When you think of Eastern Kentucky, one thing is sure to come to your mind. Coal. Perry County, the piece of Earth that I call home, is no stranger to the coal business. Black Gold has been hauled in and out of these parts for years, and still is today. Bulan, nicknamed “Pistol City” in the early 1900’s for it’s fast ways and dangerous territory, lies on the outskirts of the one of the most famous coal field towns in Eastern Kentucky, Hardburly.
Nestled back deep in the Eastern Kentucky hills, lies the remnants of a once thriving coal camp. You can still see the rows of cookie cutter, box homes that were built by the Hardy-Burlington Mining Company, dating back as far as the 1930’s. The ruins of the commissary lie uninhabited, a keep out sign hanging ominously. The old post office, established in April of 1917, is closed but still stands. A lot of these homes have been restored, and wear the tag of homes long lived in and much loved. Kids still play out in their yards, adults still come and go for work as usual, but the tipple is long gone and, no coal is hauled on the two lane. No more dusty men carrying their lunch pails, no more hustle of mine life, no more boom town days when life was good, profitable and Hardburly itself was a city to rival that of Hazard. By all accounts, Hardburly, back in it’s prime was a special place.
Bulan, Duane and Ajax, in the early days were comparable to the Wild West. During the early days of the mining boom, an influx of outlaws and rough and rowdy characters marked their territory here, hoping to get rich from land. Fights, murders and crime sprees were common in the area, and Bulan soon earned itself the nickname “Pistol City”. Not even a Hollywood movie director could have thought of some of this stuff. Many old timers around these parts have passed down stories from generation to generation about these areas. Bulan, Pistol City and Hardburly remain areas that are still steeped in legends and lore. With so much of our history and heritage being lost with people passing, or folks moving away, its easy to lose a grip on what made these places so special, and a way of life that has all been but forgotten.
I am lucky enough to be acquainted with a very special man who remembers what Hardburly was like during it’s prime. Mr. Ellis Fugate, who was born and raised in the area, was kind enough to share some memories with me. Mr. Fugate is also a WWII veteran, and shares the most wonderful stories of this region and his youth on his Facebook page. His stories are as eloquent as his memories, and I love to hear anything he has to say. Mr. Fugate is not only a true gem, gentleman and person, but somebody I am glad to call my friend. The words that he has penned are much better suited to paint the picture of times gone bye than any article, or any history book could ever convey.
“Duane is a little town about which I have known all my life. I did not frequent the town very much until I was in my late teens and early twenties, but it was there, and I heard stories about the place in earlier times. It was nicknamed “Pistol City” because, if you were trying to make yourself out to be a bad man, you could get that idea knocked out of your head as quickly in Pistol City, as nearly any place around. People got killed there with remarkable ease. I knew some folks who ran a business there for years and they said that nearly everyone carried a pistol on his person, though who did and who didn’t carry a weapon would be only a guess. Duane is pronounced with two syllables. Strangers to these parts, seeing it written down for the first time, try to pronounce it with only one syllable, Dwane. But local yokels call it ‘Dew-ane,’ both syllables getting about the same weight. The post office for Duane was called Bulan, and it still is today, though now it is housed in a relatively new structure down the road a ways where the Lotts Creek road takes off to Cordia School and other features in Knott County.”
“Jakes Branch is a stream that flows out from the hills between Duane and Dwarf. It has several branches the names of which I do not know, so I will just call them all Jakes Branch. Jakes Branch has its beginning somewhere in the hill north of Hardburly and empties into Trace Branch between Duane and Ajax. In the old days when butter was really butter and fanny was a girl’s name, I used to peddle in the coal camp called Hardburly. I sold many things raised on the farm and coveted by the housewives of the miners who lived in the camp.”
“I will describe this camp for you. People my age need no description but the young folks of today have never seen living like they had in the coal camps during the years prior to, and during World War II. The houses were built by the coal company that was operating the coal harvesting business. They were sometimes built for two families to live in one house. The houses were two stories high and divided so that one family lived upstairs and downstairs on one side of the house while another family had the same facility on the other side. Rental properties have always utilized that arrangement and the camp houses used it because it is easier to provide housing under one roof than it is to provide it under two. Many of the houses were of individual architecture but some of them were the duplex design.”
“These houses were very close together. Some were closer than others but many were within twelve to fifteen feet of each other. There was room for washing clothes and other duties behind the house but very little front yard. Typically, they were built on both sides of a narrow dirt road, and that road was never a highway. While I peddled in Hardburly, I never saw a paved road to any of the houses except those fronting the drive through camp. Houses like this were provided all the way to the top of the hills. Access was by switchback roads that angled up the hills to the very last house. To get to the camp from our home, we would walk up the left fork of Combs Branch and cross the hill, entering the camp from the north. This was an arduous journey for us, so we would ride horses or mules into camp and tie them up in some convenient spot, leaving the produce or whatever we were selling on the beast of burden until it was sold.”
“I have taken loads of frying chickens, eggs and various fruits and vegetables to sell in the camp in this manner. Many a time have I stood in the back door of a kitchen and asked a housewife if she wanted to buy a frying chicken. Sometimes she would come out to see if the chickens were fat or as large as she thought they should be, but sometimes she would be wringing out clothes or mopping the kitchen floor, and she would say, “Bring me two.” When I had complied, she would say, “What else you got?” I usually had green beans, which everybody wanted. If I had roasting corn, they usually bought all I had. You can’t carry many messes of roasting ears on a mule. Some of the ladies would come out and look at the chickens, saying how scrawny they were, shaking their heads, then offering about half the price that the chickens were worth. But when they saw that I was selling the fryers for fifty cents to others, they would begin to nudge up the price they had offered. I told a lady once that she was being foolish trying to bring down the price. She wanted to know why I thought she was being foolish. I told her that she could have had her choice of the chickens when I had a mule load, but she waited until I had only two chickens left. She handed me a dollar and said, “I’ll take’em both.” But in the fall of the year when apples get ripe, the people in the camp went crazy for apples.”
“We had no apples to sell. Our orchard produced what apples we used and a few to give to neighbors, but Lewis Smith had a large orchard on his farm on Troublesome Creek just a half mile below Dwarf. He came into possession of a Ford Model A pick-up truck and used it servicing his orchard with various sprays that he used to control pests. He also used it to transport apples into Hardburly every fall when apples got ripe. We would load this truck with bushel baskets of apples and drive across the hill to Duane, turn left at the junction in Duane and proceed the three miles or so to Hardburly. This is county road 1146 now, from Duane to Hardburly, but in those days, I don’t think it had a number. We called it Hardburly Road. It was a bit rough driving but by being careful we could negotiate it easily enough. Steering around the chuck holes in the road and crossing the railroad several times, we finally came into the main street of the camp. We usually drove up the hill first to where Lewis knew some folks that had asked him to bring apples. Sometimes we would sell the whole truckload without moving the truck from that spot. Sometimes we would have to move around to another hill and enter another road up a hill. But I don’t remember ever bringing apples back when we went into Hardburly.”
“This is how we did things back then. It may not have been the best way, and God knows it was not the easiest way, but it was our way. We saw a need and filled it, and that is what business is all about today, filling a need, and making a profit in the bargain.”
– Ellis Fugate
I want to thank Mr. Fugate again for his words. Taking his knowledge of this area and time in the world is great, for two reasons. The first is what he saw, heard, and otherwise experienced about Hardburly, Kentucky. A picture of what the area was like circa 1940 is given by someone who witnessed it firsthand. Accounts like these are important and should be written down and shared.
The second reason is the way we are able to get glimpses of how Mr. Fugate perceived what he saw and heard. Giving his real-life experiences of Hardburly gives us a personal feel from someone who has lived and been shaped by these mountains. The same type of place found all over eastern Kentucky. Mr. Fugate’s account is important because it is written from a mind molded by this region. It shows a part of who we are, and it shows some of those intangible attributes special to this place. That is heritage. If you are from this area, you should value our heritage, and if you are not, it is well worth the knowing.
The research I sought for this piece was tough. There was not a lot I could find about the coal camps, or the folks that lived there. I invite all of you who read this to share a memory of Hardburly, if you’ve been there, lived there, raised a family, or simply know some history of the area. To better understand where our communities are going, it’s important to understand where we came from. Hardburly is such an important and interesting piece of Perry County History, and needs to be preserved and appreciated.