The Mountain Eagle weekly newspaper serves the counties of Southeast Kentucky. A recent edition featured a front page photo story of the demolition of Mike’s Grocery Store, built in 1912, and about to collapse onto Joe Biggs Hollow road. They say it became a boarding
house for unmarried miners but had not been occupied for decades.Thankfully, the gas and coal companies assumed responsibility for the tear-down, saving precious dollars for the McRoberts taxpayers. The 14 page weekly also featured syndicated editorials critical of the war in Afghanistan, political donations and also political ineptitude in Kentucky and the Nation. Coverage included complaints of too many animal carcasses in garbage bins in Neon, blighted area buildings, an oxycodone bust in Whitesburg, issues of cigarette butts and stray dogs, death of a Johnny Cash sideman, and Hobo Diner closing down due to high Kentucky Power Company bills and parking problems. There was a generous sprinkling of weddings, births, and deaths and an entire page of “Speak Your Piece,” featuring anonymous paragraph-length statements touching personal life in local towns, interspersed with blurbs on the destructive drug epidemic.
Life is tough in these tiny hamlets and towns nestled in the Appalachians about an hour’s drive west of US Highway 81. A combination of faith, pride, and resourcefulness makes life endurable in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.
For the second consecutive year, Congregation B’nai Israel and The Good People Fund, a U.S. non-profit organization based in Millburn,
led a group of volunteers to a former mining community now struggling to maintain itself. The Good People Fund was established 4 years ago by long-time Millburn resident, Naomi Eisenberger. The Fund directs its efforts to supporting small, grass-roots organizations in the
United States, Israel and some other countries. It was through a small New York-based non-profit called Family to Family that they learned of McRoberts and its unique problems.
This was Congregation B'nai Israel's second trip to the region. Other volunteers trekked from Lancaster, Cleveland, New York, and Los
Angeles. Complex logistics and, perhaps, a dose of divine intervention guided us all to converge on the modest Whitesburg Super 8 Motel by 6 pm, Sunday, August 7. On Tuesday night, we would meet at the Super 8 at dusk to chant Lamentations for Tisha B’Av – a first for this region.
In this isolated valley in Southeastern Kentucky, the 900 residents of McRoberts do their darndest to manage their world without amenities. Our mission was to build, repair, and replace in order to properly button up homes against the searing summer heat and frigid winter, and ease the lives of these oft-suffering ‘mountain people.’ Among our challenges was the absence of hardware or lumber facilities within a 30 minute radius, the 20 minute ride back to our motel, and the challenging August weather conditions. One crew worked in the humble home of Jeri and Don Shepherd, from Tom Biggs Hollow, counted among the elders of McRoberts. They provided us with a microcosm of the family love, community pride, and religious fervor that permeates the region. Six of us, including four remarkable teens from Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, worked in their home for 2 ½ days. In a rare treat, Don escorted us up the holler to the top of a nearby mountain where the Tolliver Family Cemetery was located. A three foot chain link fence surrounded a generous space where about 20 grave markers, dating back 150 years, stood stoically amid the tall grass and rampant weeds. In the background was the unmistakable machinery of the natural gas specialty drillers hard at work probing the landscape. Surrounding woods and ponds had a quiet elegance.
The Ten Commandments are firmly engraved on the surface of a prominent black marble monument on the modest town common, just opposite the McRoberts Regular Baptist Church. A small gazebo, another Baptist Church, a granite monument to fallen soldiers as long ago as World War I, and the Community Center comprise the epicenter of the town. The Center was established with funding from a Federal Black Lung Disease grant.
Most of the several hundred homes in this valley and up in the hollers were originally built around 1920, by Mr. McRoberts, a New York coal mining investor and builder. The company store, coal camp cabins, and shotgun shacks were built inexpensively with local wood and materials. At the company store, they bought a variety of goods, showered, used the facilities, rented towels and toiletries and spent most of their hard-earned dollars.
Consider that many residents do not travel beyond their town – beyond their valley. The road network is fine. But, their ties are so strong
to the craggy land beneath their feet that they are rarely tempted to launch themselves into a trajectory to the outside world, even for a
short vacation. Yet, every road bridge and overpass and many streets are named for a fallen soldier – lost lives on unimaginably distant
soil. Theirs is indeed a parallel universe.
When a worker at the supply house told us he was getting married, we asked where he would honeymoon. He turned, eyes widened atop a ready smile: “Gatlinburg…up in the Smokies,” he exclaimed. We congratulated him roundly, as his buddies ribbed Joe with, “’Bout time he give up and get married….” When a lovely and bright waitress told us she had been to a family function in Chicago, we were elated. Then she admitted she never left her hotel room. The Shepherds believe that those who leave the area to live elsewhere sorely miss the values instilled in the mountains, up and down the hollows. “Ain’t nothin’ like it,” says Don; Jeri maintains, “I just can’t imagine living
anywhere else.” Jeri considered our presence in their modest home nothing short of miraculous. Young Leighton and Logan, are fortunate
to be raised by these wonderful guardian grandparents.
We were 38 volunteers spanning from teen to 70s and had just driven for 10 hours, most from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Kentucky. We had a shared energy generated from the nature of our mission. Within a short period of time, we would eagerly do everything possible to help these people maintain their homes. Occasionally, our crews would scratch heads at the presence of unsightly debris strewn about on various properties. “Mountain people don’t throw nothin’ away…” was the explanation. Recycling is always on their minds.
Projects were disseminated by Naomi Eisenberger, Director of The Good People Fund. They included the demolition and replacement of a deck, replacement of windows and doors, an exterior paint job over fairly encrusted vinyl siding. Susie Duncan, a local educator and our
on-the-ground coordinator, identified five homes in McRoberts which were in serious need of repair. All targeted homes were owned by solid members of the community who greatly appreciated our intervention on their behalf. Susie’s husband and unsung hero in the region, paramedic and fireman Everett Duncan, donated his time and expertise.
The mission also organized and ran an after-school camp for elementary students, ran drug education sessions in the school, distributed a trailer of food and supplies, built a sand table and water table to supplement the pre-school program, and built bookshelves. There was
close interaction among local parents, teachers, and children. Townsfolk prepared sumptuous vegetarian lunches, complete with homemade cornbread, served in the modest community center. The ‘mitzvah’ mission was accomplished in less than 72 hours, including
that precious several hour time frame when a powerful mountain lightening storm poured 2 inches of rain on McRoberts, shutting down
As we packed our tools there were hugs all around at the time of our departure. One can still hear Jeri Shepherd’s wise counsel, delivered unstudied and lovingly: “Keep your morals high and you will prosper and have a good life.” Her eyes gazed into the souls of two members of our work crew, teenagers Jamie and Michele. She pointed to the Lord in heaven and her deep Baptist belief in salvation through faith brought a smile to her sweet face. The grandmotherly advice resonated to the young ladies from Lancaster. Package that moment and repeat it generously. Jeri Shepherd is a natural resource beyond the region’s bountiful coal and natural gas.
Appreciation plaques on behalf of the community were presented to Rabbi Steven Bayar, of Congregation B’nai Israel, Millburn, Rabbi Jack Paskoff, of Shaarai Shomayim, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of The Good People Fund.
We departed reluctantly, on Wednesday afternoon, both tired and energized. On Route 119, we marveled at the wild growth of the Kudzu
Vine, introduced more than a century ago by the Japanese, called ‘the vine that ate the South.’ During the 10 hour return drive, we mused
about our experience, buoyed by the reality that we accomplished a great deal in terms of assisting the residents and improving our
learning curve on the mountain culture which is about the importance of pride and kinship. According to Eisenberger, “We intend to continue to provide help for these amazing people. Next year’s trip is already in the planning stage.”