Childhood on the Cumberland

By Vivian Blevins - Contributing columnist

I was dog-sitting this month for my son Quentin. His pooch is a black Puli from Memphis named Cash. A Puli is the dog with dreadlocks, and this one is six years old, so his come to the floor now. I did research about how to bathe the rascal — no easy task with this breed, so I said to my husband, “You know how Daddy bathed our dog Ginger when I was a kid and lived on the Cumberland River?”

The addition of the river to the query gave him the hint he needed. “Threw him in the river?”

“Yes, threw him in, soaped him up with flea soap when he swam out and then threw him in two more times for his rinse cycle.”

Today, neighbors would call the Humane Society if they saw a person doing that, and while they were at it, they’d have my grandmother arrested for throwing her garbage in the river. As a “Save the Environment” person now, I wonder where she thought that garbage was going back in the day. She also discarded assorted pieces of furniture on the river bank — “to hold the bank, as she put it. I was so disappointed on one visit when I saw a self-contained kitchen pantry she had promised me peeking out from among the debris, “holding the bank.”

The Cumberland River, 688miles long, empties into the Ohio River after beginning in Letcher County, a short distance from where I lived from the time I was 6 until I was 13. It meanders through southeastern Kentucky, goes down into Tennessee and flows back up to western Kentucky.

At my grandmother’s house on the river, I could literally have fished out of the window of the back bedroom. The river was healthier then and after days of rainfall when it “got up,” we watched it carefully to see if and when it might flood our homes. My grandmother’s two houses on the river were built as rental houses by her husband in the late 1920s. When he died at age 39 of congestive heart failure, International Harvester made her and her four teenage children leave the coal-company house in Benham, and they moved to one of the rental houses in Cumberland.

But back to flooding. Only once in all those years has the house in which my grandmother lived ever flooded. It was back in 1957. She was reluctant to leave her house, and the Scott Brothers pack-saddled her skinny little butt out over her vociferous objections.

There was another big flood in the county in April of 1977, and when I went to work at Southeast as academic dean in 1978, many were marking time by what happened before that flood and after it. This taught me as an adult the ways in which natural disasters can force individuals to make long-delayed decisions about their lives.

The Cumberland River was such a presence in my life. Mother would take us for long walks along the river toward the Letcher County line in what was then the woods and teach us to identify wild flowers: trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, lady’s slipper, bloodroot. Bobbie Gothard calls my sister Frances, who now lives in the house where our grandmother lived for decades, when the yellow lady’s slipper blooms near her house on Parker Street.

If we were extremely lucky on our walks in the woods, we could stand at a high elevation on our side of the river and watch Old Regular Baptists following in the footsteps of Jesus and baptizing their recent converts in the Cumberland River. At the time that seemed a bit uncivilized to me because we had a baptistry at the Central Baptist Church, and I thought that was the proper way to handle such things.

My father gigged frogs along the river for a meal of fried frog legs, which my mother prepared, and which my siblings and I viewed as disgusting. Once he even captured a possum and asked her to cook it. I can still see all that grease floating to the top of the pot and Mother telling Daddy, “No way is this gonna be fit to eat.”

In my childhood, there was a swinging bridge to get from one side of the river to the other without having to walk to downtown Cumberland. And a coal tipple was on my grandmother’s property for access by brave souls to the other side after the workers had gone home for the day.

As a child, I felt that the other side of the river was like a foreign country where roosters crowed., dogs barked, and families seemed to exist without the male members holding jobs. My world was so small then. Because of education — coupled with my willingness to cross bridges, even when they’re swinging, or dangerous, like the coal tipple with its conveyer belt and complicated machinery — my world has expanded dramatically. Education gives us choices, and as schools begin for the 2015-16 year, it’s important that we endorse that value and communicate it regularly to our children and grandchildren.

By Vivian Blevins

Contributing columnist

Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or

Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or