“You never back talked anybody. You’d get a switchin’. Mom preferred a belt because switches left marks, and she didn’t like to mark a kid up. She liked a kid to know she’s there. “
Russell Huff, runs automotive parts store and race car shop, Tour Guide, Portal 31, Lynch, Kentucky; Harlan, Kentucky:
“[I grew up] in Leslie County. Greasy Creek. There was 13 children, and we were mostly all born at home.
Everybody took care of him or herself, and took care of all the little kids. The work was always done. There was usually about five or six of us that could hoe corn at one time, so you were knocking out six rows of that big field every time you made a pass. It was a benefit at that time. I was the fourth child down. There were eight boys and five girls. One brother and one sister are dead, the rest are still living.
Daddy was an old military man. He was a retired MP. Really, really strict, really. He had gotten out of the military and got married late in life. He was 50 when I was born. He married a 22-year-old woman.
Mom was a Jeep Nurse before she married daddy. She worked at the Pine Mountain Settlement School as a nurse, and since you couldn’t go there, she went to them. She rode a jeep around. I think she did some live-in with some terminally ill children. When he met her, he pulled her away from most of civilization, and moved her back in the woods in a big old clapboard house and she started raising kids.
[The house] was probably about 2,000 square feet. It was a big house with a lot of pine board and batting and a tin roof. There were about four bedrooms and we’d stack them up. The little kids would sleep four laying one way and three or four laying the other way. Then as we got bigger and needed a l little bit more privacy, two or three of the older boys would share a room and individual beds. And the girls, of course, the older girls had their own rooms.
You never back talked anybody. You’d get a switchin’. Mom preferred a belt because switches left marks, and she didn’t like to mark a kid up. She liked a kid to know she’s there. They’d start taking that belt off, ‘gimme that belt, boy.’
At the time that I was little, there was no road in front of the house; the road was in the river. There was a little creek called Greasy Creek and it was completely pure, clear, full of fish, no mining. It ran from the settlement school, to Hayden. You could drink out of it, swim in it, play in it. We ate fish out of it three or four times a week. It provided quite a bit of food, the creek did.
We lived on about 300 acres of land that we farmed with an old mule. There was no income except for some kind of Veteran’s pension that daddy had. We raised a cornfield probably a mile long and half a mile wide by hand; all of us kids hoeing the corn, plowing it with that old mule. We kept regular farm animals, chickens, goats and 10 or 11 pigs. They ran wild, the hogs did. That’s where the wild pigs got started probably over in that part of the country. We just rounded them up when we wanted them, or wanted to fatten one up.
We killed hogs on a regular basis. I did all the feeding and packing the water. Everything had to be fed before supper. We did have a smokehouse and something you’re probably familiar with called a ‘tater-hole.’ It was a big old underground vault that we dug ourselves [where we stored] taters, straw, cabbages, anything that we couldn’t have canned. Anything we could put in a can, we would.
Chickens ran free, too, over probably 30 acres around the property, they were all over the place. It was kind of a game [to get the eggs]. Momma sent us out to hunt enough for breakfast and we’d bring that many back and then in a day or two in the right conditions, we’d have more chickens flying around all over the place. Some of them old hens were pretty good at hiding their nests. They produced really, really fast. Part of the income was from selling chickens. They were bringing a dollar a piece, a big chicken would back then.
We hunted some, I personally never had a taste for hunting. I probably killed one squirrel in my life. Couldn’t wait to get ten years old, but really didn’t enjoy it after I got old enough to start hunting. We ate squirrel and groundhog, never ate a raccoon or a possum. Daddy did catch some turtles. We would just grab them by the tail if we saw them in the river. I watched daddy cut their heads off, and they would crawl back to the creek. They die slow. Hard critter to kill.
We had plenty of food. Evidently it was healthy food. I had my first cavity when I was 52 years old. We drank a lot of pure milk, homemade butter. I got my teeth knocked out in an accident about a year after I had my first cavity. I flipped an inloader loading logs. Until that, the whole family did, they had perfect teeth. None of them ever had high blood pressure, I don’t think any of us has any stents. Overweight… none of that.
If we wanted something, the nearest store was five miles up the river, and the only vehicle that ever went up and down through there, except for an occasional log truck, was an old Jeep that carried the mail up and down the riverbank. If we wanted something, we would put a note in the mailbox with the money. The mail lady would pick it up at the store and sit it back in the mailbox and we’d go over there and get it. We didn’t leave the property much. There was just too much work to do.
I went to school at a little one-room school called Abner’s Branch. We walked around the side of the hill about a mile and a half. There were no snow days. If it was a weekday, you went to school. I remember the snow going up to my knees walking home from school. We’d walk home at twelve, be back at one, and then walk back at three.
School turned out back in April back then. If you needed to stay home and work in the garden in the springtime or the fall, that was okay.
We got an actual road up out of the river when I was about eight years old. And we got a school bus when I was in the 7th grade. We went to the same school [after the buses came]. They built another room and a lunchroom when I was in the 6th or 7th grade. And they broke up grades one through four, and grades five through eight.
A couple times a month, the teacher would load us up and go to the Pine Mountain Library. We would get books and we’d spend a lot of winter evenings reading. I’ve read every kind of book in the world; probably about 10,000 to 15,000.
We couldn’t go to Leslie County High School, like I said, there wasn’t a road [initially], so they arranged if we could somehow get to the Harlan County line, they brought us out to Cawood High School. Sometimes, the bus ran up Leslie County, and sometimes we walked four or five miles in the morning. We were up about 3:30 or 4:00 am. We caught the bus at the Harlan County line at 4:45 am. We got home around 6:45 pm. We were riding 40 miles one way. We would ride to Green Hill, about 20 miles or 15 miles, switch out to another bus, get off there, catch another bus that come up from Pineville, and ride on to Cawood… only to then do the same thing going home and hope that the Leslie County bus was waiting on us if it was pouring rain. If not, we walked.
When I first started school, Cawood had consolidated a bunch of schools at that time. There was 1400 students there. They were bringing them from Leslie County, Waylands, Cranks Creek… I forget how many schools they actually consolidated to make Cawood High School at that time around 1970.
You were tired all the time [in high school]. I remember that. Adjusting to a big school, and the thing of it was, our teacher had us so far ahead that we slipped through freshman and sophomore year. You do your work in five minutes and grab you a book and read. There wasn’t nothing there we hadn’t done before. But I really was too far away to get involved in any kind of sports.
I was Tom Sawyer and I still am! That was my idol growing up. I’d be out in the barn working or something, and my friends would come out to play ball. That was always on my mind…the sooner we get this done. So, I’d have four or five of them helping me clean stalls and feed the critters and liking it!
By the time we were 12 or 13 years old, we were starting to get into cars; old ’57 Chevys, ’62 Chevys. On that road we didn’t know a lot about it so we worked on them a lot. I used the Tom Sawyer principal to get my car fixed so we could all pile in it and go somewhere, down to the hole [for] swimming or whatever.
In the summertime during high school, I worked gas stations, new car dealers. I liked hanging around those new car dealers because they let you drive the cars! I had a really, really good boss and if I had a date, he’d say, ‘park your old clunker and take that new Grand Prix over there, maybe her daddy will want to buy it.’
When I was a teenager, I was a hot-rodder. You had to have the car to get the girl, and so my car of choice was the old Mopars, the old Roadrunners and Chargers, for a good reason; these suckers would do 150 miles an hour in nothing flat, without a lot of work and money.
I’m riding through Cumberland one day with one of my friends, and I see this good-looking little girl on the side of the road. We stopped and talked to her. We dated a few days. She’s got some friends she wants me to meet. I meet her friends, Ronnie, Rose, and we decided to take off for a few weeks. She’s about 15, and I know I’m 16 because that’s how old I was when I had that car and just had my driver’s license. But the only thing of it is, her parents didn’t want us to. My mom was looking for me and their parents were all looking for them. Ronnie’s the only one who told anyone where he was going!
We’re out running up and down the road, everybody looking for us, and back then, if the law pulled in behind you and you just had a good head start, you floored it. Ronnie would be looking out the back, ’you’re gaining, you’ve got him. You’re done on this one.’
We stayed away probably about two weeks, running up and down the road, just outrunning the law when we found them. [We mostly went] down around Corbin and back and forth [through] Eastern Kentucky and Straight Creek and hid out over in the woods across Pine Mountain, stuff like that.
So we’re going to a store. The girls want some pickle sandwiches. They want some dill pickles and mayonnaise and bread. My mom had a charge account over at the store, so we go in there and get us some food. Ronnie and me get us some bologna, but things are heating up. They’re getting ready; they’re looking for us. We’re coming back down 221 and Walden Holbrook, the sheriff of Harlan County, spots us. He starts chasing us, and I dust him off down Laurel—I’m running through the Laurel Straights about 35, 40 miles an hour.
Naturally, Ronnie’s coaching, ‘You’ve got it. Slow down a little bit. You’ve got this thing.’ By this time, everybody wants to go home. We had enough. So I said, ‘you fellers ready to give up?’ They said, ‘yeah, we’re giving up.’ I said, ‘well, I’ll just pull off down here and wait on him.’
We pulled off there at the Settlement School, and I remember Rhonda, the woman I was with, wanting her pickle sandwich. I knew we had time to make a pickle sandwich and drink a pop before Walden got there. He pulled in behind us as she was eating her pickle sandwich. He said, ‘are you fellers ready to go home? Every one of your parents is worried to death. I said, ‘yeah, we’re going, we’re surrendering.” He said, ‘I’ll follow you to Cumberland and make sure you drop them off and get them back in their house and you go home.’
We were all just a bunch of kids and not knowing any better. Mom was more worried than anything. See, we didn’t have phones. We had phone booths back in those days. She was more worried than anything, but I think she was more glad that I’d gotten home because I’d been out working, earning my own money, and she was used to me being gone, she just didn’t know where I was at.
I did [always love cars]. I was driving an orange Charger long before The Dukes of Hazard ever had one. And all my friends were car people. We grew up around Ross Point and Greasy Creek and we were famous for doing burnouts when burnouts weren’t cool. Every time you pulled out. Me and some of the old troopers, we reminisce about it now. We sit around nowadays with a cold beer, and reminisce about it. A state trooper who used to chase me, [his] wife is the one that hired me at the college.
I opened a coalmine [after high school]. I did! 17 [years old], actually. We had it going a little while before I did. We owned our property and, my dad that was another thing he did—he had a little coal mine that he shot out coal and pulled it out with a pony. I started helping him when I was six years old. We would wait outside, and he’d bring it out in a little cart he pushed or let that little pony pull it out. We’d dump it for him and then we’d make dummies.
You take a stick and you put a piece of newspaper on it and you tamp it down and make you a hollow tube. And then you fill it full of slate dust. We’d load his little car back up with dynamite, black powder, fuse taps, whatever he’s using, and you’re talking about a six year old now! And send them back underground.
My cousin had been playing the horses. He was working for Pontiac in Flint, Michigan, and he got to playing the horses and he lost his house and his wife and everything. So he came in, and on my uncle’s side of the river we had about a seven or eight foot seam of coal. So he said, ‘Russ, I’ll give you five dollars a ton, just to help me.’ We wound up being full-fledged partners, at that time, we had a legal license—I think it might’ve cost $125. The only thing my inspector did was tell us to put a hard hat on when he come by, make sure you got some steel toed shoes and a hard hat and they’d look at your timber plan.
We could go to the store and buy any kind of explosive you wanted. They kept it at the local general store. Dynamite, caps, whatever. There was no electricity nearby when we started so we hand drilled every bit of it. Every time we would shoot that lower seam, it would have a middleman in it, it was good for 17, 18 tons. So we’d load a small truck that held about 13 tons every time we put off a shot. We started out rolling it out with wheelbarrows and rolling it off across the back of the field. Later we got a little electric car; it’d haul almost a ton.
At that age and time we could load that thing about three minutes flat. We’d come up there with big shovels, wishing we had side welding on them so we could load faster! Of course, you’re talking a 17 year old!
That lasted about a year and a half. I walked into the Chevy dealer, and I was telling you about the Chevy dealer being a good friend of mine, and I walked in there, about 16 or 17 years old, and I said, ‘I want that new car you got out there.’ Those salesmen wouldn’t talk to me. What’s this kid doing? He’s just wanting to go hot rod in a car. I know what he’s up to.
I’m standing out there looking in it, getting ready to leave and my brother said, ‘Come on, let’s go to Kingsport and get you a car.’ The Chevy dealer, the one we became good friends with, came out and said, ‘can I help you?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I want this car.’ He said, ‘okay, come on in, we’ll do the paperwork.’ Never batted an eye. He said, ‘you want me to finance this, run this through GMAC? Or would you like to pay for it?’ I said, ‘I’ll just pay for it.’ Like that right there. By this time, those salesmen were sitting there looking in the window watching.
Like I told you, we had that little coal mine, and we wasn’t used to having three, four thousand dollar a week pay days. Not big money for a lot of people, but it was for us. So we’d get together on the weekends and play poker. Get us a little something to drink. There was always a prankster, and this fellow happened to be [my friend], Leon. Well, the average person don’t know that just the fuse won’t set off a stick of dynamite—that it takes a percussion, like a cap. So we’d be sitting there at the table playing poker and everybody would be happy and there’d be all kinds of money on the table. Leon would stick a fuse in a stick of dynamite without a cap, and he’d light it and hand it to one of us.
Well, we knew that these out-of-towners would come over here and we’d just pass that thing around and around like that right there. And then Leon would get it and put a cap in it and throw it out the door and BANG! The top of the fuse come in coils back then, and I think it burned a foot a minute. He’d put a pretty good piece in there and we’d play with it a little while. Then he’d duck behind the door, stick a cap in it and toss it.
[For a whilel,] the coal business just exploded. You could go anywhere and get a job. My brother in law said Scotia was looking for some workers. We’ll go up there and apply to the mines. There’s some coal trucks sitting there, so we go over to the trucks and ask that truck boss, ‘you need anybody?’ ‘Both of you. Be here in the morning.’ It was that simple. No application, no nothing.
That was during the explosion of Scotia. I was actually working there at that time. I left there in June of ’76 and went to another job driving a truck for about six years and then got an opportunity to go underground as an electrician at Eastover. I just happened to have my timing off, and lasted for about a year and a half before they sold the mines.
[Growing up in Appalachia] It was kind of a natural thing for everybody to help one another out. Somebody would start working on their house and somebody would come down the road and see and they’d stop and help him until dark. They all shared plowing the fields and ate big dinners.
Your neighbor was your most valuable asset there. You took care of them. I still fool with cars. Run a race car store now and an auto parts store [in] downtown Harlan. I’ve got some drag cars and dirt cars. I still drive two or three times a year. In 1987, when I hooked up with the old Chevy dealer and found out he was a racecar fan, he said, ‘you know, Goodwrench has some money and I’ve got a little money myself I wouldn’t care to do some advertising with.’ We got us a brand new Corvette, and took off to the IHRA, international events, and I did that for about four to five years.
General Motors proved to be really, really reliable. I got to meet Dale Earnhardt and Al Unser; I got to meet all the big boys. Sat down at a table at a banquet, all of us eating and stuff like that. Of course, I signed an autograph for every one of them! I don’t [still have the Corvette]… wore that thing plumb out! Right now I’ve got a ’96 Camaro, tube frame, I build my own cars. It’s been put together and welded. Matter of fact, that car is what got me hired back here at the college. My friend was one of the administrators over at the Cole Academy. He was looking at that car and he said, ‘hmmm… we need a welding instructor. Let me get you an application.’ That led to another job.
I’ve always had an interest in marketing. Racecars are a good way of doing that. That’s about all they’re good for because you’re actually paying somebody to race for them. If you’re not picking up some money from a sponsor or something, it’s going to be a big drain on you. If I didn’t win anything, the Chevy dealer usually sent me off with $500 in my pocket for gas, entry fees, stuff like that. If I got there and won some, I picked up some more money. I won a lot, but it took a while to get good. I didn’t start at the bottom. I didn’t race little cars first, I just went straight to the IHRA and started racing right down at Bristol. That opened a lot of doors. I made a lot of friends, met a lot of people that owned warehouses and race car parts that I still deal with today.
I left [Appalachia] myself in 1994. When the mines laid off so [many], back in ’84, I started a service station, a transmission shop and service station. I ran that for 10 years and my lease expired. By this time, I had built myself a good reputation and was under quite a bit of pressure from the other shops and garages and stuff, so I had a hard time getting another building because [they were] trying to charge me more and stuff. At that time, I was right in the middle of a divorce, just lost my lease, was running low on money so I left, and moved to Somerset.
I found an old empty building down there which was a huge truck garage. I talked to this old fella, and the rent was reasonable so I opened up and bought some TV ads. By this time we were getting some marketing tools, but we didn’t have internet. He walked in one day and he told me, ‘Russ, I want to retire. You want to buy everything I got?’ He had a bunch of old trucks and everything and I said, ‘I’m just not in any shape.’ He said, ‘Put your hand out. Sell that stuff and split it with me.’ By that time, my business was going pretty good down there.
No sooner had I got that business up and rolling, and here come the highway. Highway 90 came right through the middle of my building! At this time, I was missing my kid. If he called me, I was having to drive in two or three times a week just to see him. He lived in Cumberland. I’d drive in and go back to work the next day. I moved back to Harlan, and went back in business here, working on cars.
I did that for years and years, and then the internet came along and I cleaned out my office down there in my garage. So they say, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘I have found a new way of marketing where I can reach all kinds of people.’ At this time, I’d been buying all these car parts and stuff from these warehouses, so I had a huge supply of stuff and good credit. I said, ‘I’m starting a business, I’ve got millions of dollars worth of merchandise, and I’m not going to do anything except sit here on the computer.’ They thought that was they craziest thing they’d ever heard.
At that time, I opened an online store. I put up all of my supplier’s merchandise, transmission parts and stuff. You buy it, I give them a credit card number, they shipped it to you! And they’re like, ‘what is he doing, sitting there all day long?’ The dot com came and went fast. eBay kicked in, and I sold a few items on eBay later. I was there in the beginning.
I went to Frankfort to file for my sales tax number and stuff in 1996 to register a company called Acme Resources. And the reason I did that was my partner said, ‘I always wanted a business, I always wanted to be called Acme.’ I said, ‘how we going to call something Acme, when it doesn’y mean anything?’ We were riding down to Frankfort and I said, ‘I’ve got it! American Cyber Marketing Enterprises!’ Now we got a name.
I have [witnessed the economy in the area change]. When I was in high school and stuff you had step off into the street to let people go by on a Saturday. Now there ain’t ten or fifteen people a day walking up and down the street. It has changed from a working economy where people buy anything they want, to pretty much SSI economy or food stamp economy.
Mostly they [the people in the area] are [hardworking people]. My friends right now, that I worked in the mines with, we’ve been friends all these years. Coal miners bond. They take care of one another. Every one of them. There isn’t a one of them that we don’t still speak and talk. One of them gets sick, and we go see them.
You got to have coal to make the steel, but I don’t think they’re buying the coal in the volume that they did, you know. There’s some overseas marketing but coal is a hard commodity to ship.
Yeah [coal] will come back because natural gas is a band-aid. It’s not a solution. Oil is based on global stability, I guess you’d say, and every one of those little things could trigger a market. I have no way of knowing [whether coal will be as big as it was]. Even if the laws were reversed right now and they started building power plants, it would still take a lot of people to get [production] back up to where they were. Plus a lot of people would be skeptical in investing too. So it doesn’t look real good, that’s for sure.
Our image [as Appalachians] has changed. Now the ones I’m meeting, and I’m meeting dozens of them, are seeing us based on the news of us losing our coal and they ask me, ‘are there even coal mines anywhere anymore?’
Tourism has actually surprised me. The off road park down here is actually bringing it in. They had an event down there not long ago. Of course, it’s all about how we market our region. We’ve got a lot of stuff here. I run a tour at Portal 31 in Lynch. It’s a coalmine tour where we take the tourists inside of actual coal mines for a 45-minute, non-stop, historical tour of an old coal mine.
There is also the potential for guided hunts. We’ve got all kinds of animals. Where they cleared the strip jobs and stuff, there’s wild horses, panthers, elk… everything. You could have hunting lodges, cabin rentals, you know. I put in some of those myself for the ATV park.
The roads, that’s a long term solution but that ain’t going to help anybody for ten years because it takes ten years to build a road, even if we had the money right now. The infrastructure right now is our coal and our gas and better communication systems, better internet lines, faster, better cell phone service, definitely.
It’s just going to take a bunch of things. It’s just like looking around at these other little fellows and how they do it. Somebody may have to start them a farm up on a strip job. You have any idea how much an acre of tomatoes would bring? That’s a lot of money. They grow good here. You could easily get two crops up on a a strip job.
The toughness [makes us unique]. The survival instinct. The compatibility. Looking out for one another.
[Growing up in the mountains] was good. I guess if I want to make a comparison here, I had more time to read, I wrote a lot of poems, wrote a lot of short stories. It seemed like that it was more peaceful back then. Nowadays, you got a cell phone that goes off a hundred times a day. You really very seldom get time to write poetry anymore. I do it a little bit for one of my friends that’ll tick me off and I’ll write him a funny poem. Back then I wrote constantly.
I’ve got them all written down [poems] but I could probably write one off to you. Alright, it’s called, ‘The Gigolo.’
Here comes my first date, we’ll call her Patty.
Who’s that man? I think it’s her daddy.
She got the money, from the looks of that Caddie.
I’m just a poor man, can’t pick and choose,
Sell my soul for a living, got nothing to lose.
But the bills piling up and the rent’s due…
She pays for everything, even the food!
I know it’s not right, I know it’s a sin,
I’m living my life as a step-boyfriend.
Just to show I’m original, I’ll run you off another one. I’m not plagiarizing, I write these things!
I know she don’t love me, I can tell
She never takes me off the shelf.
I’ve had enough,
I packed her clothes and left.
Hope she’s happy and doing well,
but I’m putting them jeans in my yard sale.
I know she don’t like it, and I know she gonna holler,
but anybody can get in her pants for a dollar!
Ain’t nobody talkin’ to me! I sent that to my nephew at his recording studio down in Nashville. He sent it back [and said], ‘we don’t want that stuff here, Nashville’s in bad enough shape!”