Bonnie Asher, Retiree/Musician; Letcher, Kentucky:
“I live here in Letcher, Kentucky, right near the old store and post office. Right now I can’t walk. I’ve had some health problems and I’m using a walker to walk on. So, I’m just enjoying being here.
I was born down here in Letcher County at Ulvah, Kentucky. My mother was 17 years old and I guess my dad was about 21. He worked in the mine, had moved here from Tennessee. My mother had one child before me that was born dead, and after everything was over, they told them they couldn’t have any more children. Well, the next year I was born. I’m the oldest of 10 children. I’m 85 now and I have a brother that’s 84 and we two look alike.
Daddy and Mom moved down to the other side of Hazard about five miles, to a place called Bulen, Kentucky. That’s where I was raised. We went to church there at the Baptist Church. I liked that. Had lots of friends and family. We were 10 and our best friends were from another family that had 10 children. We just always had such fun, and not much money.
We had these little kittens that were born, four of them. They died in a flood. Mom helped us get a box and she covered it and put pretty material and all that in it. And we went up on the hill to bury ‘em. We had a cave up there. We liked go up and take a little picnic lunch. Nobody thought anything about it then. You’d go off, and no danger. You’d never think of that now.
But anyway, a big train was at the lower end of the place and we had dug the grave. The one brother wanted to be a preacher and my older brother said, ‘now you know I’m the preacher, but you and Bonnie can sing a hymn.’ We started singing, and all at once the train come and that must’ve made the most horrible noise in the world. Smoke bellowed up the mountainside to the point you couldn’t see.
My brother screamed, ‘Oh God, it’s the end of time’ and he threw himself down on the ground and was prayin’. So we threw ourselves down and we started crying. Then of course the train comes up and he stood up and said, ‘What’s the matter with you two?’ We said, ‘Well, you said it was the end of time.’ He said, ‘I didn’t think it was the end of time and all of you all know that.’
Up until I was up here in high school, I went with jeans, bangs, and I dressed like the boys. And that was good, ‘cause you had all these friends, you know. Well, John L. Lewis [UMWA President] was coming to town and they had put it out that he would stop at that coal company shortly, and for everybody that wanted to see John L. to be there. The only people that went was miners.
Well, I got up real early and got my shoes on and went down there and I stood kind of under a bridge. The train stopped, and all, and I went up to him [John L. Lewis], this is awful to tell, but I did do it. John L. Lewis was a real tall man. He bent down to me and said ‘hello’. I said, ‘John L. Lewis is a SOB.’ And the miner next to me looked at me, and he knew me ‘cause I played with his kids, and he picked me up by the nap of the neck and he said, ‘Bonnie, you better get home fast and I’m going to report you to your dad.’
So I started running. I got home and I went into the bedroom and I crawled back under my bed, way back at the back and hid ‘cause this guy had said I’m going to report this to your dad. I got back under there. So when Daddy came, he’d talked, he and the other miner had, and he and Mom came and they started lookin’ for me. Course, Mommy knew where I’d hid. They told me I had to come out. I said, ‘No, I’m not coming out.’ I said, ‘You’re going to be mad at me, Dad.’
He got over there and said, ‘Come out I want to talk to you.’ He pulled me up to [my] knees and he said, ‘What I’m telling you is a secret.’ He said, ‘I’m not for John L. Lewis and a lot of things going on with him right now,’ ‘cause Daddy had just started his own mine at that point.
He said, ‘But I’m going to have to give you some punishment, you’re never to go over to that railroad again.’ And so that ended that story. [My punishment was] I had to pick up rocks that washed up with the flood and piled them up. I was probably about eight years old [then]. I was out into everything all the time, me and my two brothers.
John L. Lewis… Well, I’d heard that word [SOB], and I’d seen miners, they would fight. One would call the other that SOB, and they didn’t say the words, they said SOB, I just knew it was bad ‘cause I’d seen ‘em fight. So I figured that John L. Lewis wasn’t nothin’ but a SOB. So that was pretty bad. But after, that I never thought of him like that again.
Another thing we did, we decided we was going to ride the train, and we’d get [a sibling] who was younger, of course, to take our books home and tell Mom that we were helpin’ the teacher clean and stuff.
He said, ‘I’m not going to tell no lie,’ you know, he talked kind of funny. And I said, ‘Well, it’s not really a lie, if you take our books we’re going to be doing some things. So he said ok and little fella got three book bags and off he went up the back road. We got up to the railroad track and when the train came we got right on. He climbed up first, first Hershel did, and then I climbed on second, and we were going to get off at a place just about a mile up the road from us and the train didn’t stop.
It kept goin’ and goin’ and Hershel hollered hang on sis, hang on and I could tell he was scared. It stopped and we jumped off. We got off and we went down to the commissary. We went back and got under a meat case they had down under it. We just sat back there and Hershel said, ‘Now we can’t say a word. And I said, ‘I know.’ He said, ‘We’ll walk home in the morning, but we’ll stay here tonight, so be quiet. And I said, ‘I don’t think they going to want kids stayin’ here in the store.’
Well, here came a miner. He said, You’re the Childers kids aren’t ya?’ We said yes. He said, ‘Would you like an ice cream cone? We’d shake our head. He went and got us an ice cream cone.
He was there a little while, and another man came in and he came back and he said, ‘You Sherman’s children?’ That was my Dad’s name. We said yes and said we’re waiting on him. We came up with that, I did. Then Hershel pinched me ‘cause we weren’t supposed to say anything. And he said, ‘Would you like a candy bar?’ And he brought us a little sack of candy.
Well, in the meantime, we found out he went out, and went to the commissary and he called where Dad was and Daddy happened to be there. So he thanked the man and he came and got us. And for three weeks after that we never got to leave the house. We was at school and back and somebody checked on us. But we said we’d never do that again because that very next week after we had been on that train, one of our schoolmates got on and it didn’t kill him, but it cut his legs off. Up until this past year, [when] he passed away, he sold papers in Hazard the rest of his life.
Growing up, we each got one thing [for Christmas]. Our stockings were filled always with one tangerine, a few nuts, a little bit of peppermint candy and things like that. But we’d have a big tree that Daddy would put up on Christmas Eve and get at the uncle’s land. We had a beautiful Christmas tree and we’d do the lights and sing.
My greatest thing that I got was a desk. And [all my children] used that little desk. But that was the nicest gift I got. And then I got a ring, which I still have. One time, my brother, we was all taking our stockings down on Christmas morning and he ran and got his. His was a great big one and when he opened it, it had some blocks of coal in it. And he threw [them] at the hearth and threw himself in the floor and he said, ‘I’ll never like Santa Claus again.’
I was taking out my ring and everybody was taking something out. And then, Daddy ran around the corner and got a big stocking and he had a little gun and something else he wanted. So we had experiences like that, but we did get stockings every year. And the desk I got I was so proud of it ‘cause I could use it in school. I think all in all, being my age and all, I’ve had a good life.
I met my husband who lived here when he came from the Navy, and we married. I was going up to the nursing school over in West Virginia and we decided to marry. I figured I’d do my nursing down at UK.
We went to UK, which he already had two years there, and they had no nursing school. They had one nursing school in the whole town and being married, they didn’t accept you. I kind of forgot nursing, but on an elevator there at the Good Samaritan [Hospital] I met the lady who ran the one nursing school they had. We were talking and she asked me what I was going to do. I said, well, I was looking for a job and she said, well I need a new secretary. So I worked for her for a couple years. And my life just went on.
I got enough education I taught Kindergarten. I spent some time teaching folk dancing. I was editor of Cary News in Cary, North Carolina.
I had an interesting tale there, where I went [to] a big mansion. In the basement was a liquor-making place. I went to get the story, and my husband came and he didn’t know where I’d gone and he was real unhappy with that. And he said no more, ‘cause the police had already let him know when he was calling that was a bad situation. And so in Cary I did that, and I taught Kindergarten there for I guess, five years. Amy [daughter] graduated from the Kindergarten I taught in, but I put her in another room. We had five Amys there if you can believe, in Kindergarten.
From there, we lived in Florida. I did several things there. That was a nice place to live, but when we came back, we came back to Cary, North Carolina and bought a home. Bill [husband] had four years of medical school training, and decided he didn’t want to be a doctor, he wanted to do research. We lived up in Seattle, Washington then, for about six years. Then we came back to North Carolina.
I love the mountains. We loved Seattle. He was hired by the forest service for the summer. We both were. People had to walk to get into there, but they flew us in. We had a big, strong log house and a big stove that went half way across the wall. This was outside Seattle, Mt. Rainier. That big stove I learned pretty quick, and two days a week I’d cook cakes and pies.
We decided to take some time off, ‘cause Bill had done all of his work and his papers had gone to England and ever where and he was just real happy. We came here, and were just going to stay a year and he was going to go to Alaska. They had some research open there, and offered him the job.
When my husband had finished the research he was doing and all, it felt like it was a good time to come home, and his dad had been sick. Of course, when we came back, we ran the store down here, just about a year. Then he started teaching Anatomy & Physiology at Hazard Community College. They couldn’t find a science teacher and he decided he’d go down. They contacted him to do it for a semester and he did it for 12 years. Taught 12 years, until he passed away.
We stayed a few months and we loved it, being back home again. So, we came back here and we’ve been here 30 some years.
I worked for Mountain Comp for 30 some years. I was a receptionist at the clinic. After that I worked for the Letcher County Library system. I did several things including driving the bookmobile. Folks loved seeing the bookmobile drive up and they all loved reading books. And recently, when I had the trouble and had to have the surgery, I was still doing a Saturday day down at Blackey [Library]. I helped get that library going. I had a couple falls and it’s been nine months now. I was working till I was 84 years old.
I did bookkeeping for Letcher County libraries, and there was a million dollars all the time. When I resigned from there, the guy that was taking over the bookkeeping, he said that he told the board that it was just wonderful having me there and he’d never known anyone to do bookkeeping so carefully and they never had a mistake. So that was fun.
(What makes this place special?) Well for me, I guess maybe being born here. We had mountains all around us, and I have always loved the mountains. Florida, I liked the people, but I didn’t care for it because it was flat. You know, no mountains and that was just really bad. Of course, going to school up here we would go in the mountains over here across the road and walk different places. There’s just something peaceful about it.
I had colon cancer. They’d given me three months to live, and I’ve lived 37 years since then. I would go out with the two Boxers we had, out here to the old church that sits on our land, or near our land. The church sits on its land but we own around it. I’d go out there and take me a book and just sit and enjoy being there. We had horses we’d ride out in the mountain and Bill and I would camp. We would just take good quilts and sleep on the ground. And take food for the horses.
Bill graduated, he had three degrees from UK and he was in the Navy. When he came out of the Navy and married me, that’s when we went back to UK. But, he wasn’t an outside person when he was young. Later, after all we got into here, in [our] free time we were on the mountain or [would] go somewhere and swim. We’d take the kids, when we lived in other places, take them swimming and camping. We camped out a lot of places [where] unless you worked for the government you couldn’t even be there. So, we had a good marriage. We had three really wonderful kids.
I had never done anything [musically] until my husband bought me that dulcimer on the wall over there. I learned to play that and do songs with it. I got an auto harp that Bill bought me. I played that and I did better on it because I had to do everything by ear.
Jean Ritchie had a nephew that lived in a house in the coal camp next to us. She came over there once we had moved from downtown more up that way and I heard her singing and all and I got interested. She would teach me a song when she would come to visit them and have supper. Only once I’ve seen her since when she came up to Whitesburg to the Appalshop there. She remembered me, of course. I met her dad once. I have a brother that played music when they were at Berea College together, with her.
Bill helped me, and taught me [to play music]. Then he made me the beautiful dulcimer hanging on the wall and it plays and it sounds really good. But you know, since Bill passed away I haven’t played anything. But, one day last week, I thought I’m going to get my dulcimer out, and if it’s not in tune I’ll get somebody to come and tune it.
And sometime, I’ll tell you just about my husband, ‘cause he was a genius. That’s all there is to it.”