In this world there are dreamers and there are doers. Alone, they may accomplish little but in concert they are the ‘stuff’ that makes up the American entrepreneurial spirit. Jack Looney and his wife Sandra of Seco are the epitome of this formula. “My wife and kids have all of the good ideas,” said Jack. “I’m the doer; everything we have accomplished is the result of their ingenuity. I just make it happen.”
I caught up with Jack on an unseasonably warm (70 degrees) November afternoon on top of a mountain between Barlow Branch in Neon and the head of No. 2 Hollow of Seco. The area had been surface mined prior to 1986. Jack was there running his tractor with an attached cultivator through one of his vineyards while three of his workers heaped piles of dirt around the base of each grapevine to protect it through the winter. A fertilizer stick was stuck in each mound of dirt to help build strong roots through the winter. In the springtime the dirt will be raked away and the plant fertilized again with typical 10-10-10 fertilizer (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous) to grow healthy vines and a bountiful crop of grapes.
This small vineyard consists of 100 merlot plants that grow a red grape used to make a dry wine. The plants originated in France and are grafted to a native possum grape root to adapt it to the mountain soil and climate. This small plot is just a fraction of the 13 acres total where he grows nine varieties of grapes which are used to make about 20 different wines. At harvest time in September and October the vineyards yield about 4,000 gallons of juice. In a typical year they sell approximately 20,000 bottles of wine from their Highland Winery located in the old Seco Company Store built by South East Coal Company. The basement of the building stays at approximately 55 degrees which is ideal for the fermenting process.
“The winery was my daughter Jeanie’s idea,” said Jack. “She has a college degree in food chemistry and science and she directed us in the winemaking process. We got a federal license to make wine in 1998 but we could not sell it in a ‘dry’ county. My daughter got aggravated and moved to Nashville, Tenn., where she became an investment broker for the ING Company. She was later transferred to Lexington where she and her husband bought a 30-acre farm in Fayette County. She yearned to continue the winemaking trade so they began growing their own grapes and making their own wine which is marketed under the Jean Farris Winery label. Meanwhile we got a wet-dry vote in the Seco precinct in 2001 and to the amazement of many people the initiative passed and we were allowed to begin selling our wine at the former Seco Company Store which we acquired and turned into a winery/ bed and breakfast. We had over 5,000 gallons of wine on hand before we were allowed to begin marketing it.” Letcher County had been dry since 1948.
One of their most popular wines is Miner’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, which is labeled to commemorate the lives of the coal miners. Their wines sell well all year around but sales are especially robust when they are sold in gift packages around Christmas time. Jack plans to plant a vineyard of seedless table grapes soon to sell to food stores.
Jack recalled the series of events which evolved into a successful marriage and business partnership with his wife Sandy. “We met when we were in the seventh grade. I lived in Seco and she lived at Democrat, near Deane. We went on a field trip to the Colson School and met there. I told her then that I was going to marry her someday and she thought I was crazy. I didn’t see her again for two years when we both were enrolled at Fleming- Neon High School. We began dating right away and we have been together ever since. In high school I played every sport and spent every afternoon in the gymnasium or on the ball field. Sandy spent her time in the classroom; she was an honor student.
“I quit high school when I was a junior and hitchhiked to Chicago, Ill. I got a job at a meat packing plant and worked another job at night. After a month I had enough money saved to come home and get Sandy. She dropped out of school too and we went to Clintwood, Va., and got married. We moved to Chicago where I continued working and both of us went to night school and got our high school diplomas. When our daughter Jeanie was born we decided that Chicago was no place to raise a family.”
After two years they had saved some money and moved back to Seco to build a new home. Jack worked various jobs for a year or so then they decided to move to Park City near Mammoth Cave. He worked a period for Chrysler AirTemp Corporation then decided to go into the dairy business. They bought a small farm and 50 milk cows. They then bought a meat market in Glasgow and operated it for a couple years.
About 1975 they came home for a visit and decided to buy 300 acres of mountain land where the vineyards grow today. After some business reversals through the winter of 1976-77 they decided to sell their farm and store and move back to Seco. Jack started the J.L. Looney Contracting business and worked for J.D. Larkey’s Standard Oil Company delivering fuel oil through the winter and repairing tanks the rest of the year.
“I will always be grateful to J.D.,” said Jack. One day he came to me and said ‘let’s go to the bank, I’m going to cosign for you to buy a backhoe’. He then gave me a contract to build the Chevron filling station at Neon Junction. My brother Bill and my wife Sandy built the building and I did the plumbing, wiring and tank installation. I ended up building seven stations for J.D. and I’ve built over 200 stations for various companies around eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia since then. I also built the garage and bay area for the Neon Fire Department and I did considerable earth moving where the Mountain Pride Apartments are built at Goose Creek.
“I would never have gotten anywhere in my career without Sandy,” said Jack. “I was not a very studious person when it comes to books; I wasn’t a very good reader. I needed all of these certifications in the contracting business so Sandy would read the books and teach me then I would go and take the test. I became a licensed electrician, plumber, pipe fitter, corrosion engineer and I am licensed to handle hazardous materials. In my line of business I deal with underground storage tanks, installing new ones and replacing old ones. Many times I reclaim material from deteriorated tanks and ship it to various points wherever the Environmental Protection Agency wants it shipped. Most of my business is with old gasoline filling stations and bulk oil plants.”
After their mountain land was surfaced mined, Jack and Sandy decided to turn it into some kind of farming endeavor. Sandy did the research and found that various evergreen trees and grapes are suitable crops in dry, nonfertile soil. After many years of hard work Jack has planted a half million seedlings, 72 acres, which are sold mostly for Christmas trees. The white pine and Scotch pine have proven most suitable for the industry. The trees are pruned often to get the desired shape and fullness needed to be sold for Christmas trees. Each year he sells approximately 20,000 trees after they have grown to the desirable 8- foot height. This year he has orders to ship trees to New York, Chicago and Bowling Green. The trees are purchased by the Catholic Church for resale. Locally he sells trees at the winery and he will allow people to come to the farm and choose their own tree. He also sells seedlings to surface mines to be used for reclamation.
Jack recalls how he and Sandy came about owning the old company store building. “The building had become an eyesore from years of neglect. Sandy and I had discussed buying it and either rehabilitating it or tearing it down and building a new home. One day I was returning from a job in Tennessee with my crew of workers. As we approached our neighborhood I was talking on my CB radio to one of my workers in another truck. I said, ‘I want you to look at all of that garbage and junk sitting outside the old store. I wonder who made a mess like that.’ I stopped in front of the store and Sandy came out and said ‘unload that backhoe off your truck and load up this junk; you just bought this place!’ I knew in advance that it would be a huge undertaking. I could stand in the basement and see the sky through three floors. We determined that structurally the building was still in pretty good shape. South East Coal Company had built it in the early 1900s and it was built to last so we decided to save it. As we renovated it we tried to utilize it in different ways to serve the public and hopefully to make it a paying proposition. For a period we used it as a venue for regional artisans and music shows. We eventually remodeled the second and third floors and turned it into a bed and breakfast business.
“We have eight rooms for rent and we serve dinners on Friday and Saturday nights by appointment only. The facility is frequently used to host class reunions, parties and such. We have eight houses across the street which we rent by the night, weekend or the week. We have 25 houses which are renovated or are being renovated with 14 occupied by monthly renters. Like many former mining camps the Seco community was slowly dying. We feel good that we have reversed that trend. Many other homeowners are fixing up their properties and the community pride is returning to that of a half century ago.”
In addition to their ‘for profit’ work, Sandy and Jack organized the Miner’s Memorial Festival in 1996. The event is held each Memorial Day weekend. “We already have all of our rooms and all of our houses reserved for next year’s festival,” said Jack.
A few years ago Sandy wrote and they produced a play, When the Whistle Blows, and performed it out of doors at the old No. 1 coal mine portal. All of the actors were novices from the community and region. The play related the happiness and the tragedies associated with living in a bygone era in the coal camps.
Today, Sandy is rarely found in the winery/bed and breakfast. “I am the carpenter and I spend most of my time remodeling the old houses we have acquired. Patty Pennington runs the bed and breakfast business on a daily basis and I come in only when we are real busy hosting an event,” said Sandy.
“Most days now things are pretty peaceful and orderly in our lives and in the old company store,” said Jack. “There is one little mystery about this place that we can’t explain, however. On some quiet evenings after closing time, Sandy and I will sit on a sofa and relax with a small glass of wine before we go home. Knowing there is no one else in the building we have heard doors open and close and soft footsteps upstairs. Sometimes we will hear the almost inaudible clink of a wine bottle in the basement and we have seen curtains move when there was absolutely no wind blowing. I have heard my own heartbeat as I strained to listen to a hushed conversation where the checkout was located when South East Coal Company operated the store. I personally don’t believe in ghosts but legend has it that the ghost of John Hart resides here. John worked carrying out groceries and delivering them to the homes in the community. He met his dreadful, untimely demise accidentally when he was hit by a train as he went about his job delivering groceries. South East was about ready to close the store anyway so they gave the building to his widow as compensation for his death. There have been several ghost hunters come here with all kinds of sophisticated equipment trying to find the ghost. Some have picked up positive readings with their equipment and stored it in their archives for future comparisons and analyses. There will be another group of ghost hunters coming here sometime this month.”
Talk with Jack a while and you will hear him repeatedly praise his wife and kids for what the family has accomplished. His son Chris lives in Lexington and works for Net Gain Company as a computer specialist and also teaches computer technology at Sullivan College in Lexington. Each of Jack and Sandy’s children has two children.
On November 15 beginning at 10 a.m., Jack and Sandy will host a tour of the winery/bed and breakfast and Highland Farm. Jack will be your guide through the wine cellar and will elaborate on the science of winemaking. Patty will show you the elaborate accommodations of the hotel with early 1900s furniture typically found in the coal company’s executives homes. Weather permitting you will also be given a tour of the Christmas tree farm and vineyards. Afterward there will be a free reception and wine tasting of some of their most popular wines. The event is sponsored by the Letcher County Tourism and Convention Commission. For additional information. please call Ked Sanders at 832-4122.