NICHOLASVILLE — The Jessamine County seat is one of the fastest-growing cities in Kentucky, but it's small enough to remember and honor one of its town characters who died 38 years ago.
On Sept. 22, a new tombstone will be unveiled in Locust Grove Cemetery to mark the grave of Joe Pellman, a general laborer who died at age 85 in 1976.
The new stone will replace a concrete cap block with hand-painted lettering so weathered that it is illegible. How the new stone came to be illustrates not only the tug of nostalgia and the power of Facebook but also how the ripples of one person's life can touch others in unexpected ways.
Born in 1890, Joseph Pellman was a fixture in Nicholasville for decades. If the fiddler on the roof in the musical of the same name was a metaphor for tradition and survival amid times of uncertainty, then Pellman performed a similar role on Nicholasville's stage.
He was commonly seen on the city streets, pushing by hand a cart loaded with junk that he'd collected from residents. He was usually accompanied by several dogs looking for tidbits of food doled out by Pellman. But he also did odd jobs such as raking leaves, mowing lawns, pruning shrubs, shoveling snow and hauling hay. At one time, he also made deliveries for Griggs and Nave, a Nicholasville department store.
Some children were frightened by Pellman's grizzled countenance. With his white beard, long coat, pith helmet and a tobacco stick that came up to his chin, he could be intimidating to little ones. But Doug Fain, Jessamine Circuit Court clerk, said Pellman made an impression on him as a child, primarily because Pellman was short in stature, standing perhaps only 4 feet 10 inches tall.
"I remember him when I was 7, 8 and 9," Fain said. "My brother and I used to come to town on Friday nights and stay all night with my grandparents. And on Saturday morning, my granddaddy would bring us down to Ward's Bakery (on South Main Street) to get doughnuts and we'd see Joe.
"Well, as a 7- or 8-year-old boy, to see Joe, it was like seeing a celebrity because this guy wasn't a whole lot taller than we were," Fain said. "He always wore a wool coat — even in summertime — and he either had a pith helmet on or a stocking cap. He had a white beard and he looked old, but he was strong."
Howard Higgs, a retired electrical engineer, marveled at how such a bantam-sized man as Pellman could push a cart up and down hills.
"In the winter time he wore gunny sacks (burlap bags) on his feet," Higgs said. "He said it gave him better traction. ...I can still see Joe in my mind's eye, pushing his loaded cart up the hill on Oak Street."
The dogs that followed Pellman once landed him in court because they were not licensed, Higgs said, recalling a story his aunt had told him. Mr. Nave of the Griggs and Nave store went to testify on Pellman's behalf.
"When they called Joe's name in court and he came in, he was dressed in a swallowtail coat, with a white shirt and black bow tie and had black pants with white spats and white gloves. Nobody remembers the outcome of the trial but they all remembered what he wore," Higgs said.
Sharon Reynolds, a former Jessamine County coroner, remembers how Pellman would come in to Dr. J.S. Williams' office for an annual checkup. She worked for the doctor at one time.
"He had his toenails cut ... and had a chest x-ray," Reynolds said. "I have heard the doctor say so many times, 'I do not see how that man is walking, let alone carrying anything. He has such a bad pair of lungs.'"
An air of mystery surrounded Pellman because he would tell people that, had he stayed in his native Africa, he would have been a "Prince of Ethiopia" or a "Prince of Abyssinia." Ethiopia in eastern Africa is the modern nation that was once called Abyssinia.
In his unpublished memoirs, Higgs devotes a chapter to Pellman and writes that signs on Pellman's cart read "Black Prince of Abyssinia" and "Red Lion of Judea." (Judea is the Greek and Roman equivalent of Judah, "the land of the Jews." The Red Lion of Judah was a symbol once used on the flag of Ethiopia, and remains a symbol popular with Rastafarians, a religion that believes in the divinity or messiahship of former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I.)
Pellman, who loved to read, reportedly also ordered books from Africa. Higgs remembers seeing Pellman read a book in a language that Higgs didn't recognize.
Nicholasville residents didn't know what to make of this, but apparently no one dug into how this self-titled prince came to live in exile in small-town Kentucky. In any case, residents felt affection and loyalty to him.
So it was with shock and sadness that residents learned of Pellman's death on Feb. 23, 1976, when he was accidentally run over by a garbage truck.
The truck had been parked on West Elm Street when Pellman came along and sat down on the front bumper to rest. The driver hadn't seen Pellman on the bumper when he put the truck in gear and began moving again. The coroner said Pellman died of internal injuries; no charges were brought against the 26-year-old garbage truck driver, according to accounts in The Jessamine Journal, Nicholasville's weekly newspaper.
Upon his death, Pellman's 83-year-old sister, Vicie Henry, put to rest the claim that her brother was an Ethiopian prince.
"He's not from Ethiopia," Henry told The Jessamine Journal. "Neither were his parents." She said the family came to Nicholasville from Hubble, a small community near the Garrard-Lincoln County line, when Joe was 11 years old.
Pellman never married, so his only survivors were his sister and several nieces and nephews.
Fast forward 38 years. A Facebook group called "You Grew Up in Jessamine County If..." began on March 25 and within months grew to have 2,700 "likes." Fain, an administrator of the site, said many of its fans live out of state but grew up in Jessamine County. They post photographs of Nicholasville's past and ask each other whether they remember this and that from days gone by.
The mere mention of Pellman on the site rekindled all sorts of memories. One member, Nancy House Perry of South Carolina, found a photo of Pellman's gravestone that was posted on the site. That gave Fain an idea.
"I get on Facebook one evening and I say, 'This is Joe's headstone' and I said to our members, is there anybody out there that would be interested in doing a project and buying him a new one?
"All these people started responding: 'I'd give money.' 'I'd be on a committee.'"
Soon people were messaging Fain: "How much money do you need?" And they began sending checks before Fain knew how much a new marker would cost. He needn't have worried. By the time three bids were opened, he had more than enough.
"I have money from 11 different states, from Maine to Florida to Kansas," Fain said. "Eighty-three different donors. Amounts from $5 to $200. The day we opened the bids, we had more money than we needed to buy the stone. I mean, it was like it was meant to be."
The stone cost $1,500, leaving about $800 left.
"I contacted each donor and asked if they wanted a pro-rated refund," Fain said. "Everyone said no, spend the excess on something worthy."
So some of the excess will go to the Camp Nelson Honor Guard, a volunteer group that offers a horse-drawn caisson and a cannon salute to veterans buried at the national cemetery in southern Jessamine County. The rest will go to the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center, a nursing home for veterans in Wilmore.
"That way, living veterans are being helped. Deceased veterans are being helped," Fain said. "And I think Joe, after 38 years of being gone, would be amazed that his life is still helping people.
"I'm so proud of this group for just stepping up to the plate and saying, 'We're going to do this. We're going to get it done. We're going to make sure it's done right,'" Fain said.
One person on the Facebook page noted that the people who garnered the most posts and memories weren't the rich but the people "who had nothing."
Fain said he wished Pellman was alive to see his reaction upon learning that "after 38 years, people still remember you and think enough of you that they want to honor you.' We should all hope that we would be looked at that way."