This weekend carried us to my parent’s home in Harlan County, more specifically the community of Bledsoe, in Southeastern Kentucky. It is difficult to imagine a place more defined by Appalachian culture than the hometown of my childhood. Dotted with coal tipples, loaded trucks, and thick, black dust on the roadways, it is easy to see that, while it may not be as thriving an industry as it once was, coal is the bread of life for many here. I always experience a mix of emotions when I visit. “Coal Keeps the Lights On” stickers grace the windshields and bumpers of vehicles driven by dedicated coal miners and their families. At first glance, it seems an empowering statement. Then I recall the numbers who have been injured, my dad being one, or killed, either suddenly in a roof collapse, or by inhaling that same thick, black dust that coats the roadways and being slowly and cruelly smothered by Black Lung. I am also saddened to see the changing landscape of my mountains, the same that offered my sister and I amazement and possibilities as children and comfort during thunderstorms. Some remain only as an understudy for what they once were. Often, the very industry that offers life, brings death to everything in its path.
There is, however, a great deal of pride instilled within me by Harlan County and its people. The characters here are as diverse as the land. They are personalities found in fairy tales and fables. And, ironically, coal has birthed these souls. It has shaped much of who I am today. I suppose you could say I have a love/hate relationship with the premature diamond and its precedence in Appalachia.
Now that my two cents are out of the way, let’s proceed to the true focus of today’s post. Through our adventures, we have encountered many old schools, abandoned and left behind to serve as nothing more than a refuge for animals who climb inside through vandalized doors and windows. Pine Mountain Settlement School in Bledsoe, however, is a rarity. Rather than grow into a distant memory for those in the community, it remains in operation, serving its neighbors.
Pine Mountain Settlement School is the result of the hope of one man, William Creech, Sr. who was burdened by the issues challenging the region, such as limited opportunity for education and the existence of disease. Mr. Creech donated the land for the institution and recruited educators to run it. It opened in 1913 as a boarding school for elementary and middle school-aged children.
Over the years since its beginning, Pine Mountain Settlement School has changed suits several times, but has never forsaken its roots. It now stands as an educational center for folks in the area, offering chances to learn everything from gardening techniques to woodworking. I have had the pleasure of many experiences on the settlement throughout my life. As an elementary student, I travelled here by bus to spend the day walking through the surrounding forest and learning the variety of species of plants and trees native to the land. My mom, at times, would join as a chaperone, picnicking with my sister and I in the grassy area set aside specifically for such use. On one occasion, I can even remember traversing, along with my peers, to the roadside cave across from the entrance and being given the freedom to dig in the shade for arrowheads and ancient tools left by Native Americans. Inside the Laurel House, we were fed and taught to square dance. We were also allotted time on the playground, where the boys overtook the basketball goals and the girls made use of the slide, seesaws, and gossip (most likely about the boys playing basketball). The nearby stone water fountain offered us respite from the heat. The campus even offered the refreshment of a public pool, where I spent many a summer day walking carefully in the shallow end in fear of stepping too far over the grade and submerging my head. This actually happened once and, out of sheer panic, I rescued myself by using my friend’s ponytail as a life preserver and, though it served its purpose, it pulled her head under the water. All ended well, though.
One can’t dismiss the settlement’s importance to the health of the populace. Around 5 years of age, my dad suffered a burn to his arm after dashing kerosene into the stove while his mother was outside. He was taken to the infirmary at the school for treatment. The nurses cleaned and bandaged his arm accordingly. The Frontier Nursing Service also provided an outpost clinic near the settlement school, where my sister and I received care from Trudy Morgan, APRN, until the clinic was consolidated with the Beechfork Clinic in 1993. While it is commonplace for youngsters to fear visits to the clinic, Trudy is a part of many fond memories involving days off from school and recuperation by way of ice cream (doctor’s orders!).
I must also mention that the perfect wedding venue sits on the campus of Pine Mountain Settlement School. The Pine Mountain Chapel, dedicated in 1924, sits along a winding road graced with the presence of Redbuds, Dogwoods, and Mountain Laurels among a host of others. The Gothic-style stone and beam structure is complete with a Holtkamp organ and piano. Couples are encouraged to plan far in advance, as there is sometimes a waiting list. I believe, however, its ambience is well worth the wait.
For more information about the history of Pine Mountain Settlement School and its many events, to make a contribution, or to view wedding packages available, please click here. Please check back periodically for new photos and updates. The Pine Mountain Chapel was not available for photography on the day of our visit.