Madison County

Project Dateline: Happy Landing might not be a town, but its residents are thankful to be there

A barn on the Burnham Farm in Happy Landing is a part of the iconic landscape at the intersection of Ky. 52 and Ky. 595.
A barn on the Burnham Farm in Happy Landing is a part of the iconic landscape at the intersection of Ky. 52 and Ky. 595. Charles Bertram | Staff

HAPPY LANDING — In American history, there is probably no happier landing than the Pilgrims' Cape Cod arrival 400 years ago, a landfall made by those in the Mayflower, a band who was probably dead tired after 66 days and 2,750 miles of ocean, 600 miles of that off course.

And, of course, no more grateful remembrance than the wingding a year later to thank the locals for all their help in surviving the experience.

Surviving is a relative and sometimes daily experience. In Madison County, the year was 1937. Edgar Paul Stewart decided to open up a general store called Happy Landing at the T-bone of one of the highest ridges in the county.

"It was a beer joint is all it was," says Bob Lakes, who is trying to talk anyone out of the crazy notion that they are talking about a town even though the map says it is.

What we are talking about is a single establishment at a crossroads that, in 1937, sold a bottle of beer for a dime, two for a quarter, to the working souls who were glad to get to the end of a hard day.

It was also where a respectable girl could buy a Coca-Cola and meet her neighbors. It's where Lakes met his wife, Lou, 59 years ago.

Lou says she thought, "God almighty, he was just about the handsomest thing I had ever seen."

Bob married her a year later. They had three children and all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren a couple could want. Bob and Lou even owned the Happy Landing store from 1988 to 1996, but he admits it's Ced Hagan who has the better view of it.

The full moon still hung plenty high in the blue sky while the sun warmed the watchful cows of late November. The air smelled of an outdoor coal fire. And from up on this high Madison County ridge, there are no secrets below because 74-year-old Ced Hagan can see everything: That time the terrifying tornado came into Kirksville, the everyday reassurance of the American flag on his sister's barn 2 miles west, the high-rise dorms of Eastern Kentucky University way south.

Yet Hagan isn't remotely interested in a telescope. There is lots that's better close by.

There's the rolling hills of his own 300 acres, the wide, sometimes dangerous Silver Creek down the ways and, in between, a small dilapidated voting house, long abandoned now, but where, he says, "a lot of money changed hands for a long time."

And, of course, the important landmarks: The familiar white church and the beer joint at the T-bone junction of Ky. 595 and Ky. 52.

"Maybe (the beer joint) got its name because it was a happy place to land," he says.

Happy Landing, the good time and grocery place, stood right next to a camp revival site where Hagan and Lakes and Coy Burnham, Hagan's sister, remember going to all-day tent meetings when they were young. So, guess you could call it a two-gathering-places-and-a-voting-place-town when, in 1950, Lake's daddy helped build a structure that would house the prayerful.

Henceforth, the beer joint and the church peacefully shared patrons and a parking lot. Which seems mighty American, figures Lakes, given that they might have had different agendas and, OK, there were some scuffles at the store and maybe a few shots fired, "though nobody got killed or nothing" to mar the gentle coexistence. That is, until the store closed in the late 1990s. Since then, the former store has been an occasional fellowship hall for the church.

The original King's Tabernacle at Happy Landing still stands with its 16-pew covered facility with regular services. It is so named because the King family now, as since camp days, guides the church pastorally.

The King family, says Hagan, lives down by Silver Creek (which is the name of the creek and the next-over town) which does, in fact, have a landing and used to be a big shipping spot for the distillery down on Hagan's Mill Road. Hagan and Lakes both agree that there was a dam put up on the creek until a local cattle farmer in the '50s had a whole boatload of steers drown. Then the farmer took some dynamite to the dam, and the creek ran free again without interference.

That they say was the biggest thing to happen around these parts, but they are not naming names.

Ask them twice, and they might put that little mishap in the category of things to be thankful for.

There is plenty more the two longtime Happy Landing area families have to put their thankful stamp on.

For starters, Ced and Ellen sleep every night in the house in which Ced was born, in the room he was born in, in the very same bed he was born in, in a home built by his great-grandfather.

So yes, Ced Hagan knows the pride of tradition and family and the luck of landing where you should and belonging so completely to a place.

Bob, while claiming that the land itself "is no garden spot what with all the rocky spots," loves it here and has his beautiful collection of arrowheads that he gathered from the property he has plowed for years and years. He said he showed the assemblage to the University of Kentucky for analysis, but he just couldn't let them take it to Lexington to work on. The treasures had to stay with him in greater Happy Landing.

This land's natives' handwork have a right to stay where they put down roots, Lakes says. Because, he figures, these arrowheads were lost among his Madison County corn until he found them there.

His corn grew tall.

He was very grateful.

Sounds familiar.

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