Articles & Stories

Bige McKnight Was Among The
Last Of A "Pioneering" Stock

Carried The U. S. Mail By Horseback 52 Miles Round-Trip

By McCreary Roberts - 1984
Submitted by Eaf McKnight

The long colorful life of Bige McKnight ended on January 4, 1984, at the age of 95. His long life span, covering the last decade of the 19th century and more than four-fifths of the 20th, probably witnessed more changes in our mountain area than most people now living will ever know. He started life when the mountain people were isolated from the outside world. There were no paved or gravel roads. The county roads were little more than wide dirt paths, hardly more than continuous mudholes during winters and early springs. Transportation was with wagons drawn by horses and mules over such roads.
Bige McKnight, according to his son, Eaf, was born on Squabble Creek near the Buckhorn area of Perry County, Kentucky, on May 12, 1888. He was the son of Preston McKnight and Matilda McIntosh McKnight. His first job was carrying the U. S. Mail for his father, from Buckhorn to Elkatawa, Breathitt County, a distance of 26 miles; 52 miles round-trip. Bige was in his early teens when he started the mail route. He carried the mail for eight years, six days a week, for 50 cents per day, or $3 a week.
Eaf said that at the time the government insisted that the mail go through regardless of the weather or road conditions. All the mail was carried on horseback, and that his father, Bige, said he had, several times, forced his horse to swim swollen creeks and the back waters from the flooded river.
Other work Bige McKnight did was hauling supplies by wagon to the construction crews extending the L&N Railroad track from Jackson, Breathitt County, to Hazard, Perry County. The supplies, at times, he said were transported over almost impassable roads, especially during the rainy season.
Also during the early days of his life, Bige hauled, in wagons, merchandise from Elkatawa to Sam Callahan's store on Canoe. Callahan was his father-in-law at the time.

Musical talent runs deep in the McKnight family. Preston McKnight (left photo) was an old-time, left-handed banjo picker. He was the son of William and Virginia Creech McKnight of Harlan County, Kentucky. Preston's son, Bige (center photo), was an old, claw-hammer banjo picker. Eaf McKnight (right photo), the son of Bige and Elizabeth Callahan McKnight, is also an old-time banjo player and since 1995 has made a variety of instruments: Ten fiddles, nine mandolins, 35 dulcimers, and four guitars. Eaf married Emma Strong on February 1, 1944. Emma was the daughter of the late Sam and Letha Raleigh Strong. Eaf and Emma (now deceased) had five children: Deborah, Brenda, Mike, Darin, and Denese; several grandchildren; and one great-grandson. Through the years Eaf has used his talents to make events merrier at many nursing homes in Eastern Kentucky. Although he is an excellent musician, Eaf said he'd never taken a lesson, "I taught myself to play by ear; I don't even know a chord."

Altogether Bige McKnight was a coal miner for more than 20 years. He worked for R. C. Davis of Jackson, and was, for a while, in the coal business on his own for several years. He supplied the Buckhorn School with coal. He also supplied house coal to people.
Probably most Breathitt Countians knew Bige McKnight best as a merchant. He moved to Cane Creek near Elkatawa in 1930. For years he operated a country store. It was during the Depression years when jobs were non-existent and the only work was with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). His son, Eaf, said that if his father ever refused anyone credit, he didn't know about it.
Bige McKnight was born in a time when large families were not only common but desirable. He carried on that tradition by fathering 19 children in two marriages; ten by his first wife, Elizabeth Callahan; and nine by the second, Malvery Morris.
He purchased a farm in Casey County in 1958 and lived there until 1979. Then he came back to Elkatawa, living a while with his son, Eaf, then with his son, Jay, at the old homeplace. There he passed away, spanning an era from a near pioneer time to a modern age. His passing no doubt was among the last of a pioneering stock that have all but disappeared from our midst. He lived a long life and reared two families without ever asking for or receiving any government assistance. He was an admirable man.
Eaf McKnight, 251 Beattyville Road, Jackson, KY 41339, shares this article and photos from his collection with our readers.

To view stories such as this one and many others with accompanying photos, subscribe to The Kentucky Explorer.