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“Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone can learn from the stories of others. These stories, taken together, are the stories of our communities, our counties, our regions, and unique Kentucky culture and heritage.”
– The Kentucky Humanities Council
My grandfather and my father would have laughed had anyone called them memoirists. Yet the stories they told about the people and times they had known place them among the best. It’s taken me near a lifetime to understand that such ordinary stories are as important to understanding time and place and humankind – history if you will – as those of the famous and the infamous.
As a small cog in the Kentucky Humanities Council’s effort “to tell Kentucky’s story” this is the gist of the message I take to audiences around the state. After sharing a few of my Owen County flavored tales, I urge those in the audience to preserve their own if only for their families. There are many ways to do this, and the effort can be as modest as stuffing notes scribbled on tablet paper into a lockbox, but the essential step is to begin.
Recently, three Owen countians not only commenced such projects, but completed them. While the end results are not what I’d call simple, each began simply, with a notion that they wanted to record the stories of their families and Kentucky’s agrarian way of life. Though they dance with similar themes, each is as different from the other as the waltz is to the jitterbug – and each is wonderful. Oh how I wish I could take them on the road as Exhibits A, B and C to show other Kentuckians how it can be done.
Ron Wainscott would be Exhibit A with his memoir “Tell Me A Tale”– About growing up at Lusby Mill. When dirt was young and Ron and I were teenagers, he once invited me out on a date, and I’m pretty sure we were secretly filmed for that old TV show Candid Camera because everything that could possibly go wrong did. I think he may have dropped by one of my public talks in part to apologize for that long ago fiasco, but he also wanted advice on how to write what he called his stories.
Ron allowed as how he’s not much of a book reader, and didn’t know how to begin his project. But he’s a natural-born storyteller who grew up listening to the masters who used to populate every country store in the county, and so I advised him to talk his stories onto paper, writing them the way he tells them. I wasn’t at all sure he’d follow through – most people don’t – but a year and a half later he called out of the blue to tell me he’d finished his book. How could he go about self-publishing perhaps a hundred copies to give family and friends, he asked?
The result is a small treasure for local historians and for any who have ties to the Lusby Mill area of the 1940s through the 1970s. The real-life characters who populated Ron’s youth would feel right at home in a Wendell Berry novel, and in his vernacular prose, he tells their stories as honestly but with as much respect as the learned Berry.
Ron’s reminiscing ranges from the humorous to pathos to the matter-of-fact. But it’s his clear and perceptive descriptions of Owen County’s rural way-of-life in the mid-20th century that earn a spot in the local library. I especially liked this vignette dropped into his piece, “Swapping Work.” Describing the “like Thanksgiving dinner” meals that the farmwives prepared at tobacco-cutting time for the men “as if competing with their cooking,” Ron hones in on a subtlety of the ritual. At the end of each feast, the “same guy would push away from the table, wipe … his chin with the same dirty shirtsleeve … and say ‘that there might be the best meal I ever et.’” But when the work-hands dined at that man’s house he modestly said nary a word about his own wife’s cooking, leaving it to others to declare it the best meal they’d ever eaten – and someone always did.
Exhibit B: Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Joy Bourne Morgan. Joy is younger than me, and so we missed each other at Owen County High. In the small world way of Kentucky, however, Joy lives a stone’s throw from the house near Monterey where my grandmother grew up and from the family cemetery where Mamaw’s parents are buried. I felt like I’d met a cousin.
As we talked, Joy shared with me her vision of a Tobacco Heritage Trail that would stretch through Owen County, and that might one day encompass a museum preserving the history of tobacco agriculture. She’d already assembled a committee, and I recognized their names as those who have a history of getting things done: Harold Malcolm, Elizabeth Prewitt, and Frieda Smith. Their first goal, Joy said, was to record oral interviews with Owen County tobacco farmers.
Then, this spring, the Kentucky Historical Society announced that Joy’s committee had completed 34 interviews with Owen countians whose ages range from 40-80. She had followed through. This remarkable oral history of the tobacco industry in Owen County is now archived at the KHS Library in Frankfort. It is an important gift to historians, writers, sociologists – and to any who trace their roots to Owen County.
Exhibit C: My lifelong friend Sherry Chandler has taken such an ambitious approach to writing her family’s history that I’m fearful I may insult her by even calling it that. But since it was inspired by listening to her 90-year-old mother talk about her memories of life and kin, I include it here.
A widely published poet and literary critic, Sherry has written an odyssey in verse (working title “Daughters of Rebecca”) that I believe will take its rightful place on the shelf of Kentucky letters. Drawing on extensive historical research, the oral traditions of her family, and her own experience of Kentucky agrarian life, Sherry tells the stories of the women in her family, from the 18th century when her people first arrived in Owen County, to recent times. Without sentimentality or aggrandizement, Sherry’s grandmothers, generation after generation, speak for themselves – of the times in which they lived, of wars and poverty, of children and husbands, disappointments, triumphs and tragedies. Like the chorus in an ancient Greek drama, their voices merge to tell the extraordinary ordinary stories of Everywoman, the women of the land who lived Owen County’s – and Kentucky’s – history.
I end, then, where I began, urging you, gentle reader, to begin.
“So, passing there this morning and seeing the house was gone reminded me of all these little stories. Individually, they’re not big issues but together, they’re a big part of my life. It also reminded me that nothing is permanent, everything man-made will eventually be torn-down … even ‘The Home Places.’ ”
– Ron Wainscott, “Tell Me a Tale”