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Kentucky by Heart: The work of C-J’s Allen Trout offers ‘folksy’ look back at Kentucky in the 1940s

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at KyForward January 9, 2018.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

I picked up an interesting title on a recent visit to a used bookstore in Lexington. Published in 1947 by the Courier-Journal, it’s called Greetings from Old Kentucky, by Allan M. Trout. It’s mostly a collection of long-time C-J writer Trout’s columns with the same title, which originated in 1939. No doubt, some of the material Trout penned has its share of what easily could be construed as racially insensitive and condescending toward women.

Noteworthy, though, is that the work is a window into cultural norms in the state in that period.

Trout writes in a folksy style not unlike C-J’s Joe Creason, who came on the scene after him and one I’ve admired for a long time. I’m also fans of Byron Crawford, also a C-J columnist and David Dick, who authored a passel of books about “quiet Kentuckians.” All of these writers focus on common folk in Kentucky, are easy to read, and have added immeasurably to the state’s literary heritage.

In Greetings, Trout gathered stories from his readers and told his own, too. Often he was asked for advice over innocuous issues, and he exuded joy in giving it. I get the impression that the journalist, with much experience reporting on state politics, viewed Greetings as an enormously fun sideline done somewhat in a tongue in cheek fashion. Here’s a flavoring of the light tone of Trout’s popular columns.

Senator W. See, Louisa, shared a humorous anecdote told by his cousin, Richard Wilson (also of Louisa), about “mountain hogs.” In his travels, Richard came across a coal camp in Tennessee that was under construction. The operators wanted to build a road up the mountain to give passage for the mine mules, but couldn’t find a contractor equipped to do so. Then a local farmer who owned 250 mountain hogs stepped forward and told them he could get it accomplished. Exasperated, the coal camp officials agreed to allow him to try.

According to Senator See, his cousin said that the following transpired after giving the hog farmer the big project: “Well, sir, the farmer first took a crowbar and punched holes 18 inches apart in the side of the mountain along where the operators wanted the road to run. He punched them all the way from level ground to the drift mouth of the mine.

Allen M. Trout (Photo provided)

“The farmer next got several sacks of shelled corn and carefully filled the holes with it. He saved out enough corn, however, to toll his 250 head of mountain hogs from the barn lot to the lowest level of holes. The farmer stayed with his hogs just long enough for them to discover that the holes up the side of the mountains were filled with corn.
“My cousin relates,” continued Senator See, “that ere the sun set that evening, the hogs had rooted out a nice roadbed from the bottom of the mountain to the drift mouth of the mine.”

The hog account shared by Senator See inspired a response in a later column from Dr. N.C. McGraw, of Cadiz. McGraw’s father, he explained, raised sweet potatoes in ground located over a cave in Trigg County, where a neighbor raised razorback hogs that, unfortunately, ravaged his crop on a yearly basis. His father, frustrated, proceeded to take action.

“Finally,” said the young McGraw, “my father made a fence to keep them out, but each year the potatoes were gone at digging time. So he kept a watch on the hogs. He discovered that they went into the cave, rooted the potatoes out, and left the ground unbroken on top.”

Not to be outdone, Joseph Edwards, Sr., of Nelson County, later added this anecdote to the swine series. This one supposedly occurred in Clay County while Edwards was doing work as an inspector of forest products.

“While strolling through the woods one day with my friend, Bill Curry, a ridge runner from London, in Laurel County, we came upon a large bunch of hogs. I stopped in amazement to make a closer inspection.

“The hind legs of these hogs were a foot longer than their front legs. And every one of had a large hole through each ear. I asked Bill why on earth anybody would want to cut holes in the ears of hogs whose hind legs were a foot longer than their front legs.”

In what might bring a modern-day response of “laugh out loud,” Bill explained to Edwards that those unique looking hogs were bred so that “their long hind legs were to keep them on an even keel as they fed up the side of the mountain.”
So what about the holes in the hogs’ ears? Bill had that covered, too. He noted that because of the discrepancy in the leg sizes, the hogs could not walk down the hill. “So they stuck their hind legs through the holes in their ears and slid down,” Bill said.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion for the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Trout often received questions from his readers of the “local color/expressions” type; they likely were baiting him to respond with his quite original and creative answers—pure entertainment and not serious journalism. Here’s a selection of the questions:

“How far is a ‘piece’?”

“How cold is kraut?”

“Are tumble bugs extinct?”

“What’s the legal status of Groundhogs Day?”

“Why does the preacher say: ‘I pronounce you man and wife and not husband and wife?’”

“Does a hen lay eggs because she wants to or she has to?”

Without going on about the particulars about what Trout answered, he created obvious interest because readers kept sending him more.

Trout had a pet theory about the cause of the South quitting fighting the Civil War. He called it a “Yankee trick.” What really happened at Appomattox, according to the columnist, was “that General Lee, mistaking Grant for an orderly dressed in a captured uniform, handed him his sword to polish. Grant would not give the sword back when General Lee discovered he had been tricked by this Yankee stratagem. With General Lee’s sword gone, the South had no honorable choice but to retire from the field.” With this little bit of revisionist history by Trout, he maybe was getting a little cocky with his popularity and believed he could say about anything he wanted. Maybe he was just “funning.” Not sure we’ll ever know, as he died in 1972.

Perhaps what I like most about Trout’s book of columns is that his easy interaction with his readers was a type of primitive social media, though the process worked much less instantaneously executed. (Snail mail letters to Trout were the primary communication mode.) But maybe it was better because the act of writing letters and formulating columns was more thoughtfully crafted, relying less on emotions of the moment.

Greetings from Old Kentucky will be situated comfortably on a bookshelf in my study, where I can use it as a ready resource for capturing the essence of daily life in the state during the era a big world war was raging, or afterward when the first baby boomers were spawned.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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