Keith Adams, Magistrate for District 4 of the Letcher County Fiscal Court; Blackey, Kentucky:
“We come from a family that my mother and father both worked. We didn’t have what we pointed our finger at, but if our mother and father could see to get us something, then they would get us like a bicycle, or later on in life, maybe we got an old, used motorcycle.
I don’t never remember going hungry, and I never remember water pouring into the house, or us having to gather up beside of a fireplace, and about freeze to death or nothing. We didn’t have running water. We had cold water, but we didn’t have hot water. When we was little, we had chores to do, such as pack wash water. We put water on a heatin’ stove to heat it. We didn’t have a tub; we bathed in what I called a watering trough. We didn’t have indoor plumbing, and we didn’t have a bathroom. We had a toilet. I dug a many a toilet hole, moving the toilet around.
I had a happy childhood. We had bicycles, when we could keep ‘em together. And the road wasn’t blacktopped then, it was red-dog. And you didn’t want to have no more collisions, than you absolutely could keep from, because that red-dog was hard to dig out. [Red-dog was a byproduct of burning coal in coke ovens and used like gravel on mountain roads].
We built us some box cars. We’d find us four old tires, and build us a wooden structure, and put them tires on there. We’d steer it with our feet, or tie strings to it. The holler was full of kids. They was ten or twelve of us. What one done, ever body done, and if somebody couldn’t afford to do it we’d pitch in, and try to help somebody do it.
We had a basketball goal. Everybody played basketball. There was an Old Regular Baptist Church right up the road from where we lived. We’d go up there, if we could con somebody out of a set of skates or something ‘nother. We’d try to skate on that blacktop. They had little concrete pads out there, and we’d skate around on them.
We had a little country store, up in the holler, right up from Black Bottom. I lived in Black Bottom. They was a little country store, up in Blair Branch. Boy, you could take a quarter up there, and just come back with a bag full. I mean, a big bag full [of candy]. (Laughs) That was back in the day.
I landed a job when I was in high school. If you had a job, you didn’t need but so many credits to graduate. If your parents would sign a paper, you could go to work. I had a job, and after my lunch period, I’d come to the homeroom, check out, and go to work.
I worked at the Pic Pac. It’s IGA now. I was a grocery packer, and a stock boy. I worked there till I was out of high school. I went from there [and] worked in a garage. After I left the garage, I went to work for a railroad company called Queen City, out of Nashville, Tennessee. They wanted me to travel with them, and I didn’t want to travel.
I worked about six months in the mines, and we was shooting off the solid, and it just wasn’t me. They drilled a bunch of holes in the face of the coal, like a seam of coal. They’d stick the dynamite back in there, actual dynamite. Then, they’d run that wire around there to that, Fire in the Hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole! They’d put the plunger to the bottom, and she’d blow up.
There was no seeing, I mean, a mining light wasn’t worth the light it was lit with. (Talking about loadout) Well, it was a little bit more convenient, because they had what they called scoops. They picked it up with the scoops. They’d run in and out of there, and pick it up with the scoops. My job was down on the tailpiece, making sure that all the coal hit the beltline, and then what didn’t hit the beltline, I had to pick it up.
Them fellers, they loved a greenhorn. They’d bring me up there, and they’d be a-talking to me, and they’d let them shots off. I’d just [reel]. I’d try to run, but you know, you can’t see. You don’t know where you’re going.
I worked about right at six months, and I made good money. I ain’t gonna lie. That was probably some of the best money I ever made, but I just couldn’t handle it. My mother got really upset with me over it, I’ll never forget that. She said, ‘Are you going to work this morning?’ I said, ‘No, you can go.’ She said, ‘Well, I’ve got a job.’ I said, ‘Well here, we can trade jobs. (Laughs) I’ll go cook for all these little kids, and you go mine some coal.’ So, I quit.
I struck a job with the county under the Reuben Watts administration, and my first job for the county was helping a mechanic at the garage. They took me out of the garage, and they put me on the bridge crew. Then they took me off the bridge crew, and put me on a loader. They took me off the loader, and put me in a truck. Then, I run a grader, for probably sixteen, eighteen year or more.
After that, I landed a job with the Letcher County Fiscal Court, and I worked for them for twenty-two years, and I’ve been a Magistrate now for nine years.
I serve the people. That job [consists] of just about anything you want to talk about. It’s about bridges, roads, culverts, trees, cutting weeds, mowing parks, taking care of sidewalks, you name it.
My philosophy of politics is, I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat. I don’t care whether you’re a Republican. I don’t care if you’re rich, poor. It don’t matter to me. I’m a person that’ll help you, if you want help, and I can help you.
(Appalachian people) We’re slower in time. I’m not saying, that we’re backwards. I’m not saying it to be disrespectful, or nothing, but, it takes us awhile to catch up. We like our pace of living. We don’t like it fast. We just want to kinda lay back, and be left alone and just live.
I can go to Lexington, and when I get back around, down there in Powell County, I can see them mountains. I think, ‘Oh boy, I’m almost home.’ (Meaning of home) It’s a protective place you can come to, and gather your memories, and sit down and have thoughts about what went on in each place, where your family and you mingle.
I had a heart attack, in February 2011. And believe me, I didn’t know nothing for about five days, and the other four days I stayed, all I thought about was home. If it was just to have to come home and die, that’s what I wanted.
(About stereotypes) Maybe we choose not to cut our hair, maybe we choose not to cut our beard, maybe we choose not to have our teeth pulled. Maybe we choose to live the way we want to live. But that’s our business. That ain’t for some outsider to come in here and say, ‘Well, look here, we’re gonna help these people, ‘cause they can’t help their selves.’ We didn’t ask you to come help us no way, but we appreciate what people do for us.
That’s the way that I was raised, and that’s what they tagged us as, a hillbilly. I don’t know what their version of a hillbilly is, but I have met very few people that didn’t like it. Everybody I ever met loved it. They love being around us. They actually want to be here. They want to live here. They want to stay here.
I’ve seen very few people come from out of other states, and tell me, ‘Well, I didn’t like it there.’ Most of ‘em say, ‘Well, if I come back here and retire, could you find me a place to live? Could you help me find a piece of property here?’
As a matter of fact, I’ve got some boys that’s from New York City in right now. They live in Florida, but they’re originally from New York City. They come here, and they fell in love. They’ve got houses here. They don’t live here. They make a living in Florida, but they wanna be a hillbilly, ‘cause they love it. I was born a hillbilly, I was raised a hillbilly, and I’ll probably die as a hillbilly, and I’ll be buried as a hillbilly. I wouldn’t have it no other way.
(Happiest time) When I met her [wife]. (Laughs) She’s a sweetie. There’s a little age gap in between us, you know, about sixteen years. Ahh, but age ain’t got nothing to do with it. Love’s blind.
(Hobbies) She says I yack a lot. (Laughs uproariously.) You want the truth? You want me to tell you what she says, my wife? ‘What’d you start that project for? You never finished the last’n.’
We’ve went from building ponds, to logging, to cutting fire wood, to working building rooms on.
I’m a craftsman. I built benches, and seats, and flowerbeds; stuff out of timber and logs. We’ve built cabins, and barns. We’ve been in the chicken [and] goat farm business. We, (laughs) we’ve done a lot. (About being bored.) Never. Never. We’ve really never give up on much neither, I mean, you know, it may have taken us awhile to finish something, but we finished it. We always come back and finished it.
We lost our home in March of this year. A mudslide hit it, took it off of its foundation, and crumbled it.
If you ever been on a lumber pile, jumping up and down, when you was little, and it was going clack, clack, clack, well that’s what it was doing. About five o’clock that morning, I got up out of bed and I went downstairs, ‘cause I thought it was the dogs running back and forth on it, after a cat, or something or other.
I opened the basement door, and I didn’t see nothing, so I shut the basement door back. When I went to come upstairs, my daughter was standing upstairs, looking down the steps, going, ‘What are you doing?’ Then you could hear it going, Thump! Thump! Thump! Something just told me to stand there at the back door. I pulled that back door open, and there stood a tree. It had already come through the back porch, and it was it was a-smacking the tin. I shut the door back, and [told her], ‘Get out! Go up there [and] get your clothes on. Get your Mama up on the way out.’
Snow, rain; that was when the weather was right wild like. It would snow one day, and then it might snow that day, and pour the rain two hours later.
Other than a death in the family, the next saddest thing that I’ve experienced is having to walk off from something that you’ve invested twenty years in, and you watched it crumble to the ground in probably about fifteen minutes.
You had been covered with insurance all your life, and you paid your insurance policies up, ‘cause the bank said you had to have it, and they looked at you [afterwards], and said, ‘Sorry. Can’t help you.’
Well, that’s pretty sad. The morning that it happened, a state company called AML, [Abandoned Mine Lands] sent three guys in, and they told me, how they was going to help me.
Two weeks later, they sent me back a ten-page letter telling me why they couldn’t help me.
Yeah, them’s some sad moments, when you’re sitting there, and you’ve retrieved half of what you’ve owned. I guess it’s a little better than a fire, because we did get some things. But in the long term, it would probably have been better to been a fire, because the insurance company would have paid me.
And you see, what’s disheartening is, you still owe on what you had, and you’ve got nothing to go back to. (Reason) They didn’t write a homeowner’s policy that would cover a mudslide. But now, my insurance company also told me later on, if it had been a mobile home, they would have paid me. I don’t know why. I didn’t question that. I was already to the point, I didn’t want to know no way.
The people of Letcher County, and probably Harlan, and Leslie, and Perry, and Knott, Michigan, and Alabama, and California, I mean. I don’t know, they was just people, just sent us money from everywhere.
I couldn’t ask to live in no better place. Because these people, they’ve showed they care about me. They’ve proved it. They proved it, and I love each and every one of them.”