Interview with Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Johnson
Mr. Johnson, when and how did you come to Jenkins?
In 1911 — I came to Shelby Gap on the work train and walked on up here.
What was the name of the railroad?
The SV & E, Sandy Valley and Elkhorn.
Did you start working in the mines?
No, I never did work in the mines. I started on a gin wagona here hauling sand to build these houses with. I worked on these houses a few days. I made pocket knives before I came here and I had one that I had made, and the driver wanted to use it and I let him have it. He wanted to know where I got it. I told him I made it and he told the mining superintendent about it and the next morning I was going back to the barn and the superintendent called me in his office. He said, “Where’s that knife that man had yesterday that you made?” I let him look at it and he said, “You don’t need to be on that gin wagon, you need to be in the shop — the blacksmith’s shop.”
So he just wrote me an order and sent me up to the shop and a fellow by the name of John Massey was the outside foreman. He sent me back to the store and got me a hammer. I started then working for car repair, repairing mining cars. I worked at that, I guess, a year or two and I had helped the blacksmith the rest of my days.
Where was the shop you worked in?
Over here in #1 mines, right here in the lower end of town.
Where did you come from, Mrs. Johnson?
I came from Pikeville. My husband was here, he worked in the store. I came to Hellier by train and got off at 8 o’clock, and got on a hack and it took until 5 in the evening to get here.
What was a hack?
It was a thing with four seats in it, driven by mules and had a driver.
How did you come up here?
Right in the creek. I was the only woman on the hack and there was a big keg of beer. They had to bring beer in here for all those people. They had to have their beer.
When you first came to Jenkins, Mr. Johnson, how did it look?
It looked rough. It looked a lot different than it does today. When I first came, the office buildings were in just weather-bolted shacks.
And you worked at #1 for quite a spell?
Yes, I worked there until 1935, then they transferred me to Jenkins #4. I worked there I guess three or four years. Then when they built the #7 tipple, they transferred me up there. So I worked there until I retired in 1952. Red Shelby was my boss up there, then later, Bob Blake came in and I worked for Bob until about 46 or 48, then Russel McDonough took over and I worked for him until I retired.
When you came in here, was there a lot of fighting and feuding?
Yes, killing! The worst place was East Jenkins. They had a lot of “skangy” joints, all kinds of bootlegging.
[He knew Bad John Wright and said he was a kind fellow.] Was he tall?
Yes, he was tall and slender. He always had good horses. I’ve heard he killed 21 people, but he never did tell me — never would talk to me about that.
Describe how it looked when you first came here, Mrs. Johnson.
On Cove Avenue are the oldest houses in Jenkins. They were built in 1911 when I first came here, and the architect and the head man in the office and the auditor and I all lived here on Cove Avenue. I lived in the first one. They all lived here until they began to build the houses around High Street, then they began to move off and move in those houses. Then they built the next row of houses right below and there wasn’t any school or church or anything in that area, but the old Jenkins Hotel, where the Bradley-Johnson apartments are now. The hospital was the second building above that.
They hadn’t started the dam when I came here and the water we had was from deep wells. You could let it set up over night and then roll the skim off of it and then they put in a dam and that was the first good water we had. The machine shop was where it is now. The recreational building was where the depot is now, just a boarded-up building, and they had all their recreations and preaching services here because there were no churches. The store building was right between where the post office and the library is now. You see, the water comes out of the dam and goes under there and there was a branch, a little walk, where you could cross it.
There were the office buildings. Where Dr. Perry is was a hill. They graded all that down before they built on it. After I came here, they began to build a sewer down Main Street. The railroad came in here in 1913.
I left here in 1912 and had to go back to Hellier the way I came. in here in 1913. I left here in 1912 and had to go back to Hellier the way I came.
Did the company lay out all the houses?
They had a saw mill. They had an ice plant right above where Wilfong’s store is now. A little make-shift ice plant and the man that made the ice was Limon Goodson. That is where the Christian Church is now. It was a little make-shift bakery and they made bread. They would go in with a shovel and they would bring a dray over from the store.
What is a dray?
That is a wagon with two horses. That’s the way they delivered their groceries. They would go over there and put a clean wrapping paper in the bottom and shovel it in with a shovel. There wasn’t any bread wrapping or anything. That’s where you got your bread. There wasn’t any dairy at that time.
The superintendent at #1 mines when I worked there was Walter Shunk. He stayed there for about two years and then the fellow that took his place was A. B. Thomas. Then they had several different men until they got hold of another Thomas and he stayed here for five or six years, W. H. R. Thomas. When I came here, John G. Smith was manager of the whole thing. He stayed somewhere because his wife wasn’t here.
Do you remember, Mr. Johnson, when they built the dam up here?
I was here, but I can’t tell you anything about it. Mrs. Johnson says they built it in 1911 because my daddy got his leg broke working on the dam. The first doctor we had was Dr. McClelland. He was from Pikeville and he would come up here once a month. The first preacher I remember was Preacher Crow. He had this church house built out here in Burdine. The recreational building then was where the C & O Depot is now. It was just a big rough building that they put benches in. They had preaching in it and lodge meetings in it.
Mr. Johnson, down here in Burdine, where was the recreational building?
It was the lower house down there in the row next to the creek below the store. It was a double resident building. They had pool tables in it and things like that.
This place was named after Burdine Webb. Anyway, it hasn’t been too long ago he was up here in the recreational building at Jenkins and he was asking fellows who they married and all this, that, and the other. Come around to me and I made it up, I was going to kindly give him a smart answer. But he beat me! He said, “Who did you marry?” I said, “I married my wife!” He said, “Well, who did she marry?” Well, I left him alone.
In the summer of 1911, there were supposed to be 10,000 people here.
Where do you live now, Mr. Johnson?
Were there any stores down here at Burdine?
None, but the company store. Of course, at East Jenkins they had stores and a lot of people went to Shelby Gap and traded.
Who was the manager of the company store down here?
A fellow by the name of Troy Arnett was manager here for a long time. Then Leonard Banks was manager, and then Johnny Shackleford. I think the last manager they had of the company was J. C. Stambaugh.
Did they have a big variety in the store?
Yes, anything you would call for. If they didn’t have it today, they would try to have it tomorrow.
Did you use script?
Yes. The first script they had was paper script. In little books, like postage stamps — tear out 1¢ or a nickle or dime or quarter. Then they got the metal script.
I want to ask you about Dr. Perry. Did he ever treat you all very much?
Yes indeed. He worked for the company there for a while. He used to live in the house below us. His children used to slip up here and stay with us. Dr. Perry always seems to be able to help you by just talking. He has such a kind voice.
The first church was in the recreational building and was a Missionary Baptist. The preacher was Crow. The recreational manager got a little bit smart and a fellow by the name of John Massey, He just moved it up to the school house up here at #2 and then Crow just got busy and got the church house built.
I have built 4,298 key houses. I started making these in 1950. I started as a hobby. After I retired from the shops, the first piece of woodwork I done is in there on the wall, and from that I just got to making little things out of wood — cabinets, stools, etc.
You know where the depot is — that house right across there had all that field there fenced off and had the platform down at the bottom. They would sell tickets and give a car away every month during bowling season.
Did you ever ride on a train to Pikeville and about how long would it take to get to Pikeville?
Yes, different times. You could leave here in the morning and go to Shelby Gap and then catch the 10 something C & O to Pikeville and then we would come back all in the same day. We done that often for quite a while. The train would stop anywhere you want it to.
Mrs. Johnson speaking:
My husband and I had been to Jenkins. We had come on the train visiting friends here and I had the baby and my suitcase and I was going to a house below Esso and Tom said tell the conductor where you are going and he will take you on to the house. So he took me to the house and put me off right in front of the house and then pulled the train on.
I mentioned it to him years later and he said, “Lacey, that elected me sheriff of Pike County.” The Shelby Creek people were what elected him. It looked like he was beat until they counted Shelby Creek. Anything in the world you wanted him to take to Pikeville, he took it.
Do you remember anything about when they sold the houses?
This was the first house they sold.
You must have made pretty good money then.
Well, I didn’t make such big money, but I always tried to make all I can and save all I can.
How many children did you have, Mr. Johnson?
Well, to start with I had eight. Well, I had 10 all together but eight of them lived to be grown. We have one dead now — the next to the oldest boy. He died in 1963.
How many children did you have, Mrs. Johnson and who was your first husband?
I had four children. Williams was my first husband’s name. He worked at the store. He worked for $45 a month and we paid $4.50 for house rent and coal.
What about transportation?
They would pay their expenses to get in here and then after they went back to work, they would pay them back.
Where was the Elkhorn Hotel located?
It was located in Mudtown and I can’t think what the name of the one where the Bradley-Johnson apartments are now. I lived on this hill, you know, where the Griffin house was and I would carry soup to the hotel and they kept the dining room door locked until they got a meal on the table and when they would unlock that door, it sounded like a stampede of horses. Food was scarce and so was a place to board. Anyone that had an extra bed was supposed to keep somebody. I kept Harry Moore and Jimmy Hughes for ever so long.
They used outlaws and anything they could get. There were a lot of foreigners that couldn’t speak a word of English, and an interpreter would come in to tell the clerk what they wanted. I had one friend that said she spoke seven languages. Her brother had a store here then and there used to be a store they called Begley’s about where Ransom Jordan’s garage is. He owned about three acres in there and they wouldn’t sell it to the company and they had their own little store. The company didn’t want the people to buy there either.
These fellows came in and they were trying to jew her down. But they turned around and spoke in another language, “now we can get that down at Begley’s cheaper.” But she knew what they had said. When her brother came in, he said, “I feel like slapping you. If you would keep your mouth shut, you would learn a lot.” She spoke their language and they didn’t know it. They had said that to each other, and she thought it was too good for her to keep so she told them what they said.
This article first appeared in “History of Jenkins Kentucky” Compiled In Honor Of The Sixtieth Anniversary Homecoming Celebration 1912‑1973 by the Jenkins Area Jaycees.
The authors and publishers of the 1973 printing failed to include a copyright notice and according to our understanding of copyright law it is now in the public domain.
For information on the copyright laws click here.
I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.