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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Breathitt: Bloody, Beautiful

I'm from Breathitt County. It's a large county land mass, with a small population that is becoming even smaller. It's one of the poorest counties in the nation, in the heart of Appalachia, where we're known for our drug dealing and our illiteracy and our government dependence. But tonight, in a gym on the historic campus of Lees College, we Breathitt Countians gathered to celebrate our heritage... a sold out crowd... and it is one to be proud of.

I have always been proud to be from Breathitt County. As a lover of history, I have found our stories fascinating. We were founded as a county in 1839, when wilderness still overran Kentucky. We were a resilient people, men and women who lived off the land and faced hard times but did not give up. Our legacy includes a history full of railroading and lumber. We were at one time the home of the largest sawmill in the world. We were a hub of activity when the railroad first boomed in Eastern Kentucky. And we were notorious for our fueding and fighting. This earned us the nickname of "Bloody Breathitt." This fearless fighting may have led to us being the only county in WWI to require no draftees. We have always had a military history to be proud of.

In the play Breathitt: Bloody, Beautiful, all of these facts were touched on. I was especially partial to the scene where the newspaper boys told of JB Marcum's death... such cute newspaper boys were never seen, I'm sure. But the ending of the play tugged on my heartstrings as well. This scene depicted a young GW Arrowood writing a love letter to his girl during WWII. This young GI was killed in The Battle of the Bulge in Germany. Only 19, he left behind his Mam and his Poppy, several older brother and sisters and nieces and nephews, and a little sister (maybe two) at home. One of those older brothers was fighting in the South Pacific when GW was killed. One of those little sisters was my Mamaw... and she can still tell you how her Mam passed out when she got the telegram and her Poppy ended up sick, I think even in the hospital. But she is proud. This is one of the first stories I can remember my Mamaw telling me about her family. I've visited GW's gravesite, and can only begin to imagine what it was like for his family. What it was like for so many families, whose sons (and later daughters) paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

So yes, Breathitt County's history is bloody. Our present at times is sad and troubling. But I am proud to be a Breathitt Countian. I am even prouder of my son, who finds this past to interesting. It is only by recognizing our past, where we came from, that we can hope to go further. Yes, improvements definitely need to be made, but programs like this are a start in the right direction. If you're young, and your grandparents are around, ask them about where they came from. You might be surprised to find out the strength and resiliency that is your legacy!

Much love to Janie Griffith, OT Watts, Laura Thomas, Grace Warrix, and all of the cast and musicians of Breathitt: Bloody, Beautiful. A special thanks to my favorite newspaper boy, and to Joe Hamblin, whose portrayal of our great-great uncle brought tears to my eyes.

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