The recent buzz phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child,” could have been invented in Jellico. The whole town had a hand in the upbringing of all its children. We were nurtured and protected, and at the same time exposed to the realities of life, sometimes life at its harshest. The Depression had been hard, but the war years were even harder with so many of the men gone from town. Yet they were good years with fond memories. After the war, life returned to normal. But things had changed.
Jellico was a beautiful place—at least for three seasons of the year: spring with its bright green freshness, the winds of March sending kites soaring to new heights, the April rains gently bathing away the remnants of winter; summer with its lush greenery and slow, lazy days; fall with its spectacular display of colors. Winter was a different story—the hills barren and stark, the skies cloudy, the days short. When it snowed that changed with the bleakness of the hills softened by a blanket of white—but only for a few hours because quickly a layer of coal soot would turn the white snow to a dirty gray.
I truly had a carefree childhood—wandering freely around town, hiking in the mountains, traveling with Daddy to the various lumber company job sites and coal mines, playing and sharing dreams with my friends.
Jellico had its share of problems and problem people, but most of the people I knew were kind, good-hearted, hard-working citizens who had time for the little boy with the big glasses.
I think I best summed up my feelings for Jellico in a column I wrote when I was editor of the Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington under the headline: “Is it a real place? Yes, Mary, there is a Jellico”
After reading a recent column, Standard staffer Mary Conway asked me, “Is Jellico a real place or just something you imagined to illustrate your stories?”
Yes, Mary, there is a Jellico.
To find it you take Interstate 75 north from Knoxville and take the Jellico exit. It’s the one right after Stinking Creek Road exit.
Jellico is the only place in the world, as far as I know, with this name. The Brazilians recognized this when they put on my driver’s license as my place of birth “Jellico, North America.” That’s really all you need.
Jellico is nestled snugly between Pine Mountain and Indian Mountain and sits astraddle the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In it’s heyday in the first part of this century, it was a boomtown serving the surrounding coal and logging industries.
Jellico is not Dogpatch, as many visitors have found to their surprise. It is a blend of many things, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” and maybe even a smidgen of “Peyton Place.”
Many Jellico natives have achieved success, fame and fortune in many fields, but none is more famous than opera singer Grace Moore whose career was ended at its peak in 1947 in a plane crash.
I remember Jellico as a gentle place even though I grew up during a period when bloody violence raged across the southern Appalachian coalfields. Coal was king when I was a youth but by the time I finished high school, the industry was faltering. I and most of my classmates had to leave to seek our fortunes elsewhere. It seemed that Jellico would become a ghost town.
But Jellico didn’t die. It survives and today and once again seems to be flourishing.
Much has changed in my hometown since I left there 33 years ago. But more than you might expect is still the same.
Dick Creekmore still runs a grocery store on Main Street, but he now also has a supermarket a few blocks away. Culver’s shoe shop is still there near the intersection of Main and Fifth Streets.
Jake McCleary is still at the bank and Harold Moon still sings bass in the choir at Jellico Methodist Church. Mrs. McCleary still plays the organ every Sunday at the First Baptist Church. Mrs Kate Wirtz, a pillar in the Catholic Church, still writes about the goings and comings and doings of Jellico’s citizens in the Advance-Sentinel.
The house where I was born is still there but the road out front is paved. The yard seems smaller and the coalhouse and chicken yard out back have been torn away. The honeysuckle and hollyhocks that perfumed the summer evenings of my youth also are gone.
Grace Moore’s old home, where my Aunt Esther and Uncle Hugh lived in later years, has been torn away and replaced by an apartment building. The Central Drug Store is still on Main Street but the Gay Theater where Saturday double features were nine cents is no longer there.
Pickup trucks have replaced the mule-drawn coal wagons whose tailgates provided convenient, if not swift, transportation for lads such as myself.
Fast food places abound in the Crouches Creek area where the interstate goes through and Tannery Hollow has become the fashionable place to live.
Many people have left. A few, such as Dean Rodeheaver and her late husband Clyde, returned to spend their retirement years there.
Above all, Jellico is still a place filled with “dear hearts and gentle people,” who indeed make me feel welcome every time I return.
And, though it is indeed a real, living place, Jellico is, for me at least, a state of mind. It is there that my roots lie and it is from there that whatever I have become got it’s start. It is my measuring stick for values because I have never found any improvement on the values that were taught there.
And no matter how far I travel or what I see and do, I know that I always have to go back to Jellico to put it into perspective.
Sadly, all the people named in that 1980s article have since gone to their reward. But Jellico keeps going.
A book could be written on Jellico’s characters of those years. We had, for instance, our own version of “Mrs. Malaprop.” She always tried to use the biggest word possible, and most of the time got it wrong. She swished into the bank one afternoon and approached the president, who was talking to a group of men in the lobby. “Mr. McCleary, I would like to have a private intercourse with you in your office.” I’m sure she meant “interview.” Mother and I were sitting in the auditorium at the Jellico City School waiting for some performance to begin on the stage. She came up and asked, “Is this seat preserved?” She worked for a local doctor, and she arrived late for a bridge club session one afternoon explaining that she had been delayed because she had to have “Doctor’s entrails engraved on his watch.” Another time she told a group of people that she was very tired because she had spent the afternoon “cleaning Doctor’s privates.”
We had a town prostitute who turned tricks in her Ford car. Another, less successful, was available under a bridge after dark, but she was so dirty she got few takers.
We had our share of sex scandals. A man from a prominent family left town abruptly after he was accused of fondling boys on a Boy Scout hike. Another prominent man was literally caught by his wife with his pants down at the home of another woman. Another couple were caught under a tree, he wearing nothing but his undershirt and she her slip. And a single mother got away with the story of a soldier husband who was killed in the war until her son grew up to be the image of a local married man.
My memory of growing up in Jellico is a kaleidoscope of colors, smells, and other sensations that are hard to put in print. How, for instance, can you describe the feeling of grass wet from the dew between your toes on a warm spring morning? Or the not unpleasant smell of hay, horseflesh, harness leather and even manure of a stable? Or the smell of burning leaves in the fall? Or the dirt turned over by a bulldozer grading a road on Laurel Branch? Or the sweet honeysuckle vine outside my window in South End? Or the fresh smell of the earth after a brief shower?
What could be better than lying on the ground on a summer afternoon watching the huge fluffy clouds forming all kinds of intriguing shapes against the deep blue sky? What could be more beautiful than the dogwoods, mountain laurel and dozens of other spectacular plants on the green hillsides? What could taste better than a tomato, still warm from the sun, picked straight from the vine and eaten on the spot?
We don’t choose where we grow up, of course. But I can’t think of any place that I’ve seen that I would have preferred to my hometown, Jellico.
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