Articles & Stories


A Look At The City Of Harlan Through Memories

Of Isaac Huff


Editor's Note: Isaac Andrew Huff recorded his memories of Harlan County several years before his death in 1980. His niece, Sandra Long, of Totz, Kentucky, has submitted these memories for Explorer readers to enjoy.
Issac's parents were Mary Jane Crider Huff, born in 1867, and James Madison Huff, 1867-1936. James' parents were Elizabeth Howard Huff, 1850-1915, and William Lloyd Huff, 1846-1930. Sandra is interested in hearing from anyone with information regarding her family. Her father was Robinson Crusoe Huff, 1907-1983, a brother to Issac.

By Isaac Huff - ca. 1975

As a boy I grew up in Harlan, Kentucky, the county seat of Harlan. The town was originally called Mount Pleasant, a tiny settlement nestled in the valley, surrounded by beautiful mountains.
I sit and gaze at our mountains today, remembering how they were when I was a boy. I would roam over the hillsides, climb to the top, and sit for hours looking out at the high peaks. To my surprise I could see many mountain ranges, as far as the eye could see. It was almost unbelievable, all of God's handiwork!
There were large trees, with limbs that seemed to reach out and touch you as you passed them. The wind whistled through the tops, and the birds sang their sweet, lonely melodies. It seemed to me as if all nature was in tune. I would gaze into the heavens and look for the evening star.
As I came back down the mountain I could hear the birds so loud, they seemed to be praising God for such a paradise. Strolling down I could see large mulberry trees loaded down with fruit. Farther down there were huckleberries, raspberries, and blackberries by the bushel. After reaching the base of the mountain I looked back up to where I had been and thanked God for letting me accomplish the things I wanted to do.
There were just a few families that lived in Harlan when I was growing up. Our streets were dry and dusty in the summer and sloppy and muddy in the winter. What few sidewalks we had were made of planks and very often several would be missing. It was a common sight to see someone slipping and sliding in the mud puddles.

A look at the Ball Building which was located in the city of Harlan, Harlan County, Kentucky, in the early 1900s.

We had several distinguishing men in our town. Green Eversole; Jim Forester; and Grant Forester, who became circuit judge after practicing law here in Harlan for many years, to name a few. Eversole was considered one of the best lawyers in this area.
We also had Judge Hall, an outstanding lawyer and one of the wealthiest men in the county. Judge Hall owned many acres of coal land when mineral rights could be bought from the property owners for $1 an acre. Before the L&N Railroad was built no one realized how valuable coal land would be.
When I was a teenager we had four churches in our town. They were the Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Christian. The Presbyterians used the Old Academy for a school and church services. The pastor of the church also served as the professor in the school.
We had prayer meetings on Thursday nights, Sunday School and preaching service on Sunday mornings, and preaching service was held on Sunday nights. Our parishioners were faithful to their church. Some of the finest and most dedicated people I have ever known were members of the church I attended. My teacher was one of those men. His name was John Carter.
When we didn't have services at our church my brothers and I got a great thrill out of attending other churches, and we were always welcomed and treated with respect.
The churches tried not to have their revivals at the same time, so as not to conflict with each other. It also gave the people an opportunity to attend different revivals and hear different speakers. It was a wonderful feeling to sit under a huge tent and listen to beautiful hymns and the word of God.
We had a wonderful pastor at our church. He had a beautiful singing voice and loved to play the piano. He served as our minister for many years.
Our churches began to grow in numbers and prospered in leaps and bounds, mainly because of the support of the many fine people who were always interested in their fellowman.
God has been so good to the people in our valley and has helped them prosper beyond measure. How wonderful it is to have someone to turn to, when in real need, who will give us comfort and listen to the problems of the day.
In my boyhood days I went to school with Virgil Eversole and Taylor Forester, two well-known men in Harlan County. Virgil's father was one of the wealthiest men in Harlan, but you would never know it by the way Virgil acted. He was just like any other boy.
Taylor was someone special. He was very popular with everyone and a jolly good fellow. The only thing was he couldn't get along with the teachers. One day he asked to be excused. The teacher said, "No." Taylor said, "I've got to go," and he just got up out of his seat and took off. He was always polite, asked for what he wanted, but if it was refused, he did it anyway.
We had some pretty big men in our town. There were George Turner and Hiram Cawood. They both weighed about 300 pounds. My brothers and I were small in comparison, and we had a great deal of respect for these big men and held them in awe and admiration.
In 1912 my dad rented a plot of ground, where the old schoolhouse now stands, for a garden. It was a real pretty spot. He sub-rented part of it to Crocket Hall. It was a good year for vegetables. He raised one of the longest sweet potatoes I ever saw. It wasn't so big in diameter, but it measured three-feet-long.
Also in 1912 I helped haul the brick to build the Presbyterian Church. The bricks were shipped here in boxcars and unloaded by hand and then hauled to the building site by horse and wagon. The first pastor to occupy the pulpit was Carl T. Mickel, and he served as our pastor for several years.
The first bank we had in Harlan was next to Willie and Margie Noe's store. Will Lewis and John White were the president and vice-president. Banking was dull then, because there just wasn't any money in town.
One of the greatest things that ever happened in Harlan was when the L&N started to grade the right-of-way for the railroad. Everyone was so excited when they started laying the steel for the tracks. I helped grade the right-of-way from the lower end of Georgetown to the upper end. This was started in 1910.
When the railroad was first completed to Lynch most of the people had never seen a train before, and they used to line up to see the train come by with its big engine belching smoke. The people from Clover Fork would walk for miles to see the passenger train come in at the station.
Those of us who worked grading the right-of-way were paid 15¢ an hour for ten, long, hard hours. Of course, we were glad to get it, for work was hard to find in those days.
The steel was soon laid for the tracks to go as far as Kitts. The Whitfield mine was ready to begin loading coal on the cars. The company built a chute and a bin out to the track to supply the coal for the train's use.
The tracks were laid on up Clover Fork, and other mines were getting their coal ready to load as soon as the L&N could give them cars to load it in.
As time passed the train could go as far as Louellen, where Cornett and Lewis Coal Company operated a good-sized mine. At that time they ended it there. The owners of Clover Splint Coal Company paid for the track to be extended to their mine. Some time later the railroad was extended as far as Glend Brook Coal Company. The last two mines put out a high grade of coal, and it sold for more money per ton.
The railroad was soon going up Catron's Creek and Martin's Fork where several mines were in operation and sending out tons of coal every day. It seemed like prosperity was here.
The hospital was built and a vocational school was made ready to train anyone who wanted to learn to be a mechanic, carpenter, or welder.
Our first newspaper was published by Jim Eads (to the best of my knowledge). It was a weekly paper, and we looked forward to reading about things that were going on in the world and our small community.
Harry Hoare opened up the first bakery in Harlan. A man by the name of Rudolph was the baker, and he sure could make good bread. Six one-pound loaves could be purchased for a quarter.
Joe Kelly built the first modern hotel in our town. We felt like we were becoming a big city when the hotel was built. It was named the Kelly Hotel.
In the early 1900s there were open fields on all sides of Harlan that seemed to be begging someone to build a nice home. Money was hard to come by in those days, and most people had to make do with what they had. Back in those days we had old-timers like Crit Howard, W. C. L. Huff, Albert Ball, Nathan Saylor, Sam Howard, and Crit Jones (who you could see out on the streets of Harlan).
The first lumberyard we had was operated by Pope and Rice (to the best of my knowledge). They had to deliver supplies with one large mule and a wagon.
After a few years Harlan began to expand with new buildings being built. The population started increasing and prosperity began to show up.
South of town there was one house that must have been 100 years old. An old lady lived there. Her name was Mrs. Bailey. The house stood about where the Chevrolet cars are now sold. Going eastward from Mrs. Bailey's there were no houses at all, until you came to the lower end of Smith Addition, then there was a house where J. L. Smith's mother lived. The Smith Addition extended as far as Fairview. J. L. lived up above where the K. U. transformers are now located. There have been many changes made for over 75 years in the Smith Addition on the north side of the Clover Fork River up to Fairview. On the south side of the river, from the old Academy toward Ivy Hill, running a straight line to Mound Street, we once found all the land unoccupied up to Stringtown, there are no houses at all. There was once a large tree that stood near where the Rich Funeral Home now stands, and a graveyard occupied quite a large section of the land.
The greatest disaster that hit our town, (outside of the great flood of 1963) was in 1912.
A fire started in Willie and Margie Noe's store, and having no waterworks or fire department, the fire could not be checked. It spread to Mattie Smith's store, burning it to the ground, then across the street to Walter Gregory's store and the building behind it. In a short while Sam Howard's store and the hotel were gone. After the smoke cleared away all you could see were tons of ashes and a few things sitting in the middle of the ashes that would not burn.
I don't suppose anyone had any insurance, and in those days money was scarce, so it was a great loss to the owners. The few things that had managed to be dragged out into the street, vandals grabbed up and ran off with them.
We had only one dentist in town, his name was Walker. In those days if you had a toothache, you either pulled it yourself, or you went to Dr. Walker.
Dr. Pearl Bailey, Sr., and Dr. Nobe Howard were the two medical doctors in town. Dr. Bailey used to ride a little pacing mule on his rounds. We always knew when someone was bad sick when we saw Dr. Bailey coming on that little mule. Dr. Howard rode a good-sized horse, one that could take him there and bring him back.
Back in those days the only way of bringing supplies into Harlan was by horse and wagon. The nearest town for buying supplies was Hogan, Virginia. We had to go up Catron's Creek and across Big Black Mountain and Stone Mountain to get to Hogan, Virginia.
There was one man I admired very much, who drove one of those wagons. His name was Tolby Howard. Tolby was hauling supplies with a buddy and helper by the name of Pearl Noe. Because of the rough roads it was the custom for the two men to stay close together in case one of them got into trouble or needed help in any way. A person could get all the whiskey they wanted in Logan. It was sent from Middlesboro and came by way of wagon to Harlan.
Tolby and Pearl were on their way back to Harlan one night. They decided to stop for a rest at Sid Pope's grocery at Pansy. They had some whiskey in the back of the wagon they were bringing back to Harlan. To show they were friendly they offered those in the store a drink. Several of the men in the store had a drink, and everyone was very hospitable. After a while they heard it raining, and they looked out and saw that the river was starting to rise, so they decided they had better start to get across before it got up past fording. They covered their supplies to keep them dry and took off across the river.
Meanwhile, two men had followed them and jumped them just as they got across the river. They jumped Tolby's wagon first and killed him outright. Pearl didn't know what was happening, until he heard them jump on his wagon. He looked and saw what was going on, so he jumped off and started running as fast as he could toward the nearest house for help, not knowing what had happened to Tolby.
Pearl ran to Wash Eager's house, and even though they were scared to death, they went back to look for Tolby. They searched for hours but couldn't find a trace of him. Toward morning Pearl went to Harlan, and the next day he took a posse of men with him, and they combed the whole area, but still without any luck. After a few days it looked like they would have to give up all hope of ever finding Tolby.
A few days later Pearl heard some fellows talking about a fortune-teller who, they said, could find anything lost. They said she was gifted that way. Pearl went to see her. Her husband's name was Caesar Moore, and he was present when Pearl talked to her. He explained to her what had happened. She said, "If you will go to the Catron's Creek bridge you will find the man's body lodged in a clump of bushes there." They went to the place as fast as they could, and to their surprise there he was, just as she had told them. So Pearl, at last, had found his friend's body.
The two men arrested and charged with murder for this crime were Sid Pope and Henry Carter. They were tried and found guilty and sentenced to the penitentiary.
There was one murder committed not too long ago on the hill just above where I live now. This woman made and sold what we call "home brew." She had sold some property and was supposed to have quite a bit of money about the house. Some men from Clover Fork came to her house, supposedly to buy some "home brew." After a few drinks they demanded her money. No doubt, she refused to give them anything, so they shot her, but just wounded her. To stop her from screaming they took some kind of blunt instrument and beat her to death. Three men were arrested and tried for her murder.
We had another murder that was solved. A young girl by the name of Parson was going to the Pine Mountain Settlement to teach. She was traveling on the train, and she went as far as the train could take her. When the train reached the spot where they let the passengers off that were going to cross the mountain, she got off, and that was the last time anyone saw her alive. Another passenger got off at the same time. He was a veterinarian who was headed for the same school to vaccinate some cattle. He hired out a mule to ride over the mountain, as it was quite a long trip. The lady started walking and the man soon caught up with her, and like a gentleman, he offered to let her ride the mule. She said no, that she would walk. He went on ahead and stopped and waited for her. Signs of a struggle were found where he stopped her. She had pulled out some of his hair. She was small of stature, and he was a big man, so he soon overpowered her. He killed her and threw her body over a bank behind a big log.
He had hitched the mule to a limb on a tree. The mule had a shoe half-off, so when he walked he showed a half-a-shoe print in the dirt. The man got back on the mule and proceeded on his way to the school. When he arrived at the school he got down off the mule and threw down a little limb he had cut from a tree to use to switch the mule. He went into the living quarters where they all stayed, and everyone said he acted strangely. The matron of the school said he was restless, paced the floor, and wouldn't sit down. She said he kept talking about the schoolteacher they were expecting and why she was so late in arriving.
The next day a search party was formed to look for her. I think it was two or three days before her body was found. The veterinarian said, "She was probably killed by a group of convicts who had been working on the roads in that area." Because of his strange behavior people started to suspect him. The small switch he had thrown down was found in the yard. It was taken back to the murder scene and matched with the cut from the tree, where the mule had been tied. There had been no rain, and since this road was traveled very little, the mule's hoof that had a half-shoe missing, had left its print in the soft dirt, where it had stomped around while being tied to the tree.
The veterinarian was indicted for murder. At his trial, when jurors returned the verdict, 11 jurors were for setting the man free, but one man stood up and said he voted guilty. He said the other jurors tried to force him to vote not guilty. The judge declared a mistrial or hung jury. The trial cost the county $20,000 and the court said they couldn't afford to try the case again. I personally heard all the evidence, and in my opinion he was guilty. Several years later the man confessed, saying he was the one who killed the girl. He was very sick, and I suppose he thought he was going to die.
This article will continued in the September 2004 issue of The Explorer.

Sandra Long, 261 Deer Run Court, Totz, KY 40870; [email protected], shares this article written by her uncle, Issac Andrew Huff.