May I share an excerpt from the book with you?
(Click link below to soar to the Amazon site.)
One afternoon while hiking the hills of North Carolina, in July of 1987, I stumbled across an old map with the town of “Gilreath” on it. “Gilreath” is my mother’s family name. That small-unexpected discovery captured my imagination for almost three decades. That old map eventually propelled me to the hills of Kentucky, and back to the roots of my ancestors. Who were these people who risked their lives settling the frontier?
Touching the Mind of the Universe
Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt as if you were at home? It happened to me the first time while visiting the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. They were featuring a Native American exhibit punctuated with the music of Carlos Nikai. The music seemed familiar, hauntingly so. The dreaming world was my world. There were exhibits of weaving, corn husking, making molasses, sewing, cooking, and preserving food. I realized as I walked through the exhibit, that these photographs and paintings were living scenes of stories told to me by my Kentucky relatives, and experienced by my own parents.
My father was half-Cherokee from the rolling mountains of Tennessee. He and my mother were raised on rural farms in a surprisingly similar fashion as the Southwestern Native Americans, although my parents moved away from their roots. Nikai’s new age twist to Native American music seemed to capture the vibrations and sounds of the woods I knew so well in Kentucky. Without words, the notes seem to mimic the fearful and fearless nature of the whispering pines. Within his flute, I heard the strange off-key (minor) songs sung in piano-less churches and the guttural mourning that underlies the daily existence of people who claim their heritage from the mountains.
As I began my research, I hoped to find a kindly ancestor with whom I could claim a synonymous life. Did I believe that my spirit had lived earlier in a forgotten relative? Was I looking for someone like me, so that I could claim the heritage of Aunt or Uncle, Cousin, or Grandfather as my own personal legacy? Could it be that I, too, was on a perilous journey, hoping to create a better, a new, happier life for myself — just like my ancestors?
Dreams often keep people alive and give them a foundation to hope for their tomorrows. Rubem Alves calls this the “presence of the absent” (What is Religion? p, 6). Many settlers during the 18th and 19th centuries made their way west through the Cumberland Pass into the Appalachian Mountains. Into this land, later to be called McCreary County, came settlers from North Carolina. Some came to escape poverty, slavery, a feud, or the law. Others came to escape the oppressive life of service to landowners or merchants, and still a few came to hunt, but most came to farm and to find a pot of gold. Among those adventurers who forged their way into the wilderness were a people by the name of Gilreath. The Gilreaths settled in a remote region of Kentucky now known as Pine Knot, Marsh Creek (sometimes spelled Marshes), Jellico Creek, Strunk, and Holly Hill in McCreary County. They even crossed the county line into Williamsburg.
In 1859 William Matt and Sarah Ann Gilreath traded their wagon and mules for two small houses and approximately 90 acres of land on Marsh Creek. The records at Whitley County Courthouse show that Matt purchased the land for $25.00. The original two-story house sat on a rise overlooking a small valley. The front porch view included another mountain billowing up out of the creek bed. The land included half of that mountain in front of the house, and almost half of the mountain behind the house. With little money, their good health, and a vision of a better life, they managed to carve out an existence in the wilderness.
According to records at Pleasant Run Church in Holly Hill, Kentucky, Benjamin and Mary Gilreath settled in the valley. Their descendents donated property to build that church. The stones marking their graves at Pleasant Run Cemetery read, “Benjamin Gilreath, Mary Gilreath, The first Gilreaths who came to this country. They came from N.C. to Pleasant Run about 1810.”
Their religion was self-reliance, innovation, and an innate desire to be free of government. Some claimed they were of the Methodist faith. This family persisted in the face of strip-mining, floods, disease, little formal education, and poverty. In the struggle to survive, learning how to “cipher” words held little priority. Consequently very little written information about these settlers in South Central Kentucky has survived.
Just a couple of miles down the road from Pleasant Run Cemetery on highway 92 in Marsh Creek lived a Gilreath whose ancestry dated back to the early days of Pleasant Run church. Their great grandson Homer Gilreath resided on the same 88-acre farm purchased by his grandfather William Matt Gilreath in 1865, and in the same house until his death in l997.
Two of his sisters Myrtle Gilreath Baird (1916-2004) and Mary Gilreath Selvidge (l922-2010) remember living on the mountain during the l920’s and l930’s. Myrtle stayed in the mountains and married a farmer. She lived on top of a mountain in Strunk, Kentucky. Neither she nor her deceased husband, Joe, never thought of learning how to drive. There was no need. In those days they could walk down the hill to the local store. Today, the closest grocery store is at least 8 miles away.
Wishes Do Come True
The foundation for this book is built upon evidence discovered in the county court houses of Whitley and McCreary Counties, in the graveyards that know no boundaries, in scores of oral history tapes that were never transcribed and printed, in the collection of the McCreary County library, in the archives of the McCreary County Record, in the Stearns Museum, in the recollections of my “kin,” and in the lives of Mary Melvina Gilreath Selvidge and Myrtle Gilreath Baird. Along the way, as I tell the stories, I will gently open the door to the possibilities of “Life Everlasting.”
The Mountains and Me
There is a song that I have in my head that never goes away. It is a song of the pines and the wind coming through the valley. It pulls me south to the mountains, to Jellico and Marsh Creeks, to the voices and places that filled my childhood. There is quietness in those meandering waters and soulful people. I understand their mountain spirits.
I understand their pain, a pain born out of hope for a better life–a better tomorrow. It is a mystical sadness that finds itself at odds with the modern world that seems to have lost sight of its own humanity. For through the research for this book I have learned that people in McCreary County (Holly Hill, Strunk, Stearns, Whitley City, Pine Knot, and more) value each other above all else. And how do I know it? Because the first thing they ask you isn’t, “How much do you make?” or “Where do you live?” or “How big is your house?” or “What kind of car do you drive?” They ask, “Who are you, and who are your people?”
As always this post is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge