“We sit down, we pray, we have dinner, we watch TV together. We try to do most things together. We go to church together. The boys just got baptized two weeks ago. So, it’s unconventional, but not really too much different. I think it’s very important for children to have stability, whether it’s a conventional family or not. They all need stability. I think they’re going to grow up to be very smart children and have an open mind.”
Leslie Bledsoe, City of Harlan Tourist and Convention Commission; Tremont, Kentucky:
“I was born in Dayton, Ohio. When I was five years old, we were in a foster home, and my great granny came and got us and brought us back to Kentucky and we never left.
My mother was on drugs bad, and my father passed away when I was four. My father was a real bad alcoholic. He passed away [from alcoholism] when he was 24. He had a seizure, and his brain overflowed with blood.
I’m the oldest girl. I have three brothers and two sisters. There are six of us total. They put us girls in one foster home and the boys in the other foster home, and the foster parents would get us together once ever couple of months and let us see each other, or we’d see each other at the social services for visits.
I had really good foster parents. They were avid square dancers. I believe they had roots in the mountains because I can remember them taking us square dancing and to a pig roast, and we ate fresh pork rinds and things like that. Of course, it was traumatic at first being away from my brothers. But, I had my sister in the foster family was really good to us, and they tried to make us feel that we fit in and were welcome in their family. They had older kids that were really nice and good to us.
We lived in Miamisburg where we stayed at the swimming pool every day of the week that we could. They had a Dairy Queen on the corner. We would leave the pool and go to the Dairy Queen, and that was like our whole day. Then, we came here and Granny’s house was the only house up on that hill.
She packed coal and she had a garden. My great aunt, Sue, lived at the bottom of the hill, and she would milk cows and everything. I remember Grandma would always have me go down to Aunt Sue’s to get the milk, and she would have them in the big glass gallon jars. I could not stand drinking that milk, so most of the time I would accidentally drop that milk on the way back up the hill. I’d get whipped every time, but it was worth it. Then she finally started buying gallon milk from the store.
My Granny was a wild woman. Her name was Fanny Dotson and she was country. I can remember her sitting on the couch at night with a big old butcher knife peeling calluses off of her toes.
She never did anything easy. It was all hard. Hard work and determination. We don’t have to have running water. You can go to the creek and take a bath if you need to. Plant a garden, hoe a garden, milk a cow, go ginsenging, kill a snake. Every time any of us got poison ivy, which was at least a twice a summer thing for me, she would always put a capful of Clorox in our bathtub that we had outside and it would dry right up. I was like one of the little boys running around bare-footed with no shirt, until Grandma started nagging me telling me I needed to start wearing a shirt.
She tried diligently to keep me out of the garden because I loved raw potatoes and raw green onions and cucumbers, and of course, that was all the stuff that she had in her garden. Normally, before she had time to get down to the garden to get it I’d already had it.
We lived with Grandma until about six months before she died. Her and mom had a big custody battle, and Mom got us back. I think Grandma pretty much grieved herself to death because we weren’t there with her anymore.
[My saddest memory was] When my Grandma died and crying a lot and not having enough tissue paper to get all the snot coming out of my nose. It was a very, very bad time. Mom did not tell us until the day of the funeral. She did not want to tell us. Walking up to her casket, I kept thinking that I would see her breathing, or hoping, either one, and just remember thinking that she’s going to get up. It was rough.
We lived with my Mom and Mitchell, my step-dad at Verda in a trailer. He worked in the coalmines, and Mom went to school at Southeast and got her Medical Assistant certification. Growing up with mom, she still had some wild roots in her, and she wasn’t very dependable there for quite a long time. She and Mitchell fell a lot. Sometimes it would be okay and would go for a year or so being okay, and then they would just fight really, really bad. Then, mom would pack us all up and take us to Ohio for a week or so, and Mitchell would get to missing her, and he would come to Ohio with an engagement ring and, ‘Please come back.’ She would, of course, come back with him, and two weeks later it’d be the same thing, so it was very unstable, I suppose. But then, once we all got older, we kind of knew what was going on, and we pretty much did our own thing.
I in no way fault my momma because of the problems that she had. I myself have faced my own demons. I love her very much, and she, herself, had a hard upbringing. Her parents were killed in a train wreck when she was nine, and she and her brother had to live with aunts and uncles. By the time she was 17, she had two kids and working on a third. Not long after, the love of her life (my father) died. My mother is a strong, beautiful woman.
I was real quiet in high school. I played softball and basketball, but other than that I was pretty quiet. I didn’t really do a whole lot. I played guard in basketball and shortstop in softball. Softball was, of course, my favorite. I went to Evarts High School, and graduated in ‘92.
I got out of high school and went into the National Guard. I wasn’t in the Guard very long, probably for about a year. We did our drills in Frankfort. I probably went to about three or four drills in Frankfort, and then I went to Basic in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. It was rough. The sixth week of training, I ended up pulling my Achilles tendon, and I pretty much got the choice that I could stay and let it heal for weeks and finish my training, or come on home. So, I said I’m going home.
I worked a job at Pizza Hut for seven years and pretty much did fast food until I started working in tourism. This has been one of the best jobs that I’ve had that has [allowed] me be myself and see myself as a better person and try to do better and help other people
I had the will to have a better life. I wanted more things and to be stable and have a productive life and be a productive, responsible member of the community.
I’m married to a wonderful woman, Ashley Bledsoe. I just happened to stumble upon her. I wasn’t really looking for anybody, and I don’t believe that she was either. We met at church, and her twins, our twins are eight and Cheyenne is a teenage girl...they’re something else.
For a long time, I did not, and still probably in a way, I guess, I have not actually come out. I guess to people I’m close to, they know, and I assume that everybody in Harlan knows, but I’m not going to broadcast it. Well, I’m broadcasting it now.
[My happiest time was] when we went to Connecticut and got married. That was a very happy day. We drove all the way to Danbury, Connecticut with the boys. We stopped in Washington on the way up and saw Arlington, and we stopped at the Statue of Liberty and went on up and about hit a deer. The next morning, we got up and went to the courthouse, and the judge took us to a park about five minutes away, and married us in a little gazebo with the boys chasing chipmunks. It will be five years, in June.
Ashley’s got the prettiest smile in the world. She is a handful sometimes. One of the things I loved the most about her whenever we first met--it’s probably why we kept dating--was that she was a wonderful mother. I couldn’t see anybody having children and not loving them, I guess with everything she does, that is one of the things that she does I love the most about her.
Another thing about our family is that we try to show each other love and tell each other we love them every morning, and tuck them in still and all that jazz.
Seth and Caleb are the twins, and, of course, good twin bad twin. Well, I can’t really say that anymore. It used to be that way whenever they were younger. Now, I guess they’re both equally as rotten. Seth is smart as a tack. He absorbs every bit of information that he sees on CNN or anything. I’ve about had to stop watching CNN in front of him because he just absorbs it all in.
Caleb is the ditsy one. I hate to say ditsy, but he is ditsy. He’s funny and cute and sweet. Yes, they’re both sweet. Cheyenne is just full of talent and smart as a tack. I stay onto her, well I stayed onto her, used to, about getting her homework done, but she keeps bringing honor roll, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bother you anymore, you know what you’re doing.’
I think they enjoy [having an non-traditional family]. We sit down, and we have dinner together every day at the table unless I‘m at work. We sit down, we pray, we have dinner, we watch TV together. We try to do most things together. We go to church together. The boys just got baptized two weeks ago. So, it’s unconventional, but not really too much different. I think it’s very important for children to have stability, whether it’s a conventional family or not. They all need stability. I think they’re going to grow up to be very smart children and have an open mind.
Everybody’s been really nice to me. I’ve heard of other people, you know, being called names and being discriminated against at work and different places. I don’t really let things like that bother me. It’s just their ignorance, their misunderstanding, pretty much.
Not all straight people are good, and not all gay people are bad. I would say it’s harder for gay boys around here than it is for lesbian women. I really don’t know why, but the gay men really have a hard time to go. I don’t know if it’s because they’re country boys, or what, but I personally haven’t had any negative things happen to me.
I’m sure that every place close in Kentucky and Virginia, all of the other tourism directors I’ve met--they love their counties just as much as we love our own county. One of the reasons that make people around here so special is that they love the mountains and genuinely care.
(Tourism efforts) Right now, it’s kind of dead, but in the middle of the summer, we have all kinds of activities for you to do. You could go to the Black Mountain off-road park and ride the four-wheelers ‘til your little heart was content. You could go flying above the trees on a zipline, or you could go horseback riding. We have a variety of things you could do.
You could stay inside and do a mine tour, visit the museum. The museum is quite interesting. They have a bunch of different things up there from coal mining, to Loretta Lynn. They’ve got a lot of ‘Justified’ things there. Upstairs is nothing but Loretta Lynn, and then, of course, downstairs are coal-mining artifacts. Whenever I went up there, there was a retired school teacher, can’t think of his name, he was the funniest thing and gave me every detail of the coal mining museum that ever was. They have little models of the town from back in the ‘30s and whenever the 31 mine first opened up there, so it’s really educational.
Most of our coal miners have left and went either to Florida, a lot of them are out in Western Kentucky doing coal mining jobs there, which they’re also getting laid off those jobs in Western Kentucky. Some of them have gone to Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia also. They’re having to leave their home. I know one guy just last week left and went to Alabama, and he’s having a real hard time. He’s homesick. His wife is still here working at the hospital. They’ve got five kids, I believe, and she’s here trying to be a single parent while he’s trying to make enough money to keep the family afloat, but he had to leave to do it.
We need to get more adventure tourism. We need to revitalize some of our downtown buildings. They need to make these building owners take care of their buildings or give it up, I mean, because we have so many empty buildings that could be used for other things but the building owners will not sell or try to fix them up. We’ve offered to try to get grants to try to paint the buildings free of charge or they would just have to pay for the labor. They want to know if we’re going to come back again in five years and paint it again. So, it’s really hard to try to do anything when the building owners won’t cooperate.
I think Jordan Smith is going to help us [change outside people’s attitudes about Appalachians]. He is one of our local celebrities. He [just won] The Voice. He is a good Christian boy that is representing the mountains well. He is well spoken. He was in the choir at Harlan County High School. He graduated last year. He participated in Poke Idol at our Poke Sallet Festival, and I think that he is representing Harlan County and the Appalachian people proud.
I think if more people come to visit [it would help the economy], but we’d have to fix the roads to make it more appealing for people to actually come. Nobody is going to come to Harlan unless they have a purpose to come here, a reason. This is not one those towns you just drive by on the interstate, and you say, oh let me stop there. You have to have intentions or you have to have something that’s going to call out for people to come do. When they did first start the zipline and the Black Mountain off-road park, there were a lot of residents where the trailhead is that complained because there was so many four-wheelers, so much traffic, so much noise. I understand that, but at the same time, they should understand that that’s the kind of thing that’s going to bring people back into our community, and if they’re not being nice and showing hospitality, they’re not going to come back.
They have the Fall Crawl that brings in right around 13,000 people just throughout the weekend. There is also a ‘Harlan County Crawl’ where the rock crawlers come in, and there’s a special little trail up there where they see who’s the fastest getting up to the top of the mountain, and so that’s been a really big hit. [There is also] kayak rentals and things up there.
The roads are a big issue, and then, of course, being able to get internet and good phone service. Right now, I can’t go from here to five miles up the road and have service. It just depends on where you’re at in the county. A lot of the people who do come here from out of town, their cell phones won’t work here.
I want to be remembered as happy and smiling. Most of the time, I am trying to carry a smile. Even on the bad days I try to in the morning start my day by doing something nice for other people. That puts me in a better mood, makes me feel good.
We have the boys come to do volunteer stuff whenever we do volunteer stuff. At least once a week, I get four Moo Lattes from Dairy Queen and give them to just random people at social services, at the hospital, the bank, the library; just somebody that comes to mind that helps in the community or that has had a hard time. If I’ve got a little more money, I’ll do it two or three times a week. This week, I’ve done it three times. There’s been different people that kind of needed it [and I like to] make their day a little better.
The boys, I let them go with me to take some to the hospital 4th floor ICU and had them set it on the desk and tell them it’s just a little something for them to have a better day. We want them to be giving, also.”