The Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’ has been an annual event since 1964 at what is now Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, a state college with locations in a three-county service area.
As a child I remember being fascinated by one of my mother’s geography lessons. She indicated that there is a place in southeastern Kentucky called Kingdom Come and another called Hell for Certain. Information on both is now available on the web.
A swapping meeting is an old tradition in many locales where persons with a surplus of one commodity come to a central locale at specified times to swap it for items they need which are surplus to another. Examples are corn, molasses, tobacco and even moonshine. During the swapping, there are games, music, and demonstrations of one kind and another from dulcimer making to quilting. The Kingdom Come meet is always scheduled for the first weekend of October, and I just so happened to be in Harlan County this year.
I have history with this college: academic dean in 1978 , president in 1983 and by the time I left to become president of Lee College in Texas, I had embraced the traditions of the swappin’ meetin’ in important ways.
First, I needed a costume for this two-day annual event, so I stitched one totally by hand, including the sun bonnet. And I learned to tell Appalachian stories.
The year the college coordinators of the event decided that the mules that went round and round to grind the cane to make the molasses were too much to bother with (They required transportation, food, water, and no small amount of cleaning up after them on a regular basis), I drove a tractor to grind the cane. As of 2019, the college is once again using animals.
Another year, I determined that it might be a good idea to teach area students about hog killing. My experience with this was relegated to the first, last, and only year my father decided to raise pigs. He and his friends built a ram -shackled pen on Gilliam’s Hill, a rather large distance from our house. Periodically, the pigs escaped from the pen, and it always occurred when Daddy was at work. Getting them back in the pen was a challenge and a family effort.
My father knew nothing about pigs except he needed a smoke house. A long-neglected outhouse looked promising, so he moved it from its original spot and painted it white inside and out.
The day came to kill the hogs, and we were intrigued to see them meet their demise, courtesy of a 22 rifle. I won’t bore you will all the details that followed. Let’s just say that we children decided the meat was nasty because it didn’t come from a grocery store, and Daddy ended up throwing the hams and assorted other hog parts in the Cumberland River.
Back to the hog-killing demonstration at the Swappin’ Meetin’. I needed a consultant with credibility to teach the children (What if they asked questions?) , so I engaged James C. Goode (He graduated from Benham High School with my mother). Mr. Goode, clad in bib overalls, brought his knowledge, rifle and slides of a prior hog-slaughtering event. I went to the grocery store and bought hogs’ heads to lend a touch of authenticity. I think the kids enjoyed it and learned primarily that in the olden days, bacon did not come wrapped in cellophane.
The best lessons, however, were yet to come for me: the year I made moonshine. I first got permission from the Kentucky Office of Beverage Control to not only make the ‘shine but also to serve small samples to persons 21 years old and older.
What did I know about making moonshine? Nothing. So I hired two consultants who had been recently released from lock-up. One had a scar from ear to ear, and I never asked for the story of where it came from.
These men were experts and had the mash working in no time in the basement of Falkensteine Hall. My job was to check on it and to periodically remove the dead rats (Those rats had a grapevine going,“Psst. A great high off corn mash at the college in Cumberland”). I then bought all the materials to make the still and dozens of quart Mason jars, as I was optimistic.
And there was the matter of the wood to keep the fire going at just the right temperature. Tending the fire was my job, the toughest part of distilling.
By Saturday night, we had lots of moonshine and we were still running it. That’s when my consultants decided it was time to party. They invited their friends who brought their fiddles and meat to grill on the fire. They totally ignored the little sample containers we had and went for the quart jars. It got pretty rowdy, and the friends must have decided I was a girlfriend of the consultants because as the working stiff and underling, I wore bib overalls, red long johns, and an old leather hippy hat.
When we closed the still down on Saturday night, I put all the leftover moonshine in the trunk of my car and drove up behind Newman Hall and poured it out.
I went back to the still, and the consultants queried, “Where’s the hooch?”
My response, “I poured it all out.”
“Quit your kiddin’. Where is it?”
“The agreement was I’d pour it out, and I did.” I didn’t tell them what Professor Gayle Lawson would have said if she had been there, “I’m not going to the pen for anybody.”
The following year, my consultants called to see if I would hire them again. My response, “We now know your secrets, so your work at the college has come to an end. Thanks.” They weren’t happy. If they had their way, I would have been roasting in Hell for Certain.
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.