Driving through Eastern Kentucky makes me homesick for the mountains of Arkansas.
Something about the contrast – intense natural beauty with equally intense poverty – reminds me of growing up in the Ozarks. And every conversation with the locals is salted with a long family history. Who owns what. And who is owed.
Today I took a long drive into a corner of Eastern Kentucky that has always been heavily wooded. Some of the trees there stood when settlers first picked their way through the Cumberland Gap. Our expedition today was an unlikely crew: Chris Williams (a chairmaker from Wales), Joss Agura (a nurse from Texas) and Brendan Gaffney (a woodworker from New York).
The goal of the day was to see some old-growth trees and get a taste of the world of chairmaker Chester Cornett (read more about Cornett here).
After a spirited hike through Blanton Forest, we made our way to Hazard, Ky., and then to Dwarf, Ky., where Cornett lived and worked for a time.
Many areas of Eastern Kentucky are organized in “hollows,” a word that is pronounced “hollers.” These deep ravines run between steep mountainsides. At the bottom of each ravine is typically a creek with houses perched to either side. The road in and out is one lane. So driver-beware.
Chester had lived up one such hollow in Dwarf. And as we pulled into the tiny town we saw a footbridge that Chester had been photographed on. We stopped and took photos. And then we plunged into a number of hollows off the main road.
The light changes in a hollow. The sky is a narrow slice of pie above, and the green foliage is overwhelming. You expect to see poverty in a hollow. And you’ll see it. But you will also see wealth – fine and tidy houses standing next to single-wide trailers. There’s no zoning out here. And people are just fine with it.
The people are also happy to talk with strangers. Brendan and Joss chatted up the locals to learn more about Chester Cornett, whom the locals called “Hairyman Cornett.”
We found the location of his home in Dwarf. It had been crushed by debris thrown into the hollow during strip mining. This discovery was disappointing in one way. We had hoped to find the building where Chester had lived before moving to Cincinnati.
But Chester’s work isn’t confined to a building, a town or even a country. There’s something almost magical about the work. It makes you drive hours and hours, climb mountains, talk to strangers and so on. So welcome to a very strange club.
— Christopher Schwarz