Excerpted from Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill. Published in 1963 by Little, Brown & Co. Republished in 2001 by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. Used with permission of the Jesse Stuart Foundation.
Editors note: In chapter seven, Caudill explains how Eastern Kentuckys natural resources timber and coal ended up in the hands of outside corporations.
In the summer of 1885 gentlemen arrived in the county-seat towns for the purpose of buying tracts of minerals, leaving the surface of the land in the ownership of the mountaineers who resided on it. The Eastern and Northern capitalists selected for this mission men of great guile and charm. They were courteous, pleasant and wonderful storytellers. Their goal was to buy the minerals on a grand scale as cheaply as possible and on terms so favorable to the purchasers as to grant them every desirable exploitative privilege, while simultaneously leaving to the mountaineer an illusion of ownership and the continuing responsibility for practically all the taxes which might be thereafter levied against the land.
The mountaineer still lived in a manner not strikingly different from that of his forefathers forty years after the first settlements. It was most likely that he still dwelt in a log cabin, though perhaps it had been sheathed in clapboards, and an occasional good liver had erected a plank house. His life was a melancholy and monotonous round of plowing, planting, hoeing and harvesting, interspersed with hunting and fishing and shadowed by the ever-present specter of death. Because of his close family ties and his limited number of acquaintances, death was a far grimmer and sadder experience than to people living in a wider and more complex social order. The latter might find other interests and diversions to blunt their grief when loved ones were inevitably borne away, but to the hill man, with almost unlimited time in which to brood, the demise of a cherished friend or relative brought despair and melancholia which not infrequently persisted for the remainder of a lifetime. And death from disease, logging, accidents and the feuds was never far from his community.
To such people the affable mineral buyer was a godsend. With his stock of stories and friendly willingness to set down and rest and talk a spell, he brought a pleasant interlude to the tedium of a dull and ungracious life. The aged residents of the plateau recall with pleasure W.J. Horsley, T.P. Trigg, E.B. Moon, John C.C. Mayo and a score of others, and nostalgically reminisce about their tours of the isolated backcountry.
These representatives of the new day were great raconteurs. Their collections of interesting stories were almost limitless. They brought with them in lavish measure a quality which is almost never encountered in the highlands to this day: a willingness to commend a person openly for a favor done or for some desirable skill or trait. In a sense the mountaineer was literally starved for compliments and for some outward show of appreciation.
With every convincing appearance of complete sincerity the coal buyer would spend hours admiring the mountaineers horse and gazing over a worm-rail fence in rapt approbation of his razorback hogs while compliments were dropped on every phase of his hosts accomplishments. He marveled at the ample contents of the mountaineers smokehouse and savored the rich flavor of the good womans apple butter and other preserved delicacies, while he assured her that no dainty to be found in the big-city confectioneries was half so tasty. He ate the rough grub she prepared for him, and happily slept on the softest featherbed the cabin afforded. After such a visit he and the man of the house would get down to business and before long the deed or option was signed with the uncertain signatures of the mountaineer and his wife, or, more probably, with their duly witnessed marks.
When the highland couple sat down at the kitchen table to sign the deed their guest had brought to them they were at an astounding disadvantage. On one side of the rude table sat an astute trader, more often than not a graduate of a fine college and a man experienced in the larger business world. He was thoroughly aware of the implications of the transaction and of the immense wealth which he was in the process of acquiring. Across the table on a puncheon bench sat a man and woman out of a different age. Still remarkably close to the frontier of a century before, neither of them possessed more than the rudiments of an education. Hardly more than 25 percent of such mineral deeds were signed by grantors who could so much as scrawl their names. Most of them touched the pen and made their mark, in the form of a spidery X, in the presence of witnesses whom the agent had thoughtfully brought along. Usually the agent was the notary public, but sometimes he brought one from the county seat. Unable to read the instrument or able to read it only with much uncertainty, the sellers relied upon the agent for an explanation of its contents contents which were to prove deadly to the welfare of generations of the mountaineers descendants.