BUTTERFLY — Elijah Fugate's first bonus from the coal company whose name nobody can remember was spent on the Butterfly Church of the Living God.
Elijah worked at the Butterfly Mine in the coal camp where the post office was simply marked "Butterfly." That was because when it came time to name the Perry County town, it was apparently being overrun by the colorful insects.
Elijah Fugate's great-granddaughter Barbara Fugate Baker sits on her grandmother's porch and says: "You'd be more likely to see a copperhead than a butterfly now."
Indeed you would. It might be too early or too cool, what with the fog not yet having cleared the steeple of Elijah's church. Or maybe the flowers the butterflies want are not yet in full regalia.
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Still, the apparent dearth of butterflies in a town named for their abundance might or might not be a concern for Barbara. There are plenty of other changes here of more important note.
Namely, that the original church, the one whose innards had been hand-varnished by Barbara, her sisters and her mother, burned to the ground barely two years ago. And that the North Fork of the Kentucky River, whose curves form the very shape of this town — the way it bends is mimicked by the dual rails of the railroad track, the asphalt road and the houses and the hills behind them — was once clean enough to wash clothes in.
The church has been rebuilt by the grace of all the churches in the region that couldn't help but pitch in when they heard the story of how, in the midst of a revival, the house above the church caught fire and fell onto the century-old hand-built structure.
Nobody in this town forgets the night it burned. Because it was — is — the literal center of town. This vicinity sprouted not only the original church, but also the train depot and the camp store. The depot used to sit inches from the road, which was itself not 2 feet from the railroad track.
That's where Freda Eversole used to catch the 6 a.m. train to Hazard if she wanted to shop for anything more than essentials. Trouble was, no stores opened in Hazard until 9.
"I slept many a nap in those old seats in the Hazard depot," says Freda, now 76. She can remember how, when you moved away, you had to pack your stuff in a carton and load it on a train and mark where it was supposed to be taken off. Later on, when you got to that town, it would be waiting for you.
The passenger train stopped running in 1952, but coal is still run through Butterfly day and night. Not that anybody notices. It's just a fact of life here.
So was work.
Everybody's daddies and brothers were miners, says Barbara Baker. You'd see them come home from working in the mines all day and, except in winter, you saw them go right out into the field to work another shift, farming.
"Daddy did the job of three men," Barbara says. "We raised everything we ate. We killed our own hogs. We only bought flour and pinto beans. All those trees over there," she says, pointing across the river to the town of Typo and thickets of woods and vines, "that was all cornfields, far as you can see."
Freda says her family did buy their chickens, 400 to 500 a year, mail-ordered from Montgomery Ward.
It wasn't just the men who toiled. Freda's mother put up 600 cans a year. And wouldn't you know it, only Freda's hands were small enough to fit into the jars to wash them thoroughly.
Barbara, now 61, says she wouldn't want to have grown up anywhere else. My heavens, they had fun on this stretch of river road. The kids made balls out of old socks and swung from grapevines like they were Tarzan and Jane. But they were reckless; they swore that they would never tell the grown-ups their secret: They were all complicit when one of the kids almost died when he hit his head after falling from a height.
"He sure was hurt, and we brought him down from the hill," she says. "He was vomiting. We held a prayer circle. He got all right."
There was also that time they threw their teacher who couldn't swim into the river because she "deserved it."
Butterfly was, after all, a town of their own making with their own rules. Maybe that was because everyone was related: the Fugates, the Bakers, the Couches, the Ritchams, the Begleys.
And family was everything. It wasn't just something you said: It was real. Barbara's mother had asked God all her life, "Don't let me live one day without my husband."
So when she passed 18 hours after Barbara's father, no one was surprised.
"We buried them in the same grave," Barbara says.
Every one of their seven children were pleased that they could do this last thing for their parents.
On the edge of town, Farmer and Lomanie Johnson have set up a compound on the river next to the Pentecostal church where Farmer is pastor. Here, Farmer has a lumber yard, beehives, a machine shop and his garden.
On a recent Saturday, he baptized five people in the river.
The Johnsons have been here for "just 22 years," Lomanie says.
They do not think that that is long enough to call themselves expert on the subject of the town. So much so that when people ask Farmer where he's from, he's hard-pressed to tell them exactly.
Sometimes he says Couchtown, because that's the name of the road that winds through Butterfly. Sometimes he's says Busy, because that's the next nearest real town. Sometimes he says Typo, because you could throw a rock across the river and hit it.
And sometimes — sometimes — he says Butterfly.
But maybe that would be too presumptuous.
That town belongs to those people up the road a little where — and this is where Lomanie shows you by crooking her arm — that the road bends, like the river, the railroad tracks, the hills and history.