Where in the
World is Blackey?
For the last 30 years, policy makers,
writers, reporters and visitors from six continents have made the
journey to the little mining town of Blackey, Kentucky, to meet
Joe and Gaynell Begley and their neighbors. Among those visitors
have been Studs Terkel, Harry Reasoner, Morris Udall, Wendell Berry,
Morris Dees and Jesse Jackson. Twice Joe and Gaynell have been invited
to the White House.
And for the most part
their reputation grows from their operation of a small country store
that has served for half a century as a reliable outlet for plumbing
fixtures, quarts of milk and tutorials on citizenship. more
Tessie Mae Hogg Caudill
by Tessie Mae Hogg Caudill, daughter of Blackey merchants, and her
husband, C.B. Caudill, in 1933, the store has been the community
center, the unofficial bank, the place to use the telephone, and
the social conscience of a community for more than 60 years. When
C.B. died in 1966, the business passed to his daughter, Gaynell,
and her husband, Joe Begley, who took up the torch of bettering
their community and extended their influence beyond Blackey's borders.Their
leadership led to stricter regulation of strip mining, formation
of a local library, improved health care, and a new Blackey water
and Eastern Kentucky: The
region in which the C.B. Caudill Store resides is a complex blend
of breathtaking scenery and environmental desecration, old-time
music and economic hardship, award-winning craftsmanship and illiteracy.
Automation and shifts in the global energy market have combined
to devastate the Appalachian coalfield economy. A recent University
of Kentucky study showed unemployment in some coalfield communities
reached as high as 65 percent of the adult population; this is a
generation after millions of Appalachian residents left the region
to find employment in the nation's urban centers.
Yet local culture survives
and even flourishes, and the C.B. Caudill Store has always been
at the intersection where local culture met economic hardship. Some
of the region's toughest fights for social and environmental justice
were begun at the store. While fighting battles, selling milk and
raising a family, Joe and Gaynell also found time to document local
Letcher County history and that of the region by clipping hundreds
of newspaper articles and collecting artifacts of country life.
Today, the store holds
an extensive collection of objects that chronicle Appalachian culture
and economic life in the twentieth century. Antique farm machinery,
coal mining implements, obsolete kitchen utensils, glassware and
old patent medicines are hand-labeled by Joe and Gaynell, who know
the history behind nearly every item.
In 1997, the store closed
its doors as a retail business and began a new life as a regional
history museum and cultural center. This exciting endeavor includes
partnerships with local schools, collection of oral history interviews
and old photographs, a permanent exhibit on Blackey history (in
progress), and arts programming including exhibits, music and lectures.
The most interesting aspect of the project is still Joe and Gaynell,
who live at one end of the store and enjoy chatting with visitors
about their experiences.