Buckhorn's Log-House College
Served Children Of Five Counties
Dr. Harvey S. Murdock Provided A Wonderful Service
To The Children Of The East Kentucky Mountains
Editor's Note: They come down the trails by hundreds when the doors are opened, but some have to be turned away because there is not room for all. This is the story of how Dr. Harvey S. Murdoch has found his life by losing it in a remarkable service to the children of the mountains.
By F. A. Behymer
Through Buckhorn settlement and up and down Squabble and Middle Fork, and to the cabins among the mountains and to the travelers along the trails, the call of the prayer bell carries far and clear. At that call action stops. Children pause at their play. Boys and girls, sons and daughters of the mountains, who have come down the creeks to Buckhorn College in Perry County to be taught, stand silent. Every head is bowed. Through Buckhorn Valley there is no sound save the peal of the prayer bell and the singing of Squabble's waters.
It might be well if all the world would come at the end of the day to the top of the trail, where it drops to Buckhorn, and listen to the call of the prayer bell, but coming to the top of the trail that drops to Buckhorn is a task. For Buckhorn is as far as possible from everywhere. That is why Buckhorn College is where it is. It serves the boys and girls, the young men and young women of five Kentucky mountain counties. It is accessible to these, as accessibility goes in the mountains. It is shut in to serve where serving is most needed. The rest of the world is shut out.
When the college was founded, the railroad, coming up the North Fork of Kentucky River, had penetrated the region only as far as Jackson, Breathitt County, 25 miles away. All supplies had to be teamed up and down the creek beds from there or pushed up the Middle Fork in flatboats from Athol, 28 miles away.
A Hidden Sanctuary
And, oh, those mountain miles! They tell you, now that the railroad has been built up North Fork almost to the Virginia border, that it is only eight miles from Altro, the nearest station to Buckhorn; but when winter is melting to spring and the waters of Bush Branch and Gay's Creek tumble over their rocky beds and the mud of the trail over the divide is knee deep, it takes a tenderfoot on a mountain mule three-hours-and-a-half to make the journey. Howbeit, in estimating the distance, it must not be forgotten that the mountain mule is peculiar and that for all tenderfeet he has a vast and consuming contempt.
Twenty-four years ago Buckhorn Valley was wildly beautiful, hidden away here in the heart of the mountains, but all that it had was its wild beauty. That and its needs, for the few families that lived along the banks of Squabble needed everything.
Their needs cried to Miles Saunders, a Presbyterian preacher up in the Bluegrass, and for two years he and his daughter, Louise, had spent their summers in this region of mountains and creeks, ministering to the scattered families; the father preaching to them and the daughter teaching them, and both trying to lead them into better ways of living. Traditionally and temperamentally religious, these children of another age, who had lost their way in the mountains and been forgotten, listened eagerly to the preaching of Saunders and gave their simple hearts to "Miss Louise."
Through these two, somehow, the needs of these Southern Highlanders were brought to the attention of people far away in the crowded place, and they cared. Harvey S. Murdoch, away off there in Brooklyn, New York, heard their cry and cared. He had come up through tribulation to an education, his best friend was a Rochester lamp that, sometimes, had to suffice for light to study by, heat for his body, and for the cooking of his meals. But he had carried on, and Colorado College and Princeton Seminary had honored themselves by graduating him, and, 24 years ago, he was assistant pastor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, and the future was bright.
When the cry came from Buckhorn Valley, partly because his heart answered and partly because a strong young man was needed to down there and investigate and make a report to the Presbyterian Board of Missions, Murdoch came to the mountains.
He came to Buckhorn Valley and Squabble Creek, and that is why the church bell of Buckhorn calls to prayer at the day's twilight. For he came again and stayed, and so there's a Buckhorn College and a Buckhorn bell to call to prayer.
They told him, away off there in Brooklyn, that he was making a terrible mistake, but he answered that there were many to take this place in Brooklyn, but there didn't seem to be anybody to go in his place to Buckhorn. He came to Buckhorn and they spoke of him, there in Brooklyn, as the fine young man who had gone and lost himself in the mountains. Forgetting that One, wiser than they, had said that he that loseth his life shall find it.
They say, those who know him, that he has been losing his life ever since, losing himself in the toil of the day, all but forgotten by the world that knew him once, counting that world a small price to pay for the satisfaction of service on Squabble Creek.
Yes, you have guessed it. Romance came as it was bound to come, to the man and the maid. So, after a while, they were married, the man from the crowded East and the girl from the Bluegrass, and side by side they served, losing their lives that others might have life more abundantly.
A Small Beginning
It had been a small beginning. The first need was a school building. Of resources there was abundance of standing timber, a decrepit saw mill and $240. It took $200 to repair the saw mill engine. That left $40 in the treasury. Forty dollars plus faith. Well, with all that money, and all that faith, there was no reason for delay. "Let's go," he said, and the mountain men he had hired began felling the trees and the old saw mill began shaping the logs to the dimensional needs of a school building 40 by 50 feet and two stories high.
Wages were not high, but at the end of the first week he was broke. That is, he was out of money, but he had more faith than ever. "Saw on," he cried. Somewhere, somehow, he would get the money to pay when payment was due. It came, and although through the years there has hardly been a day when this Mr. Murdoch knew for certain where the next day's support was coming from, through the stress and struggle the support has come for the school's expansion.
They christened it Wither-spoon College, but the mountain folks, with a talent for descriptive terminology, called it the Log-House College, with reference to the manner of its construction, or Buckhorn College, with reference to its location.
During the early days the buildings that were added to meet the growing needs were built of logs. In later years transportation of building materials has been more feasible and the modern additions have been of frame, with a log veneer that preserves the log-house effect of the group.
It is a notable group that they form now, facing inward on three sides of the campus quadrangle, class halls and gymnasium, hospital, dormitories, and buildings for industrial training, the president's home and homes for members of the faculty. Others planned, too, in the effort, always vain, to provide housing and facilities adequate to met the constantly increasing demands.
For, from the first, the one great problem of Buckhorn College has been to take care of all the mountain boys and girls who have come down the creeks, knocking at Mr. Murdoch's door and asking for their chance in life. From the deep valleys along the swift-flowing Middle Fork and North Fork and South Fork; from Lost Creek, Troublesome, Quicksand, Spring Fork, Laurel, Cutshin, Cow, Greasy, Red Bird, Goose, Frozen and Squabble and Long's Creek, and the score of others that drain the domain; which Buckhorn College serves in Breathitt, Perry, Owsley, Leslie, and Clay counties, circled and sentinelled by the county seat towns, 18 to 32 miles away.
They count it no hardship to walk the weary miles to Buckhorn, even at the risk of finding no room for them at the college. Or they come muleback, with a little brother perched behind, to guide the mule homeward if fortune favors the boy or girl seeking an education.
The College On The Creek
Back there when the college was visioned there was no question about the location. For was not Buckhorn Valley in the center of this domain and could not the students come with equal facility from the four points of the compass? Where Squabble, after tumbling down from the higher reaches, widens to pebbled shallows, approaching its confluence with Middle Fork, there were more level acres along its banks than could be found elsewhere and the lower slopes were gradual enough to admit of advantageous cultivation.
Scattered through those mountains were 20,000 descendants of the pioneers who, in the long ago, trekking from Virginia and the Carolinas, lost their way in the mountains or hearkened to the call of the mountains, stayed there and let the world pass on. And their needs were so great.
The few native schools were of the most primitive character. Education was limited practically to what was handed down from one generation to the next. Illiterate, they yet possessed a rugged intelligence which enabled them to adapt themselves to the hard conditions of their lives. If, in the process of adaptation, moonshine whisky had a part, it was to them an economic and not a moral matter, for the corn that they raised in their perpendicular patches could not be transported and corn whisky could. And if blood vengeance not infrequently took the place of lawful adjudication, it could not be denied that the justice of the distant courts was slow and uncertain.
Religious, educational, and economical were their needs and to supplying those needs Dr. Murdoch and his wife had dedicated their lives, to give religious inclinations the guidance that was lacking, to educate them and show the that there was a better way to live.
Dr. Murdoch's Work
It had at the beginning seemed to be an impossible thing, and even after much had been done it seemed impossible. It seemed so to Newell Buck, novelist, who came riding by one day and went away and told about the people over there in Squabble, who were attempting the impossible and accomplishing it.
Here it stands, the Log-House College, with scattered cottages of villagers about it, and here last fall came 425 boys and girls, grown men and women and little children, hungry for the knowledge that it offers. For the curriculum embraces everything from the kindergarten to the plowed and planted field. The kindergarten and grades for the children near about, the usual preparatory courses for the older boys and girls, training for teachers, domestic science, home nursing, the manual trades. And there are homes for orphan boys and girls and a hospital which serves the region and where, from time to time, specialists from out yonder come to hold clinics and give of their skill to the afflicted.
Sorrow came nine years ago to Dr. Murdoch in the death of the companion who, with him, had visioned this and helped bring it about. And there was sorrow, too, among the students who had been taught by her and the mountain men and women to whom she had ministered. Now that time's healing has been wrought, Dr. Murdoch is sustained in his labors by the devotion of another Kentuckian, Mrs. Mary Cooke Murdoch, who found her way to the hill country as a teacher and Christian worker, and who enters very fully into his life and work.
Always, in view of the need, the emphasis of Buckhorn has been upon religious instruction. Of fervor, induced by the exhortations of the mountain preachers, there was no lack, even among those who found it expedient to make moonshine whisky or kill their enemies or both. What, they felt they had a right to ask, had moonshine and killin's to do with these.
There were feuds in the mountains. Many of the students came from families that were deep in these vendettas. There was not much, it seemed, that the laggard law could do, but if the boys and girls could be taught away from these things, there would be the dawning of a better day. So always there has been careful religious instruction, along with the training of mind and hand. Chapel exercises every morning, universal Bible teaching, and the holding of church services at Buckhorn Church and at scattered meetinghouses.
And, at each day's twilight, the call to prayer from the belfry of the community church. For nine years the ringing of the bell was the labor of love of a little mountain woman, Mrs. Nancy Jane Smith, and then one twilight, it tolled the passing of her gentle spirit. Her son rang the prayer bell until Buckhorn College had done all that it could for him and he had gone away, as many others have gone, to the Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Louisville. Charley Riley rings it now.
Twilight now again on Squabble Creek as a traveler, departing, climbs to the top of the trail. And the hush and peace of twilight, and the prayer bell of Buckhorn is calling. Back there in the valley every head is bowed. No sound save the peal of the prayer bell and the singing of Squabble's waters.