Harlan County, Kentucky

View from my back porch on February 20, 2012

In 2003 our family moved to Harlan, KY. My husband’s family comes from these mountains. Our youngest daughter, Laura, was born at our home in Harlan.

I love living here and the area, the people, the history are so fascinating that I decided to set each one of my novels either in Harlan or the surrounding areas. My first novel is set just over the mountain in the Rose Hill, Virginia area where we originally moved in 2001 before coming to Harlan in 2003. My second novel (nearly finished) is set in Harlan and the Cumberland Gap Mountains.

When we first moved to town, we had to stay in a hotel that first night (long story) and the man at the hotel desk said to my husband, “Why in the world would you want to move here? Don’t you know this place is called Bloody Harlan?”

Despite the well known violence of the past, today Harlan is very much like any other small town. It has it’s problems, but it is a nice, quiet place to live and a good place to raise a family.

There have been several movies made about Harlan’s coal mining history. My favorite is Harlan County War starring Holly Hunter. It’s a little rough, and there is some course language. However, it is a realistic portrayal of the true story of the coal mining strike in 1973. And it shows just how tough and amazing the women who were born and raised here really are!

One of my favorite songs about the area is called “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Darrell Scott. You will hear that song playing on my sidebar. It has also been recorded by Brad Paisley and Patty Loveless.

There is also a current show on FX called Justified. I gather that it is quite popular. We were so excited when the TV crews came to town to shoot footage here. Unfortunately, after watching the first episode with great anticipation and pride, the language and violence were too much for me.

The opening credits on Justified has footage of many places we see everyday, including this image below which was shot just off the mountain road behind my house:

View from my mountain on “Justified” intro on FX.

My husband’s mother was born here 87 years ago and his grandfather graduated from the 8th grade here back in 1899.

Fun Fact: In an old family Bible (on my husband’s side) was this entry beneath the name of one of his deceased relatives:

Shot and killed by sorry girlfriend’s sorry boyfriend.

Sad Fact: My husband’s grandfather Howard Sizemore owned a music store just before the depression and made good money here in Harlan. It burned down. He became a traveling salesman and traveled up and down the Kentucky/ Virginia border selling his wares until one fateful afternoon as he was crossing a railroad track in Pikeville, KY (about 2 hours North of Harlan) his car stalled right on the tracks. His buddy jumped out, but since everything he had in the world was in that car he kept trying to get it started.

At the last minute he decided to jump out because a train was coming. The sleeve of his coat caught on the door handle and he couldn’t get it free before the train hit the car and he was killed.

True story.

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Anyway…

And on up the road a couple hours just past our church in Elkhorn City, KY is the Big Sandy River where the famous Hatfields and McCoys lived. The History Channel did a recent mini-series starring Kevin Costner on this famous feud. I have not seen it, but I know you can get it from Netflix.

From time to time, you’ll read about other current family feuds in the Harlan Daily newspaper.

Harlan and the surrounding Appalachian Mountains are riddled with poverty. Diane Sawyer has did a report on the Children of the Mountains and talked about Harlan and the surrounding area. You can watch the first 15 minutes below. (You’ll hear parts of the song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” in the beginning – version by Patty Loveless.)

P.S. You can turn off the music player on the sidebar to your right and watch the video.

I felt the portrayal of Southeastern Kentucky was skewed and somewhat exaggerated for rating sakes, but the fact still remains that there are scores of people here who suffer from terrible poverty every day and 1/3 of all the household here in Harlan County still have no indoor plumbing. We see poverty on a first hand basis everyday. Harlan, KY is a popular mission spot for churches, too.

My husband is a pastor and our church runs a ministry called Appalachian Community Services. Twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 am – 1 pm we give away clothing, food, toys, shoes, household items, and more. If you would like to donate items you can contact me here.

Appalachian Ministries – Community Services in Harlan, KY.

Speaking of ministry… one afternoon our family was passing out invitations to an upcoming evangelistic series. Our head elder asked us to stop by a house and invite a man he’d recently met. He warned us that there was a dog, but that the dog was on a short leash.

Okay, so we started driving up the holler looking for the right house. (For those of you who have never seen a holler, it is typically a very narrow, one lane road with a mountain on one side and a drop off on the other.) We see a lady sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch so my husband says to me, “Why don’t you go invite her and then walk on up to the other house.”

So I get out of the van and walk on over to talk to the lady. After inviting her, I started walking slowly up the holler, wondering where my husband had disappear to, because I could no longer see the van and all I could think was “somewhere around here there’s a really bad dog.”

I see the house we had planned to visit and then I see my husband way up at the top of the holler trying to turn around so I waited until he returned and pulled into the driveway before I walked over to the house.

Well, as I was walking around the front of the van, my husband got out and started to walk around to the back of the van and suddenly out of nowhere, this HUGE, VICIOUS dog jumps up out of his dog house and charges for me, growling.

I just knew he was going to eat me.

I plastered myself up against the hood of the van and tried to make myself as flat as possible.

Well, the owner of the dog and the house – shack – we were visiting slowly got out of his car and said (in his hillbilly accent no less), “You don’t want to get near my dog. He hates women and he will eat you up.”

I kid you not. Those were his exact words. 

All I could say was, “Please, just let me get in my car,” over and over until I squeezed in the door and slammed it shut behind me, praising God that I was still alive.

My husband says to the man, “We heard you had a dog, but I thought it was on a short leash.”

And he says, “He was. I added 20 feet to it.”

Now, this whole episode from the time I saw the dog snarling at me to the time I got in the car probably lasted less than a minutes, but at that point everything moved in slow motion and my life flashed before my eyes.

I can’t really say why he felt the need to have a guard dog. Literally the place was a shack with a falling down porch and boarded up windows so typical of this area.

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This place has a rich history and many stories to tell. I thought you might enjoy learning more about this amazing place.

And for your reading pleasure… You can read all of my posts featuring local photos and stories here. and stories from Eastern Kentucky here.

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Some of my favorite posts:

2 Responses to Harlan County, Kentucky

  1. Jan Morton Grubbs says:

    My mom and dad are from Harlan County, too. My dad was born in West Virginia, but his family later came over to Harlan. His dad worked in a coal mine.

    My mom’s people were from Wallins Creek. She’s told me so many stories of growing up there, and they were so poor but really didn’t realize it. One that always stuck with me was of her dad getting what meat there was for breakfast cause he worked hard mining coal and farming, but the children took turns dipping their morning biscuits in the sausage or bacon grease. I would have loved to have seen where they lived. My mom, my dad and two of her sisters tried to go back to see the old homestead probably some 30 odd years ago, but were told by a friend of hers that people were growing pot up on the mountain, and they might get shot at. I know they were sorely disappointed.

    I really enjoy your blog. This is the first time I’ve seen it. Good luck with all your endeavors.

  2. Raina says:

    Cumberland Gap Mountains.

    Well, there are several, aren’t there? Big Stone, for one. That’s the one that runs between Cranks and Rose Hill. It’s part of the Black Mountain chain which sits south across the valley from the Pine Mountain chain.

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