Four things I’ll bet you didn’t know about Van Lear

This column by Clyde Roy Pack originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2014, issue of The Paintsville Herald. 

When I was in the eighth grade, I was thrilled beyond words when I got the chance to participate in a basketball game inside a real, honest-to-goodness gymnasium. Our coach scheduled us to play the Van Lear eighth graders in the Van Lear gym.

clydepackapplefestivalI remember nothing of the game. I don’t recall who won or whether or not there were any spectators. For years, all I remembered was what a cool place Van Lear was … the town had its own gym and there were nets on both goals.

See, we didn’t have a gym at Muddy Branch. We played basketball –a winter sport – outside. It wasn’t that unusual for us to have a basketball game rained out.

But as it turns out, that fancy gym and actual nets weren’t the only things that set Van Lear apart from the rest of Eastern Kentucky.

I just wrote a book about the town. It’s called, The Overnight City, the Life and Times of Van Lear, Kentucky 1908-1947. I went through decades of old newspapers to piece together the story of the town. Some of the stories I’d heard before, but a lot of what I found out surprised me.

  • In 1915, Van Lear’s electric power plant provided power to nearly the entire Big Sandy Valley. Not only were citizens of Van Lear recipients of the plant (that sat near where the Words and Stuff bookstore is now), but also the towns of Paintsville, Prestonsburg, Pikeville, Jenkins and all other points in between were connected.
  • In 1926 its high school football team scored its very first win as the Bank Mules beat the Paintsville Tigers. The score was 19-13. The star of the game was a guy named Red Lynn, who scored two touchdowns. Today, I’ll bet hardly anyone remembers that game, but lots of people remember Red’s son, Oliver. Of course, Oliver was best known by one of his nicknames, “Mooney” or “Doolittle.” He married a coal miner’s daughter named Loretta Webb. You know the rest of the story.
  • The speaker at the graduation of the Van Lear High School’s class of 1927 was Kentucky’s Governor W. J. Fields. It was reported at the time that this was the first time that a Kentucky chief executive had ever made a graduation address in the Big Sandy Valley. It says something about what Van Lear’s stature was at the time that he chose to make the 140-mile trip from Frankfort to Van Lear and not to a county seat like Paintsville, Prestonsburg or Pikeville.
  • In 1946, a group of Pikeville businessmen purchased Van Lear—2,060 acres of land, 247 homes, a clubhouse and an office building—for a grand total of $300,000. That doesn’t sound like much money. But when you adjust for inflation, today that would equal about $3.7 million. To put that in perspective, folks in Lexington were talking about spending over $350 million to fix up one building—Rupp Arena. 

 The Overnight City, the Life and Times of Van Lear, Kentucky 1908-1947 is available in paperback from Amazon. It’s also available from the Kindle Store and Google Play.

Advertisements

JUST PUBLISHED: The Overnight City: The Life and Times of Van Lear, Kentucky, 1908-1947

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0692251723/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0692251723&linkCode=as2&tag=todpac-20

According to a 1917 story in The Paintsville Herald, “Nothing is more strongly indicative of the advancement of any section along commercial lines than the development of its hidden resources and nothing has contributed in greater measure to build up Johnson County, Paintsville, and the Big Sandy Valley than has the Consolidation Coal Company’s operation at Van Lear.”

The story continued: “From a poor and thinly-settled farming section has sprung up the hustling town of Van Lear, with a population of about 2,500…. It is incorporated with good officials, a moving-picture show, billiard and pool room, soda fountain, churches, schools, excellent stores, barber shops, and in fact all conveniences of the larger towns.”

Van Lear is one of Southern Appalachia’s most-celebrated coal towns, made famous in Loretta Lynn’s classic song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It grew so big, so quickly, that one newspaperman called it “the overnight city,” but then, in the 1940s, when Consolidation Coal decided to sell out, the town faded just as quickly.

Using stories about the town and its people that ran in the local newspaper, Clyde Roy Pack has created a portrait of a proud and self-reliant community in the foothills of the Appalachians from the time of World War I through Prohibition and the Depression to World War II.

The Overnight City: The Life and Times of Van Lear, Kentucky, 1908-1947, gives readers an extraordinary glimpse at ordinary life in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky in the first half of the 20th century, from mine fatalities and murders to graduations and society news.

Clyde Roy Pack is an award-winning newspaper columnist and retired teacher. He is the author of several books, including Muddy Branch and Pretty Babies Grow Up Ugly. He lives in Paintsville with his wife, Wilma Jean.

The Overnight City is published by storyatom media.

Book signing Oct. 4-5 at Kentucky Apple Festival

clydepackapplefestivalClyde Roy Pack and Todd Pack will be signing books Oct. 4-5, 2013, in the arts and crafts tent at the Kentucky Apple Festival in Paintsville, Ky.

Clyde’s books include Muddy Branch: Memories of an Eastern Kentucky Coal Camp [2002] and Coal-Camp Chronicles [2005].

With his son, Todd, he wrote Pretty Babies Grow Up Ugly [2012], a collection of old-time cures and superstitions.

Visit the official site of the Kentucky Apple Festival to learn more about this year’s event.