A Wild History
Clay County is famous for its fascinating, wild history of Appalachian clan feuds...including the Baker-Howard feud, the largest and longest of all feuds...and the rich history of the founding of Oneida Baptist Institute to stop the feuding through education.
Appalachia, and especially Kentucky, were once internationally known for violent feuds, especially in the remote mountain districts. They pitted the men in extended clans against each other for decades, often using assassination and arson as weapons, along with ambushes, gunfights and pre-arranged shootouts. Journalists often wrote about the violence, using stereotypes that "city folks" had developed about Appalachia; they interpreted the feuds as the inevitable product of profound ignorance, poverty, and isolation, and perhaps even interbreeding. In reality, the leading participants were typically well-to-do local elites with networks of clients who were fighting for local political power.
The Warrior's Path is one of the most historically significant trails in American History. Created by buffalo searching for salt deposits, the route was used for countless years by Indians traveling between the Smoky Mountains in the south and the wilderness north of the Ohio River. They called it Athiamiowee, or "Path of the Armed Ones". As pioneers began to come through in the late 1700's, the trail became part of what was known as the Wilderness Road. In the 1750's English speakers began referring to the trail as the Warrior's Path.
Gabriel Arthur was probably the first European to cross the gap in 1673 when he was taken by a band of Cherokees throughout the region. It wasn't until 1750 before Europeans started making regular trips across the gap. Dr. Thomas Walker led a famous exploration of the area. He was the first recorded person to discover and use coal in Kentucky. He named the Cumberland River after Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. The name stuck to the region and soon the gap was known as the Cumberland Gap. In 1775, Daniel Boone was hired by the Transylvania Company and led a group of men to improve the trails across the gap so wagons could traverse them.
Boone was a militia officer during the Revolutionary War (1775–83), which in Kentucky was fought primarily between the American settlers and the British-aided Native Americans. Boone was captured by Shawnee warriors in 1778, who after a while adopted him into their tribe. Later, he left the Indians and returned to Boonesborough to help defend the European settlements in Kentucky/Virginia.
Boone was elected to the first of his three terms in the Virginia General Assembly during the Revolutionary War, and fought in the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782. Blue Lick was one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War, coming after the main fighting ended in October 1781.
Following the war, Boone worked as a surveyor and merchant, but fell deeply into debt through failed Kentucky land speculation. Frustrated with the legal problems resulting from his land claims, Boone emigrated to eastern Missouri, where he spent most of the last two decades of his life. Boone remains an iconic figure in American history. He was a legend in his own lifetime, especially after an account of his adventures was published, making him famous in America and Europe. After his death, he was frequently the subject of heroic tall tales and works of fiction. His adventures—real and legendary—were influential in creating the archetypal Western hero of American folklore. In American popular culture, he is remembered as one of the foremost early frontiersmen. The epic Daniel Boone mythology often overshadows the historical details of his life.
Clay County: A Salty Beginning
He was not the first to visit Clay County, but “long hunter” John Gilbert was likely the first to settle here. Following the Revolutionary War, in 1783, Virginia opened more Kentucky land for settlement and Gilbert made a home on Red Bird River near the mouth of Gilbert’s Creek. It wasn't long before more settlers arrived, including James Collins.
Collins built his cabin upon the headwaters of Collins' Fork in 1800 at a salt spring he had discovered when following a buffalo trail. He made the first salt ever made in the county.
Pioneer Collins first crossed from Virginia over the ridge into what afterwards became eastern Kentucky in 1798. He came with a party to hunt in what is now Clay County for the game which abounded in the region. The wolf still howled on the uplands, the panther brought down the fawn, and the antlered elk walked in stately fashion along the forest trails.
About this time an Indian chief by the name of Redbird made his hunter's headquarters in a "rockhouse" on the upper portion of the beautiful stream which now bears his name, and it was also about this time that a white hunter some thirty miles away, at another stream, slew a huge bull buffalo, removed his skin, and hung it on the limb of a great walnut tree near the bank, an act which gave the stream the name of "Big Bull Skin," which takes its rise not a gnat way from the waters of "Hell-fer-sartin."
Over the ridge to the north of the place where Redbird Creek joins Goose Creek and Big Bull Skin are "Whoop-fer-larrie" and "Squabble." The former of the last two streams acquired its name from an incident told by a hunter upon returning from a journey into the forest where he evidently found both game and fire water. While sleeping one night, on his return, he was awakened by a voice which seemed to come down from the tree tops and cry out, "Whoop-fer-larrie! Whoop-fer-larrie!" The voice was interpreted as belonging to some foul spirit of the mountains intent on doing harm to hunters. Without staying for investigation, the hunter hastened out of the rugged region, assured that an evil spirit was abroad. For a long time thereafter many hunters declined to spend a night in that locality for fear that the strange voice might assume some horrible physical form and do them harm.
"Squabble Creek" also received its name from an incident, or rather a series of incidents, of pioneer days. After a successful hunting trip, when time came for dividing the "kill," one man wielded the hunting knife and ax while the rest, save two, stood by to see that fair play was done. One of the two was blindfolded and stationed behind a tree. The other was placed there with him as guard. The blindfolded man was to act as judge and jury in making awards, and the guard was to see that all awards were made according to the demands of justice and the occasion. Whenever the knife-man cut a share from the carcass, he would call out, "Who's here?" The blindfolded judge would shout back the name of the hunter who should receive it. This process of "cut and call" was continued until all the carcasses were equitably divided. But the hunters of that region quite often found fire water as well as game before the "out and call" was begun. When this was the case, there was usually much wrangling or squabbling over the division. Such scenes were enacted so frequently that some hunter, with a bit of wit and a sense of the eternal fitness of things, called the stream "Squabble Creek," an appellation which it has ever since borne.
It was back in such days, during the latter part of the eighteenth century, that Collins came over into the Kentucky mountains to hunt. Who came with him, and how many, it is not known, but during his ramblings about on what is now Collins Fork of Goose Creek, in Clay County, he chanced to find a spring whose waters were salty. An idea immediately came to this sturdy huntsman. Why not keep still about the find, mark the place well, return to Virginia, and secure the necessary equipment for starting a salt-making industry? Evidently being a man of initiative, and possessing a knack for bargaining, he soon set out on the return journey to make his dream come true.
Some weeks later a cavalcade of men and mules started back on the long, long trail to Collins Fork in Kentucky. Some of the mules carried food and other supplies, but the majority carried on either side huge cast iron kettles, such as had long been used by the pioneer housewives for boiling the family washing.
The procession arrived intact at its destination on Collins Fork a few years before the beginning of the last century, and upon its arrival the important salt-making industry of Clay County began to get under way. Much of the materials necessary to salt making were brought by pack train from Virginia. Lime was brought in bags and small barrels for the purpose of insuring proper texture and whiteness of the product. As soon as the salt was made and a considerable quantity scooped into carefully sheltered bins, the small casks made of oak staves were filled. Two were firmly bound to panniers on each pack mule in preparation for the long journey back to the old settlements. There it became a popular medium of exchange.
Hides, furs, skeins of thread, flour, whiskey, and other commodities were traded for Clay County salt. People came from long distances with ox-drawn wagons for a supply of the precious product, which they distributed at a profit among the people back at home. Wagons from Knoxville, Lexington, and other points, laden with flour, dry goods, and numerous other supplies, made the long, slow journey to Goose Creek to exchange the incoming load for salt. Now and then some staunch old pioneer might be seen trudging along the trail driving one or more milk cows for the transportation of a supply. The salt was loaded upon the cattle in the same fashion as upon the pack mules. The advantage in using the cows lay in the fact that they not only transported the salt but also, on the same amount of grazing required by mules, furnished fresh milk for the drivers.
After Collins had demonstrated that such an industry was financially profitable, other men came into the region, prospecting for salt water. They drilled wells and established industries of their own. One man, a molder of pewter dishes, had come from Connecticut. His son married a Clay County girl and settled down in the salt-making business. Among the owners of works, at different times, appear the names of White, Daugherty, Dates. Reid, Horton, Potter, and Garrard, who was the son of Kentucky's second governor. Not all were actively interested at any one time, but shortly after Collins was well established, enough salt works were started to create no small amount of rivalry in the business. This rivalry was sometimes a contributing cause to serious misunderstandings between some of the families interested in the business which made that region famous.
Not only on Collins Fork, but on other streams in Clay County, salt works were established. The Potter works were on upper Redbird Creek and at the bead of South Fork of Kentucky River, just across the stream from where Oneida is now located. At most of these old sites evidences of the furnace pits and mounds may still be seen.
Perhaps the most exciting method of transportation was by freight boat down the Kentucky River. Much of east central Kentucky was supplied in this way. Boats were built near the works by laborers from material cut with whipsaws driven by water power. They were substantial craft with a walk-way from end to end along each side. They could be run only when a freshet was on the streams, and when travel was slow, they were hurried along somewhat by means of poles. A man would step to the front end of the walk-way, set one end of a long pole against the bottom of the stream, with the other end resting in his hand laid against the pushing shoulder, and walk to the stem of the boat, pushing all the while, whereupon he would return to the prow of the boat and repeat the walk.
Very little poling was necessary during high tides. On such occasions the boats were guided almost altogether with long oars. One oar, some thirty or forty feet long, was fastened by a pin to the front end and another similar one to the stern. These were "bucked" or manned by husky workers who remained on the job twenty-four hours of the day, loafing when the water was good, but working like mad in shallows and sharp bends.
One treacherous shoal on Redbird Creek known as "The Narrows," four miles below Oneida, was the scene of many disasters. It is a long series of dangerous shallows ending at the lower reaches of a cataract among huge, threatening boulders over which the high water breaks and rolls up like a miniature gorge of Niagara. Whenever a fatality occurred, some boatman with a knack for rhyming told the details of the tragedy in uncertain measures, and thus gave to all his fellows another river song full of pathos and local color. Such songs were sung for many a day afterwards by the saltmakers and many of their friends.
The Cattle Wars
In 1800 Judge John Amis, a successful lawyer and Circuit Judge, moved to Oneida and purchased a partnership in the Goose Creek Salt Works. So vital was salt to frontier life and trade that Daniel Boone had offered to re-route the Wilderness Road to pass the Goose Creek Salt Works. Clay County went on to become the leading salt producer in the state during the nineteenth century. The struggle behind the scenes to control the industry was fierce.
At the same time John Amis was establishing himself on the south side of the Kentucky River, William Strong and a group of Virginia farmers and cattle ranchers were setting down roots on the North Fork of the river. Trouble was about to brew between John Amis and William Strong.
In the spring of 1806, Judge Amis went hunting in the area where his cattle were wintering. He discovered some cattle from the North Fork farms grazing in what he thought were grass fields reserved for him and his cohorts. Amis proceeded to stab about twenty head of the North Fork cattle and drive them into the water where they sank and died.
William Strong was outraged and took a group of men from the North Fork to Amis' house only to find that he was not home. His wife, Kate Bowlin Amis, was there. The North Fork cattlemen shot Amis' horse and took twenty head of cattle from his farm to compensate themselves for the cattle that Amis destroyed. Kate is reported to have been slapped in the face as the cattle were being rustled. In reprisal, Kate sent her slave to follow them and shoot at them. Instead, her slave was himself attacked by the North Fork men as they departed the area.
John Amis contacted the Kentucky militia asking them for help. The militia was unable to respond. A gunfight between the disputants ensued. Several men were injured. Eventually, they all agreed to end the fighting and settle the dispute in court. The first day of trial for those involved in the Cattle War was August 5, 1807, in the Clay County courthouse. John Amis was shot dead by Joel Elkins as he was testifying from the witness chair.
The inability of the militia to be able to react in a timely manner, and the failure to maintain law and order during the months before the trial, recommended that a local constabulary be organized through a smaller county structure with a sheriff. Thus, the Kentucky legislature established Clay County on December 2, 1806 from parts of Madison, Floyd, and Knox Counties. Having local law enforcement did not help maintain law and order, however. Descendants of these combatants figured prominently in subsequent feuds that occurred in Breathitt, Perry and Clay counties, leaving a bloody heritage for future generations.
The Baker-Howard Feud
In 1844 in Clay County, Dr. Abner Baker Jr., known for erratic behavior and a bad temper due to mental disease, married Susan White. Daniel Bates, a prosperous salt maker, married Baker's sister, but separated from her in 1844. Baker charged Bates with undue intimacy with his wife, and killed him. As he lay dying, Bates directed his son to take revenge on Baker and see he was prosecuted or killed. He left $10,000 to make sure it was done. The community was divided between those who did not feel a crazy man should be hung, and those who thought he should. The Whites prosecuted the doctor, but he was deemed insane and acquitted and moved to Cuba.
Baker eventually returned, and in violation of the U.S. Constitution he was tried a second time for the murder of Bates, convicted and hanged. Thenceforth there was "bad blood" between the Bakers and the Whites, involving the Garrards on one side and the Howards on the other, as allies to the respective clans.
In 1883 James Anderson Burns and his mother moved to the old “Burns Homestead” near Oneida.
Called “Burns of the Mountains,” James Anderson Burns was born August 2, 1865 in West Virginia. His father, Hugh Burns, a farmer and Primitive Baptist minister, had moved there from Oneida, Kentucky. The family had moved to West Virginia to escape the feuds that were expected to become worse after the Civil War. The nearest school to the Burn's homestead in West Virginia was 8 miles away so the Burns children studied in the evenings after chores. They learned to read from the Bible and an almanac. At night they gathered around the fireside while Hugh read Bible stories and prayed. At age 14, James learned that a new school was being built 3 miles away. He wanted to go, but had no money for books. He spent his summer digging ginseng roots and earned enough money to buy books and his first pair of store-bought shoes.
By age 16 James had completed the school’s curriculum, but what he wanted most was to learn about Kentucky. When he asked why they had left, his father told him about the feuds. James felt that his father had left their relatives to fight the battle alone and said, “I’m going to Kentucky.” His father made him promise to wait a year. A week later Hugh died from a heart attack.
Soon after Burns arrived in Oneida, his only living uncle took him to the family graveyard. Pointing to the graves, his uncle told him stories of the untimely deaths their relatives had suffered. Burns left with a burning determination to avenge their deaths.
For the next four years, Burns earned a legendary reputation in logging and feuding. Then an event occurred that would change the direction of his life. He and several of his relatives attacked a cabin on Newfound Creek. Burns was hit over the head and left for dead. In The Crucible he wrote, “When I regained consciousness...I went to the top of a mountain and spent two days in lonely vigils. On the third day I slept. When I woke up...the urge of vengeance was gone and peace reigned within. I was determined that the feuds should be stopped.”
Burns returned to West Virginia and began to preach, following in his father’s footsteps. He went to Dennison University in Granville, Ohio, then returned to Kentucky in 1892. From 1893-1897 he taught in Clay County public schools. During the school year 1897-1898 Burns taught at Berea College, where he met Rev. H.L. McMurray. They became close friends and Burns told McMurray about the vision he had for the children of the Clay County Mountains. McMurray agreed to return with him.
At around that same time, Tom Baker, reputed to be the best shot in the Kentucky mountains, bought a note given by A. B. Howard, for whom he was cutting timber. Howard became furious, a fight ensued, one of the Howard boys and Burt Stores were killed from ambush, and the elder Howard was wounded. Thereupon Jim Howard, son of the clan chief, sought out Tom Baker's father, who was county attorney, compelled the unarmed old man to fall upon his knees, shot him twenty-five times with careful aim to avoid a vital spot, and so killed him by inches. Howard was tried and convicted of murder, but it is said that a pardon was offered him if he would go to the State Capitol at Frankfort and assassinate Governor Goebel, which he is charged with having done.
In Clay County, where this feud waged, the judge, clerk, sheriff, and jailer were of the White clan. Tom Baker killed a brother of the sheriff and took to the hills rather than give himself up to a court ruled by his foemen. Then Albert Garrard was fired upon from ambush while riding with his wife to a religious meeting. He removed to Pineville, in another county, under guard of two armed men, both of whom were shot dead "from the bresh."
Governor Bradley sent State troops into Clay County, and Tom Baker surrendered to them. Baker was tried in the Knox Circuit Court, on a change of venue, and was sentenced to the penitentiary for life. On appeal his attorneys secured a reversal of the verdict, and Baker was released on bail. The new trial was set for June, 1899. Governor Bradley again sent a company of State militia, with a Gatling gun, to Manchester where the trial was to be held. Baker was put in a guard-tent surrounded by a squad of soldiers. A hundred yards or so from this tent stood the unoccupied residence of the sheriff, at the foot of a wooded mountain. An assassin hidden in this house spied upon the guard-tent, and, when Baker appeared, shot him dead with a rifle, then took to the woods and escaped.
Shortly after Baker's death, four Griffins, of the White-Howard faction, ambushed Big John Philpotts and his cousin, wounding the former severely and the latter mortally. Big John fought them from behind a log and killed all four.
A School is Born, a Town Soon Follows
In his attempt to end the feuds, James Burns organized a meeting of the clans in the old mill near Oneida. Around 50 men from both sides of the feud gathered to hear Burns speak about his dream of building a school. He said, “We’ve been teaching our children to hate each other for more than a hundred years. Let’s teach them to love each other and then we will have peace. Let’s join together to build a school.” After several minutes of silence two men, Lee Combs and Frank Burns, from opposite sides of the feud, came to the middle of the room and shook hands. At that moment, a school was born.
Burns and McMurray went up Sandlin Hill, climbed an oak tree, looked down on Oneida and picked a site for the school. The knoll they selected was owned by Martha Coldiron Hogg, who donated the property. Soon after Burns laid the cornerstone, men came from both sides of the feud to help build their school. “Big Henry” Hensley gave fifty dollars and Robert Carnahan gave twenty-five. Others brought lumber. The men often worked until midnight and slept on shavings. Burns had announced that the school would open on January 1, 1900. By Christmas they still needed 400 board feet of lumber. Then Frank Burns crossed the frozen river in his wagon loaded with logs he had removed from the loft of his cabin.
While the school was being built, four of the Philpotts were attacked by four Morrises, of the Howard side. Three men were killed, three mortally wounded, and the other two were severely injured. No arrests were made.
The school opened as planned January 1, 1900, called the Mamre Baptist College. Burns was named the first president. On the opening day of school there were 100 students--boys, girls, men, and women. The school was now in session with three teachers: Burns, McMurray, and C.A. Dugger. Classes ranged from grades one through eight. Tuition was $1 a month. Only a few were able to pay cash. Others brought farm animals, produce or coal dug on the family farm.
Finally, in 1901, the Clay County feuds came to an end. The two clans fought a pitched battle in front of the court-house in Manchester. At its conclusion, they formally signed a truce.
Following an invitation by Dr. Carter Jones for Burns to speak to the State Board of Missions meeting in Louisville, the Broadway Baptist Church pledged to send $70 a month to the school. When Dr. Jones invited Burns to Louisville in 1901 to meet with Dr. and Mrs. J. B. Marvin, Burns told them about the need for a larger building. A few days later Dr. and Mrs. Marvin sent $5,000. The new building was completed in 1902 and named Marvin Hall in their honor.
As the enrollment grew, Burns turned students away because they couldn’t find lodging in nearby homes. In 1905 he arranged to start the construction of a girls’ dormitory while he raised the money. He made the rounds across the state to any church that would listen to his story. Burns said in The Crucible, “Somehow the payrolls were always met. Bob Carnahan took care of any overdrafts. In due time Carnahan Hall was completed and a home for 50 girls was provided.”
In 1908 Oneida Baptist Institute (the name had been changed in 1904) had its first graduation. Five men received high school diplomas. The teachers had studied at night in order to teach them during the day. All five went to Georgetown College, where they were put in the sophomore class.
After hearing Burns speak in New York City, Elizabeth Anderson gave $5,300 to buy a farm. A year later in 1911, Anderson donated $11,000 for the construction of Anderson Hall.
An article, “Burns of the Mountains” written by Emerson Hough, appeared in American Magazine in 1912. Hough told how Burns had stopped the feuds and built a school for the mountain children in Clay County. Speaking invitations came from everywhere. The Chautauqua and Lyceum Lecture Bureaus offered to pay Burns a salary, railroad fare and expenses. Burns delivered over 4,000 lectures in almost every state. Listeners were captivated, and many gave donations.
In October 1920 Burns suffered a mental and physical breakdown due to overwork and complications from influenza. Thomas Adams had served as Associate President since 1917 and was named president in 1921. The school was in major financial trouble. Neither Adams nor the teachers had received salaries for over a year when Adams resigned in January 1922.
Sylvia Russell was named president in April 1922. With the help of Charles Goins, Russell was able to bring the school out of financial crisis. Burns resumed his lecture tours in June 1923. He met his second wife, Margaret Benner, on a tour. They were married February 14, 1925 and James Benner Burns was born November 19, 1926.
Mrs. Russell led a campaign to raise funds to build a home for the Burns’ family. The new house was constructed on the hill overlooking the campus where Burns and McMurray had selected the site for the school. Russell resigned in 1928 and Burns served a second term, 1928-1934.
After James Anderson Burns retired in 1934, he moved to Anderson Hall. When he died, the following note was sent to his friends all across the USA: “At 4:00 p.m. September 12, 1945, the forty-seventh year of Oneida Baptist Institute, James Anderson Burns, Founder, Builder, and President Emeritus, passed away in his room in Anderson Hall. The final services were in the school chapel on Friday afternoon with a great funeral oration by Dr. Elmer Gabbard, President of Witherspoon College, Buckhorn, Kentucky. Burial was on Cemetery Hill in Oneida, overlooking the buildings and grounds of the institution into which went his life and through which he forever lives.”
The End of an Era
In the days before Kirby Smith drove the Union troops from Cumberland Gap with a small contingent of soldiers, foraging bands of Federal troops found their way throughout much of southeastern Kentucky, picking up food, stock feed, horses, mules and other things which might be useful to the army.
When it became known that a great area of seceded territory was dependent on the Clay County works for salt, and that large numbers of Confederate soldiers were drawing supplies from the same source, detachments of Union soldiers were dispatched to the various salt works with instructions to plug up the wells and dismantle the furnaces. These orders were promptly carried out, and both friends and foes of the Union were the sufferers. Most of the works were never reopened.
An incident connected with these foraging expeditions is not without interest. Some of the substantial people of the section had very fine horses and other stock. They were anxious to keep those for their own use rather than suffer them to be ridden or led away by soldiers of one of the contending armies. So whenever news reached the neighborhood that soldiers were headed that way, the stock was promptly got together and hurried far away from the road through fields and woods to the top of the mountains where enormous boulders conveniently arranged by nature formed large comfortable rooms. In these enclosures the stock was concealed, the feed being taken in stealthily by night by the work hands. Watch was kept by day and by night, and after the war was over, more than one proud, high-spirited mount carried his rider along the highways because the horse, with many others, had taken his place in the spacious hallways among the "Town Rocks" far up on the mountain tops where marauding soldiers never suspected that valuable war booty was in hiding.
As salt-making industries became established in other states, and as railroad transportation became more efficient, efforts to revive the Clay County works finally ceased. Those who had depended on the industry for a livelihood turned their attention to farming, lumbering, and other occupations. By the early 1900s, coal had taken over the local economy. With the dismantling of the works near the mouth of Horse Creek, one of the great early industries of the Kentucky mountains came to an end.
An Agrarian County
By the early 1800s, Clay County salt had become one of Kentucky’s leading exports, reaching as far west as the Missouri Valley, south to Tennessee, and east to Virginia. But early life in Clay County for most mountain families revolved around forest farming, based predominantly on family labor which was practiced by the vast majority of the population.
Natural resource industries, although secondary to farming as a means of securing a livelihood, also employed a growing number of people throughout the nineteenth century. It was natural for mountaineers to harvest the forest around them for profit. From the earliest settlement they had utilized the timber to construct dwellings, barns and out buildings, mills, and other necessary structures. As demand for wood products increased with the population, both in the mountains and beyond, more and more timber became a commodity for the market.
Contrary to stereotypes about Appalachian farms, most farms in Clay County were extremely large and successful. Over the course of time, the division and re-division of the limited land to accommodate the new generations of families reduced the size of farms, thus reducing their commercial productivity. An emphasis on subsistence, rather than commercial agriculture, resulted. The same pattern had occurred in New England in the eighteenth century. What was unique in Appalachia was that subsistence farming lasted so long, owing to growing isolation from the rest of the country as the area was bypassed in the construction of modern means of transportation.
Large-scale commercial exploitation of the forests began after the Civil War when the national demand for timber increased and the spread of rail lines made the transportation of lumber possible. Lumbering was managed by outside syndicates who hired local labor. Production peaked in 1909, but by 1920, with the forests nearly depleted, the large companies were moving out. Small companies, relying on small mills and circular saws, took over what was left of the industry. By the 1960s only temporary work at low wages was available, and workers, who might have two or more lumbering jobs each year, had to supplement their wages through other forms of employment.
As farming became less profitable, many Clay Countians moved to new urban and industrial frontiers in the cities of the Midwest. Others moved into the mines and mills that sprang up in Appalachia almost overnight as railroads opened up the region to capitalist industrialization early in the twentieth century.
A New Era Begins
For a half-century after its founding in the early nineteenth century, the salt industry grew and stimulated local development of coal to fire the salt brine boilers, and after the Civil War when the salt industry declined a vital coal industry took its place as a major employer.
By the mid-nineteenth century technology permitted the use of coal to fire iron furnaces. Consequently, the proximity of coal and iron deposits provided the points of concentration for the industry in the mountains.
The earliest known use of coal in the Americas was by the Aztecs who used coal for fuel and lignite for ornaments. Kentucky coal mining evolved following the discovery of coal in Virginia in 1701 by Thomas Walker, a physician. The Loyal Land Company formed around 1750 and Dr. Walker went to Kentucky in search of coal, which he found and used it to heat his camp fire.
There was little use for coal in the 18th and early 19th centuries, other than in blacksmith fires. But when the Civil War ended, and the industrialization period began, coal was needed to fuel factories and railroads. Coal mines were operating in Southern Appalachia run by small operators before the Civil War, but following the war coal barons from outside the region moved in and independent operations consolidated. World War I brought a coal boom to Kentucky, bringing European immigrants and African-Americans to join the Appalachian farmers turned miners.
Coal mining was one of the most dangerous occupations. Cave-ins were common, as was pneumoconiosis, or “black lung.” Early mines were primitive, involving digging and blasting into a hillside, shoring up tunnels with wooden timbers, and using hand drills to drill holes to set explosive charges. Mules were used to haul coal from the mine shaft, followed by mining cars. Mining companies built crude homes for workers. Coal was used for cooking and food was grown on hillsides or purchased at the company store. Miners worked about 12 hours each day and were paid $3-$5 a day.
Coal saw an over expansion of the industry during the early part of the century, leading to a collapse. Following World War I, European mines reopened and the demand for American coal prices dropped. Wages were reduced and thousands of mines closed, went bankrupt, or consolidated. World War II resulted in a temporary coal industry boom, but more efficient mining machines resulted in less jobs. Industries began using natural gas and fuel oil instead of coal and diesel powered trains replaced steam locomotives. Many mine workers migrated out of Appalachia or returned to farming.
Coal mining continues in the Southern Appalachian region today due to coal's low cost and abundance when compared to other fuels, particularly for electricity generation, though domestic coal consumption for power production is being displaced by natural gas.
Clay County Today
Clay County has entered the twenty-first century with a new vision forming a new shape that will continue to serve its people with new opportunities for a better way of life for decades to come. The county is moving forward with additions and improvements to infrastructure. Resurgence on many fronts is occurring in manufacturing, industrial, and service jobs. There are new roads, bridges, industry, manufacturing, schools, and construction projects. Major contributors to Clay County's economy today are family farms, timber and coal. Most of the heavily wooded county, approximately 61,000 acres, falls within the Redbird Purchase Unit of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Tourism is destined to play a large part in Clay County's future.
Clay County Kentucky History Map
Prominent Clay County Citizens