Gardens to Gables

Lynch Oral History Project, September 25-27, 2017

What makes place so important to some people? And what is it about some places in Kentucky that draw former residents home, again and again? Learning about the connection between people and communities, people and place is one of the perks of my job, and one that I will be exercising soon during an oral history initiative September 25-27, 2017, in Lynch, Kentucky.

I am not a professional oral historian – but I love stories and hearing about people’s experiences and memories of a certain place. One of the best descriptions of oral history that I’ve read comes from folklorist Tom Rankin, who explains that “out of shared telling and remembering grow identity, connection, and pride, binding people to a place and to one another.”

An image of Lynch from 1920, from the Louis Edward Nollau Nitrate Photographic Print Collection at the University of Kentucky.

I first visited Lynch in the fall of 2016, and was struck by the large stone and brick school buildings in the community. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Lynch, once the largest coal camp in the world, nestled along Looney Creek and below Black Mountain in eastern Harlan County, Kentucky.

It’s perfect timing to capture some of the stories of people that have called Lynch home over the years.

One of the former boarding houses in Lynch, built to house single miners. It appears that nine boarding houses were constructed in the town.

Lynch, founded by U.S. Coal & Coke (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel), was built as a model town on a portion of the 19,000 acres the company bought in Harlan County. Company officials determined that 1,000 houses would have to be built to house the prospective miners and their families, but building the town went far beyond just houses.

The AME Zion Church in Lynch.

Water lines (50 miles of them), power lines, streets, sidewalks, churches, stores, a hospital, schools, and a hotel  – the new melting pot of America, as some scholars have dubbed Lynch – had just about everything.

A postcard of the hotel in Lynch, which was torn down in the 1960s. Image from the Postcard Collection at the University of Kentucky.

Unlike some popular perceptions of coal mining communities (and Appalachia in general), Lynch is one of the more racially and ethnically diverse communities in Eastern Kentucky.

U.S. Steel recruited around the world for coal miners, and though their paths to Lynch may have been radically different, living in a company town enforced some commonalities. But even though white and black miners worked together, the community mirrored the segregation of other communities in the state – separate schools, separate churches.

Looking west down Main Street (Highway 160), with the Bathhouse on the right, the former restaurant on the left (now Lamp House Coffee), and the Winifrede Conveyor stretching across the road.

Lynch has changed in many ways since 1917, but a common thread throughout successive decades is the people connected to Lynch. Oral histories are a way to tell the story of a place from so many different perspectives, and I look forward to learning about Lynch from the people that know it best.

West Main Street in Lynch – there were 17 different house types built in the community.

The Lynch Oral History Project will start at 10:30 Monday morning, September 25 at the Depot in Lynch – you can schedule an interview by calling me at 859-323-9864 or by emailing janie-rice.brother@uky.edu. The interviews will be filmed, and will take place on Monday until 5:30 pm, and from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm on Tuesday, September 26, and from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm on Wednesday, September 27.

Lynch had a semi-professional basketball team, – the Lynch Trojans. Undated image from the Kentucky Historical Society.

All of the interviews will be archived at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, and copies of the interviews and any scanned material will be provided to participants. Podcasts will be developed from the interviews, and all of the material will be available online once it is processed.

Oral histories are a very tangible way of accessing history – and I hope this project will provide a platform not only for people to  learn about the rich history of Lynch (and perhaps bolster tourism efforts in the area), but also as a place for those living memories of people who known and love Lynch to come together in a lasting connection.

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