Corps is Capt. Riparata R. DeSimone of McRoberts, who is operating room supervisor at the 121st Evacuation Hospital. She is a graduate of Berea College.
Ballard Clay has reopened his service station at Pine Mountain Junction. Clay’s previous station in the same location was destroyed by fire.
Former Consolidation Coal Company employee Tony Dann is now a full-time salesman for Harlow Motor Company in Neon.
Three men were being treated in the Jenkins Hospital for injuries they received in a car crash near Leatherwood. The men, all from Letcher County, had been spotted driving through Whitesburg at a high rate of speed. Sometime after the 1942 Buick Roadmaster in which the three were riding was stopped by night patrolman Oda Amburgey and Fire Chief Remious Day, the vehicle became involved in a race from Jeff in Perry County to Leatherwood, where the accident occurred. They wrecked in a curve, knocking down three or four posts, and jumped a railroad track before plowing into a 1952 Studebaker. One of the men, a soldier on leave, is scheduled to be returned to the military hospital at Fort Knox for further treatment.
Cadet George Hendry, son of Mr. and Mrs. H.H. Hendry of Jenkins, is a member of the Virginia Tech Regimental Band of Blacksburg, Va. The marching band, known as the Highty Tighties, won the grand prize in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C.
The 60-piece Morehead State College Band has begun its annual band concert tour. Letcher Countians in the band, all of Jenkins, are: Sue Killen Dunham (flute); Margaret Swindall (oboe); Larry Hillman (trombone); Bill Boy (bass), and Phyllis Adams (percussion).
March 28, 1963
The American Red Cross has spent $11,557.25 for flood relief to Letcher County residents. The Small Business Association is also opening an office in Letcher County to accept applications for loans from victims of the recent flooding.
Forty-three miles of the Mountain Parkway — between Winchester and Campton — are now in use. On the road from Campton to Whitesburg, 6.8 miles are complete and 1.8 miles are under construction between Jackson and Van Cleve.
The Letcher County Health Department is setting up three clinics to give the Sabin oral vaccine to residents to rid the county of polio.
Dickie Everidge of Fleming-Neon High School has been named basketball player of the year in the Eastern Kentucky Mountain Conference. Also named to the all-EKMC team are Jerry Coots and R.D. Jones, both of Whitesburg, and Phillip Greer and C. Conley, Jenkins.
March 29, 1973
Prospects that Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation will receive $1.2 million in federal funds in order to continue in business another year are bright. Lois Baker, acting director of MCHC, and 19 other local residents including County Judge Robert Collins have gone to Washington, D.C. and obtained the recommendation of the Office of Health Affairs in the Office of Economic Opportunity for another year of financing from the federal government.
Parents and students got their first look at the new West Whitesburg Elementary School during an open house.
Elephant leg jeans for girls are the spring special at Cohen’s in Norton, Va. The jeans are on sale for $7.99 and $8.99.
Jeremiah correspondent Hassie Breeding tells the story of a man who instead of the lunch his wife had prepared, ended up with two pounds of onion sets in his lunch sack.
March 31, 1983
Several hundred Letcher Countians gathered to celebrate the Whitesburg High School Lady ‘Jackets’ triumphant return from Richmond, where they were runners-up in the Girls’ State High School Basketball Tournament. The Lady ‘Jackets were undefeated, going into the tournament and beat Clay County, Louisville Atherton, and Laurel County before falling to the number one ranked Warren County Lady Dragon, 57-49, in the title game.
Hospital workers ratified a new wage agreement between Appalachian Regional Hospitals Inc. and the United Steel Workers union. The employees ratified the new three-year contract by more than a 3-to-1 margin.
The Letcher County Board of Education has filed suit against the Whitesburg Letcher County Industrial Foundation, seeking to obtain the Whitesburg industrial site as a site for a new high school building.
Mayking correspondent Elizabeth Morton warns readers to be on the lookout for April Fool’s Day. “Somebody may be trying to fool you,” she says.
March 31, 1993
A Dark and Bloody Ground, a true-crime book detailing a 1985 murder and robbery at Fleming-Neon, is scheduled to be in bookstores soon. The book by Darcy Brown tells of the brutal murder of Tammy Dee Acker and the attempted murder and robbery of $1.9 million from her elderly father, Dr. Roscoe Acker.
Funeral services were held for Lonnie E. Howard, 22, former Van resident who was killed while working as a police officer in southern Indiana. Howard was one of two policemen killed when a motorist slammed into their cruiser in North Vernon, Ind.
Nine-year-old Justin Cornett of Blackey, son of Carlos and Connie Cornett, wrote his name and address on a balloon, filled it with helium and sent it aloft just after Valentine’s Day. He recently received a letter from a woman saying she had found the balloon in a wooded area at Woodstock, Va.
The University of Kentucky Wildcats advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament with a Southeast Regional win over Florida State. The Wildcats will play the Michigan Wolverines in the semi-final game.
April 4, 2003
State, federal and local officials announced grants totaling $1.3 million to the Letcher County School District this week for construction of a new central high school at Ermine.
Kentucky State Police are investigating the apparent homicide of a two-year-old child who was in foster care. Dakota Austin Yonts of Mayking died March 27 at Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital about an hour after he was taken to the emergency room.
Police say a Payne Gap couple’s home was being used as an illegal pawn shop — trading drugs and cash for stolen guns, tools and electronic equipment that the couple then resold for a profit.
Jim Haynes, a retired Navy veteran, suggested that The Mountain Eagle publish a list of local soldiers stationed in the Middle East so Letcher County residents could send letters to them. The names and addresses of six men and a woman serving in the military are listed.