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Growing Up Hard in Harlan County

G.C. Jones
With a Foreword by Cratis Williams
Copyright Date: 1985
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Growing Up Hard in Harlan County
    Book Description:

    G.C. "Red" Jones's classic memoir of growing up in rural eastern Kentucky during the Depression is a story of courage, persistence, and eventual triumph. His priceless and detailed recollections of hardscrabble farming, of the impact of Prohibition on an individualistic people, of the community-destroying mine wars of "Bloody Harlan," and of the drastic dislocations brought by World War II are essential to understanding this seminal era in Appalachian history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4349-1
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Cratis Williams

    MOST ATTEMPTS at autobiography by native Appalachian folk, even retired schoolteachers with college degrees, fail to arouse reader interest. The writer, too often doubting the value of his own story, seeks protection in moral posturing and treats the reader to platitudes and commonplaces, or dilutes the account with generous servings of imitative ʺfine writingʺ that alienate the reader after a few pages. Rarely does one come upon a native writer with both a talent for telling a story and a genius for investing it with power. G.C. Jones is such a writer.Growing Up Hard in Harlan County, simply told...

    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ONE
    (pp. 1-10)

    AS FAR BACK as I can remember I always had a lot of chores to be responsible for, such as getting the milk cows out of the mountains to the barn, slopping hogs, weeding the garden. It seems like I could go on for days just sitting here reminiscing about the early years of my childhood.

    I come from a big family, four brothers and four sisters. Artie, the first born, was followed by Narciss, then Sophia, then Jim, and then myself, Green. Then came William, Dave, and my youngest sister, Cecil. Another baby died at one monthʹs age.


  5. TWO
    (pp. 11-19)

    THE NEXT MORNING, after all the eating and cleaning up our camp, we started in checking our wagons for any kind of damage that might have happened coming up the mountain. Then we hitched up and took our places with the wagons, to head downhill.

    I sure was pleased with the way JoJo was handling his team, sitting up high in his seat. He called out to ask if he could move up to the position ahead of me. Dave came over and told him it would be his choice to have any position he wanted, with the way he...

  6. THREE
    (pp. 20-26)

    JOJO AND I went to the barn, caught up the mules, and made a sack of hay to use as a saddle. We led them up to an old tree stump to climb on their backs.

    Mr. Ford called for us to come by the house. He handed two sacks with the ends tied together up to JoJo and told him to drop them off at his home. Each sack was about half full of food—a big country ham in each sack, shucky beans, dried apples, and several jars—well wrapped—of huckleberries, jellies, and jams. He knew JoJoʹs...

  7. FOUR
    (pp. 27-35)

    IT WAS ABOUT three oʹclock when I knocked on Mrs. Waltersʹ door. She woke JoJo to answer the door. He lit an oil lamp, then called out to ask who was there. I told him. He swung the door open and saw me standing there with blood over the most of my clothes. And my eyes, I knew he could tell they had been flooded.

    JoJo pulled me into the house and called his mother to come quick and told her, ʺSomebody has tried to kill Red.ʺ She came rushing in and nearly fainted when she saw all the blood...

  8. FIVE
    (pp. 36-42)

    THE MULES were mine now. I had paid Mr. Ford all I owed him. They were beginning to slow up, not prancing as much, The hard work of pulling the scrapers was showing on them. I had the hostler to add more grain to their feeding and be sure they got their regular dosage of Dr. Legearʹs worm and kidney powder. Work stock have to be kept wormed. If their urine begins to look real golden, their kidneys are not right. They need to pass clear urine.

    It was beginning to turn cool now. It was about the middle of...

  9. SIX
    (pp. 43-50)

    TIMES WERE GETTING WORSE every day. People that had farms raised a lot of food, canning it and drying some, dry curing their pork, and keeping a few milk cows. They were really lucky.

    The next morning I was having my wagon loaded at the wholesale. As I stood there on the loading dock, a large group of people came rushing down the street. They started milling and crowding at the entrance of the county maintenance building directly across the street from where I was standing. Each man was trying to be the first one through the door.

    A big...

  10. SEVEN
    (pp. 51-62)

    THINGS SURE went to popping soon. Money began flowing from the many coal camps into town. Merchants started stocking their shelves with all kinds of pretty clothes. The big hotel was completed. A big lumber company put in a large mill that turned out finished smooth lumber. A new wholesale opened up. Hundreds of things were happening to Harlan. Ben Howard, my street boss, got a contract to finish the streets all over town. Things were booming.

    I stayed with Artie the rest of the summer. Amos and me were doing a lot of heavy hauling all over town. I...

  11. EIGHT
    (pp. 63-71)

    IT TOOK OVER two hours of hard climbing before we reached the house. Mom saw us coming, fighting our way along the trail. By the time we got there she was putting food on the table, and a big coffee pot was steaming.

    Mom went to Dad and gave him a pat or two on the arm. She laid a hand on Jimʹs shoulders and started asking them a lot of questions. Finally she looked at me and asked if I had come back to stay. This was the first time I had been back on the mountain since she...

  12. NINE
    (pp. 72-87)

    I WOKE UP the next morning and started thinking what to do. There wasnʹt any work anywhere in Harlan County that you could make a dime at. I walked on into town. It was early when I got there but there must have been thousands of people lined up and down the streets, with big canvas sacks folded under their arms, shivering under the coolness of the early morning air. They were waiting for the big doors to open at the food commodity warehouse. They would receive food to rush back to many homes throughout the county where there were...

  13. TEN
    (pp. 88-98)

    AT THE CRACK of dawn I was wide awake. The room started getting lighter as the sun kept rising. It looked like this was going to be a beautiful day. I laid there till I heard voices. I got out of bed and went to the kitchen.

    Mrs. Barker was folding my clothes. They had dried hanging behind the big stove. I took them back to the room where I had slept. She had ironed my shirt and my overalls. They had shined from her pressing the iron on them. I wiped my shoes clean. When I came back in,...

  14. ELEVEN
    (pp. 99-106)

    FOR THE NEXT TWO DAYS, I went to every place in town, asking for any kind of work I could get. I went to both wholesales and the lumber yard and got promises of work at each of them to unload boxcars as they came in, starting the next week.

    I knew I couldnʹt work at all three. H.T. Hackney being the oldest and largest, I thought Iʹd better take their offer. I knew all the workers there. They had two big teams of horses and big, wide wagons for delivering locally.

    I told JoJo and his Mom of getting...

  15. TWELVE
    (pp. 107-117)

    THE COMPANY Amos worked for gave me a job loading coal, and I joined the union. The company store issued all the tools that were needed. Then you paid for them after you started work. Looking at that pile of tools made sweat pop out on me. I thought that it would take me a year to load enough coal to pay for them. I had thought a pick and shovel were all you needed. There must have been twenty different tools there.

    Artie and Amos were glad Iʹd come to live with them. They lived about fifteen miles from...

    (pp. 118-129)

    BILL WAS A FINE, HEALTHY BABY, perfect in form and very pretty. It didnʹt take long for me to learn the effect of closeness to him. He seemed to want to snuggle up to me more than he did to his mother.

    Winter was over and the county work crews and the W.P.A. workers were busy cleaning up road ditches and hauling rock and gravel from river banks to fill in big holes rutted out in all the roads. The coal mines were working about every day. Things were running along smoothly.

    Mae and I decided we wanted to move...

    (pp. 130-143)

    NO ATTEMPT had been made by any of the companies to operate their mines. The Three Point Coal Company and the Mary Helen Coal Company owned by Elmer Hall and his sister, two of the largest coal producers in Harlan, had built several long buildings near their mines to house the state guards. The bridges had been repaired and all the sidetracks were filled with empty coal cars. Work crews had repaired sections of tracks leading up the different forks from town to the many mines through the county.

    Something was about to happen. Out-of-state cars were everywhere, going and...

    (pp. 144-153)

    ON DECEMBER 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. All the young men were called to the different branches of the armed forces, leaving the older men to do the mining. There was a great demand for coal and the producing mines werenʹt meeting the demand. Thousands of small truck mines started opening up all over the coal fields, trucking their coal to the railheads for shipment to the eager steel mills and factories.

    Nearly everything you had to have was rationed by the government. Workers at most places were frozen to their jobs, if the companies they were working for...

    (pp. 154-160)

    I ENJOYED MY LEAVE and reported back to the ship so the others could have their leave. The ship had been raised and a steep gangplank had been put in. It was raised so high it was hard to recognize it as the ship I had sailed on. Shipbuilders were replating the decks that had been damaged during the storms at sea, and loose rivets were removed all over the ship. The rat-a-tat-tat of the riveters could be heard all over the ship like machine gun fire. The galley was being redone, with all new stoves, pots, and pans—everything...

    (pp. 161-168)

    WHILE RIDING a passenger train from Chicago to Harlan, I began thinking of the many ways to provide a better life for my family. I couldnʹt see going back to work in the coal mines for some big company and only earning enough to get by on. I was a fairly good trader in livestock and I had my license to operate a mine of my own if I could muster up enough money to set one up. The demand for coal was just as great now as it had been through the war. All this was running through my...

    (pp. 169-174)

    I FLEW FROM Lexington to Atlanta, then on to Miami. I was seated midway at a window on a night flight. It was a clear night, no clouds anywhere, as the plane neared Atlanta. It started circling the city for landing. I thought I had seen some big cities, but looking at Atlanta from above at night, and it clear of clouds and smog—itʹs something Iʹll never forget. The lights appeared like needlework, patterned from someoneʹs idea of an emerald, glittering with thousands and thousands of diamonds. If I could take a paintbrush and a large canvas and transfer...

    (pp. 175-177)

    I GO BACK to Harlan every year or so. I drive through the mountains and the memories of the past come back—the close calls Iʹve had with violence, the many times Iʹve witnessed beatings by hired thugs who would just as soon kill their victim as to beat him. I park along the now-paved roads and shudder when I look over the tops of the mountains and think of the times I nearly froze on them. I remember traveling these hills and mountains with large groups of wagons, never dreaming that those rutted and rugged roads would change into...