Reunion stirs memories of thriving past

Tom Madon Contributing Writer

November 7, 2013

Those of us with Harlan County roots share a passionate loyalty to southeastern Kentucky, and especially to our respective communities.

This enthusiastic devotion in those with a Baxter heritage inspired many to travel long distances to a reunion on Oct. 12 at Camp Blanton. There we joined with friends from years gone by, including some who have lived in or near Baxter most of their lives.

One benefit of reunions is that they enable us to recall our best memories of life during our simpler growing up years. For most at our Baxter reunion, this was primarily the mid 40s, 50s and 60s, into the mid-70s. During this 30 year period, beginning around the end of World War II, Baxter was becoming a thriving community, energized by the booming coal business.

If you are from that era and lived in or around Baxter, take a moment to travel back to those days with me. How many of the following do you remember: Chappell’s Dairy, Modern Bakery, Bell Grocery, Coldiron’s Service Station, Parson’s Well Drilling, L & N Railroad and the Methodist Church when it was located at the end of the Baxter Bridge?

For good measure, let me also include the Coal Monument, erected in the late 1930s as a memorial to our county’s hard working miners. It continues to stand today as a silent observer of the myriad of changes our little community has experienced over the years.

My reason for mentioning these Baxter businesses and institutions, all highly visible in our community during the decades I mentioned, is because each one was represented at our recent reunion. Even though a few weeks have passed since we met, reflecting on our group’s connection to this period in Baxter’s history, adds even more gratitude to my memories. Let me explain.

Fred Clem, a spry 90-year-old who lives in London, graced our reunion for the second straight year, accompanied by his beloved daughter, Betty Clem Minor, also from London. Fred drove a Chappell’s Dairy milk truck along the curvy roads of our county for 52 long years, more than half a century. Everyone delighted to hear Fred tell of his experiences.

All who lived when Chappell’s was in its heyday remembers, “It may be good and not be ours, but it can’t be ours and not be good.” Though I have traveled far and wide since I drank milk from Chappell’s Dairy, I do not recall ever hearing a more refreshing slogan, one which humbly commended their product without putting down their competitors.

The two Farley sisters, Emily (Raulston) and Linda (Skidmore), also attended our reunion. Their father, Howard, worked at Modern Bakery delivering bread as long as his daughters could remember, until sometime in the mid-60s. The bakery’s presence provided an appetizing aroma which permeated our community in a way other towns would have difficulty matching, unless it would be Hershey, Pa.

Several of us Baxter boys remember going to the back door of the bakery and having Howard, a great friend to us all, or some other acquaintance who worked there, hand us a hot loaf of unsliced bread, absolutely delicious all by itself. Some of us made it even better by bringing with us a pound of baloney we had purchased at Mary Howard’s at the bottom of Sukey Ridge, or from Gladys at Nolan’s Grocery.

Jean Harp (Morford), who traveled all the way from Arizona, also added to our memories of years gone by. For years she lived next door to Bell Grocery, where her father was manager and part owner. This wholesale business stood for years by the bridge where the Poor Fork and Martin’s Fork Rivers merge, forming the Cumberland River. Those of us who lived on Sukey Ridge as I did, or whose homes were located on the post office side of the river, walked by Bell Grocery daily on our way to our beloved Baxter School, or as we traveled to Harlan.

Mike Coldiron and his sister Shelia (Cawood) also joined us this year. Their father, Owen, was a permanent fixture at Coldiron’s Gulf Service Station, located near the Coal Monument on the way to Harlan. It was one of those old fashioned stations Norman Rockwell would surely have painted. They would put gas in your tank, clean your windshield, check your oil, and do it all with a smile and friendly conversation.

When I began driving in 1956, I remember pulling up many a time in my dad’s old ‘51 Ford, or later his ‘52 Chevy, and say, “Give me a dollar’s worth!” In those years, that meant over 5 gallons, plenty of gas for driving around all evening with my friends, or whoever my girlfriend happened to be at the time.

Owen is the one who made Coldiron’s a favorite spot for me, and I know many others who felt the same way. Having his son and daughter, Mike and Sheila, with us was one of the highlights of our reunion.

Howard Parsons also came to join us at our gathering. His father, Vernon, captured most of the well drilling business in our county during those years. Many of us remembered and shared stories of Vernon’s wife, Hattie. We were also friends with Howard’s brother, Kenneth, who died of cancer at a relatively early age, but not before making his mark in coaching at Evarts, impacting many young lives. Howard was also our neighbor on the hill for several years, and I along with my sisters Linda and Ella, enjoyed hearing the good things he had to say about our mom and dad.

Having two of the Stewart brothers, Jimmy and Doug, at our reunion, brought back memories of the L & N railroad where their father, Emory, worked as a repairman for years. At that time, L & N provided passenger service in addition to the seemingly nonstop freight trains which transported coal from our area to many other parts of the country. Just how many at our reunion had family who mined the coal those L & N trains carried is unknown, but Bill Vanover and Joyce Romine (Wilson) were two who grew up with first-hand knowledge of what it was like to be a coal miner’s son or daughter.

Baxter Methodist Church, which stood for years at the end of the Baxter bridge as one traveled down what we referred to as the new road toward Loyall, marked another landmark in our community. Other churches, of course, made their unique contributions, but who can forget the chimes of the Baxter church bell, echoing throughout our beautiful little community each Sunday morning and evening, as well as on Wednesday night.

The chimes reminded us that church would soon begin. In my wayward, BC (Before Christ) years, I remember having mixed emotions in hearing the bell. Perhaps this is because I heard it most loudly as I waded up the river on Sunday mornings, fishing from the trestle up toward the point, the water works, and beyond. Several of us at the reunion were part of that church for various lengths of time, and owe a great debt to the faithful members there who impacted our lives.

Of special note was Stan Leonard, the son of Ralph Leonard, who served as pastor of the Methodist Church for many years. Though Stan attended our 2012 reunion, this year he was only able to join us for Sunday morning worship at the church, now located on Sukey Ridge. The church is now served by Kyle Burnett who is also pastor of the Harlan United Methodist Church.

Toward the end of our reunion, Charles Johnson related to the group that his father was one of three men who physically constructed the Coal Monument. By the deep emotion in his voice, everyone could tell what having this heritage meant to Charles. Many in our group, who now live elsewhere, still love to stop at the Coal Monument to have our picture taken whenever we are able to return to our Baxter roots.

Finally, most would agree that storytelling is one of the traits we southeastern Kentucky folks have in common. Having been a pastor for more than 50 years, those in the churches where I have served are well aware of my love for my Baxter and Harlan County roots.

I’ve told story after story of people here who greatly influenced and impacted my life, both before and after I became a Christian at the age of 16. Even though I am now 71, hardly a day passes but that I relate a Kentucky story to anyone willing to listen, and perhaps a few who aren’t!

My more recent stories are of treasured, face to face reconnections with dear friends at our reunion. I am confident that everyone present went away with some new stories to add to his or her collection.

We had such a great time that another reunion is planned for Oct. 11, 2014. If you and your family have any Baxter connections, we would love to have you make plans to join us.

Tom Madon is now semi-retired, working part time in his church. He and his wife live in Porterville, Calif. He was a Baxter resident from 1942 until leaving for college in the fall of 1960. He is a 1960 graduate of Harlan High School, a 1964 graduate of Asbury College and a 1968 graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary.