Articles & Stories


James Hugh Turner Was An
Eccentric Old Man Of Pegg's Fork

At One Time James Turner Owned Many Acres Of Land,
Including All Of Pegg's Fork In Breathitt County

By Judy Centers - 2005

In the 1930s folks up on Frozen, Breathitt County,
Kentucky, called him "Jimmy" or "Uncle Jimmy." He
was an eccentric old man. He wouldn't ride on a horse or in a wagon, so he walked everywhere he went with his pants legs tucked in his socks. He liked to study the clouds. They say he was a good old man, soft-spoken and didn't talk very much. Like Johnny Apple Seed he planted apple trees all over Peggs Fork. They were "keeping apples." One could go out in the winter and brush away the dead leaves and still eat them. His garden always seemed prettier than his neighbors'. His attic had many books in it, and he loved to read. He played the fiddle, and when he played he would close his eyes and sway back and forth. One time when he was passing a building in Jackson, he heard fiddles playing (they were having a fiddler's contest). As he listened to some of them he believed he could do better. He walked home and got his fiddle, went back, and won the contest.
One fall he butchered a hog and hung up the sides of meat, and while he was away someone stole all of the meat. Jimmy suspected that Fox Banks, a neighbor with a whole passel of hungry children, was the thief. He went and got the sheriff, and they walked across several hills and together searched Fox's place. They found nothing and were about to give up when Jimmy spotted something. It was a drop of blood on the cabin floor, and it caused him to look under the table. Fox had taken the meat and nailed it to the underside of his kitchen table. When the sheriff asked James if he wanted to have the man arrested, he thought a minute and then said, "No, and let him keep the meat. He probably needs it more than I do."

James' second wife, Leona Banks, already had two little girls when they got married. James Turner (far left); Leona Banks, holding Gracie McDaniel; and Gertrude Caudill standing in front of Leona are the only ones in the photo identified. This photo, courtesy of Sara Belle Taulbee, was taken either in Gillmore, Wolfe County, Kentucky, or Pegg's Fork in Breathitt County, ca. 1916.

His Christian name was James Hugh Turner. His father, Hugh Johnson Turner, came to Kentucky from Virginia. James' mother, Lucinda, was the daughter of Joseph and Nancy Philpot Sewell of Jackson. His parents were married on Christmas Eve in 1857. James, the eldest of seven children, was born in December of 1858 in Wolfe County. Although Johnson Turner could not read or write, he saw to it that his children attended school. When James was a boy he and all of his brothers and sisters attended White Oak School in Breathitt County. When he grew up James was a part-time schoolteacher at White Oak.
Courting Nan and Raising A Family
Nannie Belle Brewer was 17 and James was 31 when he stopped by Jerry Brewer's place to court her. He didn't come back for three months, and she thought that was the last she would see of him. But then he showed up again and asked her to marry him. In 1890 they were married in her home, and they moved to Peggs Fork. Their 26-year marriage gave them eight children that survived.
James owned farms and many acres of land. He owned all of Peggs Fork at one time. His land was full of good timber and coal. When he needed money he would sell off some of his land, but for far less than the market value. His children were handsome, bright and healthy. The oldest girl went to Berea Normal School to become a teacher. Young Jerry was one of the many patriotic Breathitt County volunteers in WWI.

On the day he died, James Turner (left) walked to White Oak to see his brother, Joseph (middle) and his wife, Elizabeth Trent Turner (right). This photo, courtesy of Judy Centers, was taken in White Oak, Breathitt County, Kentucky, ca. 1930.

But there were problems with the marriage. Nannie Belle was tough and independent and from the male viewpoint "hard to get along with," and James just couldn't stand to hear a woman argue. He simply would walk away. One day in 1916 he walked away and divorced her.
Divorce and Remarriage
Right over the hill from Peggs Fork, in Gilmore, lived Asberry Banks with his pretty daughters, Leona and Goldie; and son, Berlin. Leona was a sweet girl of 21 who already had two children and was divorced. James courted her. Her 17-year-old brother was named Leck Berlin Banks, and Nan courted him.
In August of 1917 Nan and Berlin rode to Campton and got married. She was 45 and he had just turned 18. The next month James and Leona got married in Jackson. He was 58 and she was 21. Berlin and Nan and her three children: Joe, Roy, and Mabel; and James and his young wife, Leona, and her two little girls, Gertrude and Gracie, all lived together in the homeplace for the first year. Then James built a one-room log cabin nearby with a little board kitchen attached and rented it to Nan and Berlin.
Getting married did not improve Nan's financial situation. Unfortunately, her new young husband was lazy and he "wouldn't hit a lick at a sprout."James had sold his land to William Baker, a coal operator, for only $400. It was said that there was so much coal that they had to build a train to haul it away. Mr. Baker built a fine house and lived there with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, Catherine. With three children at home and a lazy husband Nan walked a mile to clean the Baker house and do their laundry. She worked for 50¢ a day.
Getting married again did not improve James' peace of mind. In 1918 James and Leona had their first child, Kelly Edgar. In 1922 their daughter, Sarah Belle, was born. James and Leona stayed married only five years. Once again James felt the need to walk away. He gave the farm to Leona, except for ten acres of hillside which he kept for himself. Upon that steep hill he built a log cabin covered with 12-inch poplar boards. He carried every board by hand, individually, up the hill to his place. The chimney built of rock and mud is still standing today.
When James gave the farm to Leona he assumed she would always live there so he made no provision to give himself access to his own ten acres. So when she sold the farm and moved away he had no right-of-way off his hilltop. He was not a very practical man.

James Turner attended and later taught at White Oak School in Breathitt County. The date of the photo and the names of the students are unknown. (Photo courtesy of Josie Oakes.)

Nan Marries Will S. Shackelford
Nan divorced Berlin Banks after only three years of marriage. In 1921 she married a widower named Will Shackelford who was a farmer and Singer sewing machine salesman. He was 68 and she was 49. Although they stayed married until Nan's death, she left him two or three times and supported herself by cleaning and doing laundry for folks. Her children stayed with relatives.
James' Third Marriage
In 1929 James Turner married for a third time. Sarah Ellen Little was 31, divorced, and had a little ten-year-old girl. James and Sarah Ellen never lived in the same house together. Except for visits James remained alone in his little cabin on the hill and Sarah Ellen remained at home with her parents. In 1929 Sarah Ellen gave birth to a boy, Charlie Turner.
Their son, Charlie, recalled: "Mom was 31 years old and my dad was 71 when I was born. We stayed most of the time with my grandma, Matilda Little, who lived at the head of the hollow near the Blanton Bridge at Tyra. Mom would take me back and forth from Grandma's house to Peggs Fork. We would stay with Dad a day or two and then go back to Grandma's where we stayed most of the time. Dad visited often and everyone was glad to see him. He would always bring us something to eat. He always had red salmon and sardines.
"I don't know why my mother didn't stay with him. I don't remember him ever really talking to me. I remember he gave me a book with pictures of all the presidents from Washington on up, and he told my sister he wanted me to have it. He said that all of his children used it in school. He played the banjo and gave me a five-string banjo which got burned up in my uncle's house fire.
"I do remember almost dying with scarlet fever and he came to see me and seemed concerned. I was critical, and I don't know if I had been unconscious or asleep, but I remember him saying, 'Well, the boy is a little better this morning.'"
The Little Cabin On The Hill
By 1930 James' three wives and children had moved away. The farm was gone. The coal was gone. James was left with a log cabin and ten acres on a hilltop with no easement to it. His children from all three marriages would come and visit him.
Mabel, his daughter by Nan, visited once to ask him for money so she could take the train and go live with her brother, Calvin, in Hazard, Perry County. James gave her his only bed, and he slept on a corn shuck mattress on the floor. The next day he gave Mabel the $3 she needed for her train ticket.

Sarah Belle, his daughter by Leona, called him "Paw" and said her father was always kind. Raleigh Combs owned the little local store and whenever Sarah visited she was allowed to buy anything she needed, such as fabric for a new dress. James did all of his cooking over his open fireplace. Once Sarah Belle and her brothers were coming over the hill from Gilmore to visit and one of her brothers killed a squirrel. James skinned it and cooked it for them.
In the summer the whole hillside was covered with strawberries and James would let the children pick all they wanted. Once Sarah Belle and her brothers and sisters were picking strawberries on the hillside and somehow the little three-year-old, Eva Lee, got lost. James and all the neighbors went up and down the hillside increasingly concerned calling, "Eva-leeee! Eva-leee!" Forebodingly, they searched the well looking for her body. Finally upon the hillside a little blonde head popped up, and a little voice said, "Here me is!" She had fallen asleep in the bushes.
Death of James
On February 14, 1936, James walked to White Oak and back to see his brother, Joe. Late that night when he was almost home he stopped at a neighbor's well to get a drink of water. He started to leave, walked a few steps, and then fell dead. The neighbors said they believed his body laid there all night in the cold rain.

Judy Centers, 1918 Yancey Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36107; [email protected], shares this article and says she would like to hear from anyone who has pictures or further information on anyone mentioned in this story, and that all letters and e-mails she receives will be answered.