- Historic Sites
The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man
In the hills of Kentucky a small-town lawyer named Harry Caudill battles to save his homeland from the ravages of strip mining
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Caudill’s stories nearly all deal with the same themes—the harsh, uncertain life of the mountaineer from pioneer times to the present, the special kind of courage engendered by such a life, and the very special variety of politician that Kentucky has home-grown over the years. And all the stories, in one way or another, are related to the land. For it would be hard for Caudill, or almost anyone from his section of Kentucky, for that matter, to imagine the course of human affairs being carried on apart from or irrespective of rivers, creeks, draws, mountains, hollows, bottom lands, and everything that grows or lives in, on, or near them, or that may lie buried beneath them. And it is this kind of vision, this attitude toward the place where he lives, that gives Caudill’s kind of conservation a special significance. He is not simply dedicated to saving scenery. For him the scenic wonders, the ecology, the people and their stories, are all part of the land and in total represent a heritage only a vandal would degrade or destroy. And this is perhaps the chief reason why he finds the desecration of his own small section of the continent such an unconscionable and unacceptable outrage.
Caudill’s part of Kentucky is neither the gracious bluegrass-and-blooded-horses Kentucky of legend nor the bustling, modern, industrial Kentucky that much of the state’s western half is fast becoming. He lives in the other Kentucky, set in the rugged Cumberland uplands to the east, where steep, wrinkled mountains, lush in spring and summer, extravagantly colorful in the fall, bleak as can be in winter, cover some ten thousand square miles and are sliced into a bewildering tangle of narrow, twisting valleys that shelter something like half a million people and what appear to be at least ten thousand hulks of abandoned automobiles. “The old cars from Cincinnati and Dayton all come down here to die,” one man told me.
Until the latter part of the nineteenth century it was country that had changed little since pioneer times. Then timber buyers began arriving with what seemed very fancy offers for the immense stands of trees, most of them hardwoods, to be found almost anywhere they looked.
“The eyes of the ‘furrin’ timber hunters must have popped with amazement,” Caudill writes in Night Comes to the Cumberlands . “The great poplars and white oaks grew, for the most part, near the base of the hills and in the coves, while the lesser oaks and chestnuts predominated on the sharper points and near the hilltops. Countless walnuts dotted the forest, thousands of them without blemish and a yard or more in diameter. The Goliaths were the superb, pencil-straight poplars, some of them towering one hundred and seventy-five feet and achieving a diameter of seven or eight feet.” There were also enormous hickories, maples, beeches, ashes, black gums, pines, and hemlocks, an abundance and variety of trees such as could be found in few places on earth by then. The buyer was offering cash money in amounts seldom dreamed of in the mountains; the seller usually thought he was getting the better of the bargain. In most cases the going price was fifty to seventy-five cents a tree, and from about 1870 on, thousands of mountaineers were kept busy bringing down the trees. By the 1930’s about all the virgin timber was gone, and another supreme natural treasure had been destroyed.
Today the hardwoods are only beginning to come back, and in all Kentucky there is but one sizable stand of virgin woodland, some 550 acres in Letcher County known as Lilly’s Wood. The late Lilly Cornell, former owner of the property, loved trees and turned down every offer from the timber buyers. (Along Line Fork Creek he is remembered as “the most peculiar man you ever saw … carried his money in an old Buffalo tobacco bag and dressed all raggedy.”) For the past few years, it has appeared that Lilly’s Wood, too, was headed for the sawmill. But Caudill and others, including the Louisville Courier-Journal , put on such a concerted drive to rescue the trees that the slate, with the help of the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Nature Conservancy, finally slepped in and bought the property. The last remnanl of the immense foresl that once covered the whole of eastern Kentucky has been saved (see the photograph and caption on pages 112 and 113).
But the destruction of Kentucky’s trees was a minor tragedy beside what happened after the railroads came in and made it possible to take coal out. Coal was known to exist in the mountains by the earliest white explorers. Christopher Gist reported finding “fine coal” in 1751. But it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the railroads began penetrating the Kentucky highlands and thereby put an end to the way of life that had existed so long undisturbed.
Even by the turn of the century Whitesburg, for example, had no telegraph, no telephone, no connection with the rest of the world but a narrow road twenty miles over the mountains. But with the arrival of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Lexinglon became a “daylighl ride” from Whilesburg. A Selh Thomas clock was installed in the courthouse cupola and set to standard time, and things began to change rapidly in Whilesburg. As a little history of the town written at the time proudly slates, “The Romance of these hills—heart of these noble old Mountains should be Dig, Dig, Dig—The Open Door—The Open Sesame, To Old Midas’ Minis. Here all one has to do is to tickle the sides of Old Mount with a pick and an avalanche of’gold’ rushes down.”