One of the most elderly women in Harlan County is Helen Potts Noe. Born in Bell County at Balkin, she has spent 99 percent of her life in Harlan County at Highsplint, Brookside, Totz and now Harlan. Helen had 13 brothers and sisters, and her father, who died of black lung, supported the family as a coal miner.
On July 17, she turned 101 years old. Southeast professor and former state representative, Dr. Roger Noe, says of his mother, “ She has experienced much more than anyone I know. Her years on this earth have been rich and rewarding.”
Although “rich and rewarding” at times, they were not easy and she has stories to share of illness, war, hard times, her work as a waitress, and two particular Harlan County stories that will give you pause and make you glad, as she is, that times have changed in Harlan County for the better. All of her experiences have informed her belief system.
It was 1918 and the Spanish flu infected 500 million people across the globe, eventually killing 3 percent to 5 percent of the world’s population. Young people were especially vulnerable, and the Public Health Service records show that in Kentucky “the situation in Carter, Breathitt and Harlan counties and around the coal camps was bad.” She was 3 years old and was stricken with the “great flu.” She reports, “My mother told me she did not think I was going to make it. Many died during this time, and I thank God I made it through it. One of my brothers did not make it.”
As a young girl Helen experienced first hand the pain of the Great Depression, and this left a lasting impression on her. She is especially sensitive to the poor, because she knows what it is to be hungry. She indicates that her family was hungry a lot and ate beans and potatoes almost every day. Two of her married older brothers were able to get work and moved back in with the family. A younger brother delivered groceries on his bicycle for $3 a week. A government agent, who was in charge of distributing commodities, came to the house one day, looked around, checked the ice box, and determined that they did not qualify for free food because of the 15 persons in the household, three were working. A generous neighbor shared her commodities, and Helen is grateful for that act of kindness.
As the thirties continued, the “Hoover Days” as Helen calls them, she worked as a waitress in area restaurants. She recalls, “Once while working at Wallace’s Café, I watched a murder take place on the streets of Harlan.” She had served the victim a few minutes earlier and knew he was not drunk; however, a policeman came into the restaurant, accused the man of being drunk, cuffed him (Helen refers to handcuffs as “twisters”), took him out on the street, threw him to the ground and killed him. The officer was later convicted of murder.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, Helen was pleased as she felt he was good for the country with his programs and actions as things “were in a bad state when he was elected.”
A part of the recovery, however, involved World War II and the production of the materials for war. The war years were especially difficult for Helen as she had been married to her husband, Pat Noe, only a year before he was drafted to go overseas to fight in Austria in General Patton’s Army. The price she and her family paid was high during the war. Her favorite brother was killed, and another was seriously injured when his plane crashed and he became a prisoner of war. Her husband was in the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of the Bulge, where he was severely wounded. He carried the shrapnel he took in a hit to his body, always a memory of that battle, until he died in 1982. According to Helen, “War is an awful thing, and we should avoid it at all cost.”
Helen refers to her husband, Pat, as a “fair and trusting man,” and tells a story that verifies this. It was in the early 1940s when one night they “heard a group of men with flashlights going around the coal camp making a lot of noise.” They discovered that the group was searching for a Black man who was alleged to have done something wrong. Pat knew the man because he had employed him to do some general labor. They heard “a scratching on the back porch” and when they went outside, they found “the Black man was there hunched up in a ball, hiding.” They took him into their home where he spent the night, and the next morning Pat went to the authorities and got the matter resolved with no trouble for the man. Of that bleak time in American history, Helen says, “Times were different then. I’m glad things are changing in that way.”
World War II ended, but the Korean War soon followed and two of Helen’s brothers went off to war, and in the 1960s the Vietnam War started heating up. Helen and Pat were concerned about their two sons, Roger and Carl, and whether they would be drafted. They were not, and during this time, Helen ran a restaurant “for about three or four years.” It was called “The Dragon” and was located across from Harlan High School. It was successful, but it became too much for her to handle alone. She still takes pleasure, however, in many former students who tell her about the good times they had at “The Dragon.”
In conclusion, Dr. Noe reports that his mother lives alone, is still independent at 101. She has a good mind although her body is failing. “She has a strong personal faith and is quite religious as a Southern Baptist. Her family has been her life as she has stayed out of the limelight and supported her family as a life goal.”
Helen said in an interview two years ago, “ For the most part, I have been a stay-at-home mom. My boys are both very successful, and Roger comes by to check on me nearly every day. I have been blessed with a long and happy life.”
Finally, we are blessed that she has shared her story, the story of a Harlan County woman who has survived Spanish flu, the Great Depression and losses of war. Further, she has survived all the challenges, as she put it in that earlier interview “of a woman who did not move in the circles of those who seemed untouched financially” by the cycles which have impacted the lives of so many natives of southeastern Kentucky.
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