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Kentucky's Hensley Settlement: Time Turned Backwards
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Winter at the Settlement
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The Lige Gibbons cabin
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Brush Mountain School
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.
It's common knowledge in Bell County that Sherman Hensley, and the 100 kin by blood or marriage who followed him up the steep side of Brush Mountain, were looking for some peace and quiet. A roadless place, so remote that the Internal Revenue Service agents wouldn't find them, or at least wouldn't go to the considerable trouble of packing in their picks and axes with arrest warrants tucked in their pockets.
They say that Hensley Settlement people told a man from a boy by the weight he could tote up the mountain: One Neal Robbins is rumored to have carried a bushel of meal and 100 pounds of sugar from one side of the mountain to the other.
A hundred pounds of sugar? "Were they moonshining at the Hensley Settlement?" I ask Jeff Angel point-blank.
"Moonshining? Oh, no!" he says in mock horror. "Not in Bell County, Kentucky! Not in a dry county! Not here in these mountains! What would make you think they were moonshining?"
Before Sherman Hensley moved his young family up the mountain, a good part of his land had been cleared, fenced, and leased for farming and cattle grazing. It is this vast meadow that I see first when we crest the mountain. Though it's past noon, the mist still hangs low, and the lush grass stands in high relief against the gray sky. Deer graze, then jump the rail-and-wire fence in front of our Jeep.
We park by the cemetery, which is surrounded by a wooden paling fence. There are about 37 graves here, most of them marked with low, illegible headstones. Sherman and Nicy Ann's graves are handsomely marked with what looks like a commercial granite headstone, Nicy's side asserting that she is "Gone But Sleeping" and her husband's, "When We All Get To Heaven." Everyone here is a Hensley or a Gibbons: The family lines are entwined like braided hair.
A hundred yards away sits the one-room schoolhouse, the fourth building used for the Brush Mountain School. Sherman Hensley and Willie Gibbons were determined their children would be educated; traveling to Pineville to see the Bell County Superintendent of Schools, they were told they needed a building before a teacher would be sent up the mountain. So, as Sherman told it, they "built a little shack way out in the brush yander that they called the Chimney Rocks where there is a high knob and some cliffs standing . . . down under the hill where there was a sprang . . . right up close by . . ."
As the settlement grew to its peak of 100 people, the school was moved to its present site, where each one "could get to it about on equality." Restored to its mid-1940s appearance in the 1960s by the Job Corps, the schoolhouse is stripped-down simple. A wood-and-coal stove dominates the room; cast-iron-and-wood desks stand in neat rows; light filters through the chinks in the log walls.
When the school closed in December of 1947, only four students remained -- the children of the three remaining Hensley-Settlement families. Hardly enough to worry a teacher with.
An out-of-focus photograph from that time shows the sons and daughters of Lige and Louanna Gibbons, most of them barefoot and staring hard at the camera. Look closely enough and you'll see that the boy on the far right, Orville, the one with his shirt buttoned tight beneath his chin, is staring off into space, seeing something that the others don't. He is, I think, dreaming of a way off that mountain.
Lige Gibbons' cabin is a ways down the fenceline. He owned 98 acres of land, and 70 of those acres were fenced with chestnut and oak rails cut in eight-foot lengths and stacked eight feet high in a worm-fence pattern. That is, without a doubt, a lot of cutting and splitting. And it is some of the most elegant fence I've ever seen.
Inside the three-room cabin, the puncheon floorboards are 20 inches wide, scarred by the chopping ax. Bits of newspapers, used for insulation, still hang on the walls. By a nine-pane window sits a rough table, holding a cast-iron skillet and washbasin. Mist floats through the open door and through the loosely chinked walls.
In front of the wide stone hearth is the root cellar, which only the most observant visitor will notice. A hand-forged iron ring serves as handle to the hinged floorboards, covering a rectangular hole where apples and potatoes were stored through the winter. Cold enough two feet down to preserve the produce; warm enough from the hearth to prevent it from freezing.
I climb into the attic. Celled wasp nests cling to the crazily angled rafters. Here is where the smoked and salted meat hung, and the strings of dried pole beans. It's quiet, and the air is dusty-sweet and old: a perfect hiding place from hard living.
Here are a few of the facts of the Hensley Settlement life. About the only thing these folks didn't make themselves were shoes. Everything else -- food, clothes, tools and horseshoes, furniture, packsaddles, musical instruments, medicine, toys, quilts and coverlets -- was made on the mountain.
Light came from kerosene ("coal oil") lamps, or pine splinters stuck in the walls near the fireplace. Mostly, though, artificial light was unnecessary: "When dark time came, we went to bed and we didn't rise until daylight," recalled one Hensley resident.
Handspun, hand-dyed wool was used for socks, gloves, sweaters, "noggins" (toboggans) and "fascinators" (girls' headcovering). Every fall, Nancy Gibbons, Willie's wife, knit two pairs of heavy wool socks for each family member: a total of 56 socks. (Willie's family wasn't the largest at the Hensley Settlement -- Sherman fathered 19 children.)
At the end of winter, all the quilts were washed before being stored. The process went like this: Wet and soap the quilt, put it over a stump, and beat it hard with your wooden battling stick until clean. Rinse well and hang to dry, the heavy wool bat holding moisture for days.
Is it any surprise that the women of the Hensley Settlement rarely left the mountain? That children were often 16 years old before they went into the valley? That eventually the perfect isolation that Sherman Hensley craved for his mountaintop settlement would be its downfall?
We leave the mountain in late afternoon, heading down the Virginia face. "I'm hoping we can make it all the way to Ewing on the horse trail," Jeff says. "I've got the axes in back. Unless the trees are too big."
Gears grind. "Just shifting down so I don't have to use the brakes so much," he explains. The back of the Jeep skids to the left a little.
"It's not like we're in any danger . . . I just don't want to slide into a tree." Jeff is grinning; I'm not.
Sometimes I can't tell the trail from the woods. Sometimes I'm six inches out of my seat. I close my eyes and pray that Ranger Angel lives up to his name, and know that Sherman Hensley found himself one safe refuge.
Ken Ayers' horses are people-shy and skinny. He limps up with a crutch jammed into his right armpit, wearing cowboy clothes and a face that shows years of squinting into sun.
"I'm sure sorry, lady. My boy up and quit on me Tuesday. Walked right out on me! Guess you can see I'm not in any shape to ride up that mountain with you tomorrow."
After coming off the mountain on the switchbacked, slick horse trail, I'm not sorry. "Is this a horse injury I'm seeing?" I ask.
"Yup. My mare went down in some fence and kicked me trying to get free," he said nonchalantly. "Happened a couple of weeks ago."
"Is it broken?" I ask.
"Don't know. I didn't go for x-rays. I'm not much on doctors."
He reaches in his chest pocket for a cigarette. "I tell you what, lady. You come back here tomorrow morning and I'll tell you anything you want to know about that mountain. Maybe I can still get you up there on a horse -- I been talking to a boy over in Tennessee about working for me, he might be here by tomorrow. You never know about those things."
At eight on a Saturday morning, Virginia's section of U.S. 58 is a fast, pretty drive. It's the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail -- the route Boone followed into the Cumberland Gap -- but the road is going four-lane now, and I've been warned about the notoriously long weekday construction delays.
Dozens of foursquare frame houses sit in the soon-to-be median strip. On most of them, the window glass has been broken out, and their doors are spray painted with fluorescent orange demolition codes. I think about these small houses, how once they were homes that made their owners proud. Now they're construction debris, our sacrifice to speed and convenience.
Looking up at the high ridge paralleling the road, the mountain where the Hensleys and Gibbonses found their refuge for 50 years, I know exactly what Sherman Hensley would think about widening the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail.
Ken Ayers is sitting in his living room with a few friends when I knock on the screen door. Inside it's dark and smoky, the pine coffee table littered with the remains of somebody's long night. A picture of Jesus hangs above the sofa, facing the console television.
Ken struggles to his feet and offers me the best seat in the house. He's not using his crutch this morning. I sink very deep into the cushion.
Somebody switches off the television. Nobody's saying much; I'm the only one uncomfortable with the silence.
We start with the easy stuff. Ken Ayers grew up in the shadow of Brush Mountain, and left as a young man to be a policeman in Richmond. But he got homesick for the mountains, and in 1972, when the police chief's position opened up in Pine Grove, Ky., Ken moved back.
"Death almost got me there," he says. "It was a rough job -- I was shot up pretty bad -- when I got out of the hospital, I weighed 82 pounds." So he came home to Ewing, Va. to work with horses. Which at the moment doesn't appear to be a whole lot kinder to Ken Ayers' health than police work.
"I knew old man Sherman Hensley, 'course I did. He ended up at Chadwell Gap on the side of the mountain, with his kids. He let us coonhunt there.
"They had a hard time getting him to leave the settlement. His kids were real religious, and the way I heard it they surrounded him and just talked and prayed him off that mountain."
I wonder out loud what kind of man Sherman Hensley was, to have, at age 23, turned his back on the 20th century to make a world on a mountaintop.
"He was a good man. Solid. No foolishness, though. They were decent people up there in the settlement, but not folks to mess with."
Ayers grins. "Let me tell you a story, lady. Old Man Hensley killed an Indian up on that mountain. This was an educated Indian, from Oklahoma or someplace. He stole a white woman in the valley and took her up to Hensley Settlement -- hid her in a corncrib. Old Man Hensley was out turkey hunting and flushed that Indian out of the woods. Shot him in the gut with a double-barrel shotgun."
"Another thing -- the Hensleys and the Gibbonses, they weren't up there all by themselves, lady! They had moonshine up and down that mountain all the time."
Ayers talks about Trade Days, when men and boys gathered to tell stories and swap horses. "The Hensleys had some of the best animals in the area, and the men were tough bargainers," he says.
Trade Day went something like this: Late on the first Friday of each month, the Hensley and Gibbons men would ride eight miles down the Chadwell Gap trail into Rose Hill, Va., leading their trade stock and carrying anything else they could use for barter -- watches, rifles, and pistols. They'd camp overnight, sharing their refreshment and strategies for the next day's barter.
Saturday morning, the bargaining would be fast and furious. Hillary Wilder remembers one Saturday when he traded 26 times; he claims that there were always more people at the Rose Hill Trade Day than in church the next morning.
Horses still change hands in the valley spread below the Hensley Settlement -- a neighbor has a colt he wants to trade for one of Ken Ayers' mares, the one with the white stripe down her nose. "Go down the road and look at her yourself," Ayers tells him.
"Can I catch her?" the man asks.
"Should be able to," Ken replies.
I ask Ayers why the Hensleys left the mountain.
"They wouldn't have left but for the Park Service buying up all the land. Nobody made money selling out to the federal government. My daddy got five dollars an acre. The government ran those folks off the mountain."
It's late morning, and it's clear that the cowboy from Tennessee is a no-show, that I won't be riding up the mountain this trip.
"Come on back in the fall," Ken Ayers says when I stand to leave. "We'll go up to the settlement and have a picnic. I'll have some help by then."
In front of Ayers' house, a stray dog lies in the road, enjoying the heat of the pavement, and just behind her Brush Mountain rises into lowslung clouds that won't clear until well past noon.
It's easy to make villains out of the authorities, the folks who knock on your door and make you an offer you can't refuse. It's much harder when the villain is insidious and formless: a thing called progress.
Once the 20th century arrived, life in America went into fast motion. Between 1903 and 1951, we went from rural to urban. Electricity. Automobiles. World Wars. Women in pants.
We went from William McKinley to Harry S. Truman. From the first stuffed teddy bear to the first color television. From Jack London and "The Call of the Wild" to J.D. Salinger and "The Catcher in the Rye." From the Wright Brothers' brief, primitive Kitty Hawk flight to Blair's solo flight over the North Pole.
Most likely, it was jobs and money that lured the Hensleys and the Gibbonses off their mountain, and left their settlement a place of ghosts. In an oral-history interview taped in 1970, Park Hensley explained it like this: "I got to working off in the mines and I just like it better, you know. Made more money, you know, and I just, that's what caused me to move off. And we just kept dropping off, you know. My brother, he moved off, Finley. . . . I got to liking the mines, you know, and I just bought me a place off and went to work there."
For some, it was a question of saving a marriage. The men who married off the mountain had a hard time convincing their brides that a remote mountain cabin lit by pine splinters was better than a four-room, electrified house in the valley.
Hubert Hensley tells it this way: "I married a girl off in Virginia and when I married her I went back to Kentucky on the mountain, Hensley Settlement. But after a while she didn't want to agree to stay up there. So I just agreed to her."
After everyone else left, Sherman Hensley lived alone at the Hensley Settlement for two years, and at 70 he left it pretty much the way he'd found it 50 years earlier: roadless, without electricity, unpeopled.
I'm guessing that those last two years suited Sherman just fine: alone with his ghosts and the weathered chestnut rail fences the color of late-morning mist.