Knott County Kentucky. The home of Alice Lloyd College, James Still and Carl D. Perkins. Rich in Appalachian history, this beautiful area has long been the stuff of legend. Caney Creek, to date, is one of the prettiest places I have ever been in the state of Kentucky. Lush green hills, quaint country homes, and just down right good people. Not to mention, Alice Lloyd College has one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever visited. I always enjoy going over there to visit my in-laws. Well, that, and getting to eat whatever my mother-in-law has cooked! (Garden corn and green beans, yum.)
Many people do not know this about my mother in law, but she and her sisters are the keepers of a slice of mountain history. Their family, The Gibsons and The Pratts were featured in National Geographic in 1971. Lynni is also featured in Sesame Street, a little girl in pigtails who helps her father make a stool. "Now we are gonna make the stool, lickety split." How cute is she?
Lynni's grandfather, Irvine Pratt was made famous in many papers in the United States as one of the last postmen on horseback. Lucille Rhodes,who was in the Appalachian mountains in the 70's to do her dissertation for her master's degree, and also working for one of the founders of the Kentucky Council for the Arts, came to the Gibson home with Pat Prosser (A professor at Alice Lloyd College) and fell in love with Lynni and the entire Gibson-Pratt clan. Rhodes also made a documentary for her degree, "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" (not to be confused with Harry M. Caudill's book) which also featured the Gibsons and the Pratts. Rhodes went on to become an independent film maker, and professor of film and theatre at Long Island University. She also has had many of her films debut at the New York Film Festival, and served as a Visual Arts Associate for the New York State Council, and also helped to form The Kentucky Arts Commission. She, Lynni and her sisters remain close to this day, visiting Rhodes in New York, as well as her home in Mexico. (Google her, she's a pretty big deal.)
Tammi and Lynni Hall. (formerly, Gibson)
Born in 1902, Irvine Pratt had lived to see so much history. He witnessed Haley's comet twice, and recalled the first time he and his sister ever saw an airplane. According to Tammi Hall (his granddaughter and my Aunt by marriage) he said that his sister Virgie came running through the yard and told everyone to go inside that the train had jumped the tracks and was coming over the mountains. Apparently it scared them all half to death. He owned a farm,where he grew his own food, as well as food for his animals. He also had a blacksmith shop where he made shoes for his horses, and a sled to carry fodder for his animals. Pratt was also a long time coal miner. He hunted and sold ginseng, and of course, three days a week he carried the mail to nearly thirty families in Knott county.....on horseback.
Irvine with Lynni.
Making shoes for his horse, Bill.
Above is a clip from Sesame Street. Lynni is featured.
Pratt, at 56, would saddle up his horse, Bill, and three times a week would deliver the mail to families in rural eastern Kentucky. Picking up the mail in Pine Top Kentucky, he would travel 18 miles (round trip) to Pippa Passes on horseback, far from any highway and over treacherous mountain terrain. Pratt was a former coal miner who took the position and (at the time) was paid $88.37 a month. When people asked him if he carried a weapon he responded that he "just got used to carrying a .38-caliber pistol." Sometimes he had to use it on an occasional rabid fox. The journey would usually take six hours, round trip.
An article written by Paul R. Jordan recounts the trip. Irvine journeyed alongside the reporter, Col. W. J. Stietler Jr, and three others. Pratt and his companions completed the trip one way in three hours and 15 minutes. 63 year old Stietler, president of the Coal Operators Casualty Company at Rockwood Penn, lent a professional touch to the the horsemanship. He rode a a 9 year old American Saddle-bred, shipped to Kentucky specially for their mail trek. Stietler, who rode as a hobby, said the trip was as dangerous as any he had been on in 40 years as a horseman. At the time the article was written, Stietler had estimated that in the past 15 years he had ridden at least 8,000 miles over all kinds of terrain, including the Sierra Madre mountains and the Smoky mountains. When asked about his occupation, Pratt replied, "It's an accommodation to these people." His clients also depended heavily upon him for the delivery of pension and welfare checks. Pratt also added, "and when one's got a boy in Vietnam, they are looking hard for me." Pratt was a welcomed face among the people of his route, many times while riding with reporters he would have to decline invitations to "come in and set." Pratt rarely had more than a dozen or so pieces of mail to deliver, including magazines but tried to deliver anything addressed to those on his route. When the article came out in National Geographic, Pratt was 68 years old. He had been delivering mail for 16 years, and when the author asked him how long he planned on delivering, he replied, "long as they're expecting me."
Many national newspapers came from far and wide to chronicle the unique and extraordinary life of Irvine Pratt. Apparently, people would mail them articles from all over the country that had been written about him. Lynni told me just yesterday that she had emailed the photographer,Bruce Dale, from National Geographic, and he had tried for years to locate her, but was told that she had married and moved away. It isn't hard for me to understand how people would come and fall in love with this bunch. From the moment they came into my life, they treated me as one of their own. Everytime I visit, I am always reminded what really matters around here; Family, tradition, and love.
From here on out I am going to give the computer to my husband Kyle. I want him to add a little personal coloring to the post.
Courtney has been anxious to write on this topic for quite a while. She's also been a little nervous about it, as well. She's done a great job, as always, but her worry is that secondhand knowledge can only allow to convey so much. This is a story about my family, and she has asked me to add a firsthand touch.
When the facts are laid out, as Courtney has, it sounds amazing and gives me a great sense of pride in my family. However, the memories I have of them are not reflected in a picture from a magazine. Those pictures don't sound like the wood creaking on the front porch when I sat with them. A big orange chair, a flannel shirt and a Maxwell's House coffee can re-purposed as an ash tray. Those were parts of my Irvine Pratt. My grandfather Herman Gibson wasn't just a man who made a wooden stool on camera. He had a million wall clocks in his house, and he made me want to start playing an instrument. My grandmother Gladys wasn't just a pretty face peeking through a clothesline. She was the funniest and most loving person I've known, and I still catch her laugh in my ears, at times.
This family wasn't documented because we were an extraordinary Appalachian group. My great grandfather did something that people from outside of the area saw as interesting. I don't believe he ever really cared about that. I never remember him speaking of it. He cared about doing what he needed to do, in order to make sure his family was healthy and happy. He also provided a needed service to his friends and neighbors. Those are traits I believe to have been an integral part of all of eastern Kentucky; Traits that I hate to think are not as prevalent around here anymore.
Maybe the wedge between these ideas has something to do with a declining economy and a growing addiction problem. Whatever the reason for the change, neighbors are not as known for being friends as much as they are for kicking your door in. One of the things that I love most about my wife's blog is that it showcases parts of our heritage that we can be proud of. That heritage is still here and I would love to get back on the track. Most of all, I want to thank Courtney for what she does and for putting some of my personal heritage in the spotlight.
Special thanks to Lynni Hall and Tammi Hall, who were kind enough to supply me with articles, pictures and first hand accounts of their grandfather, Irvine Pratt.