“You never can tell who’s hiding in the woodpile.” That was my mother’s way of saying that we cannot help who our relations are or who our ancestors were, and you cannot always be sure about who you’re even related to. It was funny to me that Mom would actually have such a saying when for most of the years that I knew her she never showed very much interest in who her own distant family members were or might have been, and none at all about my father’s. That familial and generational ambivalence seemed to change a bit as she grew older and moved back to her home state of Kentucky in her retirement years, and on one visit I found myself one morning in a car headed east on the Bluegrass Parkway towards Lexington and the mountains further east of there.
Most of Mom’s immediate relatives had settled in Louisville Kentucky or across the Ohio River in New Albany, Indiana. She grew up however in the coal mining mountain counties of Eastern Kentucky. To be exact, a large part of her childhood was spent in and just outside of Hazzard, Kentucky. Mom used to laugh when we would watch the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” She called that show “The Dukes of Riverside” because the terrain in the television show looked a lot more like Southern California than Eastern Kentucky. I later found out just how right she was about that.
On this clear, warm Kentucky day we took the Parkway through low hills and broad fields of corn and tobacco and in an hour or two arrived on the outskirts of Lexington, where grand farms raising some of the finest horses in the world lined the road which narrowed as it neared the center of town. I don’t care much about horses one way or the other but I have to admit that the sight of a group of three or four of them standing regally under the shade of an oak or elm tree, with the white rail fences and ever-present arena and track, did stir the Kentuckian blood which runs through my veins.
We threaded our way through downtown Lexington, picked up the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, and headed east. The flat farmland continued for about a half hour and then the road began to rise and twist through low hills that bunched together closer and higher until we knew that we were officially in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. A bit further on we found the turnoff to State Route 30 which led to the town of Jackson, the seat of Breathitt County. After another half hour we pulled into Jackson, a picturesque mountain town with a downtown that seemed to be right out of the late nineteenth and early twentiety centuries. There was a lot of stone and brick, with diagonal parking in the street in front of the hardware store, the drug store, the dress store and so on. Jackson looked like the set of a movie and I would have probably not believed it to be real if it was not so much like Campbellsville, Lebanon, Bardstown and a host of other small Kentucky towns that I had already visited.
I parked our car in one of the diagonal slots in front of a large stone and brick building which housed the Breathitt County Library. My mother had a list of relatives whom she wanted to research and I was mostly along for the ride. We exited the car and walked up a short flight of stairs to the front door, which we found locked and sporting a sign which gave some reason or other why the building would not be opened that day until one in the afternoon. It was now barely ten thirty, and so Mom and I went back to the car to decide what to do next.
“We’ve already eaten breakfast” I said. “Do you want to walk around Jackson?” “No” she replied. “I don’t have any close connections here.” “Oh, really? I thought your family was from around here and that’s why you are using the library to look up some genealogies” “Some of them, yes, but only the more distant ones. I grew up in Hazzard, in the next county east.” I pulled out our Rand McNally atlas and saw that indeed, less than a hour further down the highway was Hazzard, Kentucky. “You want to go there?” Mom’s eyes lit up just a little but she said “I don’t know anyone there anymore.” “So what?” in asked. “We could just go and take a look.” Mom thought about that for just a minute and then nodded her assent. I backed out of the parking slot, nosed the care back onto U.S. Route 30, and we were quickly on our way to Hazzard.
As we drove deeper into the mountains I began to understand why Mom used to laugh at the television show. Breathitt and neighboring Perry County, of which Hazzard is the seat, are very vertical places. Steep, forested hillsides and deep valleys through which tumbled swift creeks and narrow, twisting roads were the order of the day in this broken, irregular landscape. The long, straight country roads that the Dukes piloted their muscle car down bore no resemblance whatsoever to the serpentine roads in this vertical land.
Mom and I pulled into Hazzard and quickly found ourselves in an older part of town. “Park here” said Mom, and I rolled slowly up against the curb. We exited the car and began to walk along the sidewalk in front of a row of usable but sad looking and run down buildings, some of which still contained struggling businesses but many of which were empty. Across the street was an old wooden pedestrian bridge which spanned two hills between which a narrow road came into town. “I used to walk on that bridge when I came into town as a girl” Mom said. “My best friend, Etta Boggs, and I would go to school or I would go to buy some small thing for my mother, and I would cross over that bridge. It came down to town just around the side of that hill”
I instantly became interested in this girl, Etta Boggs. What would she look like today? What would she be like? Did they play with dolls, even if only paper ones? Did they fix each other’s hair and talk about boys? Could they ever see each other again? I asked Mom if she ever tried to find Etta Boggs. “No. I wouldn’t even know how to start looking for her. Etta married young to a man who worked at the mine office. He had a good job, as those things went back then. One day there was an explosion at the office; gas or coal dust, I don’t know what caused it. The explosion blew the office safe into the air and it landed on Etta’s husband. Squished him good. I left right after that and lived with the Browns in Newport News Virginia and never saw her again.”
This was a time before Google searches and the ancestry web sites, and I knew that Mom was right. It would require a laborious search of genealogy libraries with follow-ups of birth certificates, marriage licenses, birth announcements and perhaps a death record to hunt down the mysterious Etta Boggs. Mom didn’t seem interested enough to do the legwork to find Etta’s trail and so I let the topic drop.
We continued walking the sidewalks of old Hazzard, Mom pointing out where stores and homes and schools used to be when she was a little girl and I felt the mixed emotions of imagining her when she was very young in the 1920’s in a bustling town, and comparing that vision with the old, tired, down-at-the-mouth town through which we were walking. It seemed like Mom wore her years much as the town was wearing its own. We soon felt like we had killed enough time in Hazzard and reentered our car to begin the return trip back to Jackson. Mom was hungry but we decided that the fare in Hazzard did not look too tempting, so we gassed up and made our return to Jackson. To be fair to Hazzard, we did not go into the newer areas to the east of the old downtown. It might be a much more attractive place than what we saw. I also think that there may have been a ghost or two pestering Mom there; the boyfriend who didn’t work out, the cousin who drowned in the creek, poor old Etta’s squished husband and so on. In any case, we were soon heading west, slowly losing elevation as we rolled back down the road to Jackson.
In Jackson we stopped at a drug store which had a lunch counter that offered the usual southern fare. Burgers and fries, bologna and macaroni and cheese, or fried anything. We ate and left a tip which Mom thought was too generous and returned to our parking slot which was still available in front of of the big stone building. We were five minutes early and waited in the car until we saw the sign come out of the window and the doors open up. We slipped out of the car, made our way up the stairs, and then plunged into the cool confines of the library. We found the genealogy section right away and I left Mom to her research while I went throughout the library savoring its look and smell and feel, and daydreaming about the generations who had passed down those aisles and past those stacks of books, sat at the tables and perhaps flirted over by the section housing the history of the Roman Empire.
Mom was having success with her search and called me over to see what she had found. Mom’s maiden name was Cooper and her mother’s name had been Kershaw. She had always heard that a great great uncle, Captain Henry Kershaw, had been a bit of a rogue and had even seen him mentioned in an article in “Kentucky Magazine.” Mom was on a mission to set the record straight about her distant uncle. She had found a wealth of records including microfilm and microfiche which contained photos of news clippings, court entrees, sheriff’s warrants and the like and as we worked together the picture of that distant relative began to come into a sharper focus.
Captain Henry Kershaw, or “Cap’n Hank” as he was called, enlisted in the Army on the Federal side in the Civil War. Through his own skill, luck, and attrition he rose to the rank of Captain by the end of the war. After Appomattox Cap’n Hank returned to his home near Jackson and began to farm and mine a type of near-surface coal, which gave him the funds to enlarge his land holdings. Kentucky had been a border state however, and the Confederate Army also drew units from that state. After Appomattox those soldiers went home too. This was not a good mix.
Amos Riesen had never liked the Kershaws anyway, and when Cap’n Hank bought the land next door trouble was inevitable. Cap’n Hank had a nice herd of swine and when he noticed that he was missing quite a few shoats, or juvenile pigs, he was certain that he knew who the culprits were so he set a trap. Cap’n Hank was waiting early one morning when the Riesens came to plunder his stock again and put a well-placed bullet through the heart of Cletus Riesen, Amos’ oldest boy. The other Riesens exchanged fire with Cap’n Hank and then fled, leaving the body of Cletus where it lay. Cap’n Hank secured the body to his horse and brought it to the sheriff in Jackson, who declared the homicide to be justified but would not swear out a warrant for Amos. That rascal would only deny that he had been there and in the end it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
As I suggested earlier, there were families and clans which aligned with either Federal or Confederate sympathies. The Federals were known as the Red Strings and the Confederates as – and I am not making this up – the Ku Kluxers. Naturally, Amos Riesen was a Ku Kluxer and Cap’n Hank was a Red String. So Amos gathered a few cousins and his remaining offspring and encircled the cabin of Cap’n Hank one dark night. When dawn came they opened fire on Cap’n Hank, and he and his wife and his young son were pinned down in the cabin.
After three days, his food and ammunition running low, Cap’n Hank crept out at night and put his young son on a horse and sent him for help. The boy got through and soon a dozen or so Red Strings were riding to the rescue. The relief column showed up and took the Riesens completely by surprise, killing three of them while the others took to their heels and fled into the forest. Cap’n Hank then led his men to the Riesen homestead, sent the women and children to walk to Jackson, killed all of the livestock and burned down every building on the farm to the ground. That was enough for the Riesens. Amos took his immediate family and moved to Tennessee, while the remaining family members gave Cap’n Hank a wide berth ever after.
For his remaining years Cap’n Hank was a peaceful man, more or less. His association with the Red String bunch placed him at odds with the Ku Kluxers, and from time to time and there were reports, unsubstantiated of course, of him being involved with assaults and shootings in connection with the feuds which wracked the county. But Cap’n Hank worked hard, increased his holdings and made a large family before one morning, when riding back with his youngest son from an inspection of some of his more distant property, he was ambushed and killed. The boy got away to report the event but nobody was ever charged or arrested. It was just not healthy for a sheriff to take a side in those feuds until well into the early twentieth century.
Mom and I were lost in time for almost three hours in that library, and when we were finished we looked up and saw that it was later than we had planned to stay. Dad was going to be cranky because we would not return home until nearly sundown, and he liked to eat earlier than that. We called him to let him know the situation and then hit the road west towards their home in central Kentucky. We chatted almost non-stop about all of the people and events that we learned about on that trip and made our plans to do it again soon. Those plans didn’t work out, but I at least have that one memory or Mom and her crazy Appalachian, feuding family. It is enough for me.