Bloody Harlan, it’s called, and aye, for a reason it is. Yes, indeed, Harlan County, Kentucky is and was a place where justice is decided and meted out outside of the law as often as within the law. Families often live by the “old school” there and people believe, right or wrong that the laws don’t apply to them. Sometimes vigilante justice is much swifter and with much less mercy that the laws of the land, and other times, justice never occurs. One way or another, Harlan County, Kentucky is certainly an interesting location.
And Harlan County, of course, is where my grandfather, William George Estes, known as Will, wound up living after he and my grandmother, Ollie Bolton divorced in the mid 19-teens in Indiana.
Harlan, a center of bootleg moonshining activity for all of the 1900s and before, is, ironically a dry county, in which one single small city, Cumberland, allows liquor sales. I guess that means it’s a damp county, not entirely dry. Now that’s no problem, since many stills (examples shown here) survive up on that desolate mountain.
That would be Black Mountain, the largest, tallest mountain in all of Kentucky. I drove for 70 miles and still wasn’t at the top. Black Mountain is the border between Kentucky and Virginia, and the further East you go into Harlan County, the further up you go as well, until you either turn around or descend across the crest into Virginia. There are two roads in, both culminating in the city of Harlan and two roads out, both crossing the ridge into Virginia. One of the roads in is called “Kingdom Come” which is the original 119. That’s where Will Estes lived in his later years, I’m told, “above Cumberland” on 119. He’s buried in the D.L. Creech cemetery near the red balloon below, probably close to where he lived. Notice the “new” 119 is relatively straight, but the “old road” looks like a snake’s path back and forth winding across the new road like laces in a shoe.
Words like remote don’t even begin to describe the step back in time one experiences when visiting Harlan County. Harlan is also stunningly beautiful.
Most people in Harlan County are very nice, albeit a bit suspicious about why you are there and asking questions, unless you startle them or cross them. The rest, well, just beware.
Today, along with moonshine, Harlan produces both marijuana and meth, and that population doesn’t want either of those crops interfered with. Now when you’re graveyard hunting….you’re not on the beaten path, so it tends to be a little more, um, precarious.
To put things in perspective, Harlan County has one fast food restaurant. There is one gas station between Pineville and Harlan, a distance of 70 miles, and that gas station has a very large padlock on the restroom door and once inside, it smells worse than any outhouse I’ve ever visited. It was last cleaned about 1960. The convenience store clerk is openly wearing a gun and the “fried chicken” portion of the store closed long ago but the greasy smell still permeates everything. Yep, you’ve arrived. Gas station pumps don’t take credit cards. The sign on the door says three things.
The first sign says:
- Prepay after dark.
That sign is marked through and written in is:
- Only customers that are known to cashier don’t have to prepay.
That is marked through and below that is scratched.
- Cashier says everyone including Jesus Christ must prepay.
I wish I had taken a picture.
Pretty much all jobs in Harlan County, the legal ones that is, revolve around the mines. Harlan has a love/hate relationship with the mines and mining companies. Back in the 1930s the mines and mining companies owned the towns and people. Workers were paid in “script”, below, money only redeemable at the company stores, where everything was overpriced.
Poverty was rampant. Eventually, riots ensued in the 1930s with many murders on both sides of the fence, the miners and their families and the “company men”. The nickname “Bloody Harlan” arose during this time. Another similar strike occurred in the 1970s. Women were actively involved in the “war” too, and an award winning documentary film was created in 1976 entitled “Harlan County, USA”. Life has never been easy nor peaceful in Harlan County. Life has always been tough, really tough.
The country song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” strikes the chord I felt in Harlan County. Please listen to Darrell Scott sing this hauntingly beautiful song. Soulful country music at its best – recording the history of our people. Patty Loveless originally recorded this song and her video includes photos of the region that speak thousands of words.
“Spend your life thinking about how to get away”…..but few do.
“Sun comes up about 10 in the morning and goes down about 3 in the day”…..that’s because the valleys are so deep and steep. GPS and satellite radio don’t work there because they can’t see outside the valleys to the satellites. Cell phones? Mine was useless. Don’t bother trying.
My grandfather lived the second half of his life in Harlan County, died there and is buried in a grave with no marker. So very Harlan.
No, you’ll never leave Harlan alive…
We don’t have any photos of William George Estes as a child, but one of his earliest known photos with Ollie is shown below. Ironically, one of the things that Will did was to take photographs of people, so he’s not in many, at least not until he acquired a timer for the camera.
Will was probably about 40 years old in this photo. He was born in Claiborne County on March 30, 1874 to Lazarus Estes and his wife Elizabeth Vannoy Estes. On September 26, 1892 he married Ollie Bolton in Claiborne County. Their first child, Samuel, was born in July the next year and would live only 6 weeks before they buried him in the family cemetery. Not a good start for a young couple.
William George Estes and Ollie Bolton would have several children:
- Samuel Estes born and died in 1893
- Charles Estel Sebastian Estes (1894-1972) married Edith May Parkey
- Infant (1896 – before 1900) born and died in Arkansas
- Robert Estes (1898 – before 1907), died when the house burned
- Infant (born and died about 1900)
- William Sterling Estes (1902/3-1963), below, married several times.
- Joseph “Dode” Estes (1904-1994) married Lucille Latta and had two sons. Robert Vernon Estes (1931-1951) was taken as a POW in Korea and died in captivity, his body never returned. Charles Arthur Estes (1928-1986) married and had a daughter. This photo, according to Aunt Margaret, was taken either in Quantico, VA or Balboa in San Diego when he was 13, posing as 18 to join the military.
- Margaret Estes (1906-2005) married Ed O’Rourke, had one son that died.
- Minnie Estes (1908-2008), married several times but had one son with John Raymond Price.
- Twins (born and died in roughly 1913)
- Elsia (born and died roughly 1914 or 1915)
After their first child died, William George Estes and Ollie left Claiborne County for a new beginning and moved to Springdale, Arkansas, shown below outside the post office about the time that Will and Ollie lived there.
Fifteen months after Samuel died, their next child Charles Estel was born in Arkansas.
Two years later another baby was born, died and was buried in the Arkansas soil, alone. In 1898, Robert was born. Ollie ran a boarding house in Springdale. By all reports, Will spent his days fishing and his nights drinking.
During my visit to Springdale in 2004, I noticed the bridge and creek across from the old “hotel” in what is now “old town.” I figured while Ollie was changing beds and cleaning chamber pots and spittoons and taking care of her young children, Will was fishing off the bridge. It must have been a tough life for Ollie. For some reason, this area was settled by several Claiborne County families, so they did have at least some distant Clarkson/Claxton family there.
By the 1900 census, they were back in Claiborne County and Will has been out of work for 6 months. Uncle George (Estes) told me before his death that Will and Ollie moved back to Estes Holler and lived in a little cabin just down from Lazarus’s land, along the creek. I suspect that they might have had another child that died in 1900. However, we do know that my father was born in (or about) 1902, followed by Joseph “Dode” in 1904, Margaret in 1906 and Minnie in 1908. Sometime before 1907, the cabin caught on fire. Some family said that Ollie was outside in the yard. Others said she was at a party. No one said anything about where William George was. Estel tried to get little Robert out, but he crawled under the bed. Robert died in the fire. William George and Ollie buried Robert beside their first child in Estes Holler. Uncle George later planted a willow tree where the cabin burned, and that tree has since fallen and is gone, with nothing left to mark the place where they lived and their child died. I am probably the last person alive who knows where that cabin was located. Perhaps it’s a memory better left to dissipate with the winds of time.
The photo above shows my father, standing on the ground, along with Estel, the oldest child, standing. The blonde child on the chair was probably Joseph Dode since he looks to be younger than my father and Dode was born in 1904. The baby is Margaret, born in 1906. This photo was probably taken about 1907 and the note on the back says Cumberland Gap. Ollie Bolton Estes does not look like a happy woman. She would have recently lost her son, Robert.
Shortly thereafter, Ollie and Will departed again, this time for the farmlands of Indiana.
Outside of Fowler, Indiana, farms needed tenant farmers and it seemed like a land with more opportunity than the limited land that Estes Holler had to offer. Aunt Margaret, before she passed away, and before she became too demented, told me that there were twins born and died in 1913. She told me that Will and Ollie’s last child, Elsia, was born in 1914 in Fowler and that she later died in Cook County, Illinois. She said that Elsia was “retarded” as special needs children were called at the time. At one point Margaret also mentioned another set of twins born in 1918, but if this is correct, they may not have been Will’s and they did not survive. He was back in Tennessee/Kentucky by 1918. Margaret was one of the Crazy Aunts, so you never really knew what or how much to believe.
The photo above, the only photo of the entire family, minus the deceased children, of course, was taken in Fowler, Indiana in about 1914.
It was in Fowler that Ollie and Will’s marriage deteriorated to the point of divorce. According to several sources, Ollie’s cousin, Joice, said as Joicey, was visiting in Indiana.
Now just out of curiosity, I had to figure out just how Ollie and Joice were related. And this just goes to show how the word “cousin” is interpreted in Appalachia. Are you ready for this?
George Hatfield had a son Lynch who had a son Walter who married Mary Polly Hurst, whose mother was Mahala Claxton, daughter of James Lee Claxton and Sarah Cook. George Hatfield also had a son Ralph who had a son Lynch who had a son Lynch who had daughter Joice. So Ollie’s grandfather’s 1st cousin (or Ollie’s 1st cousin twice removed), Mary Polly Hurst, married Walter Hatfield. Walter Hatfield’s father’s brother’s great-granddaughter was Joice Hatfield. So, in case you’re having trouble following this, I tried to chart the connection.
If you’re looking at this saying to yourself, “they aren’t related by blood, only by marriage,” you would be right. Not only that, but related by marriage going back up the tree 4 generations, then down two, from both sides. This explains, better than anything else, the concept of kinship in the south – or at least in this part of Tennessee. Probably more important than anything was that these families still lived, for the most part, on the same land or at least in the same holler that their ancestors did, as close neighbors, so the kinship connection remained strong and encompassed everyone closely or distantly related. So, four generations out, you were literally related to everyone in that part of the county. By the way, that also made their business your business….just saying. Oh, and if you didn’t like them, you just claimed they “weren’t kin” even if they lived across the road with the same last name.
Ollie came home one day to find Will “in the act” with her young teenage cousin, born in 1893, 20 years younger than Ollie. Ollie took a horsewhip to them both and from all accounts, nearly killed Will. The neighbors had to restrain Ollie and it reportedly took several men to get it done. She was pregnant with either Elsia or the twins at the time, depending on whose version of the story you are listening to. One version says the incident made Ollie go into labor early and she had the twins prematurely and they were stillborn. If that is true, then she subsequently got pregnant with Elsia, if the dates are correct. I have never been able to substantiate the births or deaths of either the twins or Elsia, but I have no reason to think they did not exist, especially since multiple people told me of their births.
Regardless of the exact timing and order of those unfortunate events, sometime around 1915, Ollie left Fowler for Chicago, without Will, and took Minnie and Margaret with her. Aunt Margaret’s letters written many years later to my step-mother said that neither Ollie nor Will wanted the boys. Estel, by then age 19 or 20 was old enough to fend for himself. However, my father William Sterling known as “Bill” and also as “Sterl,” and Joseph known as “Dode” were only early teens, if that, and didn’t know exactly what to do.
Bill and Dode hopped a freight train for Tennessee and found their way back to Claiborne County looking for family and food. They showed up half-starved and filthy and telling tales about what happened between their mother and father. By the time Will showed up back in Estes Holler with young Joice in tow, Lazarus Estes, his father, was having none of that, and Will got himself chased out of Estes Holler for “doing Ollie wrong.” To my knowledge, no one had ever been run out of Estes Holler, and we’ve got some pretty colorful characters to our credit. Lazarus told Will if he came back, he’d kill him, or so the story goes. Lazarus Estes and his wife Elizabeth Vannoy are shown below.
The only place rougher than Estes Holler was Harlan County, and Will could go there and “hide out” (Will’s words) from both his Estes kin, Ollie’s kin and Joice Hatfield’s kin. It seems that everyone except Joice was mad at Will. And she would be shortly.
And yes, these are the Hatfield’s of Hatfield and McCoy feud fame and yes, Will fit right in in Harlan County. In March of 1918, Joice had daughter, Virginia Estes, shown together below.
This photo is from Virginia’s obituary in 2000.
We don’t know exactly when William George Estes came back to Claiborne County, but do know he registered for the draft on September 12, 1918 and he was living in Claiborne County at that time and Joisce is listed as his nearest relative.
The 1920 census shows us that Will is living with wife Joice, daughter Virginia, and with them, we find Joice’s younger cousin, Croice (also Crosha, Croshie) Brewer, along with her young son, Horace. There is no further record of Horace. Crocie was listed as “deaf and dumb.” You know what’s coming next don’t you?
What is the best predictor of future behavior? Past performance.
Yep, Will, again, finds himself involved with his wife’s younger cousin who is living with them. You’d think that Joice would have known better, all things considered.
According to Margaret and cousins in Estes holler, Will actually wound up married to both of these women at the same time, one “over the mountain” in KY and one in TN. Does this sound familiar? Did his son, William Sterling Estes, follow in his bigamist footsteps? That old apple and tree saying seems to hold true. What a mess Will made. Eventually he reportedly would live with neither wife. I have no idea how he got himself untangled from two simultaneous marriages, or if he ever did, assuming the story is true in the first place.
Will had three children by Crocie, Josephine, above, born in 1923. There appear to be pages missing, or at least several residences missed in the 1930 census on Black Mountain, but the 1940 census reports that Josephine was born in Arkansas, so Will and Crocie may have lived there for a time but were back in Harlan County by 1925.
In 1925, a baby girl names Helen May Estes was born in Lynch, Kentucky. No one in the family ever talked about this child, or, for that matter, their son William James Estes. Helen May died when she was six years old. Her death certificate says that she died of broncho-pneumonia on April 3, 1931, and that she had smallpox. She was buried in the Gillam Cemetery, where their son would also be buried a few years later. I found it odd that Helen wasn’t buried until almost a full month later, on April 4th. It must have been a terrible month for the family. Given that the address on the death certificate was listed as “Shack #74, Lynch,” the issue could have been money for a burial plot. Crocie was also heavily pregnant for Evelyn as well, and may have been ill herself.
“Red-headed Evelyn” was born shortly after Helen’s death in 1931 in Kentucky and a son, William James, who was born in 1935 died as an infant in 1937 under questionable circumstances. His death certificate states the following: “Died of acute intestinal indigestion” and it’s noted that it was “from improper food. 2 years 6 months old and buried in the Gilliam Cemetery,” located just above Cumberland on the map below. Remembering what Margaret said about having no food when they were children, and being fed alcohol, I have to wonder what happened to poor William James Estes.
There was some question for a long time whether Josephine was the child of Joice or Crocie. However, since Josephine is buried in the cemetery where Evelyn, Will and Crocie are buried, she is most probably Crocie’s daughter.
Joice went back home to Hancock County, Tennessee. In the 1930 census, she is listed as Jaysey Hatfield, living with her parents, Lynch Hatfield and Virginia Foley Hatfield. Daughter Virginia is also listed under the Hatfield surname, and there is no daughter Josephine.
In 1940, Virginia Estes is found married to Little Brewer in Hancock County, with Dorothy aged 2, and Gennett (Jannette,) 7 months old. Virginia and Little Brewer moved to Anderson, Indiana and lived there most of their lives, working in the auto plants. They had one more child, a son, Ambrose, born in 1942 who predeceased Virginia, who passed away in 2000.
Both Evelyn, who married Marco Pusice, a polish miner, and Josephine who married Andy Jackson lived their lives in Harlan County. Both women, their husbands, Will and one of his wives, a “Mrs. Estes” who we presume is Crocie who died in 1961, are all buried in Harlan County in the D.L. Creech cemetery. Joice died in 1965 in Anderson, Indiana where Virginia, her daughter, lived.
I’m sure that the Bolton/Hatfield/Brewer family reunions were interesting after that, especially given that Virginia married into the family of Crocie, Will’s third wife and Joice’s cousin who cheated with Will. Of course, that’s kind of karmic in a sense, because Joice also cheated with Will, on her cousin, Ollie. What’s that saying…what goes around, comes around.
If Will was a smart man, he steered very clear of any family of these women, especially male family members. Maybe he just stayed out of Hancock County altogether. He’s lucky he didn’t just “disappear” although the remoteness of Black Mountain and the roughness of Harlan County was probably very intimidating to anyone not from there – and it probably served to protect Will.
To the best of my knowledge Will never worked inside the mines. He reportedly made pilings for shoring up the mines. Some said he wound up with a lot of mine land, but the deed index of Harlan County shows that Will owned no land at all, neither did he have a will.
The 1940 census and the entries surrounding those of William George Estes are quite interesting and gives us a flavor of what life was like in Harlan County. Among other things, this census tells us that William George Estes never attended school. Crocie has 4 years of school. Josephine at age 17 was classified as H3, probably 3rd year of high school. Sadly, Eveline had no school at 8 years of age. Perhaps Josephine was staying with someone in town.
Most of the families, for pages and pages in each direction were listed with a margin note that said “shack.” William George was listed with a note that said “lease.” However, the number is “74” which is the same location as given in the 1931 death certificate for Helen May. William George is listed as a farmer and everyone else, with no exceptions, is listed in some way associated with the coal mines, or as a timberman. I’m reminded of the family stories that said Will “made a lot of money” selling timbers to shore up the mines. A “lot of money” may have been relative, when compared to hundreds of families living in shacks. Someone who leased land might have been considered wealthy. And given that we know that he was a moonshiner, we know in this case, what farmer really meant.
There is a column for where each family lived in 1935 and a surprisingly high number of these families lived in the “same house. Will’s says the same thing, so this is where they were living in 1935 when their son was born and in 1931 when their daughter died. They are missing in the 1930 census, but this is also likely where they were living then as well and possibly in 1925 when Helen was born.
Three entries before Will we find a margin note saying “Big Looney Creek” on leased land and 5 shacks before that another lease that says “Looney Creek.”
Seven shacks after Will’s leased land, we find Looney Creek listed again, and right beside that, two shacks later, “Top Black Mountain.” So, Will didn’t live quite at the highest elevation in all of Kentucky, “in the last house at the end of ‘bad ass street'” as it was termed where I grew up, he lived about 10 houses below the summit.
This red balloon shows Looney Creek just below the top of Black Mountain where it crosses at the summit into Virginia. The road follows the creek path from the top of the mountain through Lynch and Benham to Cumberland.
Below is a satellite image of this area today. We know that Will lived “above Cumberland” near Looney Creek and below the top of Black Mountain.
On the census, Gap Branch In Lynch, KY, is shown before Will’s location, several pages. Today, there are no houses or “shacks” on 160 south of the two 160 markers at the top of the photo, below. Lynch is the community that includes Gap Branch located between those top two 160 markers (below), between Benham and the red balloon (above).
To put this in further perspective, Will is buried above Cumberland on 119 near the first red arrow on the map below. His son William James and daughter Helen May are buried “above Cumberland” between Cumberland and Benham, near the second arrow. William lived someplace on 160 between Gap Branch (In Lynch, KY), the red arrow between the two 160 markers below Benham on this picture, which in Harlan County would be termed “above Benham” because of the elevation. This arrow is located between the two 160 markers, between Benham and the top of Black Mountain. The fourth, furthest right, red arrow is the last location of any housing today, at the 160 marker. The red balloon is the google location for Looney Creek. Looney Creek actually begins about half way between the red balloon and the top of the Mountain. That would be where the freshest water would be found, so the safest to drink. Black Mountain is the highest and most rugged and inaccessible location in Kentucky. In the earlier 1900s, when coal was first discovered here, it was reported that there was only one mule path across this mountain.
Mom said that when she went to visit with my father in the 1950s, his house was extremely remote and difficult to get to. She shuddered to think of it. Mom met Crocie so she apparently lived with him at that time. Mother didn’t care for how he treated Crocie, although she was never specific. Mother never went back. Others referred to Crocie as Will’s virtual slave.
By the 1960s, Will was writing letters to my father about having Evelyn “hid out” until things settled down. I don’t know what Evelyn was doing that time, but another letter mentions “bad checks.” Both Evelyn and Josephine were exceptionally beautiful women and known in the vernacular of the day as “sirens.” It’s not surprising that they were somewhat wild, given their genetic heritage. Furthermore, their Dad was a known moonshiner and bootlegger. White lightning greasing the skids of popularity I’m sure for those girls, as did their beauty.
But moonshining wasn’t the whole story. The whispered family history, and there was a LOT of whispered family history, revealed stories of Will killing a revenuer in the 1920s or 1930s. The story goes that the revenuer had the bad judgment to try to take Will alone up on Black Mountain, shown in the photo above. It never happened, and the revenue agent was never seen again. Now I chalked this up to old family gossip, known in the south as “no account talk,” especially since so many of the stories about this family have proven to be unfounded or at least unsubstantiated. However, a few years ago, through another source entirely, I heard the story of a revenue agent, who supposedly went up on Black Mountain after a moonshiner in the 1920s and was never heard from again. It seems very odd that a revenue agent would work alone in that venue. It almost smells like some kind of payola deal gone bad. I have always wondered if those two stories are just coincidence – or maybe one fed the other. Only Will knows for sure, and he’s not talking.
That’s not the end of the extraordinary stories about this family either. It seems that something happened to Evelyn, Will’s daughter. Two different children of Estel’s told me that Evelyn was murdered, her throat cut and she was nearly decapitated in front of her children. One version says that she was married to a “Jake” whom she divorced, then married “an old man,” one source says a doctor, who she took care of until she died. Another family source says that a robber broke into their home and she was nearly beheaded in front of her children, murdered.
I found Evelyn’s death certificate and she died of a hyperglycemic coma at age 46, BUT, an autopsy was indeed performed, which is extremely odd under those circumstances. Anemia was a contributing factor, but no injuries were listed. If you were “anemic” because your throat had been slashed, I’d think that would be noted on the death certificate as a contributing factor. Evelyn had one daughter, Joyce, according to her obituary and the obituary said nothing about being murdered. I told you my family had incredible stories, and these weren’t even from the Crazy Aunts!
My visit in October 2009 to Harlan County was to locate and visit my grandfather’s grave. With all of the genealogy work I’ve done on my older ancestors, it seemed unholy somehow that I had never made it to Harlan County to visit my grandfather. You know, it’s not like Harlan County is on the way TO anyplace.
Will lived to be a very old man and he was only ill for a few days before his death of pneumonia. He died November 29, 1971 in Harlan, KY, age 98. He was buried 2 days later. He is shown below with his sister Cornie Epperson who died in 1958.
I was a teenager in 1971. I didn’t even know my grandfather was still alive, let alone that he died. I don’t think mother knew he was alive either. He did not attend my father’s funeral in 1963. It was in 1973 that Virgie, my step-mother, who kept in touch with Aunt Margaret, told me that my grandfather had died. Since my father was gone, it never occurred to me that my grandfather might still have been alive.
I would have at least liked to have had the opportunity to have known him, although I’m not sure my mother would have approved, all things considered, and with good reason. There appeared to be at least 14 grandchildren in total, although he outlived at least two of them and probably more.
My trip to locate and visit his grave was, thankfully, not reflective of the drama that heralded his life. I had called ahead to the “rescue squad” which is associated with the Johnson Funeral home where Will’s services were held to see if they knew where the D.L. Creech Cemetery was located. They did, and told me if I’d come up to Lynch, they’d take me and show me. I learned a long time ago that volunteer fire and rescue are the best sources in these areas. They know everyone and know how to get everyplace. And they know how to stay safe.
I told them I was stopping at the courthouse on the way to Lynch, as Harlan is the county seat and you have to pass right through there on the way to Cumberland, then Lynch. Harlan is a very small town. One Arby’s and that’s it for fast food.
The courthouse and “justice center,” a building adjacent to and the size of the courthouse, was easy to find. Outside the courthouse was a large sign that says something akin to “no firearms, knives, weapons, etc.” which is typical for a courthouse, but then there was another sign that said something like “cell phones must be turned off and by decree of Judge Jones on such and such a date, anyone observed using a cell phone in the courthouse will have the cell phone confiscated and the phone will not be returned.” Hmmm, welcome to no nonsense Harlan County. I turned off my cell phone. It didn’t work anyway. I wondered how doctors were supposed to get calls, and then I remembered that I was in Harlan County and the closest doctor was probably in Pineville, a good 35 miles away. Question answered, there were none. No problem. Well, there used to be two doctors, but they were both arrested and convicted for illegal drug trafficking, per the mortician.
I went inside and through the metal detector which looked sorely out of place and appeared to be a serious intrusion from the 21st century into this 19th century courthouse. After determining that deeds were in the next building, I left. I had to return though as probate records for individuals without wills were located back in this initial building. Back through the metal detector, except this time, when I walked in the door, I stopped dead in my tracks, for in front of me, a man had pulled out his gun. I drew a short breath and was trying to unroot my feet from under me while my mind was racing, along with my heart, trying to decide if I should stand still and hope he doesn’t notice me or turn tail and run like the wind. Fortunately, he put the gun in a locker, locked the lock and took the key and then went through the metal detector.
I was quite stunned, to say the least, especially in light of their exceptionally strict policy regarding cell phone usage (as if cell phones worked there anyway.) After the man left, I asked one of the deputies attending the metal detector about what I had just witnessed and he said that they allow people to check their guns because everyone knew you were coming out of the courthouse not “packing heat,” because it wasn’t allowed, so the street in front of the courthouse became prime pickins for murders. So now, you can check your gun in a locker. Yep, welcome to Bloody Harlan.
I didn’t want to bother the rescue squad unless it was absolutely necessary, so I went on up to where Google maps showed me the D.L. Creech cemetery should be. However, at the beginning of Creech Cemetery Road, I stopped short and turned around. There was a large hill crossing a railroad track leading to a cluster of mobile homes and there was an iron gate that could be closed across the tracks. I couldn’t see the cemetery, so I had no idea how far up this dirt road I’d have to drive. With the terrain and elevation of the tracks, there was one way into this place and one way out, even with a Jeep, and I was not about to get caught behind that iron gate. Off I went to the rescue squad.
They were expecting me, as I had called twice with questions in preparation for my trip. The younger men were on a run, but an older gentleman, Derrell, the retired mortician, was there to help me. His daughter, Stephanie had taken over the funeral home and the ambulance business and he is now officially “retired”, but he was also bored out of his mind so this was a good diversion for him and he enjoyed talking about the area and its colorful population.
I learned that Josephine wore red lipstick, literally, until the day she died, that she was considered a “siren.” Andy Jackson, her husband, who had lived at Jackson Bottom, had “gone crazy” on them at one time and that he had only died 3 or 4 years before. I told you, the rescue guys know everything about everyone.
I followed Derrell to the cemetery and felt much better with him along. It was actually a very nice cemetery, well maintained, but that’s because Derrell had his crew take care of it when they had breaks in their other duties. We walked the cemetery looking for Will’s grave, twice, with no results. I asked if there was a cemetery map or a sextant. Derrell said that a very cranky eccentric old woman had the map and you couldn’t get it or any information from her. Will didn’t have a headstone. I commented to Derrell that it’s too bad that we couldn’t locate my grandfather’s grave, because if I wanted to purchase a stone, I wouldn’t be able to do so because we wouldn’t know where to place it.
All of a sudden, Derrell remembered who to ask about the cemetery map, and maybe the women’s son-in-law had it. He did.
The map seems to be a plot of when the lots were sold, and in the case of the Jacksons, just a suggestion of how people were to be buried. Josie Estes and Andrew Jackson are buried side by side in lots 2 and 4, not one in front of the other. It’s unclear if anyone is buried in lot 3. Back to the cemetery we went to locate Will’s grave. On the cemetery map above, the road into the cemetery runs along the left side and the 40 foot area is a graveled parking area. Will’s grave should be easy to locate.
We had already located Evelyn’s stone. She was married to Marco Pusice who predeceased her and they both share a common stone.
Apparently, Crocie was the first of the group to die in 1961 followed by Will in 1971, Marco Pusice in 1972, Evelyn Estes Pusice in 1977, Josephine Estes Jackson in 1979 and Andrew Jackson in 2004. Crocie only has a fieldstone for a headstone. Josephine, her husband Andy Jackson, Will and apparently Crocie are buried together near the front of the cemetery. None of them have stones except for Crocie (assuming she is Mrs. Estes) and she just has a rock, as shown below. Will is buried beside her to the left in front of the grey flat stone marker with the metal inscription on top.
To the left of the large Dixon stone in the photo below, you can see two metal markers, one lying flat and one upright. Those are the graves of Josephine and Andrew Jackson.
Andy still had the funeral home metal marker, but when it’s gone, that will be all there is. Josephine has a concrete block and her funeral home marker is stuck in the top of the concrete block that has sunk into the ground. Rather sad, actually.
Derrell purchased the funeral home in the 1980s, so he didn’t know my grandfather Will, although his daughter knew Andy and remembered Josephine.
Derrell did, however, tell me some other stories of Harlan County, such as about the undertaker that embezzled all of the funeral prepayments. He went to jail for that, because he preferred that to being dealt with by the local families. Probably a good thing and much safer. They do have a sense of humor in Harlan County and he would probably have been buried in one of those unmarked graves.
In addition to moonshining and womanizing, William George Estes was also a photographer. I know that’s a really unlikely occupation for someone in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. I suspect that it was something he rather “fell into” in some fashion. He had a large black camera with a black cloth and a tripod and he could set the timer to take pictures. The photographs of the family between 1907 and 1915 or so when he and Ollie divorced were taken in that manner. He must have gotten the camera about 1907 because there are no family photos before that.
When I first visited Claiborne County, many people told me he used to go to family reunions, which used to last for several days, and took pictures of people. Of course, he ate and drank with them. Then, after the pictures were developed, he would go back down and visit with the family for a couple days to deliver the pictures. I’m sure he also delivered some other products as well, and probably stayed to help drink that product. Everyone seemed to like Will, well, except for his x-wives families, which was probably half of the county. So the other half of the county liked him.
The photo above is Worth Epperson (d 1959), Will’s brother-in-law, and William George Estes.
A few years ago, I was with family members in the old Estes cemetery in Estes Holler, which one has to be let into because it’s far up the mountain on private land behind fences. I was laying on the ground on my belly trying to get my new camera to cooperate and take a photo of a stone where the engraving, or in this case, rough hand chiseling, was worn almost smooth by rain and time. So I fiddled and fussed and tried to get the light to shadow the grooves in the stone. I heard one of them say to the other, “she’s certainly Will’s granddaughter.” Apparently he had to fiddle and fuss with his camera too.
William George Estes was clearly an eccentric man who walked to the beat of his own drummer. But that was a time when taking a couple days to do something didn’t matter, especially if you didn’t have a job to get to. And that job thing seemed to be something that never plagued Will. He also, amazingly, didn’t drive, but being a moonshiner, he probably always had something to trade for a ride and lots of people were probably more than happy to take him. Since he did live to a ripe old age, I’d wager a bet that he didn’t pay up until he got out of the vehicle!
It seems that Will passed moonshining on to at least one of his sons. Sadly, he passed the proclivity for problem drinking on to all three. My Aunt wrote in her letters that at times there wasn’t enough to eat when they were children, so they were given moonshine to drink so that their stomach’s wouldn’t hurt and they would go to sleep. My heart just breaks for my father and his siblings. That’s where my father’s alcoholism started – as a child, due to hunger, through no choice of his own.
Fleming, Kentucky, above, was a coal mining town in Letcher County. Will’s son, Estel lived here and worked the mines when his family was young. Estel also had a side job, delivering moonshining. His daughter told me that they used to paint milk bottles white on the outside and he would have the kids deliver the “moonshine” camouflaged in white milk bottles. The family was innovative – you’ve got to give them credit for that!
One of the Estes cousins who lives in Claiborne County, TN, tells another story about Will. Since he didn’t drive, he would catch the bus in Harlan County, Kentucky and ride it to the closest drop off location in Claiborne County, about an hour distant and then walk on to Estes Holler to visit, after his father, Lazarus, who had banished him, died.
Will had a bullet in his pocket with his tobacco. He filled his pipe with tobacco and started to smoke it on the bus, but unbeknownst to him, he had also gotten the bullet in the pipe. Well, the bullet, and with it, the pipe exploded on the bus during the trip. Scared him and the other passengers and nearly caused the driver to wreck the bus. From then on, he was banned from riding the bus. I guess you might just say that’s our special family version of going out with a bang!
In 1915, Will’s parents deeded land to one of their children, Cornie Estes Epperson and her husband, Worth Epperson, and in the deed, stipulated that she and her husband were to pay the other children a specific sum of money. This land transaction was in lieu of a will. In William’s case, that sum was $120. In 1957, some 42 years later, he signed the edge of that document that he had indeed received the money. I’ve always wondered if Lazarus and Elizabeth signed this 1915 deed before or after Will returned to Estes Holler after his escapades in Indiana. I’m guessing that it was before, given the fact that Lazarus was evidently very angry with Will when he returned, without Ollie, with Joice and after his two young sons, about ages 10 and 12, or at most 12 and 14, had arrived as hobos in desperate need.
All things considered, it’s absolutely amazing that his man lived to be 98 and a half years old, and died after a short illness of natural causes – what would once simply have been termed “old age.”
William George Estes, his grandson, Wayne Estes, Wayne’s mother Edith Mae Parkey Estes and Will’s daughter, Josephine Estes, probably in the 1960s, not long before Will’s death. Will would have been in his 90s.
Who’s Your Daddy?
One thing that always bothered me was that my father, at right below, really didn’t look anything like his father, William George Estes.
There are no photos of Will as a young man, and my father died in his early 60s, so I’ve tried to compare photos at ages that looked to be approximately equal. The first row, below is of Will and the second row is my father.
I looked and looked, and I simply could not see much resemblance.
DNA testing promised an answer to the long-standing question of whether or not I had been doing someone else’s genealogy for 30 years or so.
However, DNA testing was not to be as easy as it sounded.
We had a baseline of what the ancestral Estes Y line DNA should look like, if there were no misattributed paternal events, or adoptions. However, my father had no sons, at least not that we could find, until we found David. Will’s other male children did not go forth and multiply fruitfully, and those that did had children that died young.
Suffice it to say that finding a suitable DNA candidate from William’s line proved to be extremely challenging. We tried a couple of tactics, and let’s just say that nothing worked the way it was supposed to. In fact, no one was matching who they were supposed to be matching, nor each other. In the case of one of William George’s descendants, the results were off just enough to be suspicious – but not enough to be definitive. The green line below shows the ancestral Estes DNA, as finally proven by Uncle Buster. The yellow was unknown. The purple should match the green, and would prove William George’s line, but the purple individual was the one with just enough mutations to be inconclusive. David, my half-brother, didn’t match anyone.
I studied the photographs of every person in the family who descended from Lazarus. I think my father looked more like Uncle George than anyone.
And then there was David, my father’s supposed son, who was an entirely different haplogroup and didn’t match either the primary Estes line nor the purple descendant of William George Estes.
This was making me crazy, seriously crazy. Bang my head against the wall crazy.
I began to doubt everyone. There was obviously a break, or maybe two, but where?
John Y. Estes is on the left, then his son Lazarus and his son William George to the right.
My father just didn’t look like these men, and William George really didn’t look like Lazarus either.
I’m hyperventilating by now.
Looking back up the line, we had confirmed that John R. Estes did match the ancestral Estes line, but from there to current, we had no clue except that we had problems.
Finally, I realized that Uncle Buster was still living (at that time) and I went to visit him in Tennessee. He was so deaf that you couldn’t call him and have a conversation, plus, I hadn’t seen him in years. How do you explain all of this to a deaf man in his 90s? Answer – in person.
When we pulled up in his driveway after driving the two mile two-track “road” to his house, he greeted us on his porch with a shotgun. That’s how everyone whose car isn’t recognized gets greeted. You just get out and start waving both hands in the air and shouting at Uncle Buster. My cousin, who was along, didn’t think that was such a good idea!
Uncle Buster was gracious enough to DNA test, that day, and thankfully, he matched the Estes ancestral line as well, so we proved that Lazarus Estes, the father of William George Estes was a genetic Estes, but was William George Estes and was my father?
The fact that my brother, David, and I didn’t match each other autosomally (using old CODIS marker technology) had raised the ugly specter for me that perhaps David WAS my father’s child, and I wasn’t. Given that I could not dig up Dad for DNA testing, although the thought was tempting, I had to know.
My brother David had become ill with hepatitis C, contracted when he received a blood transfusion when his chopper was shot down in Vietnam. He needed a liver transplant. David was very ill, but if he “heard” the discussions that occurred in the hospital, it was obvious that I was not a transplant candidate. I was never clear about why – the team really didn’t seem to want to talk about “incidental findings,” until I cornered one of them. No, they admitted, we “probably” weren’t siblings.
When the initial 23andMe autosomal tests became available, David and I tested immediately. We have previously tested at a two private labs utilizing the CODIS markers and the results were inconclusive, stating that we were “probably not half siblings, but probably related.” Turns out, they were dead wrong. We not only weren’t half siblings, we weren’t related at all.
At 23andMe, David and I didn’t match. However, I didn’t know which of us, if either, was my father’s child. Not matching David was bad enough, but not knowing the rest of the story was worse.
A few months later, I was at the Cumberland Gap reunion, telling my cousin, Deb, who also descends through Lazarus Estes via daughter Cornie Estes Epperson, a sibling to William George Estes, about my DNA woes.
Suddenly, the light bulb clicked on. DUH!!!
If Deb tested, she would likely match me or David, assuming that the genetic break was NOT between Lazarus and William George Estes and NOT between William George Estes and my father. In any case, the fact that she MIGHT match one of us was a gamble I was certainly willing to take, and she agreed to test. It was a long shot, but it was the only shot I had, and I took it.
By this time, after several years of not knowing, I no longer cared which outcome developed, I just needed an answer and closure. And I thought Dave did too.
I ordered Deb’s kit, she spat, and we waited…an interminably long time it seemed.
Finally, the day arrived and the results were in my inbox. I clicked to open, signed on, and there it was, in living color…
…right now I was slamming my eyes shut and peeking out the slits…
…I wanted to know…
…but I didn’t want to know what I feared the answer would be…
…finally, the truth…
DEB MATCHED ME…
I was overwhelmed with relief and at the exact same time, overwhelmed with sorrow for my brother. I tried to tell David a couple of times and he simply did not want to hear the results, so I never pushed it. By this time, he was gravely ill. He was my brother and I loved him and still do, regardless. If anything, he needed my love more than ever, although he would never have admitted to needing anything.
However, as the consummate genealogist, it really did matter to me, and not in the way most people would presume. I wanted to know if I should stop doing my Estes side genealogy. I didn’t want to waste any more time, if I had been wasting time, and I didn’t want to stop if the Estes line was mine genetically. For me, that DNA test bought me out of genealogical purgatory!
About that time, Family Tree DNA also introduced the Family Finder test. Given that Uncle Buster had already tested his Y chromosome there, his DNA was archived there, so we upgraded his test and David’s to see who matched Uncle Buster, who is actually my first cousin once removed. Yes, I’m a born skeptic and I guess I just needed two independent proofs. Again, the results were the same. Buster matched me and not David.
So, with one test, either Deb’s or Buster’s, we proved the Y lines of the men involved by inference. We know that my father matched William George’s Y chromosome and William George matched Lazarus’s – or we would not have matched autosomally at the level we were. We also matched with other descendants of Lazarus and other Estes cousins from on up the tree as well. Not to mention, we salvaged my grandmother’s reputation which had come under a bit of a cloud. Sorry grandma!
As soap operas go, this one had as happy an ending as there could have been. Soap operas NEVER have happy endings you know. My brother never knew or admitted that he knew we weren’t biological siblings, so he was spared any emotional pain. I loved him regardless, so it didn’t matter to me in that way.
My great regret is that I wasn’t a transplant match, but I subsequently discovered that the hospital where Dave was being treated stopped doing live donor transplants about that time, and only used cadavers, so even if I had been a match, it’s doubtful that they would have done the surgery. Dave never received a transplant and passed away after developing liver cancer.
On the genealogy front, I was relieved to confirm that I had not wasted 30 years on someone else’s genealogy. And, I didn’t have to dig up Dad, or William George, to do it! Good thing, since we still don’t know precisely where William George is buried – just a general vicinity – which would be good enough for a tombstone, but not for DNA testing.
Nope, he never left Harlan alive.
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