Letcher County working to honor native son who was a giant

Letcher County working to honor a giant among men

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comOctober 17, 2011 

Martin Van Buren Bates was 7 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed more than 500 pounds by some accounts.

Now, 92 years after his death, his Letcher County birthplace wants to honor him in a way that befits his stature in county history and his nickname, the Kentucky River Giant.

Letcher County Historical Society members, including Bates' great-niece, are raising money to build a life-size bronze statue of Bates, who would be the first honoree in a proposed memorial park and history center.

Bates served a noteworthy stint in the Civil War as a Confederate captain before marrying a woman taller than he was. Because of their size, they became international celebrities in the 1800s, traveling as part of a circus. One of Bates' prized possessions was a gold watch given to him by England's Queen Victoria, according to historical accounts.

"It's part of history; it's part of our heritage," said Maxine Bates Quillen, Bates' great-niece and the fund-raising chair of the Letcher County Historical Society. "How many places have a giant born in their county?"

David Narramore, a Whitesburg dentist and chairman of the Letcher County Tourism Commission, said there are plans to honor others from Letcher County's past.

Bates, said Narramore, "was almost iconic for that time period."

Bates' height has varied in different accounts. Most historical accounts say he was 7-foot-9 or 7-foot-11 and weighed more than 500 pounds.

But the Guinness World Records Web site said he was 7 feet, 2.5 inches tall.

Bates was born into a well-known Letcher County family. Robert Bates, his brother and Quillen's grandfather, was a state legislator near the end of the 19th century. He was called the "father of Knott County" because of his role in having Knott County created by the legislature in 1884," according to the Knott County Hall of Fame Web page.

Quillen said Martin Van Buren Bates, whose year of birth has been reported as 1837 and 1845, grew until he was 28.

At 13, Bates weighed 300 pounds, and one of his boots held a half-bushel of shelled corn, according to a history of Bates that was recorded in the Letcher County clerk's office and reported in a 1989 Herald-Leader article.

Bates had a photographic memory, according to the 1989 Herald-Leader article. At 16, he enrolled at Emory and Henry College in Washington County, Va., and became a teacher. He later served as a Confederate soldier and was decorated for bravery.

After the war, Bates went to Cincinnati, where he joined the circus. On a tour in Nova Scotia, he met Anna Swan. They were dubbed the "Love Giants" and married in 1871.

The Guinness World Records Web site still lists the Bateses as the tallest married couple. It says Anna, who lived from 1846 to 1888, was reported to be 8-foot-1 but actually was 7 feet, 5.5 inches tall.

Their infant son, who lived 11 hours, weighed 23 pounds 12 ounces and is still listed on the Guinness Web site as the heaviest birth. A daughter, who weighed 18 pounds, also died at birth.

The Letcher County historical account described Bates as "a man of refinement, quiet and gentlemanly in his deportment. He liked society and always associated with the best."

After retiring, the couple bought a farm in Seville, Ohio, 40 miles south of Cleveland, and built a large house with customized furniture.

After's Anna's death, Bates married a woman of normal height. He died in 1919.

The town of Seville, where the Bateses and children who died in infancy are buried, holds a festival each year in the Bateses' memory, said Mayor Carol Carter.

Several events are featured, including a Bates family reunion that Quillen attended in September. There is a statue at the cemetery, and the Seville historical society displays papier-mâché statues of the couple.

In Whitesburg, Letcher Historical Society President Creda Isaacs said a papier-mâché statue of Bates, created by a Letcher County Central High School art class, already draws attention in the front window of the town's library. Quillen said plans for a student-made papier-mâché statue of Anna are in the works.

The Tourism Commission has received a $10,000 grant from Berea College's Brushy Fork Institute for a study to determine how much it would cost to build a welcome and history center.

A park would feature the statue of Bates and eventually others. Quillen said the bronze statue of Bates could cost as much as $84,000.

Isaacs said Letcher County has long needed a museum to preserve historical artifacts. She said the history center and memorial park featuring Bates' statue would help preserve Letcher County's history "before it is all lost."

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