“We had free run of the mountains, up and down the hollers barefoot, scraping the black top off our feet with alcohol and a butter knife at the end of the day.”
Janet Kincer, Co-Manager, Letcher County Farmers Market, Apple Tree Project; Crafts Collie, Kentucky:
“I was born and raised here and graduated high school here. I left and went two years to Hazard Community College and [then] and went to Lexington. I just moved back in December, after thirty years.
Growing up here was wonderful. I never felt restricted or hindered. I was blessed with a wonderful mother who never censored anything that I read, and always encouraged me to learn in any way possible. We had free run of the mountains, up and down the hollers barefoot, scraping the black top off our feet with alcohol and a butter knife at the end of the day. We had many friends and there was always family around.
My mother would take a cast iron skillet and a few potatoes and onions and off we’d go up into the hills and build a little fire and fry them and eat them. My father was a coal miner, and my mother worked for the postal system. They split up when I was a freshman in high school. I think he broke an ankle one time in a little rock fall at the mines, but I’m not for sure. I remember him coming home black and dirty. He looked like everybody else’s Daddy, ‘cause everybody else’s worked in the mines.
My great-grandmother had my grandmother out of wedlock. My grandmother got married young and had my mother. My mother got married young. They were very independent, strong, hard-working women, and the absolute glue of the family. My mother’s mother was from Pike County, from Beefhide. My Mommy’s Daddy was from Fleming/Neon. They both passed away by the time I was seven, but I remember the love and the closeness.
My mom’s mother, especially, taught me love. She didn’t call us by our names she called us ‘Precious.’ She would never raise her voice. She would always make sure that my sister and I had Easter dresses and Easter shoes and Easter hats. She would come and give us little girls’ day and bathe us and powder us and fix our hair and pretty us up. [She would] make us feel special and then she’d want to take us somewhere. If nothing else, we’d walk down Front Street in Fleming Neon so everybody could see her pretty little granddaughters.
My father’s father was an elder in the old Regular Baptist Church. He was very caring, very kind, considerate, loving and knowledgeable. He could teach you by showing you. He would tell you, but you learn so much more by showing. My father’s father was very understanding and very accepting. Even though my parents got divorced, he loved my mother dearly and loved his kids dearly.
Living away from here was totally different. The people are not the same. I found out early on that unless you affiliated yourself with other people from Eastern Kentucky, there was no one that you could depend on. It’s like everyone had an ulterior motive. I had a pretty big epiphany about six years ago and I thought I needed to call someone. Even though I was married at the time, I didn’t feel comfortable with that, and I thought the closest person I could call was my best friend about an hour and a half away. That was a huge eye opening experience for me. I knew then that I really, really wanted to come home and that started my journey to get back.
I always did come home, but my kids were grown and I could get to the point where I could come home more often. I would come home and I would camp, or I would stay with my brother or I would stay with a friend. It got to be every other weekend, and I ended up getting divorced and moved home in December. No job, no place to live. No plans. Just that I was coming home. I can’t describe the feeling I get. I go hike just about every morning on Pine Mountain, and it just feeds my soul.
When I was young, town was bustling. The high school was up on the hill, every storefront was filled, and there were many cars. Even though unemployment was high for the whole state, it was low for here. I come back, and there are a few storefronts that are open in town, and it’s totally different. It’s kind of scary, but we’re a hard-working, resilient people and if we want to make it, we’re going to make it. If our economy is going to turn around we’re going to take care of it ourselves.
(Cultural differences in Lexington vs. “home”) Here, we like to place everybody. It’s not an offensive thing; it’s not a ranking thing. We just want to know where you’re from, what group you’re from, who you belong to. It’s not like that [in Lexington]. Depending on people is almost non-existent. You have to be somewhat self-sufficient. You have to have your true inner circle of people that you can go to, and you may or may not have that closeness in relationships. If you were to break down on the side of the highway, no one would stop and help you. Here everyone would stop and help you and you knew it would be okay to take their help.
[Appalachia is special because of] the people. A lot of it originally came from the isolationism. If we’re going to make it, we’ve got to make it on our own and take care of our own selves. There is a vastness of knowledge here that you don’t realize you have until you leave. You do something and people look at you and say, well, how do you know how to do that? And you’re like well, you just do! Don’t you do it that way? And they look at you like they have no idea. From raising a garden to animals, to self-sufficiency and taking care of your own home. When I first got divorced, I changed the locks on the door of my house, and my neighbor lady came over and just stood and stared at me. She asked, ‘what are you doing? I [told her I was] changing the locks, and she said, ‘where’d you learn to do that? I said, my mother, and she thought I was crazy. We have a sturdiness that I don’t think other people have and we value our people and our land more than most people do.
Everybody thinks we’re all toothless, dumb, inbred, barefoot. We are some of the most intelligent people I have ever encountered in my life, because don’t just have book learning, we have common sense and we have learning that you just pick up in your lifestyle. Not all intelligence comes from universities. I’ve got two degrees, but I value my upbringing as a degree, also. The stereotypes are wrong and they’re very hurtful. We’re the only ones that it’s still okay to make fun of, and that’s wrong. I think it’s because people think that we’re dumb and we won’t catch it.
I’ve written stories about coming home. It was overwhelmingly emotional, hoping that I could get home to do what I wanted to do and that it wasn’t too late. I had been coming home quite awhile and quite often, so I had more trouble leaving. Crying my way back down the Mountain Parkway. Knowing that I was here and I could stay if I wanted to. Knowing that I would be taken care of if I couldn’t take care of myself. I’m almost fifty-two years old and that’s a big step to do. It was a good thing. It was a real good thing.
I’m a hillbilly in the best sense of the word. It means that I was raised right; I was raised with manners, I was raised with knowledge, I can dress up or dress down, I can go in the hills and stay three or four days and be okay, or you can dress me up and take me to a party and I’ll be okay. I feel like I have an immense knowledge of our plants, our food, and the people. The women of this culture are so very talented. They can cook, they can grow the garden, and then they can also work outside the home and a lot of them are single mothers. We’re very proud of our land; we’re very ingrained in our land. To have a draw to a place and not a person, you can’t explain it to anyone else. But there is a pull. Almost like a magnet that pulls you back here. This is where you’re from, this is where you belong, and this is where you should be.
I worked for twenty years in a residential treatment facility in Lexington. Then I sold institutional groceries for about three years and then I was a cafeteria manager in an elementary school in Fayette County. Now, there is a huge grassroots movement to go back to local farming to feed the local economy and the local people. Everybody thinks that it’s a movement away from here, but it’s not. These are things that we knew, things that we were raised with.
The Farmers’ Market has been wonderful, getting to know the farmers, talking about the different vegetables, how can we make it better for them. There are several vendors here that say, ‘I make my money in Letcher County and I’m going to spend my money in Letcher County.’
The Appletree Project is promoting healthier eating. We have healthy cooking classes. We have the water filtration systems in the high schools and the middle schools to promote more water drinking, more activity and healthier activities for the students. With fast foods and the processed foods and all the different supermarkets, we’ve gotten away from that healthier eating. Unfortunately, Eastern Kentucky is a pocket of bad health; obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
We have to have more than one economic factor that’s going to feed this area. It can’t just be like coal was or like lumber was. The food movement is huge. Tourism is another thing that could be huge [as well as] cultural aspects from the music to the crafts. Not to turn it into a Gatlinburg or a Pigeon Forge, but to really promote and show what we, have and benefit our local people.
I remember going camping up on Pine Mountain and stripping off buck-naked and taking a shower under Bad Branch Falls. We didn’t realize how close it was from the bottom of the mountain because we’d come over the top of the mountain down from the top of the falls. There was this large group walking up from the bottom of the mountain, and we barely got our drawers on. Bad Branch Falls is majestic and enchanted. It’s a sixty-foot, natural waterfall and a gorge. I would advise anybody to go up it any time, but if you really want to see it roll, go up after, the old folks called it the spring floods, in April after it rains for a week or so. As soon as it stops raining go up the next day. They’re absolutely gorgeous. In Letcher County, go across Pine Mountain on 119, turn back to the left on 932, and go about a mile and a half down.
I would hope that twenty years from now [this area] would be a pocket of cultural tourism. It would be wonderful to make it a little go-to place in the mountains. And in some ways it has! Whitesburg, it’s a happening thing! I mean you can get a beer and a tattoo in two places in town now! (Laughs) On the same day! And that’s not a bad thing.”