Love Is The Tie That Binds
Memories of the Early Black Star Mining Community
Sylvia F. Warfield was born in Ohio County. At a very early age she came to Harlan County. She is a graduate of Union College and has a master’s degree from the University of Kentucky. She did post graduate work at Peabody and UK. She taught in Harlan County 14 years and was a supervisor of instruction for Harlan County from 1959-1968. She taught three years in Rockport High School and four years in Lexington.
By Sylvia F. Warfield
This is the story of strong, proud, hardworking people. They wanted the best for their families and were willing to make sacrifices to achieve that goal.
I have written from a personal point of view. It contains experiences as I remember them. Please accept my apologies if any who read this saw things differently.
The major portion in this account takes place in the twenties and thirties. The portion that occurred in the forties, concern the years I taught in the Black Star School.
Years ago novelist, Thomas Wolfe, wrote an earlier generation in “You Can’t Go Home Again.” This title certainly applies to the people who lived in the community of Black Star. We can never return home. It no longer exists.
I am indebted to the following individuals for their contribution: Hazel Lee, Irene Moody and Lura Clark.
The Story Begins
In 1925 there was nothing unusual about the total blackness caused by the tall mountains surrounding the narrow valleys in Harlan County to the native dwellers. There were no streetlights. If any lights in the homes were on, they could not penetrate the darkness.
It was into this valley that my father ushered us. After holding a position with Beaver Dam Coal Company in Ohio County, he had accepted the store manager’s job in a relatively new mining community called Black Star at Alva.
He had preceded us due to the birth of my sister, Fay. As soon as my mother and the new baby were able to travel, we boarded an L&N passenger train bound for Harlan County. We left the train at Blackmont in Bell County. We then boarded an electric car resembling a streetcar or a trolley. Some called it a “jitney.” It has always been the “dinkey” to me. It would take us the nine miles up Puckett’s Creek to Alva.
This electric locomotive made two trips daily – one in the morning; the other in the evening. Mr. George Burdine was the motorman and Mr. Clint Kersey was the conductor. Mr. Jake Thompson also worked with the “dinkey” at times. There were two coaches and on weekends both coaches made the runs.
I can remember being quite fascinated by this new mode of transportation – new to me anyway. I don’t think my mother was amused at all, but my father was delighted to have his family with him at last. I do remember my mother’s first words when we got off the “dinkey.” She was overcome by the pitch blackness surrounding us, and she said, “Roy, for goodness sakes, take us back home.”
If he heard her request, he ignored it and assured her she would be fine. To a young mother reared on a farm in mostly flat country in West Kentucky this new part of the state was a bit overwhelming. As I remember this night, I am convinced that the moon had not come over the mountain. My father was certain that things would look better in the morning light and, of course, they did.
In the early 1920’s Black Star was a fledgling community. The promise of the town it would become could not be imagined. It took men and women of vision and the determination to make it a reality. That meant self-sacrifice, hard work, and know-how.
Men seeking work began arriving. Black Star grew. Every house was filled. There were waiting lists. In the eight-room houses families took in boarders. Some folks with only four rooms kept boarders – often workers would occupy the beds and vice versa. If my memory is correct, there were over 1,400 employees at one time.
Many of these workers had come from Wilton, Kentucky. Wilton’s power plant had burned.
My father-in-law, George Burnette, whom I affectionately called Daddy George, was one of these workers. He went to work at Black Star in 1923 and moved his family there in 1925. Later he went back to Wilton to get the equipment out. This took a year. He returned to Black Star in December 1926 and went to work as an electrician.
Among those workers, also, was Temus Warfield, the father of my second husband. He was a soft-spoken, Godly individual, a hard worker and a wonderful family man. I believe he had the respect of the entire community.
I soon learned that my new home was Black Star and that Alva was used only when referred to the post office. If I am not mistaken, the post office derived its name by taking two letters from the two of the owner’s daughters names – the AL from Alice and the VA from Virginia. Thus it was named Alva.
Since the store manager’s house was still occupied by the pervious manager, Mr. Charlie Jackson, we were to spend a short time in Ma Ralston’s Club House. It consisted of three dwelling houses. Meals were served there in the one inhabited by Ma.
I don’t remember ever seeing Ma on her feet. I do not intend to imply that she sat all the time. I only saw her sitting in an old rocking chair and, in that stern manner of hers, directing her help. On one occasion I asked her for a piece of cornbread. Her answer let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that there was to be no eating between meals. This action, to say the least, influenced my childhood opinion of the club house manager; and old feelings die hard.
Sometime later, when I married Raymond Burnette, his sister, Hazel’s husband, Steve Lee, told me that his great-grandfather had owned much of the Black Star land. He had sold it to the Kentenia Land Co., for the “huge” sum of 50 cents an acre. I believe that he said that Kentenia sold a portion of it to the Sacketts and the Stolls from Louisville.
A Wonderful World
To me, with the homes lining the hillsides, it was a whole new world. As I reflect on my years at Black Star, it was a wonderful world, and I count it a privilege to have spent many years there among the best and the most caring group of people I have ever known.
The community was made up of what we called the main camp that followed the creek and the railroad and the different valleys known as hollows. These hollows (known as hollers in the Anglo-Saxon dialect) were named Sawmill, Lee’s Fork, Bare Tree, Little Field, Rice Hollow, and Mary Jane Smith or School House Hollow, which was sometimes referred to as the Lisenbee or Nath Bradford Hollow.
When the mines opened the Frost brothers, Charley, Joe and John from Wilton were in key positions. Mr. C. B. Burchfield was office manager. Later he became plant manager. Mr. Henry Horton was mine superintendent when we arrived. Mr. Charlie Roberts was office manager. Assisting him were H. H. Snodgrass and O. L. Julian. Green Ellison soon joined them as timekeeper.
He later became scrip writer. For those of our readers who have never lived in a mining camp, scrip was issued in lieu of U. S. Currency on a day-to-day basis. It was legal tender at the company commissary and other businesses operated by the company. On payday, if funds remained on the company ledger, the employee received that money in regular U. S. currency.
The Johnston family used sturdy workhorses to carry on logging in Sawmill Hollow. The mother and father and sons, Joe, Jack, Troy and twin daughters, Maureen and Pauline, and Mary made up that family.
On the mountain above Bare Tree leading to Brownies Creek lived the Will Scott family, and the Crider Dash family. The Hensley family lived up Martin’s Fork.
Steve and Noah Hensley brought mules or horses carrying bags filled with apples, beans, and other garden produce down into the camp. I can remember being fascinated to see the bags and the chickens draped across the animal’s backs. In season blackberries and huckleberries in lard buckets and cans were also peddled in Black Star.
A Baptist minister by the name of Garrette Daniels also brought produce and chickens into the valley too. These peddlers walked leading the horse and mule and then rode back home after the produce was sold.
An icehouse supplied ice to keep the refrigerators cold. A wagon and team took ice through the camp. It was broken into pieces and lifted using heavy tongs. Mose Chadwell delivered groceries for the company; also using a wagon and team.
Early Church Services
In the earliest days church was held in one of the camp houses. In 1927 a beautiful brick church was built. The Kersey brothers were brick masons. They built this church. It was supposed to be a non-denominational place of worship, but as far as I know, Baptist literature was always used.
I’d like to say that there was another church, the Holiness Church, in Black Star. I have great respect for many members of that church, with whom I associated for many years. One of those members, Flora Marrs Howard, lived in my parent’s home. She was in my home when my son was born and later traveled from Pathfork to Loyall every Friday to clean my home.
I have never forgotten what Flora told me once. Members of this church were often called “Holy Rollers.” I asked her if she was a “Holy Roller.” This was simply due to childhood curiosity. She was very explicit as she answered, “I’d rather roll into heaven than to slide into hell.” I certainly couldn’t argue that point. I might add that Flora is gone now, but I’ve never doubted that she went to be with the Lord. I dearly loved Flora and her life set a good example for me.
As I have stated earlier, blackberries were plentiful and available for purchase from peddlers. My father loved blackberry wine and each year he made a batch of this purple brew. He always offered some to friends who had no qualms about indulging. Our church pastor, Rev. Brock lived in Corbin and was always invited to have dinner with some church family.
On this particular Sunday, he was having dinner at our house. In the period prior to the meal, my sister, Fay, who was about four years of age, began pulling on Daddy’s coattail. When he finally asked what she wanted she said, “When are you going to serve the wine?” Needless to say, my father was at a loss for words! I do remember some red faces and silly giggles at this embarrassing moment.
Doors were never locked. Crimes were rare indeed. Oh, we had a few drunks after payday. I do recall that one night my mother forgot to bring her clothes in off the line. Mother liked to dress my sister and me alike. She had just made us identical dresses, as it was near vacation time. When she went to retrieve her laundry, the dressers were not to be found. She reasoned that perhaps the person who took them needed them more than we did.
In the early years Leonard and Edna Green opened a restaurant in the basement of the warehouse. “Shorty” Marrs ran a shoe shop under the commissary and “Hop” Evans had a barber shop there. Men, women, and children went to “Hop” for their haircuts. At one point, at age 13, I felt very fashionable with my boyish bob – the latest rage in the coiffeur world.
I believe it was John Bill Dotson who ran a dry-cleaning establishment. My husband, Bob, told me that he and my brother-in-law, Ed Burnette, worked in it for a time.
Miner Evans started a theater in a building near the tipple. We called it a “show house.” Tom Mix westerns were indeed a favorite. Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, and Charles Ferrell movies were never more appreciated than in that “show house.” Neither will Eskimo pies ever taste as good as in that particular spot.
In the mid 30’s Otilla Burnette Ramsey opened a beauty shop with her sister, Emaline. They were both excellent hairdressers. Sometimes, when I meditate on days gone by, I can still fee that old permanent wave machine burning my scalp. I can even smell the fumes that accompanied the process. Otilla now has a shop in Corbin and she’s still turning out beautiful hairstyles.
As there was no television, there were no “couch potatoes” in our town. We never had to say, “What am I going to do?” As children we were busy cleaning our play houses, fashioning tents out of potato sacks, turning flips under porches, staging plays, stocking our own “Play” stores, practicing for our parades, playing “May I,” swinging on grapevine swings, and other fun games.
On Sunday afternoons we often hiked in the mountains or on cold snowy days we found great places to slide or ride our sleds. A favorite spring and summer pastime was picking wild flowers in the fall hunting chestnuts was great fun. After I reached adulthood, I have marveled that I never came upon a rattlesnake or a copperhead, and I never saw anything resembling a moonshine still.
We had a great baseball team in the early years. Some of us were such fans that we sometimes followed the team when they played away as well as home games. I can still hear their most ardent fan, Mrs. Rose, rotting for her son, Walter. It was a wonderful Sunday afternoon pastime.
A Black Star Christmas
In Black Star Christmas was very special. As Irene Moody stated “The store showed toys only at Christmas and most of us had never seen Fireworks displayed. Early in December it would be announced that fireworks would be shown on a certain day. Nobody missed this occasion. The company store would close earlier than usual and soon after dark the show would begin; fireworks as modern as today’s. Afterward the store would open up again and the children were allowed to behold the wonderful array of toys that had been left for Santa to distribute. Toys could be chosen and charged to the father’s account in the company office. The toys could be left there until a convenient time to hide them until Santa’s arrival. Often a family with financial difficulties would be called to the office and given a toy for each child with no questions asked.”
I’d like to add to Mrs. Moody’s description, that my father enjoyed staging those fireworks as much, or more, than any child who saw them. He also derived much pleasure from throwing to the children the toy favors contributed by various companies. I remember that several items were given by the Brown Shoe Company and had a picture of Buster Brown on them.
I recall one Christmas morning quite well. Someone knocked on our door rather early. I followed my father to the door. The man who stood there said, “Roy, I failed to get my children’s toys out yesterday. Would you go with me and let me get them out of the store?” Daddy grabbed his coat and went to the store with him. This was a bad day for me as it ruined my childhood faith in Old Saint Nick. I felt like crying!
A beautiful new clubhouse was built to replace the three houses used in the early years. It was a lovely place for a wedding. I am thinking of the wedding of Thelma Shelly and Oran Coffee that was held there. It couldn’t have been in more suitable surroundings.
From the beginning there were times in good weather when it was impossible to drive an automobile from Blackmont to Black Star. My father and some other men had a rented place in Blackmont to keep their car when it was not wise to try it.
Before there was a bridge, the Taylor family ran a ferry across the Cumberland River at Blackmont. Mules or horses pulled the ferry across. Part of the road was in the creek bed and oft times the railroad seemed preferable to the ruts and potholes in the road.
My second husband, Robert Warfield, had quite an experience while driving his car up the railroad. He heard the train approaching and literally lifted the vehicle off the track just in the nick of time. This is the honest truth!
I remember on one occasion when Pucketts Creek was slightly swollen but my father thought we could ford it without incident. Such was not the case. Just beyond Insull at the curve in the creek, right in the middle the car stalled. My sister and I thought it was funny. My parents thought otherwise. Dad was forced to seek help. We were rescued by Mr. Cecil Hensley, Sr. whose home overlooked that portion of the creek. He pulled us out using a horse or mule.
Late in the 20’s on one dark and rainy night we were awakened by loud pounding on our front door. When Dad opened the door, a loud voice shouted, “Roy, get your family out quickly. The creek is going to overflow and wash away everything near it.” As it turned out, the swollen waters didn’t reach our house but some houses were destroyed and others flooded in Lee’s Fork. The railroad was left swinging with no foundation and bridges were washed away as well as portions of the road.
In the early 30’s a graveled road and was built from Blackmont to Black Star. It was later blacktopped. With the new concrete road from Pineville to Harlan, we were no longer so cut off from our neighbors or them from us.
Before I get on with my story, I might say that at times we felt that we lived in a “no man’s land.” Harlan didn’t claim us because you had to go through Bell County to get to us. Bell County couldn’t claim us because we lived in Harlan County.
Mr. Glickman, a Jewish pack peddler, with his big cases filled with innumerable items went through and the community from time to time. Many childish eyes glistened just to catch a glimpse of the treasures in his pack. Later a lady, I believe her name was Bullock, also sold merchandise to Black Star residents.
It was around 1927 when Edgar Burnette was swinging on the front porch. He had been told not to swing too high. When he failed to heed the warning, Daddy George went out to see that he stopped. As Ed saw his father coming, he jumped across the banister. The result was a broken arm at the elbow. Since that type of medical help was not available, father and son walked up School House Hollow and crossed the mountain into Wallins Creek to get a cast and sling for the broken arm.
The Company Doctor
One of the most colorful inhabitants of the Black Star Community was the company doctor, H. S. Hodges. He was known in our town as “old Doc.” He was from North Carolina and had received his medical training at the well-known John Hopkins University. It was in Baltimore that he met the married Mrs. Hodges.
For 20 years “Old Doc” gave of himself to the residents of Alva. He was not only a good physician. He was truly a humanitarian. The welfare of every person in the community was of interest to him. He was not willing that any should suffer.
He was a very handsome gentleman with a big roaring voice and unusual hand gestures.
The doctor’s office was in one of the dwellings at first. This was indeed a very special place and each morning found the waiting room filled with anticipation – some anticipating a cure for some illness; others looking a shot, the tonic, or pills, which were dispensed right there in the office.
Dr. Hodges was assisted by C. O. Hodges who was affectionately known as “Doc Jim.” He was there to assist in difficult cases, make house calls if “old Doc” was not available, dispense medications, and any other medical need when called upon.
Each person on the payroll was cut one dollar per month as pay for any medical or doctor expenses. No additional charge was made for office calls, house calls, delivering babies, or medicine. “Some patients were sick; some thought they were. All were given the same attention. Dr. Hodges had a special store of medicine for those who only thought they were. All were given the same attention. Dr. Hodges had a special store of medicine for those who only thought they were sick. One of this number moved to a nearby community. When asked how she liked her new home, she replied that “sometimes she almost died for some of Hodges’ pills.”
Mrs. Moody continued by stating that, “Few of us realized how fortunate we were to have one so well trained in our midst. Some are amazed today that he so wisely doctored them in very serious illnesses.”
The following contains excerpts from an article written by Lura Clark, the daughter of our Baptist minister at the time Dr. Hodges was leaving Black Star.
Miss Clark states; “Old Doc” is deeply religious in the real sense of the word. He has no use for pious pretentions. His laugh is entirely characteristic and very much his own. It is hearty and resounding, seeming to come from deep within him. It is common talk here that long before a church was built he would go down in the camp and hold Sunday School.
Now the camp has a neat brick church. Old Doc had a great deal to do with its erection, and he has never wavered in his loyalty. He never misses a service unless it is necessary for him to minister to some sick person. He always sits on the second seat – sometimes he comes in near the close of a service because of a call that has delayed him.
He leads the singing with the same enthusiasm that he does everything else; singing lustily and swinging his hand in time with the music, “Old Doc” is Sunday School superintendent too.”
She continues: “Most people are familiar with strikes now because of the wide publicity the press has given them, but few are aware of the hardships and difficulties they entail. During one strike here things were getting pretty hard.
“Old Doc must have worried about the health of the youngsters. He arranged for milk to be given them at school. The money came out of his pocket. He has ushered about half of the younger population here into the world. He has stood by the bedside of the dying. They tell in the camp that he gives medicine to the sick and then kneels down to pray.”
The Old Doc Leaves
She adds, “The people here have been rather gloomy of late. The “Old Doc” is leaving. The women sit on their porches and recount numerous incidents concerning the “Old Doc.” They tell what a fine figure he made as he used to ride through the camp on horseback in former years. The women cry frankly, and the men’s voices get shaky as they talk of his leaving.
They are buying him two fine leather bags for a going-away present. To hundreds he has been that “cup of strength” of which George Elliot speaks. He is sure to be a member of the choir invisible. He will leave Black Star with his new leather bags and the genuine affection of a people.”
Those of us who lived close by watched for the doctor to return in the evening. He never seemed to mind that we were so “taken” with that horse of his. We watched as he put the horse in the stable for the night – often after each of us had an opportunity to pet that animal.
Dr. and Mrs. Hodges had two sons, Henry and Joe. Along with Jean and Margaret Ann Roberts, they were my best friends and playmates.
One summer the boys had mumps Jean and I loved school. We had the bright idea that if we could get mumps we wouldn’t have to miss school. We drank from the same glass as they did. We expected each morning to have swollen jaws. We were out of luck! At that time I think, we were about 9 or 10. I didn’t have mumps until I was a senior in high school. This proved to be embarrassing since by that time I was dating my husband-to-be. He insisted on paying me a visit. It is a wonder that my mumps didn’t stop that romance right quick!
As I recall my experiences with playmates, I think perhaps the worst thing Jean and I ever did was when we were playing barber. Now, Margaret Ann had beautiful long curls, which her mother kept in perfect shape. We decided to relieve her of the two front ones. Can’t you imagine how Mrs. Roberts reacted to this terrible deed? My mother wasn’t too pleased either!
Another time Mrs. Young sent Delbert to the store to purchase 25 cents worth of bananas. That, as many of you will remember, was a lot of fruit. Delbert stopped to play with us on the way home. We ate all we could and hid the rest. When Delbert reported what we had done. I don’t think I have ever seen my soft-spoken mother more enraged. She sent me right to the store to purchase 25 cents worth of bananas. As you have guessed, that wasn’t the last of that episode!
School A Great Influence
Along with the church, the greatest influence on our daily lives was the school. It was first held in a house near Kelly OK Mine. The first brick school housing grades one through eight was opened in 1925. It was built by the Kersey Brothers who also built the church.
As I started earlier, my mother was a bit uneasy about this new and very different part of Kentucky. She was afraid to let me start first grade. At that time there were no school buses. We had to walk on the graded road or the railroad. It was approximately one mile from our house. I lacked one month being eight before she would let me go.
I probably couldn’t have gone even then if my teacher hadn’t agreed to let me walk with her. I suppose everyone thinks their first grade teacher is pretty. Miss Clyde was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. She came from Georgia and had that southern dialect that literally captivated me from the very first. An eligible bachelor was quite taken with her too. In a short time she became Mrs. Roy Hill.
There were other bachelors who also stole the hearts of some of my attractive and wonderful teachers. O. L. Julian married Ruby Warfield from Knox County. Gorman Taylor chose Eleanor Nicholson from Williamsburg. Pearce Chadwell took Evelyn Turner from Loyall for his bride.
During the depression a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established at Pathfork, which was near our community. Several of the young men who were members of that camp later married girls in Black Star. Two who immediately come to mind are my counsin, Elbert Payton, who married my good friend Evelyn Baker. Another good friend, Lucille Fultz, became the bride of Hobart Stepp.
A wedding in the community most certainly meant a shivaree was in store for the new husband. I have a feeling that riding on a rail or some fraternity razzing was mild compared to some of the action inflicted on the poor newly wedded male.
In the late 20’s or early 30’s a beautiful and talented lady from Williamsburg came to teach. Her name was Dorothy Stephens. She was an accomplished pianist and it was she who introduced me and many others to the world of music. I have always thought she had the loveliest hands I have ever seen.
The way she caressed the piano keys let me see right away that the piano was a special instrument. This led me to conclude that she, too, was very special. It wasn’t long until one of our most eligible bachelors, H. H. Snodgrass, claimed her for his wife.
“Prof” Wilson, as he was called, was school principal. He started the high school in 1928. New classes were added each year until 1932. At the end of that year, six students received their high school diplomas.
My second husband, Robert Warfield, was in that first graduating class. Others were my brother-in-law, Edgar Burnette, the Johnston twins, Maureen Grant and Pauline Warfield, Irene Shelley Moody and Verda Daniels Jones.
We had excellent athletic teams and the Dallas Cowboys never had more ardent fans than our girls or our boy athletes.
When “Prof” left to go to Jamestown, (He later served as county judge for many years) O. G. Roaden became principal. I think that he proved to be a very able schoolmaster. We had chapel once a week and the curriculum was greatly expanded.
We outgrew the brick building and the WPA workers extended the building by a rock addition on the front and the back. The back portion gave us a new gymnasium and a new lunchroom plus a theater. The front section added classrooms, an office and an expanded library.
Jenny Pace Smith taught first grade when I was in the upper grades. She was such a great teacher and she was a perfectionist in the area of handwriting. We were to take penmanship with her. Not long ago I found my certificate. Although I don’t always do my best, I am grateful for her instruction. I often think all schools today need to teach the almost forgotten art of legible writing.
When Miss Mauverneen Rice from Harlan came to teach home economics. I thought school couldn’t be more perfect.
Ben Hume was an excellent typing instructor and he encouraged us to have our own school paper. We even produced our first high school yearbook. It was a low-budget book. We made our own pictures and did our own typing. By today’s college annuals it would appear very crude. I treasure mine more than my college yearbooks.
When Marie Wilson and Miss Bradley came to teach music at our school, they made vocal music come alive for us.
The school progressed to, in my opinion, a first rate educational institution. The miners and the company subsidized what the county could offer. This meant that Black Star could have fully certified instructional personnel and offer excellent curriculum.
When we got our very first band director, it was so special – as important as if we were preparing for an appearance in Carnegie Hall. I never came close to being an expert on my E-flat alto clarinet, but it was great fun.
During my days as a student or teacher there, school didn’t end at 3 or 3:30. I often think of nights when Mrs. E. C. Mullins, science teacher extraordinary, had us come to her house at night to study the constellations in the heavens. Her husband and other faculty members spent many hours preparing play productions, musical programs, field trips, working on school papers, the annual and other meaningful activities. During my days at Black Star the coaches received little in the way of salary increments. They did it, I think, for the love of sports and for young people.
Now, I knew nothing about sewing, and one of the requirements in Miss Rice’s foods class was to make a coverall apron. Each seam had to be bound with seam binding. I almost gave up on that. At any rate, it was worth the effort when the class served a scrumptious meal to the Harlan County Board of Education and the superintendent, who was James A. Cawood. Then, I thought I had really arrived when Evelyn Baker Payton and I won first place for our biscuits.
After graduation I went away to college. My first college roommate was a Harlan girl. I’m certain Mary Catherine Smith Surgener wondered if anything good could ever come out of Black Star! She never let it show. She was such a good role model, was so helpful, and I will be grateful to her until the day I die. Every college freshman needs a Mary Catherine in her life.
My first year as a teacher was spent as a teacher of the third grade at the Mary Helen School. (I’d like to say here that Mary Helen was one of those very special mining communities also.)
After teaching at the Rockport High School for three years during World War II, I joined my husband, Raymond Burnette, who returned to work in the company office at Black Star. I taught fourth grade there 13 years. The last few years I taught there, our pupil ratio dropped. We lost units; one of which was a music teacher. I was asked to direct the high school chorus in addition to my fourth grade. Mr. Bill Mills was very persuasive so I agreed to try it.
We took part in the district music contests, all festival chorus, and frequently sang in school programs. We weren’t the best but I was always proud of that group. The members enjoyed music so much and I’ll always thank that my chorus members were the best looking ones in the contests. Thanks Ann Howard and Mrs. Mayfield for serving as pianist.
It meant meeting the group at night, and at the end of one year, I decided that it was a bit too demanding. One of my treasured possessions is the petition my choral members signed begging me to continue working with the chorus. Yes, you guessed it! I couldn’t refuse them and to this day I’m glad I carried on as best I could.
If I ever doubted the type of community we lived in, I found out as a teacher in that school. The parents couldn’t have been more cooperative. The students were a real joy. I discovered the faculty was dedicated. I had few children with problems. I realized how blessed I really was when I later went to teach in a city school. There were so many broken homes and other things that several folders bulged. The children weren’t problem children, but many had problems through no fault of theirs. In 1941, Horace McGregor opened a new restaurant in a new building near the store. A short time later my cousin, Elbert Payton, became manager. When he returned to his home in West Kentucky, on July 10 1943, my sister-in-law, Hazel Lee and Zora Terrel Carroll were in charge. They were open from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. each day.
On vacations and excursions to other places we had an opportunity to view television. Our son, Melvin Clay Burnette, was quite “taken” with it. He would often ask, “Mother, when are we going to get TV?”
I shall never forget the day it came to our town. My husband evidently inherited from his father a substantial interest in and knowledge of electronics. At any rate, he and Paul Helton, with the help of several men, managed to get a cable from a tower on Little Black Mountain (the second highest point in Kentucky) down into our town.
A TV was set up in the store showcase window and the porch was full of prospective TV owners. Many swear to this day that TV signal was the best they’ve ever seen. Raymond and Paul serviced the cable system using a Jeep. They traveled the CCC road to get to the tower on the mountain. They also moonlighted to keep the community TV’s in working order.
If I have told my story in such a manner as to imply that Black Star was the perfect place – a utopian community – I have most certainly exaggerated. It wasn’t always serene. There were sad times. Uneasy feelings were a part of life.
Disaster Was No Stranger
It was when uneasiness turned into reality like mine accidents, mine explosions, union unrest, illnesses such as polio in the 30’s or the death of someone dear, brought indescribable sorrow to all.
It was a superstition among the mountain people that when one bad thing happened, you could expect two more. Oft times this seemed to be true.
In the Warfield family, sorrow most certainly happened twice. Lee Warfield was killed in the mines on Oct. 24. His brother, Arthur, was killed the following June 25, on the same motor.
The whole community was saddened when Kenneth Hackler was killed; also in the mines. He was so young and that accident left Stella, his wife, with three small children to raise. I might add that Stella returned to school and graduated with the class of 1937. She received her college degree from Union College and taught for many years.
One mine explosion occurred in 1942. John Lee, Luther Thompson, Clifford Fore and a Mr. Proffit were killed in that horrible accident. It brought sadness to the entire community. The night before the explosion John Lee said to his nephew, Steve, “If grandfather had only known what this land would become, he would never have sold it.”
There were many other accidents over the years – accidents in which others lost life or limbs, or received life-threatening injuries. I could not possibly name all of them.
The second World War brought us our share of trouble with the loss of fine young men. Among those killed were Caudill Barnett and Delbert Helton. My husband’s family was among the fortunate ones. Raymond Burnette served in the U. S. Navy. Robert Warfield was in the U. S. Army. Coach Goforth was killed. A Farmer man died at Pearl Harbor.
Then there was the time when my nextdoor neighbors, the Thompsons, house burned. I was called home from school as everyone fully expected ours to burn also. I arrived to find a large part of our possessions scattered upon the street beside our home. Thanks to the vigilance and ingenuity of good friends and neighbors, our house was saved. Keeping the roof watered down paid off and the wind cooperated.
In 1957 we experienced a day I shall never forget – the day our beautiful brick church burned. I think, for those who attended and loved it, a part of us was destroyed along with that building. I stood on Thelma Helton’s porch and watched as it burned. It was a catastrophe I cannot begin to describe.
It was in the bad times that we realized how close we were. We had a certain community cohesiveness that isn’t found in many places. When someone had problems, we all hurt with them. Even now when a tragedy happens to someone from Black Star we hurt.
For instance, when Clark Mayfield lost his life in the nightclub fire in Northern Kentucky, it was about more than we could take. He was the only child of Herman and Ona May Mayfield. He was a pupil of mine - a great athlete and college coach. He was my son’s playmate. The same proved true when Joe Hodges died from cancer.
For over 20 years now, we have had a Black Star School Reunion at Holiday Inn in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. Former students and residents come from far and near. It is always well attended. The management has told us that we’re the most successful group they have had. That says it all! We truly love one another! My first grade teacher drove to one of the most recent reunions at Cumberland Gap from Griffin, Georgia. She told the group attending she was 84. She was still lovely, vivacious and charming.
The Worst of Times
The worst time of all for many of us was when we realized that Black Star Coal Company was nearing a complete shut down. As with many underground mining companies, profits had dwindled. The Company was being sold to Peabody Coal Company. The houses and company buildings were demolished by the new owners in order that every piece of land be strip mined.
For us, the much-used cliché became a reality. “You Can’t Go Home Again” is the best way to describe our situation. The town exists only in the minds and hearts of those who once called Black Star home.