Constance Alexander: Rich heritage of ‘Between the Rivers’ captured in stories of daily life and loss

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Unlike Haley Joel Osment, who played the creepy little boy from the movie The Sixth Sense, I don’t exactly see dead people, but I do hear their voices. Before you suspect some sort of psychosis, let me assure you that my clairvoyance can be attributed to an oral history project I conducted almost 20 years ago with former residents of what is now Land Between the Lakes.

Through grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Oral History Commission, I talked to scores of people who once lived in the many communities that flourished between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers before that narrow strip of land became Land Between the Lakes. In some families, the homeplace had been passed down from the original owners, soldiers who had fought in the American Revolution and were rewarded for their service with land on the “frontier” that was then Western Kentucky and Tennessee.

One of my favorite voices is that of Mary Harriet Vinson Dill, who grew up in the community of Blue Spring. Born Sept. 21, 1912, in Model, Tennessee, she lived on Ginger Creek and walked two miles to school every day on Clay Creek. She remembered both of her grandfathers, one who fought in the Civil War and the other who emigrated to America from Bohemia and started a tanning business that operated Between the Rivers.

Recently, as I organized a presentation on “Between the Rivers” for a talk at the McCracken County Public Library, I went back through the oral history transcripts. Once again I was impressed by the rich cultural heritage of “Between the Rivers” and how it is so lovingly captured in stories of daily life and loss in these small communities.

One of my favorite voices is that of Mary Harriet Vinson Dill, who grew up in the community of Blue Spring. Born Sept. 21, 1912, in Model, Tennessee, she lived on Ginger Creek and walked two miles to school every day on Clay Creek. She remembered both of her grandfathers, one who fought in the Civil War and the other who emigrated to America from Bohemia and started a tanning business that operated Between the Rivers.

She spoke of her grandpa Vinson, who had fought in the Battle of Fort Donelson in the Civil War. The other grandfather took her on tours of his tan yard and explained the business to her. Hearing him talk always tickled Mary Harriet because of his exotic accent. “He never did learn to speak English real plain,” she admitted, “but we just loved to hear him.”

Eighty years later, suffering from congestive heart failure and tending to her husband who was terminally ill, Mrs. Dill chuckled as she recalled conversations with her two grandpas. She quotes Grandpa Vinson saying, “Now you can remember this always, can’t you?”

Her reply was always yes. “And I have remembered,” she declared. “That’s been part of my life, to remember the stories grandpa told me.”

Another voice from the past spoke of the wild days of her youth, claiming that she and her husband were the Bonnie and Clyde of Golden Pond. Lorene Turner Higgins grew up on a farm in Golden Pond, Kentucky, and married Lawton Higgins, also from that community. She talked about the pie suppers that were part of the social life, and remembered when Lawton bought the first pie she’d baked when she was only 10 and he, 12.

“I just had it in my mind that my daddy or some of my uncles or some of the neighbors would buy my pie,” she said. “Well, he bought it and I didn’t know what to do. So I went to Momma and I said, “I don’t know that boy. I’m not gonna eat my pie with him.”

After Renie’s mother reviewed the finer points of pie supper etiquette with her daughter, the kids shared the pie. They did the same thing every year after that, until Renie was 15 and the two got married.

Lawton’s family business was moonshine whiskey, and Lorene recalled a heart-stopping car chase when she and her young husband were being pursued by a federal lawman. They had 110 gallons of whiskey in the trunk of their old car, and getting caught meant arrest and jail.

“We came on up and got on 68,” Lorene said, referring to Route 68, and they went right past the toll booth without stopping.

“We didn’t know at the time,” she went on, “but someone said the toll collector shot at us as we went over the bridge.”
Finally on the other side of the bridge, they made a quick left to Route 94 and headed for Murray, foiling the law, at least for a while.

Laurene wrote and published a book, Renie from Golden Pond, which consisted of much more than car chases and pie suppers. She shared vivid and painful memories of the loss of home and community when Land Between the Lakes was established. The most poignant was her description of watching the house she’d lived in for years being bulldozed and buried.

“Well, I went into hysterics. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t mine anymore, but to me it was.”

Lorene Turner Higgins and Vara Sykes Wallace are just two of many folks who agreed to be part of an oral history project about life “Between the Rivers.” Audio from the project is archived at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort. A link to the interviews is available here.

The Pogue Library on the Murray State University campus also has holdings regarding the history of the area in their digital archives. Information can be accessed here.

ConnieHeadShot071

Constance Alexander is a faculty scholar in the Teacher Quality Institute at Murray State University. She is a freelance writer who writes a regular column for her local newspaper and for KyForward. She lives in Murray. Contact the her directly at constancealexander@twc.com.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Related Posts

Leave a Comment