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.
I 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.