A youngster’s journey to Letcher
By JADON GIBSON
Wise County, Virginia historian Charles A. Johnson grew up on his parent’s farm in Lee County, Virginia, which is just across the mountain from Bell and Harlan counties. He grew up reading adventure books about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Gulliver’s Travels and others. While still a boy he yearned to venture on a trip to visit his brother who was a schoolteacher in Letcher County, Kentucky.
The Johnsons counted on each family member to do daily tasks on the farm but during the winter of 1879 Charles’s constant pleas finally brought an affirmative reply from his folks. Though he was only 13 or 14 years old at the time, he was big and mature for his age.
“I’m going to Kentucky and I’m going all by myself,” he proudly told his schoolmates. “You’d better not go or you’ll get frozen like an icicle,” Petey Crigger answered.
“Yow or even worse, get et by a bear,” Eddie Pennington chimed in.
Charles gave little thought to the cold or to bears, panthers and such or even to the difficulty of the trip. He had only been to Pennington Gap and was thrilled to be setting out for Kentucky on his own. He felt it was high time he’d seen more than he had seen in his young life.
His folks felt he could make it to Day’s Store on the Kentucky side of Black Mountain in a single day. From there he could easily arrive at his destination the following day. His father discussed the route with Charles several times and had him repeat it back to make sure he knew the route he would take.
“Well, he knows the way and he’s big enough and strong enough,” his father told the boy’s mother. “If he’ll leave early he should be able to get to Day’s Store.”
Charles arose before dawn the following morning and after a quick breakfast he was on his way. Most of the trip was on old wagon roads and occasionally he would get a ride on a horse-pulled wagon. Young Johnson was buoyed by excitement and enthusiasm however and it kept him moving throughout the morning and into the afternoon when he arrived at Gilley’s Store in Big Stone Gap.
The store fascinated him. He’d only been in a few Lee County stores in his life and it made him feel sort of grown up to enter Gilley’s Store on his own. Charles treated himself to some brown sugar out of a barrel and soon thereafter he resumed his travel. A light rain began as he walked along Powell River and through the breaks of Little Stone Mountain. Soon it changed to a general downpour but Charles’ resolve wasn’t dampened. The excitement of his travels and a mental image of the successful completion of his travels helped ease his steps. Many times Charles opted to climb steep segments of the mountain when the alternative was to cross rain swollen streams. Johnson later wrote in A Narrative History of Wise County, Virginia that he eventually came upon a roaring creek that he couldn’t avoid.
“I was already drenched from the falling rain,” he wrote about crossing the stream. “The swiftness of the water frightened me. After fording the stream and reaching the bank on the other side I could hear and feel the cold water sloshing in my shoes. I finally had to stop and pour it out.”
Charles knew he must continue moving so he kept climbing. He knew it would soon be getting dark and his timetable called for him to reach the headwaters of the Cumberland River and Day’s Store on the other side of the mountain before nightfall.
Weariness and self-doubt set in as it began getting dark. It became evident to Charles that he wouldn’t be able to find Day’s store in the dark and he began to worry. A loud growl of a black bear, panther or some other beast, the lad wasn’t sure which, caused him to pick up his pace and before long he was atop Black Mountain. As he moved along he was startled to come upon an old man who was returning to his home from a visit in Kentucky.
“It’s still six miles to Day’s Store,” the old man said. “Night’s setting in and it’d be hard to find even for someone who knows these parts. I’ll tell ya’ lad, there’s a family that lives about a mile ahead on top of the mountain. They might take you in for the night. It’s old man Dan Richmond’s place.”
Charles, ice cold from the sleet and cold wind blowing on his wet body, picked up his pace with the chance of being in a warm dry place. Travel was a little easier as he moved along the top of Black Mountain and after a while Charles could hear someone ahead chopping wood. Soon he saw the mountain man and noticed that he had a dark-complexion, gray hair and white beard.
“Mister, I’se heading to Letcher over in Kentucky to visit my brother,” Charles began as the elderly man peered up at him. “Iffen I can stay the night I’d be most beholden to you. I’d help you get wood in.”
“Young man, we’se colored folk living hyeh but if you want to stay we’ll treat you as best we can,” the man answered kindly. “We don’t have much but you’re welcome to what we have. We don’t see many folks up here on the mountain. Up here it’s jes’ us and the Lawd.”
“Thank you,” Charles answered. “I do want to stay. Thank you so much! I do want to stay.”
Mr. Richmond’s kindness when young Johnson needed help so badly left the young lad in what he called “a splendid mood.” He was led into “a room that was aglow and filled with warmth.” He alternately sat and stood in front of the fire to dry out.
He could smell the aroma of cooking from the kitchen yet was surprised after several minutes when he was told to come in for supper.
“I hadn’t thought of getting to eat but I was truly blessed,” he recalled. “They had country ham with brown gravy, fried eggs, butter, sweet milk and flour biscuits. I was really surprised… so hungry I could hardly control himself. I felt good over having such a wonderful meal.”
The Richmonds had a family practice of reading a Bible scripture lesson each night before retiring. Mr. Richmond read a scripture lesson and then the family sang two or three hymns.
“ The melodies were sweeter than any I had ever heard before,” Charles Johnson wrote later in life. “The old man (Dan Richmond) followed with an emotional prayer. After another song the service ended. There in a humble mountain home, kneeling at a family altar, was a black family whose souls had been washed in the blood of the Lamb and made as white as snow. I was touched by the goodness of God as I had been touched by Mr. Richmond and his family.”
Charles was provided with a warm feather bed with clean sheets, plenty of top cover and he slept like a baby. He was up early for the family worship and breakfast.
“I thanked them for their hospitality and offered to pay them what little I had but they would accept nothing. I bade them a warm goodbye and left to resume my travel. As I plodded down the mountainside, I couldn’t help thinking how blessed I was to come upon and got to stay with the Richmond family.”
He marveled at God’s great wisdom, love, goodness and mercy. Through the blood of His crucified son, one may be black without but be made white within as were Dan Richmond and his family on Black Mountain.
Charles arrived at his brother’s house and had a nice visit before returning, uneventfully, to his father’s home in Lee County, Virginia, a few days later. It was a chapter in his life he would never forget. He thought about it often and it was an inspiration to him in writing A Narrative History of Wise County (Virginia).
Old man Dan Richmond was a slave of Gen. Jonathan Richmond, a descendent of one of southwest Virginia’s prominent families. Gen. Richmond leased the property atop Black Mountain to Dan Richmond who later purchased 200 acres there through his hard works.
Jadon Gibson, a graduate of Wheelwright High, Caney Junior College and the University of Kentucky, is a freelance writer living in Harrogate, Tennessee.
Clips from available Mountain Eagle pages since our founding in 1907
THURSDAY JANUARY 29, 1931
A Letcher Circuit Court jury has recommended a two-year prison sentence for Morgan Collier, who was charged with murdering railroad conductor Ed Stratton at a Whitesburg hotel in 1928. The killing took place at the J.I. Day Hotel on Main Street while Stratton was seated at a dining table with two women. After the shooting, Collier left the area and was never arrested until he returned here to surrender for trial. The jury deliberated one hour before returning its verdict after Tuesday’s one-day trial. Collier was sentenced immediately and left on the early train Wednesday morning for Frankfort, where he will serve the two years. “Collier is a son of Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Collier of Neon, and belongs to one of our best families,” says The Mountain Eagle’s frontpage report on the trial.
Mrs. Ollie Salyers, about 35, was tried and convicted in Letcher Circuit Court on yesterday and was sentenced to 10 years in the state reformatory for shooting and killing Ed Salyers, her brother-in-law, one year ago at McRoberts.
Ward Renaker and Lewis Ammerman, formerly associated with the business management of the Kyva Motor Company in Millstone and Whitesburg, will take over the management of the Combs Motor Company.
THURSDAY JANUARY 30, 1941
Candidates for county judge include G. Bennett Adams and Doyle Hogg. Running for jailer is Kermitt Combs, and running for justice of the peace in District 1 is Joe. I. Day
A revival, now in its fourth week, is going on at the courthouse in Whitesburg. It has been in progress for three weeks and will continue the rest of this week. The Reverend E. Waller is in charge, and large crowds are attending.
Always interested in the welfare of the community, County Judge James M. Crase and County Attorney G. Bennett Adams, on learning that the WPA was making a survey for the purpose of setting up copying units for the Tax Delinquency Survey, and realizing that there were certified workers in Letcher County who needed work and were qualified, they contacted the WPA authorities and were able to get one of these units for Letcher County.
Sheriff Doyle Hogg returned this week from a trip to LaGrange where he took four prisoners: Hillard Bates, two years for robbery; Claude Profitt, two years for housebreaking; Charlie Stacy, five years for attempted rape; and Richard Cook, 21 years for murder.
From The Mountain Eagle’s sister publication The Neon News:
FRIDAY JANUARY 31, 1941
Calvin Hall, a well-known citizen of Neon, was killed by a hit-and-run driver near his home as he was returning from his work on Friday. Calvin Hall was a World War veteran.
Blue Eagle Quilting Club had its first quilting of the season at the home of Mrs. Walter Lewis on January 23 with 12 members present. They quilted a quilt by the name of “All Around the World”. They completed the quilt and were ready to start home by 3 p.m.
William Cook, Middle Dry Fork School, correctly spelled “lodge” to become Letcher County’s Spelling Champion. His award is $5 and a trip to Louisville with the expenses paid by the Letcher County Board of Education. In Louisville, he will compete with the best spellers throughout Kentucky in the Spring Spelling Bee in April.
“Down Argentine Way” and “Gallant Sons” are playing at the McRoberts Theatre
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 1, 1951
A total of 18 teachers from the Letcher County School System have departed for elsewhere since September, Superintendent Dave Craft told a conference of county schoolteachers. The conference brought together 60 teachers from county schools for the purpose of instructional guidance in problems now facing the teaching industry as related to Letcher County. Craft said that the armed forces and industry were luring teachers from the county with better pay. As a result, the county has had to make use of 88 emergency teachers to solve the current teacher shortage in Letcher County.
Pvt. Charles G. Hawley, son of Mrs. Goldie Hawley of Fleming, is now serving with Company C, 712th T.R.O.B. in Korea. Pvt. Hawley flew to Japan from the State of Washington in 36 hours. He was in the reserves and was called back to duty October 18. He was a student at Fleming High School before entering the Army.
A total of $371.90 has been received by the March of Dimes, it was reported by Mrs. W.P. Nolan, campaign chairman. The sum represents $232.06 from persons and businesses in the county and $138.84 from 14 county schools.
High for last week in the Letcher County Bowling League was a 199 game chucked by Mrs. Lennie Gray of Whitesburg. Man’s high for the session was bowled by Joe Newell of Jenkins with a 184 frame.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 2, 1961
Dolly Edison, 30, of Seco, has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of her husband, Morris Edison, 32. The Edisons were parents of five children ranging in age from 12 years to four months. Edison was shot as he entered the back door of the Edison home. Deputy Sheriff Jim Short said, “We asked her how come this to happen and she said she shot him. She was afraid he would come in and whip her.”
Ten members of the Combs family of Whitesburg narrowly escaped death when they were overcome by gas at their home. All 10 were staying at the home of Mrs. Herman Combs Sr., who awoke about 3:30 a.m. Monday feeling ill. She aroused other members of her family, all of them only semi-conscious. A member of the family said the near-tragedy was caused by a defective furnace. The furnace, installed recently, was fed from a gas well 10 or 15 feet behind the Combs home.
A fire destroyed the bathhouse of the Marlowe Coal Co. at Marlowe, immediately to the rear of the company store. Whitesburg and VFW firemen brought the blaze under control before there was any damage to the store itself. Contents of the bathhouse were destroyed, including the work clothes and costly work shoes and safety hats worn by many Marlowe coal miners.
Army Pvt. Charles Kelly, Jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Day of Whitesburg, was recently assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. Kelly entered the Army last July and completed basic training at Fort Knox. He attended Whitesburg High School.
THURSDAY JANUARY 28, 1971
The U.S. Bureau of Mines plans to release its findings tomorrow regarding the Finley Coal Co. explosion which killed 38 miners in Leslie County last December 30. Among other things from the findings, the Bureau of Mines will reportedly ask the Justice Department to pursue prosecution of the Finley Coal Co. under Section 109 of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
Expectations are that a contract will be awarded sometime in May for construction of the new West Whitesburg Elementary School. County School Superintendent Kendall Boggs told a group of Whitesburg area parents and teachers that financial arrangements have been approved by the State Department of Education for the $1,400,000 structure, and that the architect’s plans have received preliminary approval.
A local group announced this week that it plans to stage an outdoor drama based on the novel, “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.” The novel, by John Fox, Jr., uses the Kingdom Come area of Letcher County as a locale, and several characters were based upon Letcher County personalities at the turn of the century. Airman Jasper C. Hall, son of Mr. and Mrs. Johnnie W. Hall of Whitesburg, has graduated at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, from the U.S. Air Force mechanic course. Hall has been assigned to Selfridge AFB, Mich., for duty with the Air Force Reserve.
THURSDAY JANUARY 29, 1981
Indications are that Letcher County is heading into the worst drought since 1931. A severe water shortage has plagued the City of Jenkins since last fall. Residents all over the county are reporting wells, creeks and springs that have gone dry before are drying up now. During January, Letcher County has received less than a half inch of precipitation, nearly three and a half inches less than the level normally expected for this month. The drought apparently began in September.
“Miner’s Manual” — a book to help miners save their own lives — was published with the help of a Ford Foundation grant. The author is J. Davitt McAteer and the editor is Thomas N. Bethell. Both are former employees of the United Mine Workers of America union, McAteer as staff safety director and Bethell as a research director. Bethell also is a frequent writer-reporter for The Mountain Eagle. The manual grew out of frustration that so many miners still are being killed despite strong mine health and safety legislation enacted by Congress in 1977. The mining industry remains the most dangerous in the United States. In 1980, for example, 228 miners were killed on the job and 40,246 suffered serious injuries.
Contract talks between the United Mine Workers and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association opened last week with both sides confident they can work out an agreement without a work stoppage.
Residents of eastern Kentucky’s coal mining counties are being asked to help locate dangerous abandoned mine sites. State officials are beginning to inventory abandoned mine lands and determine the extent of the problem in order to get funding to reclaim potential hazards, said Dave Rosenbaum, director of the Division of Abandoned Lands of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 30, 1991
Letcher County suffered the second highest percentage of population loss in the eastern Kentucky coalfields during the 1980s, according to new 1990 census figures. The latest count released by the Census Bureau shows that Letcher County lost 3,687 residents — 12 percent of its 1980 population — between 1980 and 1990.
Residents of Kodak in Perry County say that Letcher County’s stricter law enforcement on coal trucks has caused truck drivers to bypass Letcher County by traveling their road and that the heavily loaded trucks have destroyed it. Perry County Judge/Executive Sherman Neace said truck traffic has destroyed about a mile of blacktop on the county road up Montgomery Creek and has also damaged the state-maintained road that runs from the mouth of Montgomery, through Kodak and out to KY 15 at Vicco. The Whitesburg Lady Yellowjackets outscored the M.C. Napier Lady Navajos 22-9 in the second quarter and went on to defeat their 14th Region rivals. s
Twenty-three-year-old Willard Eldridge, son of William and Elma Eldridge of Letcher, is a Navy machinist’s mate serving on the dock landing ship USS Pensacola in the Persian Gulf. The Pensacola has been in the Middle East since September. Eldridge is a 1985 graduate of Letcher High School.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 31, 2001
Funeral services for Elder I.D. Back, 76, were held January 26 at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Blackey. The Reverend Back helped organize the Mt. Olivet Church and has been the church’s only moderator.
Kentucky Department of Highways officials hope the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will approve a route for new US 119 across Pine Mountain by mid-2002.
Two armed men forced a store employee to let them in the back door of AutoZone at Whitesburg Plaza and stole several thousand dollars from the safe, police say.
Internet access up to 50 times faster than that possible over conventional phone lines should be available in Whitesburg this summer. BellSouth will make an announcement in two weeks, outlining exactly where and when the service will be offered.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 2, 2011
An immature bald eagle found injured in Dry Fork last week will be released near the Letcher County Extension Office today. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officials gave the okay on Tuesday afternoon to release the bald eagle back to the wild. Employees of the Extension Office are inviting the public to watch the eagle fly. A Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist will place a metal ring around the eagle’s foot with a number on it so it can be identified if it is ever found again.
Citing a lack of money, the Letcher County Sheriff’s Department will suspend its 24-hour dispatching services beginning Sunday. “The funds have been cut so much and it is just getting harder and harder to keep the office going the way I am doing it,” said Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb. As of February 5, dispatching services in the sheriff’s department will operate until midnight on weekdays and until 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and be closed on Sundays. Sheriff’s deputies will still be available and will be dispatched by the 911 center at the Kentucky State Police Post 13 in Hazard.
Kentucky has received $1 million in federal funding to help protect streams in coalfield regions. State Department of National Resources officials say the funding will be used to develop and construct projects to reduce acid mine drainage into the waterways.
Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College will host an open house on February 11 to mark the college’s 50th anniversary. During the event visitors will view a video tribute to the college, “The Southeast Story.”