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Authors: Darcy O'Brien

Dark and Bloody Ground

A Dark and Bloody Ground

Darcy O’Brien

To Thomas Flanagan

“I was born on Bullskin Creek, and I have told many a tale, but never under oath.”

LESTER H. BURNS, JR.

1

S
O RICH WAS THE SOIL
, so plentiful were the fish and game and various the beauties of Kentucky, that its original inhabitants, including Shawnee and Cherokee, fought continuously over tribal boundaries and called it “the dark and bloody ground.” The phrase, from which the name Kentucky derives, gained currency during the period of white settlement, when Daniel Boone and others wrote of the new land as a Garden of Eden well worth bloodshed. Over the past two hundred years, however, Kentucky has become known and celebrated for so many things—bourbon, moonshine, tobacco, railroading, coal mining, country and bluegrass music, thoroughbreds, not to mention Colonel Sanders’s fried chicken—that the old epithet no longer seems fair.

The state ranks second to Wyoming in coal production; the Humana hospital chain, with its headquarters in Louisville, has become an equally conspicuous enterprise, economically and politically powerful. To travel through Kentucky today is to be confronted by change—new industries, new architecture, the urban intensities of getting and spending—and by the lack of it. If Louisville feels up to date, Lexington, in the heart of the Bluegrass country, a limestone plateau that nourishes horses’ bones, does not. With its elegant old neighborhoods, set in a countryside that resembles a manicured park, Lexington clings to an earlier era. It has been the breeding center of American thoroughbred racing since at least 1875, when the Lexington-bred
Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby. Recently it was the site of the U.S. Open Polo Championships, an event harmonious with the city’s atmosphere of monied Southern languor, epitomized by mint juleps, horse farms that are fiefdoms, the Idle Hour country club, and Keeneland, one of the three most beautiful racetracks in the nation, where love of tradition forbids even a public address system and where the annual yearling sales attract sheiks and other bankrolled gamblers smitten by long-legged possibilities. Urban sprawl and the presence of a Toyota plant only fifteen miles to the north may portend change, but for now the local ambience values aesthetics over utility. The Lexington airport offers floral displays and art exhibitions; at a downtown restaurant with a French name, you will find snails broiled in goat cheese, and no grits.

Down in one corner of the Commonwealth, where the border skirts West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee, still another culture prevails. Here are the rugged hills and mountains where, sixty and seventy years ago, folklorists convened, excited that the people seemed so odd that they must be throwbacks to Elizabethan times, on the evidence of quaint turns of phrase and the survival of several ballads. That the natives might be backward was thought to be important. Their Anglo-Saxon stock was celebrated; that about a third of the native surnames were Celtic was played down. In romantic zeal the folklore and folk song industries sought to persuade these Appalachian mountaineers to cast off their mail-order banjos in favor of dulcimers and to forsake drinking and roaring for morris dancing. It seems not to have occurred to these interventionists that they were altering forever what they praised as pure and that in music as in language, it is the poor and the isolated who preserve the old, unaffected as they are by the fashionable and phony.

Idealists from the Bluegrass and from as far away as the Seven Sisters colleges of the Northeast, most of them women of means drawn toward social work when many other professions remained closed to them, adopted Eastern Kentucky as a focus of cultural and religious missionary activity. They established settlement schools modeled after Hull House. Motivated by a well-meaning condescension and offended by raw music and moonshine, they taught coal miners’ children the niceties of a genteel Christmas, encouraged local crafts such as carving, quilting, and weaving, and organized folk festivals. Some of the locals learned to sing the way the antiquarians wanted them to; others, clinging to their natural styles, caught the
attention of commercial recording companies and achieved national popularity after 1924, when the first “hillbilly” record was cut.

Here in the thirties, Bill Monroe invented what he called bluegrass music: it has no connection whatever to the actual Bluegrass region, but the name is free from the taint of ignorance that dogs hillbilly. Here lies Butcher Hollow, birthplace of those coal miner’s daughters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. The antiquarians were correct in this, that Eastern Kentucky has a distinctive voice, one that does derive from Britain and Ireland but whose genius was too hardy to be tamed and has flowered at the Grand Ole Opry.

This is a stretch of Appalachia as mountainous and shadowy as the Bluegrass is broad and as poor as the horse country is rich. And here the old Indian epithet is still apt, because the murder rate in most counties of Eastern Kentucky yearly exceeds that of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, and has done so as long as statistics have been kept. Only Washington, D.C., three hundred miles away, and a portion of Illinois called Little Egypt rival Eastern Kentucky in per capita homicides.

History, poverty, and tradition—this last including what is often referred to as “the mountain philosophy,” a very loose definition of the permissible boundaries of self-defense—combine to encourage and perpetuate crime and violence. The first white settlers, freed after seven-year terms as indentured servants in Virginia and the Carolinas, drifted into these mountains a generation or two before Daniel Boone, learned from the Cherokee the technique of the log cabin, and gained a deserved reputation for rude and hostile behavior, shooting first or pulling up stakes whenever someone moved within five miles of them. They did not establish towns, preferring the isolation of cabins hidden in hollows, living off the land. In 1775 Boone entered the territory through the Cumberland Gap on his way to a leveler landscape—disdaining a coonskin cap, current scholarship compels us to accept, but, surely, using what came to be called a long Kentucky rifle. Boone, a sociable man, headed north; other whites turned south to settle the Cumberland Plateau, into what became Tennessee, what the Indians had known as the richest of hunting grounds.

After the Civil War, during which Kentuckians, like East Tennesseans, divided on the issues of slavery and states’ rights, the Hat-fields and McCoys and other clans feuded Eastern Kentucky into new, bloody legends. Later, moonshiners blasted “revenuers,” as the liquor-tax collectors and agents were called, with homemade shrapnel
fashioned from nailheads. The coming of the railroad and the coal industry changed much about the region, but not its inclination to violence. “They used to say Kentucky was Eden,” a grandfather wrote to his progeny in 1869. “If it was, the snakes took it.”

And it grew worse. Railroad and coal barons sent in their agents to buy up timber and mineral rights at fractions of their worth, as little as a dollar an acre, hoodwinking locals and strong-arming the courts to invalidate long-held titles or discover that titles were up for grabs. Coal wars raged, union against management, union men against scabs; one county became known as Bloody Harlan; sixty years later, Leslie (twenty-eight homicides annually per hundred thousand inhabitants), Breathitt, and Harlan counties alternate as rural murder capitals of the U.S. The coal fields have known sporadic prosperity, but the blessings have been mixed, creating wild economic swings and doing violence to the earth. While private companies have done their share of damage, the chief environmental villain has been the Tennessee Valley Authority, which introduced, financed, and promoted strip mining in Eastern Kentucky to feed its generators to the south with cheap coal, destroying the watershed and making floods annual disasters. It is hardly surprising that mountain people continue to view outsiders with suspicion.

Today second-growth timber covers many of the scars left by stripping, stricter regulations have modified the floods, and the impressions a traveler receives of mountain life are confusing. Luxury automobiles and jalopies on the roads and parked in driveways; expensive-looking houses with trimmed lawns and shrubs next to rusting-out mobile homes where chickens range freely amid litter; dreary villages and isolated hovels along the highway to tidy, bustling towns—the area seems a patchwork of contrasts.

In 1991 at the Holiday Inn in Hazard, in Perry County, there were always a few Mercedeses and BMWs with local license tags in the parking lot. The inn itself was bankrupt: it had been built atop a filled-in strip mine; half the rooms had cracked and sunk. But the cars were not for sale. One seventy-thousand-dollar Mercedes belonged to the motel’s owner, another to the manager, a third to the young woman behind the reception desk, who provided this information cheerfully, as if anyone ought to be able to afford decent transportation. Over at Whitesburg, in Letcher County, the Commonwealth’s Attorney had recently traded his Jaguar plus twenty-five thousand dollars for a Rolls-Royce, a transaction widely discussed
and recorded in court documents related to a sensational murder trial; yet a few miles away at Fleming-Neon, people stared idly from the porches of miners’ shacks built seventy years ago. In a grocery store at Jenkins, one shopper paid with food stamps, another flashed a fat wad of bills. (The actual percentage of people receiving food stamps in Eastern Kentucky is about one in three, or three times the national average; welfare dependency spanning generations is widespread and is unrelated to race, the number of blacks being minuscule and in decline, down to only one hundred and ninety in Letcher County according to 1990 census data; the family names of the original settlers continue to appear on most headstones, reflecting a continuity that is nearly unknown elsewhere in America.)

For a partial explanation of these disparities in wealth, one can look back to the mid-seventies, when the world oil shortage sent coal prices soaring, and Eastern Kentucky’s mines briefly boomed again. A fellow could load up his truck for forty dollars a ton and sell the coal for a hundred. Some people made fortunes in illegal, wildcat mining, untaxed and unencumbered by expensive permits and environmental restrictions. Locals recall that at that time even the high school parking lots filled up with expensive cars. Today, however, the price of coal has dropped again; as through the eighties, unemployment ranges in most counties from fifteen to twenty percent, officially, and is in reality higher than that. Even if one assumes that small businessmen and local officials managed to come by their sleek machines without ever deviating from the straight and narrow, something peculiar has to be going on here to explain the anomalous prosperity.

The answer lies in a thriving illegitimate economy. As the mines close, unions weaken or collapse, and more miners lose their jobs, many see a choice only between welfare and crime, and some choose both. The richest fields have as high a concentration of low-sulphur, high-b.t.u. coal as any in the world, lying just beneath the surface. Even at depressed prices, handsome profits can be made from wildcatting. And with good reason, many Eastern Kentuckians believe that they were cheated out of their mineral rights generations ago anyway, so why not claim what’s rightfully theirs?

There are other, still riskier ways to make more than a few bucks. Marijuana, as in several other states, has become Kentucky’s largest cash crop. Representatives of national crime syndicates come in yearly to make deals for the harvest; cultivation flourishes especially
in Leslie County, where the Daniel Boone National Forest offers a solution to the problem of having your land seized if the authorities spot your crop. Over a hundred thousand plants, worth from a thousand to twenty-five hundred dollars apiece, were confiscated and burned in Leslie County during the first eight months of 1991. Untaxed, the profits enrich a few and do nothing for the many.

Along with what is referred to locally as the pot industry, narcotics dealing, intricate theft rings, and bootlegging have replaced moonshining as the principal highly private enterprises. Bourbon and white lightning aside, Kentucky was the birthplace of Carry Nation, and the majority of its counties have always been dry; others are “moist,” permitting liquor sales only in incorporated areas that vote wet. As in the days of Prohibition, and as with narcotics, this situation invites entrepreneurship. Today a bootlegger can make ten dollars a case on liquor and up to forty on beer. Up-to-date, high-tone
booticians
offer delivery to your doorstep and operate out of mobile homes with drive-up windows, selling
piña coladas
topped with decorative umbrellas and other exotica as well as basic hootch.

The informing, double-crossing, and enforcing attendant on all these activities, in which county sheriffs often play the pivotal conspiratorial role, make the territory a place where being deaf and dumb has much to recommend it and where, as the saying goes, if they don’t like the way your hair is parted, they’ll part it for you. A stranger can expect friendly greetings in towns, but he had better not venture up into the hollows unarmed, if at all.

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