When it comes to carrying on local traditions and promoting mountain culture, there are two Harlan County women who have volunteered thousands of hours to documenting and celebrating Appalachian pride — author Darla Saylor Jackson and photojournalist Jennifer McDaniels.
Saylor is best known for her book series “Harlan County Haunts.” Although she is involved in numerous organizations and endeavors that promote Appalachian heritage, Jackson is most active with preserving folklore and Harlan County mysteries. She has worked with Berea College’s Promise Neighborhood program and was an artist in residence with the Kentucky Arts Council for 10 years in a double genre of folk art and literature. Jackson is also an accomplished Native American dancer and has served on the board of the Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission for two years.
Most recently, Jackson has launched a new business in Harlan with her partner, Michelle Carroll-Cole, called “Mountain Gypsy,” which sells herbal curiosities and bath botanicals with locally grown and foraged ingredients.
Jackson is perhaps best known, however, for her involvement in the “Mountain Jane Doe” cold case. She will be speaking about the murder mystery that has captured national attention at Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series.
McDaniels has been a newspaper reporter, assistant museum curator and public relations specialist for the past 15 years. While she is now a fulltime graduate student working on her masters in communications, McDaniels also currently serves as president of the Harlan County Arts Council, a new organization in the area that has made great strides in promoting arts and culture.
McDaniels is also a photojournalist, and has most recently began a social media video series titled “Jennifer’s Journey’s,” which showcases the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains along with the region’s intriguing history and its people. McDaniels spends plenty of time exploring the backroads of east Kentucky, east Tennessee and southwest, Virginia, and is always on the lookout for an interesting story to tell about these hills.
During the ParaMountain Lecture Series on Saturday, McDaniels is scheduled to speak about two bizarre occurrences in the Appalachians — the foxfire phenomenon, and the Blue People.
ParaMountain Lecture Series organizer Tony Felosi said a local event centered around mountain culture and the paranormal would not be complete without Jackson’s and McDaniels’ involvement.
“Darla and Jennifer are very intelligent local women who have curious minds, adventurous spirits and profound pride for their Appalachian roots,” Felosi said. “They are sure to bring interesting and intriguing stories to our lecture series on Saturday, and the public should be excited about the opportunity to hear them both in the same day.”
Jackson and McDaniels join six other lecturers on Saturday who will be speaking on ghosts, Bigfoot, Granny Women, hidden history and Melungens. The intent of Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series, according to Felosi, is to celebrate mountain folklore, and to make the paranormal more mainstream. There will also be mountain artisans and crafters set up at ther event, which starts at 10 am at The Harlan Depot, and lasts until 6 p.m. Saylor is scheduled to speak on “Mountain Jane Doe” at 1 p.m., and McDaniels is scheduled to speak on “Foxfires & The Blue People” at 4 p.m.
Mountain Jane Doe
Jackson’s “Mystery of Mountain Jane Doe” lecture will focus on the cold case of Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams, a young woman whose body was found in 1969 along the isolated stretch of the Little Shepherd Trail on Pine Mountain in Harlan County. It was apparent that the body had been stabbed multiple times. More than four decades ago, a man picking wildflowers along the rugged trail discovered the body that became known through the years as “Mountain Jane Doe” because her identity could never be made.
Locals buried her in a hillside cemetery, and she was laid to rest to be forgotten through the passage of time. But Jackson has remained fascinated by the case ever since she was a child and heard her family talking about the unsolved murder and unidentified body.
“Sonja’s body was discovered on June 1, 1969. I was born on May 25, 1969, so it is possible that she was murdered on the day I was born,” Jackson said. “Sonja’s story has always compelled me, because I felt she needed a voice. She deserved a voice, so I spoke for her.”
Jackson spoke for the unidentified body by writing — writing investigators, writing the media and writing “Mountain Jane Doe’s” story in her first “Harlan County Haunts” book. The story captured national attention and reopened the cold case.
In the meantime, the family of “Mountain Jane Doe” was looking for her. It all culminated last summer when modern technology combined with the family’s intense search, and a positive identification of the body was made. Investigators confirmed that “Mountain Jane Doe” was in fact Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams, and her daughter’s quest to find out what happened to her mother was finally solved — well, not completely.
A murder case has been reopened and investigators are now on the hunt for Sonja’s killer. The story of “Mountain Jane Doe” has captured the attention of many people throughout the country. It’s also caught the attention of filmmakers. Jackson was featured in a 2015 documentary about “Mountain Jane Doe” titled “The Dead Unknown.”
Jackson feels “Mountain Jane Doe” story is one of the more mysterious occurrences to ever happen in Harlan County. What makes it more mysterious, according to Jackson, is the ghost story that surrounds the mystery.
“My uncle, James Saylor, moved beside her grave in 2000,” Jackson said. “He claimed to have had several paranormal experiences regarding her. He contacted me, and my aunt asked us if we’d help solve her identity. I have always loved a good mystery, so I was immediately interested. Being involved in this case has been an adventure and a journey, but it has also been a burden at times because of the worry and grief that has come along with it. There are still so many unanswered questions regarding this case. It is shrouded in mystery, but it is one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard.”
Foxfires and the Blue People
Just as fascinating as the unsolved murder mysteries in the Appalachian Mountains are the natural occurrences and peculiar people that give rise to much folklore in the hills. Beginning at 4 p.m, McDaniels will spend her time behind the speaker’s podium talking about foxfires and the “Blue People.”
According to McDaniels, foxfires are also known as “fairy fire” because of the bright light they emit in the deep forests. There is a more scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon, however. In her presentation, McDaniels will explain that foxfires are lights that are created by a species of fungi found in decaying wood. The bluish-green glow is attributed to an oxidative enzyme, which causes a reaction. Although generally very dim, in some cases foxfires are bright enough to read by.
“And in some cases, people wondering through the woods have thought they’ve seen fairies, or even ghosts, so there is obviously much mystic about these lights even though they have a legit explanation,” said McDaniels. “There is so much mystique and interest, that this Appalachian phenomenon was the inspiration behind the publication of a magazine called ‘Foxfire’ that focuses on Appalachian culture.”
McDaniels said foxfires were mentioned in Mark Twain’s great American novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” when Huck and his buddy, Tom Sawyer, used a foxfire as a source of light in order to dig a tunnel. In the episode “Our Town” of the former television popular series “The X-Files,” foxfire appears near where a dead body was found in the woods.
“The late folk singer John Denver wrote a song called “Foxfire Suite,” McDaniels said. “Foxfires are definitely a part of our culture, whether from a scientific point of view, or the many tall tales that are out there about this strange light.”
McDaniels will also be talking about “Blue People” on Saturday. This family lived in the isolated mountains of eastern Kentucky along the Troublesome Creek near Hazard. When Martin Fugate, a French orphan, settled on the banks of the Troublesome Creek to claim a land grant in the early 19th century, he married a red-haired American named Elizabeth Smith — who had a very pale complexion — and their union formed a genetic mutation that resulted in their descendants being born with blue skin.
“The story of the Blue Fugate family is bizarre, but very interesting,” McDaniels said. “I’m looking forward to sharing the details of this family oddity on Saturday, plus the many other talks on folklore and the paranormal that’s going to take place throughout the day by other lecturers.”
There will be a downtown Harlan ghost walk led by Felosi after the event, starting at 6:30 p.m. and lasting until 8 p.m. In the event of rain, the ghost walk will be moved to the interior of the Harlan County Courthouse. Mountain artisans and crafters will also be set up during Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the Harlan Hauntfest crew will have food for sale.
For more information about Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series at the Harlan Depot, contact Felosi at 606-273-9925, McDaniels at 606-573-4223, or log onto www.harlanhauntfest.com and click on the 2017 ParaMountain Lecture Series link.