Barbara Church

Barbara Church, Entrepreneur and Artist, Eolia, Kentucky:

“I started my business about 25 years ago (Ovenfork Mercantile). Started out in this one room right here. That was all that was here and just started building on rooms. I tried to preserve the history as I built the business. I started out selling on consignment, arts and crafts, mostly things people made. I had about 30 crafters starting off. It started successful but when people sold their stuff they didn’t want to make more. If their stuff didn’t sell they didn’t want to pick it up. Then I kinda ventured off into antiques and art. About 7 years ago I started selling food, hot dogs, barbeque, snacks, homemade candy, peanut butter roll. I make six kinds of candy. It’s also a bed and breakfast. 

My business goes up and down with however the coal industry is doing. A lot of my customers are coal miners, contractors, truck drivers. Everybody around here says tourism (is the answer). But you’ve gotta do more than just hold meetings and talk about it. That always goes on. We need action not words.

Outsiders portray us as hillbillies. They portray as uneducated, living in poverty, in shacks, children running barefoot without any clothes on. We are just like anybody else. We just live here in the mountains. This is where we like to live. What’s special about this place is the culture, the people, the mountains themselves. It’s like you are traveling, just say to Lexington; when you come back this way and you see the mountains you get this good feeling.

I grew up here. I grew up at Eolia. Been here since I was 10 years old. Before that my father wondered back and forth between Kentucky and Virginia. He couldn’t decide where he wanted to live. He was killed in a logging accident when I was 10 so my mother moved us to Eolia where both sets of grandparents lived. 

It was a good place to grow up. We rode our bicycles up and down the main road. We could go visit both sets of grandparents without having to get in a car to do it. The school was just a few miles down the road. When you were growing up you didn’t really think about it but when you are grown you think about things you’d have paid more attention to like sitting on the porch of your grandparents house and them talking or playing music. You think back on it and that was a good time. 

Music is important to the culture. My father was a banjo picker. I think it is a creative outlet for a lot of people. Music just makes you happy.

I think the culture here, it’s changed but back then like in the community of Eolia, everybody knew everybody and neighbors helped each other out. You don’t even know your neighbors now. I think the values I grew up with haven’t been instilled in the younger people. 

I started doing art about 15 years ago. I just decided I wanted to paint. I had never painted before. I had these images in my head that wouldn’t go away so I went back to school to study art and just started painting. It gives my soul rest. When I finally get these images out of my head I can finally rest. 

I’ve had some sad times here. Of course it was sad when my dad passed away from the logging accident. It was time he shoulda been home but instead it was someone knocking on the door telling my mom that he wasn’t coming home. Two years after that his brother was killed in a little truck mine accident right up there at Eolia where I live. 

I lived here when the Scotia mine accidents happened. It was a very sad time. It’s like one of those incidents where you know where you were when you heard President Kennedy had been shot. Everybody around here can tell you where they were at when they heard about the Scotia explosion. First you wanted to make sure that the family that you had that were working at the mines were ok then you tried to find out who wasn’t ok. It brought about a lot of memories for me because I lost my first husband in a coal mining accident. It was the same as my dad. He hadn't been gone long then I heard a knock on the door. We lived in an apartment in downtown Harlan at that time. Our son was two weeks old. I was 17 at the time.

Four years ago I lost my son in a motorcycle wreck on top of Pine Mountain. That was kinda like losing his father again because he was the only connection I still yet had with my husband who died in the coalmines. I lost my son and my mother that same year. That was in 2011.

You just accept it and go on. 

Watching my mother has given me my strength. When dad died she was left with three children to raise on her own. She didn’t have a car, a driver’s license or nothing but she made it.”