On the banks of the Cumberland River just south of Burkesville, Kentucky, sits an old two-story house. The front porch has fallen down. Most of the glass has been broken from the windows.
The sideboards are bare and weathered, and the old stone chimney struggles against the elements like a lone sentinel left to guard a treasury that has long since been looted by progress.
At one time the house was a bustling home of activity and commerce.
It sat next to Neely’s Ferry and travelers heading north and south out of Burkesville would pass over the ferry in a stream of commerce. No doubt riverboat traffic also stopped at the house.
A bridge has long since replaced the ferry, and riverboat traffic has been replaced by the railroad or the interstate – neither of which came to Burkesville. Today the house is nothing more than a relic, and a symbol of the slow decay of a heritage.
The geography of Cumberland County Kentucky gave it a distinct personality. The hills and bluffs broke up any continuity and isolated small groups and families. The Cumberland River gave it life, and at the same time also divided, and destroyed. The misty woods provided an ambience of mystery. The winding roads slowed the pace of life and change. Because of the geography, small semi-isolated communities with distinct personalities like Black Gnat, Judio, Big and Little Renox, popped up within a few miles of each other. They were usually centered around a one-room schoolhouse and a simple church. Independence and interdependence were a necessity of life.
The isolation forged the framework of a thriving local culture rich in sharp angular features, contrasts, and blemishes like the knotholes in beautiful hardwood boards. A strange mix of hard-working independent folks that were honest and forthright mingled with moonshining outlaws until an outsider couldn’t tell the difference.
They centered themselves around the church and school, yet arrogant scholars considered them backwards and ignorant. They were folks that understood the essence of life better than most well-heeled and well-spoken city folk. Maybe they didn't understand the danger of a dangling participle, but they knew a charlatan in a heartbeat.
Proximity forced them to learn to get along. Long heated squabbles were counterproductive because of their interdependence, yet their feuds were legendary. It was a place where everyone greeted one another, and knew each other’s dirty laundry. Most were genuine when they expressed concern or sympathy over your troubles. Some, of course, were glad of your bad luck, even if they had the decency not to say it to your face.
I recently travelled the hills of Cumberland County, and I don't know if I've ever seen so many old homes going to waste in such a small area. Old houses and barns stood like ruins of a lost civilization – abandoned structures left to rot and decay while the inhabitants moved on in the name of progress. As river traffic became a thing of the past, the flow of commerce shifted. People picked up and moved with it. My father and his family followed suit.
Cultures are not distinguished by the soft overtones of interaction, but by the sharp angular features that protrude and jut from the group psyche. Differences define a culture, not similarities. As societies become more interconnected and communication improves, these sharp features began to blur until we finally become one continuous mass of human ubiquity.
This is not always a good thing.
When I was nineteen, I left home in the name of progress and never looked back. Sometimes, when people made fun of me and treated me as if I was inferior because of my heritage, I was even ashamed. I spent years trying to eradicate any outward evidence of my southern country upbringing. I smoothed the rough angular edges of my cultural background. Like the abandoned house on the river, I sometimes neglected my heritage.
That was a mistake.