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The Jackson of my grandmother’s youth - Tom Eblen

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The Jackson of my grandmother’s youth

by Tom Eblen

The Jackson of my grandmother’s youth was a bustling town of ambition and possibility. Modern America arrived several times a day on steel rails, forever changing the Breathitt County five generations of her ancestors had known since arriving from North Carolina in the 1790s. 

Doshia Margaret Haddix was born in 1897, the second of seven daughters and a son of William and Margaret Gabbard Haddix. They lived just over the bridge in South Jackson, then a place few people today can imagine, much less remember. 

Coal and timber had been taken from Breathitt County’s hills since the early 1800s, but getting them to market was hard. The Kentucky River was an undependable highway to the Bluegrass — often too low, too high or too swift. There were no overland roads worthy of the name. Most people lived by growing or raising their own food. 

All that changed when the Kentucky Union Railroad (soon renamed the Lexington & Eastern) was extended up the Red River Valley, reaching Elkatawa in 1890 and Jackson the next year. Until the Louisville & Nashville Railroad took over the line and extended it to Hazard and McRoberts in 1912, the tracks ended at Jackson, creating a regional center for commerce. 

As terminus of the L&E, Jackson grew from a sleepy county seat of about 100 people into an incorporated city of nearly 1,500. There were department stores, banks, churches, hotels, a “magic-lantern” theater and even a rollerskating rink. Main Street and Broadway got sidewalks. Merchants put up street lamps. 

W.J. Lampton, writing in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal in 1895, described Jackson as the “Atlanta of the Mountains.” Among other things, he reported that townspeople had six typewriters, a dozen pianos and more than 20 organs. Jackson was on the make. The first local newspaper, founded in 1888 as railroad construction began into Breathitt, was appropriately named The Jackson Hustler. Even the accidentally set Halloween fire of 1913, which destroyed 36 buildings as it swept through town that night, couldn’t keep Jackson down. The city soon rebuilt, with many new structures of locally made brick replacing wood. 

“Jackson was a ‘rip-snorting’ town for about two decades after the railroad reached it,” according to Breathitt: A Guide to the Feud Country, a history published in 1941 by the WPA Writer’s Program. “It had the virility of a boom town on a frontier. It was free, uncouth, unashamed and ambitious. Nearly every man went around armed, as was then the custom.” 

Railroad branch lines collected coal and timber from the mines and sawmills that sprang up all over Breathitt County. Coal production grew to a crescendo during World War I and the Roaring ‘20s. Output in that era peaked in 1929, when more than 300 miners dug 208,656 tons of coal. 

While some lumbermen continued floating logs to market, the railroad changed everything. The Eastern Kentucky Hardwood Co. built five sawmills on Quicksand Creek. Day Brothers Lumber Co. (later Swann-Day) had another large complex. The last of the big mills was E.O. Robinson’s at Quicksand. By the time Robinson’s men put down their axes and saws in 1925, they had denuded 15,000 acres in Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties. 

South Jackson was a center of commerce. Across from the railroad’s passenger and freight depots, Sam Patton’s store anchored a bustling strip of merchants along Sewell Street (now Armory Drive). There were stores, a restaurant, an ice plant, an ice cream company and an “electric light” plant that provided occasionally reliable power to the town. 

The Haddix home stood on Franklin (now Sewell) Street between the depots and the bridge into Jackson. Most people knew the large house with its two-story front porch as the Haddix Hotel — a boarding house for railroad men staffed by Margaret Haddix and her seven daughters. “Barber Bill” Haddix ran a two-chair barber shop next door. His ledger for 1908-1910 shows that he and an assistant kept busy, averaging more than 150 customers a week. 

When Doshia Haddix wasn’t working in the boarding house, or crossing the bridge to attend Lee’s College or worship at the Methodist Church, she crossed Cripple Creek to the Jackson Lumber and Supply Co. She worked in its office for eight years, using some of her earnings to buy a fancy bedroom suite now used by a great-granddaughter in Philadelphia. 

Not surprisingly, at least a couple of the seven sisters found husbands among the Haddix Hotel’s boarders. Doshia met R.D. Eblen, a railroad man. She moved away to marry him in August 1922 as Breathitt County’s flush times were nearing their peak. Bill Haddix died in 1929; his wife a decade later. Their son died at 19; daughter Marie at 20. The six surviving sisters married and scattered, from as close as Hazard to as far away as Detroit, Atlanta and New Orleans. 

Donald Eblen had a long career with the L&N, based in Irvine, Ravenna and Lexington. Doshia went back to secretarial work as soon as their two sons and two daughters were old enough. When the couple retired, he insisted on moving back to the Henderson County farmhouse where he was born. She hated it. Having grown up in the mountains, Doshia could never get used to the flat fields of Western Kentucky. Soon after his death in 1979, she moved to a suburban Lexington apartment near two of her sisters, who always called her “Dodie”. 

My grandmother often reminisced about Breathitt County, but I don’t remember her going back. At least not until that warm May day in 1985 when we laid her to rest beside her parents in Jackson Cemetery. I always suspected Ma wanted to remember Jackson as it was when she was young — a bustling town of ambition and possibility. 

What Jackson do you remember from your younger days? How does this compare to stories your elders tell? What is different—and the same—in the Jackson you know today? 

Tom Eblen is a journalist, writer and photographer recently retired as metro/state columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  He is descended from Samuel Haddix, one of Breathitt County’s earliest settlers.  

This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at ourbreathitt@gmail.com. We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at www.ideasxlab.com/ourbreathitt