Ancestry in Eastern Kentucky

Just over two years ago, I took a DNA test to figure out anything I could about who my father’s biological family were. (He had been adopted at birth, a fact we always knew and my grandparents were open about, though they had never been given any information about his biological family or origins).

Two years (and much research) later, I found myself on a plane late one night in late August to Lexington, Kentucky. The next morning, we drove two and a half hours east to an isolated, rural, very hilly area. It was green, with winding roads that twisted and turned, revealing interesting panoramas of hilly landscape and little country houses. The next morning, we met our guide, also a distant relative of mine (as I had learned only a few months prior). She had been born and raised in the area and could take us to all of the places where our newly-discovered ancestors were from.

And so began a unique weekend that I had been imagining my entire life… a day in which I discovered one of my ancestral homelands.

As we approached an old, abandoned 19th century cabin, which was standing, dignified, on the side of a hill in one of many “hollers,” as they were locally referred to, here in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I could scarcely believe that such a regal place was abandoned. An old, wise, twisted paw paw tree stood next to it, and there were  eight windows, glass, all still in tact, overlooking the hill where we had just come from; a family cemetery, with a dozen or so tidy 19th century graves of the men, women and children who had lived in or near that house.

This is where we got out and looked at one of the most beautiful cabins I had ever seen. It sat, abandoned, facing the road, poised as though it was ready to once again greet guests for Sunday dinner.

We had to walk through a thicket of tall, overgrown wildflowers to reach it. Some I imagined could have been planted naturally, their seeds carried on the wind or dropped by a bird, but more likely, they were remnants of a long-forgotten garden, now grown up wild in front of the homestead. There were tall purple flowers – Joe Pye Weed, I was told – and yellow goldenrod. I saw patches of yarrow, now past their blooming time, but I recognized them by their magical feathery green leaves. Yarrow was medicinal. Could a woman, my ancestor perhaps, have planted it long-ago, hoping that the plant’s tonic qualifies might soothe various ailments that her children and husband could come down with, in an isolated place so far from a town, and pharmacy?

As we approached the house, I still couldn’t believe that it had been abandoned, though not forgotten. It used to have a massive front porch, we were told, where guests were warmly greeted after church for Sunday dinner. The porch had long since collapsed and been taken away. Steps must have led up to it, for now, the house was inaccessible from the front, the entry far too high from the ground. We walked up the slope to the side of the house, where I saw a magical well, now covered by weeds and wildflowers, a single, rusty horseshoe nailed to it. We walked under the paw paw tree to the side of the house. There was a gap between the various beams in the building, and I pressed my forehead up to the massive wood logs and gazed in between the cracks, looking inside. There I saw that a table stood inside, chairs, and some appliances. I couldn’t make out in the low light what they were exactly, but they all looked old, 1950s maybe. The back door was open, but massive shrubs and branches had grown up into the doorway, blocking any passage, so it was impossible to walk through. I was stunned that such a piece of history, of Americana, had simply been left, with furniture and all (how I wish I had that rocking chair back home). I was soon to discover that empty cabins and structures were the norm in this area, a region that had been depressed and had fallen on hard times over and over again for hundreds of years, grossly underpopulated, now with a plethora of old, abandoned buildings and family cemeteries scattered about the land.

We finished our visit to the homestead by making our way through the wildflowers and visiting an impressive old barn. In the barn, there were stalls, as if it was ready to receive a horse, a cow, and some chickens. A large amount of thin beams across the top of the barn were, as it turns out, places to hang and dry tobacco leaves. Having come from the north, I had never seen such a thing before. A quilt was draped across an old log in the barn, and some tools were scattered around. It seemed like someone in more recent times had used the space for work. We went to a nearby shed and found more rusty tools and implements, including a tobacco seed planter, which was a rare and unusual thing to me. I had never seen one before. It was hanging solemnly up on the wall, as if waiting for the next harvest. A harvest that would never come, as I was told that tobacco planting was no longer like it once had been there, where the lush plants dotted the rolling hills; today, tobacco farming was highly regulated, so few ordinary folk could farm tobacco anymore.

The family that lived there had likely all been born, raised, lived, and died within that small, forested area of eastern Kentucky. Now they rested peacefully on a hill, which had grown in in the decades since their graves had been dug… mostly the area had been open, filled with fields of sun kissed grass, in their time. We had walked to the family cemetery before arriving at the cabin. To get there, off of a completely nondescript road winding its way through sparsely inhabited land, we drove down an even less-descript dirt driveway, parked, and walked up what was barely more than a path in the woods. We wound our way up the hill, along the path that had been tread many times. We passed a fragrant herb, mountain mint, that smelled to me like something that was at once warm, and familiar, and delicious, though I had never encountered the herb… in this lifetime, at least. At last we arrived in the tiny cemetery, where about twelve or so stones marked the 18th, 19th and early 20th century graves of some of my ancestors. There were two trees that had grown in the cemetery, a hemlock and a pine. Both were silent, beautiful, and rare in that forest of hardwoods. Perhaps someone had planted them at one time.

We continued on to more homesteads, more graveyards, scattered amongst the hollows, laying haphazardly just off of the road, along washed-out driveways. There were inhabited houses, of course, but to me there seemed to be nearly as many uninhabited structures. It was a strange landscape. It seemed to have been filled with the ghosts of those who came before, who had worked the coal and natural gas-filled land, who had perhaps weathered a few storms and periods of famine or depression, but could not weather them all.

We visited a ghost town, the first one I had ever seen. There was a post office, with a “closed” sign out front, a sign that must have been there for many, many years. The whitewashed building’s paint was flaking. It stood unashamedly next to an abandoned “farm store,” also permanently closed, and had been for a few decades. There was a church off to the side of both buildings. This looked as though it may have been used more recently, though held no regular Sunday service anymore. There was a pleasant little crossroad of creeks nearby that was filled with agates and jasper stones. Garnets and amethyst were also said to be in the area, though I did not see any sparkling in the midday sun as I dipped my toes in.

We got lost, and went into a service station that ended up being part antiques shop, part art gallery, art made by an eccentric man with a taste for the whimsical, strange, and creative. He had a rope bridge, fountains made of old, rusted farmhouse pitchers, and a different iteration of Michelangelo’s David, made of antique spinach and beer cans. I walked out on the swinging bridge, and the horse grazing in the pasture underneath came over to greet me. A chicken poked around for bugs in the yard. It was a bucolic scene, though one that I believe had been cleverly planned by a creative mind.

I went to a picnic the next day, attended by distant cousins. I ate “country food” as they called it. Fried chicken, meatloaf, beans and hotdogs, pickled corn – an Eastern Kentucky specialty, I was told – cole slaw, mashed potatoes, fresh chunks of watermelon from the garden, and an endless array of pies and desserts. My favorite was an orange juice cake.

The experience out there had been a world away from my entry point to the eastern Kentucky mountains. Just days before, after landing in Lexington, I stayed overnight at a modern, pleasant hotel with beautiful views of the historic downtown. I had walked around, had iced coffee and took a pleasant walk near Antebellum mansions with gardens in front alive with massive swallowtail butterflies drinking summer’s nectar. Upon our return to Lexington area after the family visit, before going to the airport, we went to an area with endless tidily-manicured, fenced-off acres of pastureland, a horse farm that raised some of the best horses in the country. Nearby was a bourbon distillery, one of the most historic yet a modern production facility. We learned the process of making bourbon – a sweet, delicious-smelling process from start to finish – and then learned how to properly sip it while judging it by its complex flavors.

Having grown up in the upper Midwest, I am partial to the regions of the United States that are occasionally referred to by our Coastal-bubble brethren as “flyover country.” I feel as though Kentucky is rarely a tourist destination (outside of the derby), and far less so its remote, Eastern foothills. When I traveled there, it was to learn a bit about my personal story, my personal heritage, as I had never been there before. But as with so many other places I visit that are off the beaten path, I took the time to listen and to learn. I learned the story of the people who rock on porches first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Who greet you as family, even if you are a stranger, and go to great lengths to listen to you and help you out.

Today, Eastern Kentucky has tall, beautiful hardwood trees. Butterflies, birds, wildflowers. And most of all, friendly people who were ready to help the out-of-town visitors, tell us the stories of their parents and grandparents, the hard work and the food and the celebrations and struggles and the overall flow of life on that land. There is a softness and steadiness to their way of life that contrasts with the pressure of the industrialized northern Midwest or the shiny newness of the elite Coastal cities. But this is not  a part of the country that should be forgotten, even though it has been… where were the stories of the people of this land in my high school American history textbooks? I grew up only one State away, yet nothing was ever told of the struggles and injustices faced by the miners in that region. Why do I have to dig so deep on my own to learn about this important part of our collective history? The people and region are a part of the larger fabric of the United States. This is the region where coal miners exchanged backbreaking labor to heat the great furnaces of Chicago and Cincinnati nearly a decade ago, fueling an industrial revolution. It is a land that is sparsely populated, and with traditions that date back at least several hundred years, to societies and cultures that most people have forgotten. But those old ways are their everyday modern life. And for one weekend, I, too, experienced that life. I listened, and I learned. And I would like to go back. 

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