A Visit To Letcher County

Whitesburg, KY Welcome Sign
Many years ago, I visited Letcher County, located in the coal county of Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky, on a family vacation.  My wife, who had been raised in Whitesburg, the largest town in the county, and I and our two-year old daughter drove through the mountains and the forests, walked through Whitesburg, and spent the night there in a motel.  It was a vacation off the beaten track.  At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the visit, but Letcher County has stayed with me. I was able to revisit Letcher County in this pictorial history written in 2011 by Deborah Adams Cooper, a Letcher County native.

Cooper's book offered me so much! It brought back memories of places I had briefly seen years ago, it taught me that the region is sparsely populated, rugged, and isolated, and it taught me that since the early 20th century, the county's fortunes have been largely dependent upon coal.
Coal Tipple in Letcher County
This August, 1913 image shows a coal tipple with some of the first coal to come from Letcher County. A coal tipple is a place where mine cars are tipped and emptied of their coal.
The buildings of Letcher County and Whitesburg were built primarily by Italian immigrants whom the railroad and coal companies had recruited. The Italians had experience working with stone, unlike the people native to the area. The immigrants built bridges, retaining walls, churches, homes, and other buildings that, with their extensive use of stone, are unusual in eastern Kentucky.  

The early settlers of Letcher County were of English, German, and Scotch-Irish descent. They were farmers and used timber to build. With the exploitation of  coal, the railroad companies recruited Italian immigrants, such as those shown in this 1910 image, who had experience in working stone to build bridges and other structures needed for the mines and railroads.

Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church, Letcher County
Built in 1934 by Italian immigrant stonemasons, the Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg includes an outline of the “boot” of Italy.

Cooper next offers a history of the Letcher County county seat of Whitesburg, which was incorporated as a city in 1876 and has a current population of about 3000. Cooper shows the people of Whitesburg in images which identify in detail individuals and families with longstanding ties to the community. 

Letcher County Countryside
This 1890 photograph shows Whitesburg nestled in the Appalachian Mountains before the beginning of coal mining operations and the conversion of the town’s buildings from wood to stone.
In addition to the town's mining heritage, the book also emphasizes education in Whitesburg with images of the local schools, and their students and activities over the years. 

Whitesburg High School worked to expose its students to the outside world.  These images show the 1972 senior class and the 1946 senior class taking trips to Washington, D.C.

 The book features many of Whitesburg’s stores and its lively commerce. It also discusses the celebrated local newspaper, "The Mountain Eagle" which has been published since 1907 and which has worked tirelessly to improve conditions in the coal mines.  Cooper shows some of the intellectual life in Whitesburg by discussing Harry Caudill, a local attorney whose 1963 book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area” called national attention to the coal companies and to the economic deprivation in the area.

Holstein Hardware, Letcher County 
Holstein Hardware operated in Whitesburg from 1941 to 2002.  The store was the largest dealer in Smith and Wesson firearms in the southeastern United States and was noted for its meticulous compliance with the rules of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Serur Frank Dawahare immigrated from Syria in 1888 and ultimately settled in Whitesburg.  He established a chain of clothing stores in eastern Kentucky, including this store in Whitesburg which opened in 1935. Dawahare was known for his patriotism and devotion to the United States.

With the exception of Whitesburg, most of the towns in Letcher County originated as company towns for workers in the mines. Cooper explores these towns in the third part of her book.

West Jenkins Company Town, 1912 
The image above shows the company town of West Jenkins early in its history in 1912.

Company Store
This image shows the Jenkins company store.  The store became an essential source for goods and community socializing.

Other company towns in Letcher County included Fleming-Neon and Hemphill. 

Fleming-Neon 1923
Fleming-Neon, 1923

Hemphill, KY
Hemphill, KY
By the mid-20th Century, the companies had sold their interest in the towns and in their properties, but the small communities they created still remain. The residents established businesses, schools, and churches, and continue to carry on with spirit and resilience.

Before my short visit years ago, I didn’t know anything about Letcher County. I suspect the county and its people are relatively unfamiliar to most Americans outside the area.  I was moved to revisit Letcher County in this book and to learn more about it than I had during my visit years ago.  America has many special and unique places, including Letcher County. I hope you have enjoyed accompanying author Deborah Adams Cooper on this short visit.

To learn more about Letcher County, click the book cover above!

Robin Friedman