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Constance Alexander: Murray’s WKMS Celebrates 50 years with voices from Between the Rivers


Unlike a character in the movie “The Sixth Sense,” I do not see dead people but I do hear their voices, because of Connecting People & Place, a documentary series first broadcast in 1997-98, on WKMS-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Murray.

What began as a cooperative oral history project between WKMS and Land Between The Lakes Association, ended up as a 13-part series, with support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Oral History Commission. Over the years, the series has been a favorite among WKMS listeners, so the station decided to re-broadcast it in observance of their fiftieth anniversary. The first episode airs on Thursday, May 21, at noon.

Each installment of Connecting People & Place explores historic aspects of life on the slender peninsula formerly known as Between the Rivers. Originally, the slender peninsula between the Tennessee and Cumberland in western Kentucky and Tennessee was composed of dozens of small communities. Some residents’ ties to the land extended all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

Over the years, hundreds of families were displaced with the construction of dams, bridges, and roads. Homes, businesses, churches, farms, and schools, were bulldozed and buried to create a National Recreation Area. Today, most vestiges of human habitation are gone, except for the 200-plus small cemeteries that dot the 170,000-acre expanse of LBL.

More than sixty former residents of Between the Rivers were interviewed for Connecting People & Place, most of them by me. When I close my eyes, I can hear their voices. Memorable events like the arrival of the showboat are recalled, along with riveting recollections of the Flood of 1937. Everyday events like hog killings, pie suppers, rural schools and school teachers, breathe life into the past.

I will never forget listening to Vara Lillian Sykes Wallace, who was 93 when I interviewed her back in 1996. Her father’s businesses at Sykes Landing in Tharp, Tennessee, included a blacksmith shop, a flour mill and a grist mill. There was a general store too, and it sold just about anything.

I can hear Mrs. Wallace saying, “You could buy anything in there you could buy n Nashville. Corsets, shoes, hosiery, hats, dress clothes and house clothes. And gloves.”

As she described the store she closed her eyes and pointed out each location as she remembered it. She listed the lavish materials on display, the kind of fabrics that could be fashioned into fancy attire and everyday apparel. Vara’s recitation was almost a poem: Pongee, crepe de chine, china silk, linen, calico, gingham, and corduroy.

Just as vivid in Vara’s memory was the morning in 1917 when five young men from Tharp were at her father’s store, waiting for the boat to take them to Nashville and then on to fight in World War I. She could name each one and recalled their fate.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Not everyone returned when it was “over, over there.”

Vara Sykes Wallace is just one of so many voices featured in Connecting People & Place. The first segment that airs on May 21 includes background about the geological history of Between the Rivers and information about its earliest inhabitants. More current history is covered ny former residents reminiscing about growing up in small, self-sufficient communities, where people were proud, self-sufficient, and generous.

Mildred Phillips Bruton recalled growing up in Mint Spring, Tenn., and appreciating the sacrifices her parents made so she could attend high school in Dover. Oneida Ahart Boyd reminisced about her family’s move to Murray from Between the Rivers, a journey of more than miles. Verona Smith Grogan, who lived near the Birmingham Ferry, recalled life on the farm with her parents and sisters.

Historian Betty Joe Wallace spoke of the Scots-Irish heritage of Between the Rivers, and how that shaped communities’ values. Another highlight of the first episode is a reunion of former roommates Mildred Bruton, Bea Quinn Adamson Kennett, and Maretta Quinn Knott, who fondly recall escapades of their high school days in Dover.

Mildred Bruton’s sentiments about her homeplace are echoed in every segment of Connecting People & Place because her words say it all: “I just wish they could see it like I remember it.”

WKMS will play two segments of the series every Thursday at noon between May 21 and July 2. For more information, go 91.3 or to the website, wkms.org.

Online clips from a film project about Between the Rivers are available at www.betweentheriversfilm.com.


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