Profiles of Mountain People

Reflections Part I

Today begins a short series of posts written by Ron Stephens about his father-in-law Harvey E. Corder and the Blue Heron Coal Camp located in Kentucky.

Harvey E. Corder at blue heron coal camp

Reflections written by Ron Stephens

Dedication

I respectfully dedicate this story to my father-in-law, Harvey E. Corder, who lived it. I have tried to make it as true to life as I could as to actual events. Whether or not his own reflections are the ones I take license to give him I cannot say but I believe that though they might differ in specifics they are at least in general agreement.

And

I dedicate this to our descendants, as part of their family heritage. I hope they find these pages and – having found them – also find them interesting and instructive.

And

To those who went before and did their part in their time to make us what we are and to have what we have been blessed with. May we ever respect them as we hope to be respected in our turn.

Introduction

The names of individuals, where given, are those of the actual participants in the events. I considered this important to memorialize them in this family story for family members. The events themselves are also real and I have told them in their chronological order, as best I know it.

Place names used are always for real places and are their real names. The Eighteen tipple and Mine 18 camp are now within the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area administered by the National Park service. The web site for the BSFNRRA is not difficult to find. Old Barthell has been partially restored by descendants of one of the miners who lived and worked there. The deserted Justus mine entry remains on company land. An excursion train that travels from Stearns, Ky to the Eighteen camp and tipple passes the site of the Justus Mine and through the partial re-construction of old Barthell.

Distances and directions are true. The conditions and situations described are true as well. My intention throughout has been to be both accurate and precise. I have taken very little license with the facts. The title of the song in the hymnal is one such. And the remembered pink sheetrock wall is my own memory. I do not think there are any others. I apologize, in advance, for any errors of fact discovered hereafter.

The picture used as the cover is a picture of Harvey Corder in May 2015. I took it. I realize that it is not particularly good. I was in haste to capture his look of remembering as the most important thing. That look and the picture was the beginning for all that follows. He really was standing in the ghost structure for the church at Eighteen.

—-

I can tell by his far-away look his thoughts are not here. They are not with me, his son-in-law, nor with my wife, his only daughter. He wanted us to come; to show us, he said, how the tipple worked. I understand he really wants to tell us about himself, how he worked the tipple. I know something else he didn‘t say, ‘before it is too late’ or maybe ‘while I still can’. I know it because it is why I write this. But there is much he will never say to either of us. Once, years ago, he told me his Mom (a tall, straight, gray-eyed, reserved woman of presence) warned him against letting people get too close. So he doesn’t. We are alike that way. There is an Appalachian silence between us. We fill in the blanks for ourselves, rightly or wrongly.

I wish I did know just what he is thinking, so I could put this down in his own words. Of course I can’t. My mind doesn’t even supply the right words anymore for the way we talked, and he still does. Much of the deep relationship with this place and these people I once had has become lost to me. Some of it was by the choices I made. Some has been by the changes that have come in mine and his life that we could not help.

Still, I sort of think I know where he is in life. He wants a legacy, as I do. Yet his personality is different. He does not think just like I do. I will get some things wrong, filling in what I do not know with my own thoughts and my own words as if they are his. I should probably leave it alone but I want to give him a voice, even if only a flawed one. I will try to let him speak for himself, the ideas anyway. In a way, it is both of our stories. We span different eras, different work and different experiences. Yet they each tended toward the same end. Maybe the voice can only be ours.

He is standing in the ghost-shell built over the foundations of the old church. I take a picture of his reflection in the glass, a fitting allegory. Like this story and like our lives, the reflection and the picture are imperfect. The pop can in his hand is a jarring note. Had I had more time, more knowledge, more skill I would have made it better. I would have done the same in my life until now. I expect he would have to. As we all know, hindsight is twenty-twenty. Anyway, knowing what I know of his life, the picture I did take was a good fit in many ways. This is his story behind the picture.

—–

I am standing where the old church once was, looking out at the old tipple. There are three of me because I am badly reflected twice in the display case; once from the front and again from the side glass. They don’t match so I am blurred. I can’t see the man I was in that reflection. My hair is silver now where once it was dark and I weigh thirty pounds or more than I did then.

I preached a revival here once. There was one girl saved. I think the pastor baptized her in the river below the church later on. I wonder if she is still living, how her life turned out, if she stayed true. I wonder about all of them, down through the years. I’m like John. I have no greater joy than to know my children walk in truth. No, nor much greater sorrow when they didn’t but there has been a grace along the way to lay some burdens down. I cannot live someone else’s life. Mine is burden enough.

Inside the case is a group of well-remembered things. They are not mine but each have been a big part of my life. I guess local people donated them, part of their legacy. For me, each one of them has memories attached.

There is an unopened, worn and faded King James Bible. I have worn out a bunch of them in my time. The black leather cover is now gray and the once-red page edging has faded to pink. It looks well used. I wonder whose it is and how they could give it up. I wish they had left it open. I could show them so many verses to fit these circumstances and give people a thought to take away. Maybe the one about remembering this house in its former glory and asking, ‘How do you see it now?’

Beside the Bible is a copy of the annual Big South Fork United Baptist Association minutes from the 1960‘s. I expect I was there that year. I usually was in those days. They were good days, better than we knew at the time. I think the Association has gone inactive now.

There lies a paper funeral home fan on a stick. They were our air conditioning back then. We propped the windows open with a stick, opened the door and used the fans. I can remember looking back through the church and seeing them flipping all over the house. I don’t hardly ever see them anymore.

I can see some black and white pictures I know are church groups. Somebody took them here, mostly on the high front steps of the old church. I can’t see well enough to tell if any of them are people I knew but I expect some are.

Over to the side, an old hymnal lies open to the song ‘Time Has Made a Change’. I wonder if that was by accident or did someone really choose it for its meaning? I doubt if the Park people know that song. If they do, I doubt they have lived its meaning like I have. One stanza says, ‘I am not today what I used to be. Time has made a change in me.’ I can see it in my reflection.

I can’t even remember now the name the old church was organized by. I wish I could. We just called it ‘the church at Eighteen’. There was only one Eighteen and only one church in it just like there was the one store and the one school. To say ‘Eighteen‘ said all that was needed. I just remember it as a living church, even though the camp was dying. There was a good spirit here in those days. We lived out our faith toward one another and lived by faith for the future. We depended on our faith all the time, but especially in the hard times. There had been plenty of those and we knew to expect more. So much of our life was out of our control. That hasn’t changed, except maybe to get worse.

This is not really a church, not even a church building. I wouldn’t think of calling it a church. It is only a dead suggestion, a sort-of tombstone for a church. The place has no sanctification. The people had that, beginning with the ones who built it with their own money. They were the real church and they are gone, most of them from the earth and many of the few remaining scattered far away. There was never even any room for a cemetery down here so even the dead left the camp. The church was just barely squeezed in below the tracks and in the edge of the spring floods as it was. Well, except this whole place is a cemetery in a way, not one for bodies but a cemetery for the high hopes.

—-

Be on the lookout for the next part of the series “Reflections.”

Tipper

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    April 30, 2020 at 9:51 pm

    I enjoyed greatly reading Part I of “Reflections” by Ron Stephens about reflections of his father-in-lawl, Harvey E. Corder who worked at the Blue Heron Coal Camp in Kentucky. Personal history can be so illluminating in helping us know more of bygone days. You, yourself, Tipper, have done a superb job of helping us to recall bygone days through Blind Pig and the Acorn. I look forward to subsequent sections of Ron’s “Reflections.” We never had coal mines in Choetoe, Union County, county seat town, Blairsville, GA. So knowing of coal mining is only what I have read. But it seems that our Appalachian ancestors had a strong work ethic and community pride, regardless of where in Appalachia they lived, or what their main occupation was. Again, many thanks, Ron! And Tipper!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 29, 2020 at 9:51 pm

    You know, churches used to bury their dead in the church yard. Close in to the building even. At the very doorstep. I was thinking, those people buried there who were part of the church are still part of the church. And when the jobs and the people move away and the building is torn down and after no one remembers it, it still a church. Those souls buried there are not dead. They are asleep in Jesus and at the second coming will rise first. And they will rise as one, as a church.
    Just like church cemeteries those buried in their family cemeteries are still family even after nobody remembers who they were. Even after the years wear away etchings on their stones those people are still who they were. They are still family.
    I do not understand people who want their bodies cremated and their ashes scattered all over the country. I believe Christ is coming back to gather His Church. Is He gonna want to gather one person up from, as they say “all over Hell and half of Georgia?”

    Sorry I got here late! I enjoyed reading a part of Ron’s “Reflections” and eagerly anticipate more in the future!

  • Reply
    SusieQ
    April 29, 2020 at 8:19 pm

    So enjoyed reading ,, going along slowly so to ponder and reflect ,envision ,and appreciate …. look forward to more….

  • Reply
    tmc
    April 29, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    I enjoyed the story very much. So good the stories were pen to paper, for generations tocome.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    April 29, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Tipper,
    I was listening to Aud Brown, the Pastor of The Little Brasstown at Brasstown. He’s a good Preacher and a good man, I’ve been listening to him for years. He don’t know me from job’s turkey, yet he sent one of his servants that go to his Church. I asked a retired Policeman if he knew Kenny Hall. He said that he lives about a mile down the road from me and he owns a Construction Company. Kenny and his men built a nice ramp on my trailer and didn’t charge me anything. Thanks Tipper for your part in this.

    My little bench-legged Jack Russel dog loves to hear Chitter and Chatter sing. He gets under the cover on the couch and listens. I can’t hear as good as I once could, so I turn up the sound when I call the radio station and talk to Donna Lynn. He covers completely up, probably to keep flies from lighting on him, too. He’s something Else! …Ken

  • Reply
    Melinda
    April 29, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    Wonderful, Ron! Those are precious memories & people….I’m so glad you have put them down. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  • Reply
    Dee
    April 29, 2020 at 11:22 am

    So well-written Ron, you were able to transport me to the room actually viewing what you saw! I look forward to the rest of the story. I guess we could all write some reflections for our children and grandchildren. I know so many times I have stood in an old church and then later where it used to stand and reflected back on past precious memories and stories that had been told to me of parents and grandparents attending that church. Thanks again for your Reflections!

  • Reply
    Cynthia
    April 29, 2020 at 10:54 am

    Touching story.

  • Reply
    Sue McIntyre
    April 29, 2020 at 9:12 am

    Ron, that was an extremely touching piece you shared. I agree, you and Harvey are very similar and yet different. How thankful he must be, to have you in his life. It seems to me, with every generation, we get farther from our roots. Taking the time to recognize and honor our elders, is a very spiritual and humbling experience. They are the roots to a very large and complex tree. As we grow in our relationships, we sometimes forget we are from the same tree, of the same root. My mother always said, “You will never outgrow your raising.” God Bless you all, and I will be looking forward to the next installment as well.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    April 29, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Ron, this is wonderful for you to write this for others to read about your father-in-law. My Dad was once a Coal Miner also and worked at the Tipple in a community called McDowell in McDowell County WV. I can find nothing on the old company called Weyborne Coal Company where he worked. We moved away during one of the many lags in coal mining in 1953. Quite different than others are my memories of living in that coal camp. I just remember what wonderful people lived there, and it seemed the whole neighborhood helped raise us. The teachers were wonderful, and I owe it to them that I loved school and continued to love learning from then on. As corny as it may sound to some, that little coal camp was like a magic place in my memory. I travel back to drive through it occasionally. Oddly enough the little church I attended all those years ago is kept pristine and freshly painted, as is the way with Appalachians. Many treasure their churches and tend their cemeteries. The community had two company stores, and I would earn coins by going to the store for folks who lived up the holler. After we moved Dad had to take on three jobs, and one of them was doing carpentry after his regular job and on Saturday.
    I look forward to reading more of your stories, as coal mining and Kentucky both near and dear to my heart. Most stories I read on FB about those who grew up in the coal fields are filled with great memories of good people and good neighbors. It seemed those miners helped build this country with their hard work digging out coal. Usually cautious with the feelings of others, I become outspoken when anybody in my presence chooses to undermine my people.

  • Reply
    Margie Goldstein
    April 29, 2020 at 8:31 am

    I absolutely enjoyed the story recreated in my own mind from the author’s words! Some how it seemed sad and long ago- the way we all romanticize the past when thinking about things as they once were and so grateful to have experienced all the smallest things. As I look back over my own life, the tears well up as I realize it was indeed the smallest things that impacted me the most- even to this day. I’m always TRIGGERED by smells, sounds, places and sometimes when I close my eyes, I can find myself in the past with the ones I loved and knew loved me. I think too how vivid and close to the other side of life I am now. It’s obvious my ways no longer fit in this world because there’s so much foreign to my understandings or even logic. Things have changed but not many for the good. Precious memories seem more precious every day and especially on long, cold, sleepless nights. I’m glad I’ve got them. Aren’t we all?

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 29, 2020 at 7:53 am

    Wow, a story beautifully written and well told. Makes me think of my grandfather and grandmother, Crawford and Dollie and their church on the hill. The church was always central in those little country communities. All another place in time.
    Thank you, Ron, I can see you’ve put a lot of thought, time, and love into this story and I look forward to the next installment!

  • Reply
    aw griff
    April 29, 2020 at 7:18 am

    Ron, I was deeply touched by your Father-In-Law’s story. Although my own Father never worked in a coal camp he was an old regular baptist preacher that preached many revivals and worked a full time job plus farming. Dad was one of those fortunate people that had a lot of stamina and needed little sleep. He always kept one of the old baptist hymnals around and I have one too. Very familiar with the old song “Time Has Made A Change In Me”. There still is a united baptist association in some of Eastern Kentucky and like my own church of old regular baptist of the enterprise association, that are fundamental, they are slowing dying out. I’ve reached that age,72, where I know more church members that have gone on than I do of ones still here.
    My Wife and I have been to the BSFNRRA and rode the train over the mountain down to the river. When we were there an old man played the banger as we loaded on the train and when we came back up. It was an interesting trip to BSFNRRA and now I have a better understanding of the place.

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