February 16, 2009

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Time Turned Backwards

Kentucky's Hensley Settlement

On a remote, high plateau straddling Kentucky and Virginia sits the Hensley Settlement, where, for the first 50 years of the 20th century, two extended mountain families lived 18th-century lives in splendid isolation. Today, preserved and administered by the National Park Service, Hensley Settlement is an eerily lovely and lonely place, a misty world unto itself.

Seasonal Park Ranger Jeff Angel is on loan for the day, and we're heading north in his Jeep Cherokee through Cumberland Gap National Park. Sugar Run Road is narrow and twists like a corkscrew along Davis Branch.

This is the first of what are to be two trips up Brush Mountain to the Hensley Settlement. I've booked a couple horses and a guide for the next morning, because a writer does what needs to be done to get at the truth. If the Hensleys and the Gibbonses rode in and out of the mountains for the first 50 years of the 20th century on mules and horses, so would I.

Jeff Angel looks a bit skeptical when I tell him about my equine plans.

"We'll run by the barn this afternoon on the way down the mountain," he says. "You can take a look at what he's got."

Up ahead, a rusty Chevy Impala sits on the side of the road. A worn-out woman stands by the trunk; a pair of blue jeans and the owner's pale belly jut from beneath the car. Jeff stops the Park Service Jeep and leans out the window. "Need some help?"

The woman shakes her head. "He's just tryin' to get the gears going -- he can do it."

Jeff calls into headquarters on his car radio and tells the dispatcher to check on them later. "Even if he gets that car started, I don't think the gears will hold out for long."

We pass a few houses and start the steep climb to the Shillalah Creek turnoff. This is Bell County, Kentucky, one county south of Harlan, and these mountains would grind the gears on any car. The Jeep is running hot: When I reach into my backpack on the floor, I find my ChapStick melted in its plastic tube.

Jeff unlocks the gate to the optimistically named Shillalah Creek Road, which would be called a trail where I come from. We drive over large, flat rocks and through slick mud. "It's greasy today," Jeff says. "Real greasy." He throws the transmission into 4 Low, and we creep up the mountain through stands of laurel and Appalachian hardwoods threaded with thickening mist.

In May, 1903, "Gabby Burt" Hensley purchased 500 acres of Cumberland Mountain land and subdivided it into 16 parts for his principal heirs, one of whom was his daughter, Nicy Ann. Her husband, Sherman Hensley, must have been delighted with Nicy Ann's 21-acre share of the land: Forthwith he bought 38 more acres and moved his family up Brush Mountain. It was December, 1903; Nicy Ann was three months pregnant with her second child.

February 16, 2009

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Comments (7)

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I was there 2 days ago

It was a grueling hike up the mountain, with a bunch of Smoky Mountains Hiking Club folks but, oh, the reward of the Settlement. Well worth the climb. Martins Fork is not a good option for attaining the summit - be warned. You might even be sharing a woman's outhouse with a little gray mouse!

Pat Serio 231 days ago

Hensley settlement

I have a book all about the Hensley settlement. This is my family. I think its funny how afraid everyone was of them. The police didn't even mess with them. I hope to someday go see this settlement.

Sarah Hensley Nelson more than 1 years ago

Hensley Settlement: Book

Sarah, I know your post is 296 days old but still I'm hoping to know the name and author of the book and if you could give the ISBN numbers.

VickieA 79 days ago

Hensley Settlement

My mother, Bernice Hicks (Dean) was born to Emily Dean (Hensley). I believe they were raised (for at least most of their life) on that mountain at Hensley Settlement.

Tom Hicks more than 1 years ago

Decendent of Hensleys mt.

Fenly Hensley was my great uncle brother of Starlin Henley my grandfather and my father Gilbert F. Hensley is one of 12 children born to StarlinHensley and Minny Patton Hensley, I knew these people and paid a visit with my father Gilbert Hensley as a child, will be happy to share more information you can get me on my email

Deborah Ann Hensley/ by birth more than 1 years ago

My Summer at Hensley Settlement

As a young boy of 16 in 1966 I help restore the buildings at Hensley Settllement. I wrote my name in cement by the fireplace of the building with the stone floor.I help to put small rock an sand under the stnoe slab floor before we put the floor down.We restore all the buildings an put all new clay in the logs.I also remenber the many rattlesnakes big an little.But also I remenber all the fun times I had there.

larry mcnutt more than 1 years ago

Hensley Settlement

Great history lesson about my ancestors!!

Paula more than 1 years ago

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