The Last of Kentucky
Hello once again, Don Milne here, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler. This is the first of our routes, and we are traveling US-23. We're ten days out from our northern beginning point at Mackinaw City, Michigan. We are still heading south, using the roads of 1962 and today we stay buried in the hilly, rural backroads of eastern Kentucky. Some things still look like 1962, or even older, so we can get a feel for the year. As we drive this virtual roadtrip, if you see anything you like, get out on the road and enjoy it in person. Our virtual roadtrip may be fun, but there's still nothing like the real thing! And, at any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Now, let's buckle up again and go!
So we're starting at Paintsville, Kentucky and no one can find us. Did you know that in 1962 no one can call us this morning? There are no cell phones, Blackberrys, GPS receivers, or text messaging. And no e-mail either, because there are no personal computers. Even old print technology doesn't help anyone find us: postcards take several days to send so they are only a record of where we've been. No, in 1962 no one can find us unless we call and tell them where we are. We could call from a motel room if it has a phone, and many do not. Or, we could use a phone booth. There were still real booths at this time; not the simple outdoor phone on a post that you might find a few of today. The booth kept you dry if it were raining, and kept your conversation private. Too bad cell phones don't come with a booth, hey? The booth also usually had a seat in the corner, a small shelf for writing, and a phone book hanging inside where it stayed dry. So, if you want anyone to know where you are, find the campground phone booth and call before we leave town.
We start the day with breakfast right here at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park. First a stop at the Music Highway Grill, then off for a morning hike. There are trails along the lakeshore, over the hills, and through the forest of any length you want. They range from 0.1 miles for people who are not yet awake, to 4.5 miles of rough backpacking up and down hills. I prefer a short morning trip, so the Sassafras Self-Guided Interpretive Trail, at 0.75 mile, works for me. This trail includes an interpretive brochure and is easy walking. Many plants are discussed in the brochure, including Christmas fern, ground cedar, maples, beeches, and the trail namesake, sassafras.
Then we have a little backtracking to do this morning because we overshot our first stop of the day. We’ll take Kentucky-302 to Van Lear, Kentucky. Van Lear was the premier coal-mining community during the 1910-1930s period. I’m stopping at the Van Lear Historical Museum. The museum occupies the former office building of the Consolidation Coal Company, and houses both the Coal Miners' Museum and Icky's 1950's Snack Shop. We can see a number of displays of things from the past, including a collection of mining tools, a company doctor's office, and the old Van Lear Post Office. Downstairs, Icky's has been preserved to reflect that golden age during which the jukebox was king and it also serves as a gift shop for the Coal Miner's Museum. I wonder if they have anything from 1962 on the jukebox: maybe Coal Miner’s Daughter by Loretta Lynn? The most surprising thing to me is that there is very little 'town' around what used to be a central point for a large mining operation, but then the area has been in decline since the 1950s. The other thing that strikes me is the company name: way back in Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan, which we passed through several days ago and where I grew up, we also had some mines of the Consolidation Coal Company! Those were all gone long before the 1960’s, just as these mines are gone from Kentucky now: there are no operating deep mines in Van Lear, though some mining is going on nearby.
Just northeast of Van Lear is Butcher Hollow. This little valley was the birthplace of country music star Loretta Lynn, and is one of the reasons this part of US-23 is the Country Music Highway. If we stop at Webb's Stop & Shop, her brother Herman Webb will give us a tour of the old homestead. It's actually a personalized tour by the brother of a famous person: where else will you find that? The grounds and home itself are rather small, so there is not a lot to see. But, Herman has plenty of stories and local history that he loves to tell, so ask questions. The tour can be much more fun if you get him to meander a bit.
That pleasant diversion took us a little out of our way, so we need to travel on old US-23, (present-day Kentucky-1428) to Prestonsburg, Kentucky. Something to consider as we drive through the hills and valleys is that this area was in the thick of Civil War fighting. The Civil War was also noteworthy during 1962 because the period 1961-1964 was the Centennial of the Civil War. All kinds of media commemorated the events: toys, games, toy soldiers, books, Civil War postage stamps, and even the comic strip Peanuts spent a lot of time with the Civil War. As we approach Prestonburg, a few miles west of town is the Middle Creek National Battlefield. Here we can see where a hundred years ago (for our 1962 clock), on January 10, 1862 a battle was fought that ended Confederate supremacy in the region. It also launched the career of James A. Garfield, who became our twentieth president. The site is not yet fully developed as a battlefield historic site, but information is posted here.
President Lincoln, who had been born in Kentucky, believed it was very important to maintain it within the Union. Kentucky had also become the nation's ninth most populous state, giving it further strategic value. The battle at Middle Creek took place just after the Battle of Ivy Creek, mentioned below, and some men fought in both. The Middle Creek valley provided excellent defensive positions for the Confederates, who were poorly armed and equipped. The Union, under Garfield, mounted a piecemeal attack which slowly forced the Confederates up the hill. As the fighting petered out at sundown, the Confederate Brigadeer Gen. Humphrey Marshall retreated southward, knowing that food for his men and horses could be found near modern-day Hueysville. Garfield kept to the battlefield, buried the dead of both sides, and then withdrew to Prestonsburg, where he commandeered a house for his temporary headquarters. The Friends of Middle Creek, Inc. will again hold their annual reenactment of both the Battles of Middle Creek and Ivy Mountain on September 10-12 on the grounds of the Middle Creek National Battlefield. If you’re driving through the area then, visit the camp to view authentic reconstructions of Civil War life.
Prestonburg, Kentucky is another coal mining town that has recently tried to make a change to tourism as the major industry. They have the East Kentucky Science Center, a science museum and planetarium opened in 2004. One thing I have noticed about planetariums is that nowadays they all have music-and-laser shows in addition to star shows, and that they all have a Pink Floyd show! All too new for us 1962 travelers, so we’ll pass. Another new attraction we will pass on is the Mountain Arts Center, a 1,050 seat theater completed in 1996 that often hosts country music concerts and various plays. And finally, the Ranier Racing Museum opened in 2006 for all you NASCAR fans. The museum honors Harry Hale Ranier, whose stable of cars won 24 NASCAR races for a wide variety of drivers. Back in 1962 about all we would have seen is coal mines in the area. So, as everything in town is too new, let’s just stop nearby for a picnic lunch.
How about picnicking at Ivy Mountain Battlefield, just ten miles south at Ivel, Kentucky? I know, we just got to the Civil War's ancient battlefields, and here is another one already. Ivy Mountain Battlefield is located right on US-23 and a roadside fourteen-foot-high granite obelisk marks the spot. When Kentucky relocated US-23 in 1928, the state promised to construct a memorial arch at the site, but never have. This battle was fought in late 1861, and was a relatively minor skirmish, with only six Union soldiers and ten Confederate soldiers killed. We can contemplate the war while eating some of the supplies I bought back in Ashland, so enjoy some Chicken Of The Sea tuna sandwiches, Ale-8-One soda and Fritos with me. Speaking of Fritos, I bet you don't know just how old they are. Well, Fritos as we know them were invented in 1932 by Charles E. Doolin from a recipe that was even older. He got nationwide attention when he opened a Casa de Frito restaurant in Disneyland in 1955, and another one in Dallas. Before he died in 1959, Doolin had partnered with Herman Lay, and the Frito-Lay brand had gone global. That's why we could buy them anywhere along US-23 in 1962. Like many products that have lasted a long time, in the 1960s they only came in one flavor and shape, not the variety you can buy now. Let's dig into that bag now with our sandwiches!
We get back on modern US-23 at Allen City and just south in Pikeville, Kentucky we meet with US-119. We now have three US routes together: US-23, US-119 and US-460. This continues to Shelbiana, where US-460 leaves us: US-119 leaves later at Jenkins, Kentucky. We take Kentucky-122 (old US-23) through Pikeville, which has the strange distinction of being part of the territory of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. There is a driving tour of some of the sites where over 100 years ago these two families began to fight each other…apparently over a stolen pig, though no one is sure. The tour takes us to ten or twelve sites where the feud took place, including the home and grave of Randolph McCoy. Back in 1962 I’m sure there was no organized tour and no brochure. But the sites were all here and I’m also sure you could have asked many people where to see something related to the feud. The other big thing about Pikeville was not here in 1962; the Pikeville Cut-Through. As we came into town you may have noticed a huge mountain cut that US-23 went through. Besides the highway, it allowed the railroad and even the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River to bypass town. It was constructed from 1973-1987, so in 1962 everything went right through the center of town. Today, all that’s left of the river is a pond in a city park. The old railroad depot is now the Big Sandy Heritage Center, a museum of the county, opened around 1999, so when we’re done with the Feud Tour, it's time to for us to leave town.
We run back and forth across current US-23 and even on it for several miles, as the old road assumes many different Kentucky state numbers on its way south through several more old coal mining towns. There is so much coal in this part of the state that where the road has been cut through rock, you can sometimes see coal seams in the limestone walls along the road. We even passed through a settlement named for coal, Coal Run, just before Pikeville. Today, coal is still the top commodity shipped by rail, accounting for about 75% of rail shipments in Kentucky. But 40-50 years ago we used coal for much more than we do today. Today 89% of Kentucky coal is used to generate electricity, whereas it used to be used more in coke production, chemical production, and even to heat your home! Coke (not the beverage) is used in steel production and the U.S. made a lot more steel in 1962 than we do now. Chemicals can be made from coal that are now made from oil instead; in fact there was a whole class of dyes and other chemicals made from coal tars. And all types of buildings were directly heated with coal instead of natural gas or propane. Large institutions like schools had smokestacks and boiler buildings, and many older homes had coal storage in the basement and special doors for coal delivery. Finally, since the 1970s there has been a shift to cleaner-burning western coal, causing Kentucky’s share of the U.S. electric utilities market to decline from 23% to 10% by 2006. With these declines, the economy of these coal mining areas did the same. As we travel through the hills, US-460 leaves us at Shelbiana, which is not much more than railroad yards for the coal trains.
From Shelbiana, we continue south through more former coal mining country. There is a succession of small, old settlements along old US-23 that you don’t see from the new divided highway: Yaeger, Virgie, and Myra, Kentucky for example. Most are similar to Myra, which consists of a restaurant, post office, a church and some run-down houses, some with no electricity. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, all of the population here lived below the poverty level and nearly everyone in the area is unemployed. Close to 70% of all adults over the age of 25 never finished high school. This is an area of the country that appears in worse shape than it was in 1962, when more of the country’s total coal was mined here and more people were employed.
One of my maps from the late 1950’s shows that we cross into the Central Standard Time Zone near Shelby Gap, Kentucky. We may also have been in Central Time in 1962 between the Ohio River and Boltsfork, Kentucky, yesterday. But the states move these lines all the time and in 2011 the entire trip is in Eastern Standard Time (or Eastern Daylight Savings Time during the summer). Standard Time and its zones were first used in the United States by the railroads in 1883. Their need was to standardize their schedules. Prior to that, and for several decades after in most places in the country, time was figured locally by reference to the sun. Thus cities only miles apart could also be minutes apart. Congress finally adopted the Standard Time Act of 1918, using the zones set up by the railroads. The boundaries have been moving ever since, with requests for change moving through the Interstate Commerce Commission. Changes are evaluated based on their effect on interstate commerce, so I presume that the current arrangement serves Kentucky better than what we would have seen in 1962. At any rate, it’s a lot easier for travel to stay in a single time zone for the whole trip!
Arriving in Jenkins, Kentucky, we come to the climax of the coal country. In 1916, Letcher County was the largest coal producing county in Kentucky, with the Consolidation Coal Company having 14 tipples itself. Today, we're going to close the day at the David A. Zegeer Coal-Railroad Museum. It's housed in the local railroad depot, which was constructed in 1911 and would have been here serving passenger trains in 1962. Judging from local street names, this was a Baltimore & Ohio rail line, but one of the railroad lines is abandoned now. The museum was dedicated in 1998 and displays a collection of photographs, artifacts and company scrip. Scrip was a kind of cash issued as wages by a company to its employees, that could only be used at its company store. It was commonly used by large companies long ago, to effectively tie employees to the company.
Tonight we’ll stay in the fourth state of our trip: Virginia. We cross over the first real mountain of the trip, Pine Mountain, and take in the great views of the valleys and mountains of the Jefferson National Forest, which we drive through briefly on our way to Pound, Virginia. Jefferson National Forest was created in 1936 to preserve and repair the forests of the mountains of western Virginia. As was typical of the times, they had been logged off haphazardly, had lost most of their wildlife, and were eroding badly. Through the use of sound forest practices, both the trees and wildlife have largely returned and natural resources are again being harvested, though large-scale lumbering is not yet an option for this area. Jefferson National Forest also provides recreational opportunities and scenic views. In this area though, there were no hiking trails, waterfalls, camping or other recreational facilities in 1962. The North Fork of Pound Lake recreational area wasn’t completed until 1966 by the US Army Corps of Engineers. There is a now short trail to Hopkins Branch and a boat launch for fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, bluegills, black and white crappie, channel and flathead catfish and carp. But all we had were the views four years earlier.
It’s been rather a short, slow day of driving, as the old two-lane road of US-23 was not built for speed. Hope you enjoyed the scenery though as we wandered through mountains and small towns; I did. Not sure where to eat or stay tonight, as there is not much to Pound, Virginia. Maybe Robo's Drive-In for one of their foot long hot dogs or their barbecue sandwich. There are a couple of motels to check out that I haven’t been able to establish the age for: the Travelers Motel and the Clayburn Inn. We’ll see how we fare tonight and then hit the road again on Roadtrip-'62 ™ in the morning!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.