Since 1795, when Peter Whitaker built the first known settlement on what is now Linefork Creek, Letcher Countians have demonstrated the perseverance and fortitude for which Appalachian people are known. The majesty of Pine Mountain in the south of the county or the rare beauty of old-growth forests that became Lilley Cornett Woods must have brought Daniel Boone to seek a paradise in Kanta-ke. Whitesburg and Letcher County have seen their resources of timber, oil, and coal bring growth, as well as decline. With the rise of ...
Since 1795, when Peter Whitaker built the first known settlement on what is now Linefork Creek, Letcher Countians have demonstrated the perseverance and fortitude for which Appalachian people are known. The majesty of Pine Mountain in the south of the county or the rare beauty of old-growth forests that became Lilley Cornett Woods must have brought Daniel Boone to seek a paradise in Kanta-ke. Whitesburg and Letcher County have seen their resources of timber, oil, and coal bring growth, as well as decline. With the rise of the coal industry before World War I came a steady flow of Eastern European immigrants who contributed a new and exciting perspective on life, business, and art. It was Italian stonemason John Palumbo Sr. who led other Italians to Whitesburg because the beauty of it reminded him of his home in the Campania region of Southern Italy. The churches, homes, and buildings they established stand in homage to their energy and skill.
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Many years ago, I visited Letcher County on a family vacation. Letcher County is located in the coal country of Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky. My wife, who had been raised in Whitesburg the largest town in the county, and I and our two-year old daughter drove through the mountains and the forests, walked through Whitesburg, and spent the night there in a motel. It was a vacation off the beaten track. At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the visit, but Letcher County has stayed with me. I was able to revisit Letcher County in this pictorial history written in 2011 and published by Images of America by Deborah Adams Cooper, a Letcher County native.
Cooper's book brought back memories of places I had briefly seen, and it taught me about Letcher County which is sparsely populated, rugged, and isolated. Since the early 20th century, the county's fortunes have been dependent on coal. The region is economically depressed. Cooper's book has three parts. In the first part, she explores the building of Letcher County and of Whitesburg by Italian immigrants recruited by the railroads and the coal companies to work with stone. The immigrants built bridges, retaining walls, churches, homes, and other buildings that, in their extensive use of stone, are unusual in eastern Kentucky. The work of the immigrants coincided with the arrival of the railroads by the late date of 1912 which allowed coal mining to proceed in full force, and it continued in the following years.
The second part of the book offers a history of the Letcher county seat of Whitesburg, which was incorporated as a city in 1876 and has a current population of about 3000. Cooper shows the people of Whitesburg in images which identify in detail individuals and families. The book shows businesses, the local high school, and its students and activities over the years, its stores, and its celebrated local newspaper, "The Mountain Eagle" which has been published since 1907 and which has worked tirelessly to improve conditions in the coal mines. Cooper discusses intellectual life in Whitesburg. For example she mentions a local Whitesburg attorney, Harry Caudill, whose 1963 book "Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area" called national attention to the power of the coal companies and to the economic deprivation in Letcher County and in Appalachia.
In the third part of the book, Cooper explores the company towns the coal mines built in Letcher County for workers. By the mid-20th Century, the companies had sold their interest in the towns and in their properties, but the small communities still remain. The book again emphasizes particular individuals and families, giving appropriate recognition to their lives in this remote, difficult area. The book offers many images of the mines and of the towns the companies built, including Jenkins, Fleming-Neon, and Hempill. The residents established businesses, schools, and churches, and carried on their lives with spirit and resilience.
The book gives a feel for the people and places of Letcher County over the years. It was a part of the country not known to me before my brief visit and, I suspect, not known to many Americans outside the area. I was moved to revisit Letcher County in this book and to learn more about it than I had the eyes or the mind to see when I visited the county years ago. America has many special and unique places, including Letcher County. Arcadia Publishing kindly sent me a review copy of this book.
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