Memorial Day, 2015

This is Memorial Day weekend, a time in America when we recognize the lives and contributions of friends and family now deceased.  As our country has grown in global power and influence since the turn of the last century, we have transformed this holiday into a fitting remembrance of the men and women who have served in our Armed Forces and given their lives in sacrifice for our country.  Still, it is a time to remember our ancestors and those who have preceded us in this worldly life.

In rural Kentucky, community citizens, church congregations, and cemetery board members use this occasion in the town and church burial grounds to mow the grass and weed flowers in order to welcome those visiting to honor the deceased.  Perhaps the most popular planting in country graveyards here in north central Kentucky are peonies.  First the whites bloom, then the pinks, followed by the reds and maroon blossoms.  Depending on the spring weather, temperatures, and recent rainfall, the buds fatten and then open, the flowers drop their petals, turn brown, fall to the ground, and give up their fragrance.  Their budding, blooming, and disappearance not unlike those whose headstones they adorn.


PtPleasant (2)

Country graveyards are located next to or behind crossroad churches, sometimes on the home grounds of large and older family farms, but more often are the area burying grounds for the Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ from nearby parts of the county.  The Point Pleasant Cemetery along Henry County Road 573 is the resting place of former residents of Franklinton, Bethlehem, Pleasureville, Drennon Springs, and Happy Ridge.  As I passed it this week, the blooming peonies reminded me of the men whose lives had an impact on mine, though for reasons other than national defense or military service.

These men were patriots of a different kind.  They were soldiers of the soil who, more than four decades ago, taught me to farm, till soil, put up hay, birth lambs, prepare plant beds, top, cut, house, and strip tobacco, pull calves, cook sorghum, and shell corn.  They were also men who, together with their wives, would visit cemeteries on Memorial Day.  Their wives, too, had deep influence upon me.  Tomato canning, chicken frying, hen setting, garden growing, rook playing.

Russell and Rose Douglas Harrod, Louis and Sarah Byers Shaw, Jesse and Virginia Woods, Clarence and Marie Johnson, Shorty Kephart, L B Mahuron, J C Shuck, John Ingles and Marietta Dowden, Jack and Rose Walker, Arkley and Hallie Dowden, Glenna Kephart, Calvin Porter Roberts, and Tommy Maddux.  All good people, all dead, whose progeny are among us in number aplenty for which I am grateful.



My wife, Janet, came to our farm yesterday.  After dinner we walked out the drive under the trees into Mary’s Meadow, a hayfield not yet mowed.  The fescue and orchard grass and blue grass and timothy and clover and vetch and lespedeza were nearly waist high.  As the sun set and darkness surrounded us, we became aware of the fireflies in the field.  How many there were!  As the day’s lightness faded, their lights became more obvious and undeniable.  Hundreds, then thousands, then so many more.  Each light signaling the life of those who influence us.

My hope on this holiday is that my friends and family have men and women in their lives as important to them as these were to me.  Memorial Day is really memory day.  I pray your memories are as blessed as mine.  Use this weekend to remember old friends and make current ones closer to you.


More Discoveries

Toward the end of 1998 and in the spring of 1999 my time at Drennon Woods became more balanced between work and pleasure.  I dug up and transplanted two red maple trees from the woods into the Blue Cabin’s yard and planted daffodils around its base on the southern and eastern sides.  I spent more time by the wood stove in the Blue Cabin, wandering trails, and exploring the hill sides and ridgeland of the 83 acres, rather than clearing downed trees, removing grapevines, and filling in ravines with branches, stumps, and tree limbs along Drennon Creek’s bottomland.

I took time to acquaint myself and visit with neighbors, learning local stories of my land’s use and disuse.  The reports were incomplete or inconsistent, but together sketched a continuous pattern of settlement, use, neglect, and abandonment in the Great Depression years and after the end of WWII.  I penned a note to friend and neighbor from the 1970s, writer Wendell Berry, telling him of my return to Henry County together with a brief description of the woodlands I had purchased.  In February, he welcomed me “home” with a note on the value of neglect in which man stops his use of nature and allows the restorative powers of  creation to heal and restore earlier damage.

Over time I substantiated the neighborly accounts with my discovery of three wells, collapsing hay sheds,a root cellar overgrown with honeysuckle, and the appearance in early April of daffodils and patches of daylilies suggesting human settlement and habitation.  On one walk with my dog, Lucy, in the upland woods, I came across a large rock structure, partially fallen in on itself.  Tucked back into a downhill slope of ground in a half-moon shape, one side consisted of carefully sculpted rocks laid up on their flat sides while the other side was a heap of soil covered rocks.  Between the opposing sides, at the upper oval end of the half moon, was a deep excavation with heavily rusted pieces of metal protruding out from rocks hanging over the opening.  The formation, now overgrown with grapevines, honeysuckle. and towering walnut trees, sat just above a ravine some three feet deep and twice that depth across, running at a right angle to the half moon.  The ravine, carved by rainwater runoff, crossed the lower end of a gradually sloping concave hillside that I called the “walnut amphitheatre”.

Christmas 2006 031

Across the ravine opposite the rock structure was a crossing used by deer and turkey that had caused a break in the ravine’s wall.  Perhaps too hastily, I took some of the flat-sided rock from the collapsed structure and, using hand tools and brute force, built a restraining wall on the far side of the ravine to stop erosion.  This work stretched out over many days and a few weekends, enabling me to better understand the structure’s site and intended purpose.  What I learned from working, talking with neighbors, and noticing similar structures across the county, is that this was an “improved spring”, dug out and walled in to provide drinking water for livestock and chilling suspended metal pails of fresh-squeezed milk.  Modestly constructed with impressively large exertions of excavation and rock lifting, hauling, and laying, it was an unroofed spring house serving multiple purposes and taking advantage of the upland forest’s gradual release of groundwater through the limestone’s karst-like geology.

Throughout the year I returned to the site and attempted to excavate the soil which had collapsed the one wall and filled the small pool.  After heavy rains, I could see water rise up in the excavated hole, overflow and subside, the eroded top soil in the basin soon drying out.  Into the summer I became discouraged by the task of removing so much uphill soil and setting aside rock from the collapsed wall.  With only a shovel and wheelbarrow, I abandoned hope of restoring and rebuilding the walled-in spring.  My time at the site and the solitude of my work allowed me to imagine its history.

Dug by hand at the bottom of a forested hill where a wet weather spring flowed out of the ground and walled in with shaled rocks uncovered in the excavation, it had served a small and useful purpose.  Over time, things changed.  The trees above and around the spring were cleared for timber and firewood.  The subsistent milk cow was replaced by a small herd of beef cows, grazing on the woody undergrowth and shrubs, topsoil unseeded.

The trees now cleared, soil compacted and sealed by hooves, rainfall ran over the land rather than through it.  The spring dried up, cows sought runoff water in the ravine, their weight pushing over rock walls, leaving the pool filled with eroded topsoil and useless.  A few hundred feet above the abandoned spring, perhaps a different landowner, using a small horse drawn blade, dug a small pond to provide livestock with drinking water.  Land used, abused, abandoned, neglected.  As, over time, I would understand better and confirm completely.



Family Names

In the first year at Drennon Woods my time there was a combination of accomplishment, wonder, and discovery.  Divorced for a decade, a son in Seattle, a daughter in school at Bloomington, living alone in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville with my yellow lab, Lucy, my commute to the Blue Cabin along Drennon Creek was a forty-five minute drive.  The last ten minutes accompanied by Lucy’s upright alertness and salivation as she sensed our proximity to the woods and water.

In July when Raph’s work on the cabin was nearing completion and the electric was hooked up, I spent my first night at the cabin sleeping in a green velour bacca lounger on the linoleum floor with Lucy at my feet.  Sleep came easy after hours of work with the chain saw thinning cedar trees and pulling them to the deep ravines on either side of the cleared yard in front of the cabin.  The “yard” was an open area filled with limbs and branches from hickory, thorny locust, and hackberry trees that had accumulated in the two years or so since the property had been abandoned, once again, and the unfinished cabin left untouched.

The cabin perched on a promontory overlooking a 100′ wide swatch of bottom at the end of a gradual slope from the two-wheel track leading in from Denner Lane.  Beyond the bottom was Drennon Creek, visible from the back porch, and flowing from left to right,(south to north), on its way into the Kentucky River ten miles or so away.

The following day Rowan Claypool brought his son, John, out for an afternoon of tubing down the creek for the quarter mile of so of its frontage along my land.  The creek’s flow is highly variable, from torrential to dry rock trickle, depending on rainfall, temperature, and season of the year.  In my first months of ownership, during early spring, I would often see the creek bottom filled with dried flotsam and jetsam and the tall grasses bent to the ground from flash flooding.  On our day of tubing, the flow was high resulting in easy movement across the rocks, riffles, and pools downstream to a small electric line crossing and opening below the cabin.   cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzJxA[1]   Earlier that day I used a crowbar on the small “Peice On Earth” homestead cabin to pry off 1″x14″x8′ rough sawn boards.  The cabin sits a few hundred feet from the Blue Cabin and on a higher elevation, once cleared, and with a view of the creek bottom and valley.  The one room “settler” cabin contained a half chimney suitable for a drum wood stove, a metal spring bed frame, and fading remnants of Sears’ wallpaper glued to the inside wall boards.  A few feet from its single door was a hand dug, stone-walled well about eight feet deep and three or so feet in diameter.  I  removed and carried the boards down to the Blue Cabin for materials to construct an outhouse.

In my first months at Drennon Lucy and I spent many hours exploring the 83 acres.  From creek side to ridgetop, back and forth across the hills, up and down slopes, and over open meadow.  Every walk an adventure.  Eventually, I began to discern the walkways of turkey and deer, their night beds, and the nests of squirrel, raccoon, hawks, owls, and songbirds.  I began to see their crossings of rivulets and ravines.  Then, old stone walls, rusted barbed wire, rock piles, collapsed deer stands, dented pails lodged in tree forks, rolls of woven wire, and many Old Milwaukee beer cans.

In October, my son, Jesse, came to Kentucky for a week.  We spent our time at the cabin cleaning brush, cutting cedars, constructing benches from cedar stumps and butt logs, eating lots of chili, and bathing in the creek.  Outfitted with a rough running lawnmower and neon flags on metal rods, Jesse and I retraced and marked my most obvious meanderings through the woods.  He would mow from flag to flag until we had a trail laid out from point to point.  At points along the trails we set in the ground benches made from split cedar posts. Through the autumn as I cut and stacked firewood, I began to split slim slices off of discarded cedar chunks and cut them into arrowed trail markers.

For Christmas in 1998, at my request, Mary and Jesse gave me an electric wood carving tool.  In January, next to the wood stove, I used the device to burn into my cedar signs— MARY MEADOW, LUCY LANE, and JESSE TRAIL.  I gave myself naming rights and began posting mostly alliterative markers for venues, destinations, and places of note.  Each named for family member.  I had begun to discover the layered connections between me, my family, and this Piece On Earth.

LUCY LANE is a small cut through from the two-wheel track into the woods.  It is near the Blue Cabin where she and I had many happy hours in our first year at Drennon.  MARY MEADOW is the three acre pasture on the ridgetop along Barton Lane.  JESSE TRAIL is a link from the two wheel track up a wooded spine and over an old cut-through road that years ago linked Barton Lane to the Point Pleasant Road and the village of Franklinton.

The Blue Cabin

The two-tracked trail at the end of graveled Denner Lane runs generally parallel with Drennon Creek along the bottom of the west facing hillside that rises up to Barton Lane. It crosses four metal culverts that allow runoff from the ravines and toe slopes to drain across the bottom land and into the creek. I do not know who installed the culverts or hung the gate allowing entrance. I assume it was a previous owner, probably the man from Louisville whom I never met, who owned the land for ten years, and started construction of the cabin which sits at the drive’s end.

Neighbors’ stories about him vary, but he worked at the cabin on weekends and abandoned it unfinished when his wife became ill.  He sold the property to a land speculator who divided it into three parcels. The cabin was an unpainted walled and framed 16’x12′ room under a gambrel aluminum roof.  Across its back was an unfinished porch deck overlooking Drennon Creek.  Inside were rafters for a half-loft, installed storm-like metallic doors and screened windows, and a blue velour lounger sitting on a green linoleum floor.  My first year there, I employed Raph Ellis, now a flower and vegetable farmer from Wheatley in Owen county, to construct the loft, bead board the interior walls and ceiling, screen the back porch, build an outhouse, and install electric.

The outhouse was assembled from rough sawn poplar boards pried off the old homestead cabin where my daughter found the “Peice On Earth” sign. I put a wood stove in the middle of the main room and furnished the cabin with dated Goodwill Store furniture and a twenty year old sofa bed.  In the loft I put the brass bed that I started housekeeping with that Cia White procured in Nebraska after her graduation from Stanford. I cooked on a two burner propane-fueled camp stove, kept food in a small refrigerator sized for a Winnebago, and bought drinking water in five gallon jugs inverted on an office-sized stand with coils that heated or chilled the water before it came out the spigot.



My first year there was limited to long weekends using hand tools, a chainsaw, and a Garden Way cart to gather firewood, plant bulbs and shrubs, reinforce culvert crossings with creek rock, and trim trees bordering the two-track drive. As I would later learn from studying old USDA aerial photographs, much of the land between the drive and the cabin had once been cleared and “pastured” by livestock. Now, fifty years later, it was a thicket of impenetrable red cedars made more menacing by the prickly unneedled lower limbs.  The cedars are between 4 and 12 inches in diameter and as high as forty feet.

All over north central Kentucky there is a sizeable cedar timber trade for posts, lumber, kitty litter, and livestock bedding. Many farmers and young men cut cedar to supplement winter income and gain entry into the logging and sawmill business. In 2008 I sold a fifty ton patch of cedars that brought $4,000. The trees’ lumber was pithy from fire or flood and could be used for kitty litter only. (Cedar is still the only wood sold by weight.)

The ridge land at Drennon Woods is 825’ above sea level and descends to 590’ at the creek. Because the cabin and creek were the focus of my first year, I spent most of my time at the bottom of my property learning to live in a valley. In the summer it was often humid and without a breeze, bug infested, foggy in the mornings, and little direct sunlight until the sun got high in the sky.  Days were shortened by the sun’s descent behind the western creek valley ridge of the same height.

I used my chain saw to bring in the sunlight, thinning cedars, trimming off lower limbs, and hauling tree tops and branches like a mule. The cedar debris went  into gullies carved out years ago by water running downhill across untreed ground. The cedars were so thick and tangled in grapevines that I could cut entirely through two or three at once and have nothing fall.  For most of the first years I removed cedar trees.  Downed cedar trees make for a lot of work. Dense top foliage, many limbs, prickly lower branches.  The first trees to sprout on deforested or over-grazed land, red cedar’s small blue berries contain meager fruit and the seeds are expelled intact and germinate rapidly.  The seeds sprout densely, the evergreen saplings canopy the soil, their needles returning nutrients to it, all the while providing cover for hardwood saplings and encouraging their upright growth.

Cedar tree are easily split and can be made into good benches, foot bridges, kindling, endurable plank fencing.   Their easily distinguishable growth rings tell a good story of the land’s use and obstacles to the tree’s growth.  Cedar timber smells sweet and its sawdust is unmatched for concealing outhouse odors and composting night soils.





Drennon Creek

Drennon Woods sits above and along a stream of water draining farm lands surrounding the villages of Pleasureville, Eminence, and New Castle in Henry County, Kentucky. It is named Drennon Creek after an adventurer who travelled down the Ohio River in 1773 with the McAfee Party, intent on exploration. On his own and overland, Jacob Drennon left the party in search of a salt lick that, according to Indian talk, lay upstream of the first creek on the west side of the Kentucky River above its entry into the Ohio. Before travelling upriver to survey what later became Frankfort, the men reunited days later at the lick, giving the first-arrived Jacob naming rights for the creek,.

The salt lick, accompanying spring, and a thousand adjoining acres acquired by land-grant from Virginia, were settled by George Rogers Clark two years later. Its history has included a summer watering hotel, residential military school, and county poor farm. When Jacob first saw it, adjacent lands were crisscrossed with buffalo traces from the cane breaks and bluegrass laying to the south and west. Drennon Creek, with 90 stream miles in its watershed, passes from the Outer Bluegrass through the Hills of Bluegrass and carries the runoff from more than 60,000 acres of Henry County land.


At the edge of Drennon Woods the creek makes a sharp turn at a crossing that used to be navigable to horse drawn wagons and four-wheelers. When used, it shortened the distance between Franklinton and the county seat by a few miles, many hills, and some small crossings. The road from New Castle, which now ends impassably at the creek, is called Flat Rock. (Google’s map system still shows a crossing at the creek, resulting in phone calls from lost repairmen.  When they can obtain a cell signal.)

The land in the watershed is 75% agricultural, 20% forested, and the remainder residential. The creek becomes “flashy” after heavy rains. Its structure has riffles, runs, glides, and pools, many of which shelter pan fish and small mouth bass. In high flow it is good for tubing and its pools make for tolerable bathing.

Back from and above the creek’s flow through the county are the broad ridges and rolling hillsides characteristic of the state’s burley belt and its small farms. After the timber on these uplands was removed in the 19th century, homes and barns were built, land fenced,  soil cropped to corn and tobacco,  hillsides grassed and grazed to cows and sheep, the forest gone.

Among and along Emily Run, Town Creek, Martini Run, Fivemile Creek, Rush Creek, Flag Run, Sulphur Branch, Greens Fork, Boling Branch, and Holy Water Branch, all tributaries to Drennon Creek, land use and settlement was different. These lands were steep and sloped, thin of topsoil, dissected in every direction by runoff, bottoms prone to flooding. Sometimes treated marginally by the upland farmers, they were broken into smaller parcels, sold to satisfy taxes, make room for expanding families, and raise cash.

What followed was a yeomanry’s existence raising tobacco on barren hillside benches and grazing stock on the brushy undergrowth of eroded toe slopes. In the early days of the last century and through the start of World War II, these people practiced a “rotation” of cut, burn, plant, deplete, abandon, neglect, cut, burn, and plant again. Life was hard and tenure uncertain.  My parcel of land was divided, consolidated, bought and sold by eleven owners between 1900 and 1940.

Evidence for this is everywhere.  On my land there are three dug wells and two walled springs, root cellars,  collapsed barns, imbedded barbed wire, buried woven wire, deeply eroded ravines cut into wooded slopes, clusters of pioneer cedar trees on land plowed or grazed continuously, and piles of rock stacked at winter’s end before spring planting. Except for deer hunters, much land on both sides of lower Drennon Creek’s valley has been long abandoned and neglected. Where regeneration was allowed, today’s trees are mostly pole-sized in diameter. Their growth, sometimes from multiple sprouts, is often stunted or made grotesquely crooked by grapevines.

It is Nature’s way for the trees to come back.  This forest is called mesophytic because its trees thrive in moderate annual rainfall. Though there is no single climax specie, the hardwood diversity is extensive and quality timber is possible when the trees are cared for.  Care for them I try.

“A Peice on Earth”

This web domain was reserved through Go Daddy seventeen years ago when I became the owner of 83 wooded acres of ridge, hill, and bottom land along Drennon Creek, a small tributary on the west side of the lower Kentucky River in Henry County. It is impossible for me to recall the motives and aspirations which caused me to have taken such a step. Now, more than a decade and a half later, I am posting the first entry on a blog site of the same name. I hope the wait will be worth the while.

I am an older man, born and raised of the city, one generation descended from small farmers along the western borders of Kentucky and Tennessee. Until I was twelve, I spent summers and a few holidays among my paternal grandparents on these farms. These times among family, animals, cropped soils, cross-road towns, and clapboard churches imprinted deeply on my brain and have been with me for more than 70 years. At various occasions I have tried to recreate or duplicate these memories, even as my life, its setting, and its characters evolved away from that earlier past. This, then, is a story of one person’s return to one’s roots. And it’s telling, hopefully, will serve to unlock memories for others (most Americans are not many generations removed from an agrarian life) and encourage them to build a world remarkably different from today’s.

I do not think I knew for sure what I was doing or what I was seeking seventeen years ago. In my mind it was probably a retreat, an escape, some quietness. Woods, wildlife, moving water, isolation, and convenience. It was a desire to satisfy an urge with a place. Not unlike earlier subscriptions to Stout Farm Realty’s monthly listings by state. Or drives across the St. Croix River into Wisconsin’s cutover lands. Or hallucinogenic drives to LaHonda and Marin County. Or drives by VW up to Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies. (These are but chapters in the same story.) The one that matters was a brotherly call in 1972 to come home to Kentucky from Minnesota. Bride, new baby, dog, and all.

Now, twenty five years later, it was back to a place of much happiness, friends, access to Louisville home and job, and small farms. Henry County. Laid eyes on it during deer season, all three parcels under 90 day “hunters’ contracts”, realtor to call back when the contracts expired. They did, he did, I did. Three acres of meadowed ridge by the road, 80 acres of mixed hardwood and red cedar thickets on crop and pasture land abandoned 75 years earlier. At the bottom of steep gravel lane there was a gate into a quarter mile long two-track trail leading to a half-completed 16’ by 24’ cabin perched above a narrow bottom along Drennon Creek. As I have discovered over time, there was “more”, including a homesteader’s cabin, visible through the dormant trees, but inaccessible except by strenuous foot.

In March, my daughter, Mary, joined me in the woods and we walked to the old cabin. After a difficult walk and upon our arrival she blurted, “How sweet”.  I thought she was referring to the cabin’s location and condition. But, in fact, she had spotted through the broken walls a metallic object leaning against an iron bed.  Standing three feet high and about half as wide, it was badly rusted, with two hand welded holders at its base. Cut roughly into the metal backing with a blowtorch were the words, as though an announcement, “A Peice on Earth”.  Mary’s words were uttered reverently. Little did we know then of the epiphany that was to become A Peace on Earth.