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
7 thoughts on “Hairyman Cornett”
Aloha , WE may have lots of sunshine here in Hawaii , but there will always be ‘moonshine in Kentucky !!
I hope you stopped at Miguel’s Pizza for dinner on the way home. It’s a few miles off the Slade exit on Mountain Parkway, but I promise you the pizza is worth the drive and the wait. It’s on the left after the road bends to the right. Pay no mind to the tents; they’re climbers and mostly harmless (though they will be numerous on any weekend that the weather isn’t positively apocalyptic).
Beer is BYOB; I’d plan ahead because it’s another few miles down the road to the county line and the much-loved beer trailer.
Just want to tell you guys how happy I am to be reading about Chester Cornett on your website. I fell in love with him when I read Craftsman of the Cumberlands a few years ago. I took my wife and kids to see an exhibition of his work at University of Kentucky in 2015. I took some pictures: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dressedinvalue/sets/72157696298300134
Very reminiscent of the Catskills. And the Ramapo People who lived is some of these hollers.
Thanks for a nice piece about “country folk” and Chester Cornett.
I have many memories, some good, some bad, about trips down deep into the hollow to fetch anything from butter to water from the “spring house”.
A path I have yet to take.
Thanks. Your opening sentence has started a new ear worm. I know what I will be listening to all day at work tomorrow.
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