By Ike Adams
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
I recently finished reading the best example of the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” that I’ve ever had in my hands. So much so, I started reading it again.
The book, Eastern Kentucky Short Stories 1760 – 1960, is written by Maynard Cornett Adams and has a beautiful photograph of an old grist mill on its cover.
At first glance, I’m thinking I’m probably looking at another collection of Jack and Bear Tales or perhaps a compilation of Appalachian Kentucky short fiction pieces spanning two centuries because the book feels thick and heavy enough to contain the best of both with room to spare.
Propped up in bed, four hours later, at 2 a.m., my eyes were bugged out and my mouth dropped open because I was absolutely astounded and unable to lay the book down. It’s not fiction at all. It is easily the best and most interesting series of essays on historic events and places in the eastern Kentucky and western Virginia mountains I’ve ever read.
It certainly is not a comprehensive history, nor does it claim to be. It simply contains the author’s analysis of numerous, often-tragic, events that helped to shape the values and culture of the high country that we natives of one little section of the hills call home.
Adams was born, as near as I can tell, around 1930 at UZ, Ky., a small community on the upper North Fork of the Kentucky River, seven miles or so downstream from Whitesburg. His family later moved to Dry Fork, a nearby tributary of the river, and later to McRoberts and Jenkins where he finished high school.
After high school, he attended Morehead State College and Coyne Electrical School in Chicago where he earned a degree electricity and electronics. After career stints in Texas and New Mexico, he moved to Colorado where he has lived for the last 45 years. After retiring in 1997, he began a second career in writing and publishing. He has written several historical novels set in the West.
Eastern Kentucky Short Stories is the culmination of more than four years of dedicated research, including numerous interviews conducted during frequent trips back to the hills of home. The last 20 pages of the book detail reference sources and a bibliography Adams relied on to document his work. Several articles from Letcher County’s Mountain Eagle, written up to 100 years ago, are cited and I found it interesting to compare writing and reporting styles from then to now.
The book is laced with several humorous and insightful personal essays about growing up in Letcher County during the Great Depression and the formative years of the coal industry. It contains some insight into the lives of several early, notorious politicians and other unsavory characters. Several essays are dedicated to murders, hangings, lynchings, and ambushes.
A dozen or so pieces document Civil War activity in the mountains. Several others describe feuding activity. I found myself totally fascinated with Letcher County’s Wright-Reynolds feud and found myself embarrassed that I’d scarcely heard about it. Hair-raising stories having to do with Ku Klux Klan activity in the hills also surprised me.
The bottom line is there is something here for anybody interested in the formative years of, especially Letcher, as well as Pike, Harlan, Knott and Perry counties in Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia.
The book contains 460 pages when introductory material is included, hundreds of photographs, portraits and illustrations and not an inch of available space is wasted.
At this writing, the easiest way to get a copy of the book is to order directly from the author at: M.C.A. Books, P.O. Box 804 Lupton, CO 80621. The cost, with shipping and handling, is $32.50.
The only retail outlets that I am aware of are the John B. Adams Store in Isom (Letcher County) KY, Heritage Nook Books in Pound, Virginia and Top Drawer Gallery in the Old Town section of Berea, KY.
I will finish my second reading of Eastern Kentucky Short Stories tonight, but I have marked at least a dozen places in the book that I intend to read, yet again.