Project Dateline: Wisemantown

WISEMANTOWN — There was Tom Bonny, the wisest of the Wisemen. And Ivan Smith, the politest one. Then there was Tim Brinegar, the first to answer his door on a cold late December morning and whose mother had to be called on to explain why the lamb figure in their porch's Nativity was without electrical illumination.

All, technically, three Wisemen from Wisemantown, getting ready for Christmas, quietly, as befit their town and in their own way.

Bonny, whose family had built this town of maybe 500, with a key to Wiseman United Methodist Church which his great-grandfather built and on whose land it stands, proudly showed the Nativity inside.

Smith, whose homemade Nativity scene on his front porch is Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, (no offense meant to the wise men or the shepherds or angels) is purposely simple, he said, though there is a star leading the way and a makeshift shelter protecting the small family from the cold.

And Brinegar brings out his mama, Agnes Means, to say that the want of a single extension cord is keeping the Nativity lamb on the very busy and otherwise bright Nativity-filled porch unlit, but there's still time to fix that.

It is Christmas again in the snow-swept beauty of the low land rising before the foothills of Estill County.

Three Wiseman brothers, which might make them Wisemen, came from the east to this county in the late 1700s. They were God-fearing, and while there is little mention in the history books of what they were looking for or following, they certainly did everything they could to show they found it.

They planted peaches and apples and set up the general store. Their families put up the post office and the boarding house. They ran a fur trade, and they logged.

Which, granted, is not the Christmas story, but every year, as if on schedule in Wisemantown, the cattle do indeed low, two of Philip Newton's donkeys watch all the doings along the highway and greet all who come near, and the children of the Methodist church stage their Nativity pageant as they have for a 100 years, even if the goat calls in and can't make it due to excess snow, as he did last Sunday.

Understandable and yet surprising at the same time.

Because while the town is not even half a mile off one of the busiest Estill County roads, fresh snow on undisturbed landscape silences immediately the Irvine-area holiday rush. As rapidly, Wisemantown's rich bottomland swells out as surely as if progress decided to take a long holiday years ago and forgot to go back to work.

This is not the land of kings. It is the land of wise men and huge oaks. Of good neighbors and open views of the foothills that rise unencumbered by anything but long stretches of farmland that has seen its share of sorghum.

It is also where Daniel Boone hid from the Shawnee in cane breaks, say the locals. In his journals, Boone is said to have called those three or four weeks in the area some of the very happiest of his life.

Tom Bonny, whose family can trace its origins to the Wisemans through the Millers, Scotts and Witts, explains that the two Wisemans who picked this spot were named Jake and Abner, though there was a third brother, Henry, who decided he wanted to have his own town and moved on. Henry stayed in the same county, however, and named his spot on the map Wiseman Crossing.

The Bonnys, Tom and Francine, live in a house built in 1904 on the very spot that Wiseman kin J.P. Miller, who built the general store and mercantile, had his 12-room log home, which he gladly rented out to summer boarders. Seems, though, that one of the boarders brought bedbugs with them, and Miller decided the best course of action was to torch the house in 1904 and start over.

"This was before the Orkin man," Tom Bonny said.

Bonny also remembers making bologna sandwiches for customers at the general store.

"That was before the county health department had much say."

And Bonny remembers going to Irvine schools before the one-room schoolhouse in town closed because his father taught school in Irvine and Tom rode to town with him.

That was before Bonny himself became a teacher, a band director, a principal, Estill County school superintendent, then an Eastern Kentucky University adjunct professor.

He has lived in a lot of the world, he said, but "I've never been anywhere more beautiful than here. Especially that drive down the Red Lick Valley between here and Berea."

Inside the Methodist church, Bonny shows off how he has occupied each of the 18 pews at some time in his life and how the once small church has since been expanded to twice its original size, and he takes visitors to see that the foundation beams are American chestnut.

On the piano in the church, the hymnal is open. Joy to the World is ready when the Wisemen (and women and children) arrive come Christmas morning.