Melvin Hardy, Jr., Retired, Lynch, Kentucky:
“I was born and raised in Cumberland, Kentucky on Sanctified Hill. Growing up in the mountains; there is no greater place in the world to grow up than in the mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky, the foothills of Black Mountain. Everybody just cared about one another. Mack Wilson, that I worked with for ten and one-half years at Sears was just like a brother to me, he taught me so much that made me who I am, right now. Mack Wilson and my father they made me the person that I am today.
Some of the happiest times in my life, of course, was marrying my wife and having my two children. Working there at Sears and Roebuck; with Mack Wilson, Rocky Cooper and Marcus Ely. Some of the women; Barbara Powell, Sandra Cornett, Benny Wilder and Billy Howard and Yolanda Riley. Those was some of the most fun times of my life. I was young and dumb and they educated me, they really did, in a lot of life. Those were some really fun times. I was 18 years old [when I started working there]. Rocky taught me to ride a motorcycle.
I didn’t have any electrical training. My dad, he was a good shade tree mechanic. He taught me few things as far as handling tools and being able to use a hammer and nails and things like that. But I got with Mack and he taught me understanding of electricity, hydraulics and water and by the time he got done with me after about two years, I became a Mechanical Technician with Sears and Roebuck, but under his tutelage.
One night in the wintertime when it got so cold the oil was separating enough we spent over twenty-four hours out keeping people in heat. Yeah, man we were killed. Those were hard times but they were fun times.
I have a funny story about Mack. Me and Marcus had been up to deliver a television and we got back and Mack was out in the parking lot. He had been working on a go cart. We just passed by him and he said “you know you can’t get one of these things to turn over.” And he went out on the parking lot and making donuts with that thing and it hung in a jagged edge on that concrete. It went up about ten feet in the air and came down on top of him. Me and Marcus had to go out and pick that thing up off of him. I said, “Man, I thought you couldn’t turn one of these things over.”
Raising kids in Lynch, Benham and Cumberland [there’s] not a better place in the country I don’t think than to raise kids than there. I have raised a family there. The Appalachian values were God first, then family and to treat your fellow man like you want to be treated. And that is the way our mom and dad brought us up, that is the way your mom and dad brought you up.
If your family or your parents weren’t around and you were getting out of line, somebody else’s mom and dad put you in your place. And then your mom and dad thanked them for doing it. They didn’t go jump on them for doing it. They thanked them for letting them know that your child was out of line. And the teacher did the same thing. We had great teachers, teachers that had family values and high moral values and not only that but they were great teachers too. It made a world of difference growing up in that area and in that time.
African American and growing up there was also, you know, it wasn’t perfect, you had a few problems from time to time, but for the most part everybody got along just great. It was sort of like a melting pot that started back before I was born when you had the blacks that came up from the south, from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia and places like that. You had Germans and Jewish people and Italians and Hungarians that came down from the North East up in New Jersey and New York. And they melted there.
My dad worked in Alabama when he was a kid in the coal mines. He said they made two dollars a day and he said if they had to mine rock before they got to the coal, they didn’t get anything for it. My dad was about fourteen or fifteen years old, and his cousin said that they had heard in Harlan County, Kentucky, that everybody made the same wage for the same work and they made as much as twelve dollars a day. So he said he was leaving and going to Kentucky. My dad told his mother, he said, “my cousin is going to Kentucky,” they were all in their thirties and he said “I’m going with them.” He was the youngest one and they come up in an old thirty something Chevrolet or Ford that had a rumble seat, and because he was the youngest he had to ride up in the rumble seat. But his mother had saved up five dollars, and he said that she gave him that five dollars. So he came to Kentucky and this is where he spent the rest of his life. He loved it, he loved it here.
There was US Steel in Lynch, there was an International Harvester in Benham and there was a Scotia or Blue Diamond Coal Company up the river and all of them were good coal companies to work for but US Steel from all the information I had gathered and from all that I saw was by far the best. They provided the best of everything.
The big store there, the big company store, in all of my travels I have never seen a bigger company store than the one there at Lynch that US Steel had. They had tailor made suits for the men and they had the best materials and dresses for the women and the furniture was of the best. Now when you look back on that situation and when you really boil it down, it was a form of communism because they really owned you. You bought everything from their store, they paid you with their money, you lived in their houses, their plant protection or security was the police force. If you didn’t abide by their laws and their ways, if a man didn’t work right or didn’t treat his family right he would come out of the mines and his furniture and stuff was sitting outdoors. He had to leave, which probably good anyway, if he didn’t treat his family right. It was a form of communism.
US Steel was the best company in that area to work for. My dad loved working for US Steel. He loved working as a union UMWA employee when the union came along. He just loved Lynch, Benham and Cumberland.
(After Sears) I worked for a coal company. I have been underground several times but I worked outside. I worked as the warehouse clerk, warehousing. I worked as they called it Office Services Manager. I took care of all the office machines, bought all of the office furniture and office machines and hired the contractors to do all the work on the company buildings. It was a really a good time, and a good job, it really was.
I am retired now. I ride my motorcycle and do home projects for Deb (his wife). She keeps me busy. Her dad is kind of sick, kind of ailing right now. He retired as a foreman for US Steel and Arch and he is ailing right now and has to have somebody with him twenty-four hours a day. So between me and my wife, and my brother-in-law and his wife and my daughter and some friends we spend twenty-four hours a day with him.
[Media Perception of Appalachia] It used to be really bad, but I think it’s getting better. They used to always show the worst of housing; they would seemingly, intentionally find the most uneducated person that they could find in Appalachia to interview, which is not right. Not everybody in the city is educated and not everybody in Appalachia is educated. But they all have the right to live their lives the way they see fit. There are some really, really intelligent people in Appalachia, whether they’ve got a college degree or a high school degree, some really intelligent people. I look back on Mack Wilson and my dad, my dad didn’t have a lot of education but he was one of the smartest people I have ever been around. And Mack, I don’t know if he had much more than a high school education, but he was a genius. He was genius and just good people.
I am a hillbilly and glad to be one. It means that there is a union of people that grow up in the mountains that had pride in where they grew up and pride in the people they grew up with. I could have gone anywhere and lived. I would never be comfortable anywhere in the world but those mountains there in Harlan County. When we go off to a city, I’m lost from the first time my foot hits the city ‘til I leave. Even with GPS I am not comfortable trying to get around. I know where I want to go; anywhere there in Harlan County, I don’t even know the names of the streets. I can go anywhere.
The site of the mountains is like a drink of good cold fresh water. I don’t mind going to visit New York City, or the Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Florida, but after a week, a week and a-half, two weeks at the most, I’m ready to head back to the hills of Harlan County. My children pretty much feel the same way, even though my son has had to move away, because of work, but he still loves coming back home to the mountains. My daughter, she still lives there but she works in Lexington. She is a RN and she does the four day, twelve hour shift thing, and she drives back from Lexington to Harlan County.
The saddest time [in my life] was when my dad passed away in 2000. Out of all family we’ve had a history of long livers. My mom will be ninety-five years old the twenty-seventh of this month and she is still going pretty strong. She is still pretty spicy, you get out of line and she will tell you where to get back. My Dad lived to be eighty-five. All of my brothers and sisters are living. My aunts and uncles lived away from here, and now I have lost aunts and uncles. That has probably been the lowest point in our lives.
You know there was a time when coal mining went down as far as jobs; I thought possibly I would have to leave. Fortunately that worked out and was able to remain there in Harlan County. A lot of friends that decided to move they tried to get me to move, saying well it was time to get out of here. I thought well, my dad stayed here all of his life and managed to make it and raise his family. I think this is going to be the place for me so I stayed here until I was able to retire. And I am still here.”