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KENTUCKY - A GUIDE TO THE BLUEGRASS STATE - 1939

Tour 1

(Portsmouth, Ohio)- South Portsmouth - Ashland - Catlettsburg - Paintsville - Prestonsburg - Pikeville - (Norton, Va.) ; US 23, the Mayo Trail.

Ohio Line to Virginia Line, 194.6 m.

Hard-surfaced roadbed in most places; remainder graveled.
Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. parallels route throughout.
Accommodations chiefly in towns.

This route follows the low bluffs along the curving Ohio River; the Big Sandy Valley, and the Levisa Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River. In the southern section it passes between a cordon of small hills that increase in height toward the south until, at the Kentucky- Tennessee border, they are stopped by the great purple and green wall of the Cumberland Mountains. Veined by the river and its tributary creeks and locked on three sides by hills and mountains, the Big Sandy country was the last part of Kentucky to be surrendered to the white man by Indians. Game abounded here and salt licks were plentiful; until 1795 this common hunting ground was regularly visited by Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees from the South, and by Shawnees, Miamis, Delawares, Wyandottes, and Illinois from the North.

The rest of Kentucky had already been cleared before this section was settled, and in the 1820's population in the Big Sandy Valley averaged only about six inhabitants to the square mile. But hardy, independent men continued to come into the valley by way of the four gaps through the Cumberlands and along the Indian trails, or down the Ohio and up the Big Sandy Rivers to the dark hills beyond. These men established farms in open hollows; the loggers arrived later, to "bring daylight in the swamp" and send millions of logs floating down the Big Sandy; little towns arose in some of the more accessible pockets of the region ; and to the long-sounding toot of the packets that plied the river was added, in the 1870's, the clear sharp whistle of locomotives announcing the coming industrialism. The hills were tapped for their mineral resources and coal mining became a major industry in the valley; in some of the larger towns small factories developed. Today the Big Sandy Valley has hard-surfaced roads, modern hotels, schools, and churches. As seen from US 23, it has a settled appearance. Just across the hills from the river, however, the isolation still continues. Side roads leading off from the highway are few; in the remote hollows, or on the steep slopes of countless hills, are lonely little cabins where the spinning wheel is kept busy and the wagon carries the family to "buryin's," "meetin's" or "foot-washin's." This is Jesse Stuart's country (see Literature) and the locale of Jean Thomas' stories about the hill people of the Big Sandy region.

US 23 crosses the Ohio Line m. at Portsmouth, Ohio (see Ohio Tour 21), by way of a bridge (autos 25$, pedestrians 5$) over the Ohio River.

SOUTH PORTSMOUTH, 0.4 m. (660 alt., 500 pop.) (see Tour 11), is at the junction with State 10 (see Tour 11).

Between FULLERTON, 2.4 m. (1,239 pop.), and Greenup the highway closely parallels a long right-angle bend- of the near-by Ohio and crosses fertile bottoms behind the dark, squat bluffs that border the river. Fruit growing is the chief activity in this level region. GREENUP, 18.7 m. (478 alt., 1,125 pop.), seat of Greenup County, was named for Christopher Greenup, Governor of Kentucky (1804- 1808). The town was known as Greenupsburg until 1872 when the name was changed to avoid confusion with Greensburg in Green County. The old brick GREENUP COUNTY COURTHOUSE was erected in 1811 to replace an earlier one built of logs with puncheon floor and benches.

Greenup is no longer an important river port, and only a few farmers use the old ferry between this point and Haverhill. But the town still attracts the hill folk so colorfully pictured in the autobiography and short stories of Jesse Stuart. Greenup was almost obliterated by the disastrous flood of 1937 when the entire population was suddenly marooned, and desperate efforts had to be made to prevent destruction.

During his later years Daniel Boone (see Tour 17A) is said to have made his home on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River near Greenup. About 1799 he removed from Kentucky to West Virginia by going up the Ohio in a canoe made of the trunk of a tree.

Right from Greenup on State 2, an improved road, to RACCOON IRON FURNACE (R), 6.5 m., not operated since 1872. The final charge of ore has never been removed.

East of Greenup as US 23 passes through some of the best eastern Kentucky bottom lands, there are occasionally fine views of the sweeping Ohio River.

RACELAND, 26.2 m. (1,088 pop.), has a track that is the center for horse racing in eastern Kentucky.

RUSSELL, 28.1 m. (549 alt., 2,084 pop.), named for John Russell of Ashland, one of the region's former ironmasters, lies directly opposite Ironton, Ohio, with which it is connected by a highway bridge (autos 20$, pedestrians 5$). The town has grown up around the large railroad yards, containing 147 miles of track, owned and operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. Company. A modern car shop with a capacity for rebuilding 45 cars daily is also here.

In the vicinity of Russell are a few ivy-mantled ruins of old blast furnaces that are the sole reminders of the iron industry that flourished here and on the opposite side of the Ohio from about 1812 until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. These silent and ghostly structures sprang up as enterprising capitalists began exploiting the rich iron, coal, clay, stone, and timber resources of the region. The pioneer furnaces were called "salts" because the iron they produced was cast in 40-inch pots used for evaporating salt. The Ohio River offered convenient transportation; shortly pots and pans, fireplace implements, waffle irons, trivets, and the like were being made here and sold up and down the Ohio and Mississippi. With the coming of the industrial period and the building of railroads, dozens of furnaces in the iron fields bordering both sides of the river roared with activity. Plumes of pale blue smoke curled skyward and then films of wood ash settled on the hillsides as the tapped furnaces surrendered the molten metal that was to become cannon and rails and plowshares and machines. A special class of men arose, the ironmasters, mostly Scots and Englishmen, who gave flavor and excitement to the entire region as they compelled their men and their furnaces to produce more and better iron and large personal fortunes for themselves. They were the lords of the country living in regal mansions in the larger towns and visiting Maysville or Cincinnati for week-end jollities, yet they mingled freely with their workers and cared for them paternally in hard times.

The opening of a new furnace meant a holiday celebration attended by the ironmaster, his family, and all his workers. Old songs were sung, and after the sun was up (there was a superstition about this) a lady, often the betrothed of the ironmaster's son, lighted the first fire in the furnace. At noon a prodigious feast was served, consisting of quarters of barbecued beef, sweet potatoes, large loaves of bread, and burgoo large pieces of prime steer, vegetables, and imported spices boiled in a large kettle. The blast was applied and the ironmaster, certain that he had another successful furnace, mingled with the crowd and received their congratulations. Young couples stood upon the runners and pressed their initials in the pig iron mold; if the initials of a young man and woman were broken off in the same piece of iron from the first cast, they would be married and the bonds of matrimony would be as strong as bands of iron. When night came, square dances were performed in the spacious commissary until a horn blast ended the festivities as the next shift came on duty at the furnace.

The furnaces had their greatest activity about the time of the War between the States. The discovery of superior metal in the Upper Great Lakes region and the depletion of the local ores caused iron making to decline in this area; the rise of the Youngstown-Pittsburgh region brought it to an end. The furnaces still standing have been cold and silent for decades, and the steel mills at Ashland look elsewhere for their iron.

Through Ashland and southeast of it, the highway continues for 10 miles through the concentrated industrial area of eastern Kentucky. ASHLAND, 33.4 m. (552 alt., 29,074 pop.) (see Ashland). Points of Interest: American Rolling Mills, Ashland Coke Company Plant, Central Park.

Between Ashland and CATLETTSBURG, 39.3 m. (552 alt., 5,025 pop.) (see Tour 16), US 23 and US 60 (see Tour 16) are united. Between Catlettsburg and Louisa US 23 abruptly leaves the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers (the latter flows into the Ohio just east of the town), and makes a short cut back through the hill country with its frame houses in the good bottoms, log cabins up narrow hollows, small patches of tobacco, one-room schoolhouses, and an indefinable sense of isolation. At 51.6 m. is the junction with an unmarked graveled road.

Right on this road to the TRAIPSIN' WOMAN'S CABIN (open by request), 1.6 m., owned by Jean Thomas, founder of the American Folk Song Festival (adm. free). On the second Sunday of June each year a large audience gathers here to hear the ballads and see the folk dances presented by the mountain people. The songs and dances are performed with strict attention to appropriate costuming, steps, and music. Women in linsey-woolsey, slat bonnets, and homespun shawls dance to the tunes of "Chimney Sweeper" and "Prince Charley." Mrs. Thomas, whose home is in Ashland, Ky., was born of mountain folk and early became interested in the folk customs of her people. Traveling through the mountains, sometimes in a jolt wagon, sometimes on foot, she made a study of the legends, ballads, and dances of the Kentucky mountaineer. Her works include Devil's Ditties, a collection of songs, and the Traipsin' Woman, an account of her experience in the Cumberland Mountains.

Mrs. Thomas' log cabin is a reproduction of the type occupied by the more prosperous settlers of 100 years ago. It is on an eminence among wooded hills. Jilson Setters, the left-handed fiddler from Lost Hope Hollow, who journeyed to London to sing for the English Folk Song Society, sings ballads of his own creation about his travels. He helped Mrs. Thomas found the folk pageant. It was the mountain people who first called Mrs. Thomas the "traipsin' woman," for they described her journeyings from county to county as "considerable spells of traipsin'." LOUISA, 75.7 m. (526 alt., 1,961 pop.), seat of Lawrence County, was named for Louisa, Duchess of Cumberland. It is a pleasant old town, dating from the flatboat era, and is in a region of considerable natural beauty at the head of navigation on the Big Sandy River. During the Napoleonic wars thousands of bearskins were collected along the Big Sandy and Kanawha Rivers and sent from Louisa down river to the Ohio, then down river to New Orleans, and thence to Europe, where they were made into headpieces for Napoleon's grenadiers. Big Sandy has been used for transportation for more than a century. Packets and barges superseded the crude early flatboats; down Tug and Levisa Forks came millions of logs from the forests of the upper valley, bound for Louisa and the sawmills along the Ohio River; the Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. built a terminus here decades ago. Today an occasional steamboat continues to carry traffic between this point and Catlettsburg.

At the northern end of Louisa along US 23 is the BIG SANDY DAM (L), the first movable needle-type dam built in the United States. This dam was erected in 1896 at a cost of $396,305.

The old FREESE HOUSE (private), at the end of Sycamore St. overlooking the Big Sandy, is the only old Georgian Colonial home in Louisa. This two-story brick structure, with walls 13 inches thick, was built about 1840. A front porch and a rear ell have been added, and the house has been painted red with white trim. The original yellow poplar woodwork, all of it hand-whipsawed, is still in place. This was first the home of Capt. Milton Freese, who operated packets on the Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers for 50 years.

According to a tradition, believed by many, George Washington, before the Revolution, had a tract of 2,084 acres surveyed on both sides of the Big Sandy River, including the present town site of Louisa. The story is supported by the fact that a cornerstone on this survey bears the initials "G.W."

Another tradition concerning the selection of the Kentucky-Virginia boundary relates that three commissioners, selected by the Governors of the two States, arrived late one evening in October 1799 at the point where Louisa now stands. Rains had been falling and the waters of both forks of the Big Sandy were rising. After the commissioners had enjoyed the refreshments and conviviality of pioneers, it was decided that the boundary should follow the larger fork of the Big Sandy. The next morning the Tug Fork, which had been rising steadily during the night, appeared to be much larger than the Levisa Fork and forthwith became the boundary. The commissioners departed before the slowly rising waters of the Levisa, normally the larger of the two, reached the junction of the forks. Satisfaction with the result was widespread; many years later it was realized that, had the Levisa Fork been selected, the rich bottom lands and extensive mineral resources of the Big Sandy Valley would have remained a part of Virginia.

There is a story that in 1760 John Swift left Alexandria, Va., with a party and came through the mountains to some place in Kentucky where they knew of a silver mine. They worked the mine that summer and returned to Virginia in the fall ; a program they repeated each year until 1769. A manuscript of their travels and operations gives the dates of the various trips and the names of Swift's companions. It asserts that they also had some interests in piratical enterprises along the Atlantic Coast, and gives an account of money coined and treasures of thousands of dollars hidden when either Indians or the weather made it difficult to get the money out. Although the journal seems to point to the region around Paint Creek in Johnson County as the place where Swift's party camped and worked and the Mine Fork of Paint Creek was so named for their mine, nearly every county in eastern Kentucky has a tradition linking it with this romantic story; searching for the lost treasure has long been a favorite pastime in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Left from Louisa on State 37, a paved road, to the center of the FORT GAY BRIDGE (toll 15$ for auto and driver, 15^ each additional passenger), 0.5 m., over the point where the Levisa and Tug Rivers converge to form the Big Sandy. This bridge connects two States (West Virginia and Kentucky), two counties, two towns, crosses two rivers, charges two tolls, and has three approaches. There is an excellent view here of the Big Sandy River.

Right on State 3, from the center of the bridge, a short distance to the socalled "Point" section, between the forks of the Big Sandy. The first settlement in Lawrence County, consisting of three cabins connected by palisades, was founded here in 1789 by Charles Vancouver of London, England, who had received a grant of land from King George III in 1772; the patents were issued by Governor Randolph of Virginia in 1768. William M. Fulkerson, an attorney of Louisa, has in his possession this old parchment document with the official seal of the Lord Mayor of London.

South of Louisa the highway (now graveled) follows Levisa Fork through mountain farm lands typical of the Big Sandy Valley. There are a few small villages, but most of the region appears to be uninhabited as the hills near the highway conceal more distant hills in the hollows and bottoms of which are trie cabins and farms of the mountaineer. Hard put though he is to scrape a living from his steep and sometimes unfertile patches, the mountaineer has a deep attachment for his farm and his home; he would not think of forsaking them (as long as they are his) to go out to "the level land" beyond the mountains. Proud and sensitive, he is quick to resent the flouts of outsiders, and contemptuous of any of his own kind who "git above their raisin'." He is unfailingly kind and hospitable because he holds individuality in high esteem; his cabin often has a place set at the table for a chance visitor, he is "mighty proud" to meet someone he likes, and his traditional invitation is, "Drag up a cheer and sit a spell."

In these hollows bearing such names as Lonesome, Troublesome, and Peevish, the traditions, songs, customs, and handicrafts of the original settlers still survive among their descendants who continue to live in the same way and often in the same places as their great-grandsires. The pattern of life is simple but tenacious. The typical mountaineer owns a cow, a couple of mules, hogs, chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. His house is usually a log cabin. He raises corn and tobacco for a "money crop," an acre of cane for sorghum, and potatoes, turnips, and sometimes pumpkins and apples for winter use. Wild berries, game, and fish in the mountain streams also provide him with food. The material with which he clothes his family is still woven on hand looms and he needs money chiefly for taxes; many of his possessions he acquires by barter. Paths and old creek beds join hollow to hollow and serve in lieu of roads. The ham a traveler eats at one of the town hotels in this region quite likely comes from a Chicago packing house because the mountaineer cannot bring in his hogs from his farm four miles away.

Music is second only to religion in the hearts of the mountain people; and while the women have preserved the handicrafts of their ancestors, it is the mountain men chiefly who have cherished their songs. The fiddle, the dulcimer, the banjo, and the guitar are met with at infares (weddings), dances, frolics, and impromptu gatherings; and to this day there is found in the mountains of Kentucky the wandering minstrel who trudges along quiet creeks and into lonely hollows to bring cheer with his "sure-enough fiddle" (as contrasted with the children's gourd fiddle) and his songs. Religious extremists call these lively jigs or sweet romantic ballads "devil ditties." But it delights most of the mountain people, from the "leastuns" (youngest children) to the grandsires, to gather about the minstrel who can sing and play these old, sometimes Elizabethan, songs that their ancestors knew in the shires of England or the highlands of Scotland; a "right ditty singer" means as much in their lives as a "mighty knowin' " doctor or a good preacher. Some of the more famous mountain minstrels are said to be able to carry on for days without repeating themselves. Old favorites include "Lord Lovell," "The Dying Knight's Farewell," "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," "Barbara Allen," "Thread the Needle," "Rickett's Hornpipe," "Give the Fiddler a Dram," "Lord Dannel," "Pa's Done Et the Shotgun," and "My Gal is Billy-be-Damned."

The mountaineer's life is hard but self-contained, and the sense of independence is his most prized trait. His psychology is still that of the frontier; he is suspicious of outsiders, takes strong measures against real or fancied wrongs, yet withal is extremely sociable. He describes his neighbors as sometimes "contrarious," sometimes "witchy" (claiming power to bewitch people) ; others are "flighty" and some are "drinlin" (frail). He respects "larnin'," even though he may not be able to read or write himself, so long as it does not make the possessor flout the ways of his people. Rooted to the soil and ancestral traditions, the mountaineer's concern with elemental things gives him a strength of character and a basic permanence that is not found elsewhere in the United States; to find his like, one must look to the English yeoman.

At 106.5 m. is the junction with State 40 (see Tour 17); between this point and Paintsville, US 23 and State 40 are united. PAINTSVILLE, 108.3 m. (620 alt., 2,411 pop.), seat of Johnson County, was named for PAINT CREEK which flows through the town, and along which early settlers found many of the large trees stripped of their bark and embellished with drawings of birds and animals, painted in red and black on the smooth undertrunk of the trees. There were found also odd figures of buffalo and deer painted in red and black on the clifflike sandstones of the creek gorge. Various undecipherable hieroglyphs were once visible near the drawings, but these have become obliterated by the weather during the last 40 or 50 years.

The town is on the SITE OF PAINT LICK STATION, an old trading post. Indian traditions cling to this part of the valley, which was apparently a favorite burial ground of the Indians. On the hills surrounding Paintsville many graves and burial mounds have been found; and artifacts, such as pipes, tomahawks, pottery, and beads, have been taken from them. The ROCK HOUSE, a natural rock formation with a circular opening cut to provide entrance, stands on a hill facing the river just north of Concord Baptist Church. Such shelters, bearing evidence of Indian occupation, replaced wigwams in times of danger. Paintsville is at the junction with State 40 (see Tour 17).

EAST POINT, 114.5 m. (627 alt., 265 pop.), lies directly across the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River from Blockhouse Bottom, the SITE OF HARMON'S STATION. This, the first fort, in the Big Sandy Valley, was founded in 1787 by Matthias Harmon and a party of settlers from Draper's Meadow. Attacked by Indians in 1788, the station was abandoned and burned, but a year later rebuilt.

In the fall of 1787, while practically all the men from Harmon's Station were on a hunting trip in the Big Sandy Valley, a band of Cherokee and Shawnee attacked the home of Jennie Wiley at the settlement of Walker's Creek. With Mrs. Wiley were her 15-year-old brother and her four children. Realizing from the actions of the two leaders that they had mistaken her home for that of Matthias Harmon, who had defeated the Indians a few days before, Mrs. Wiley tried to fight them off only to see three of the children and her brother tomahawked and scalped. After setting fire to the cabin, the Indians, with Mrs. Wiley and her 15-month-old baby as captives, left the settlement. During the 11 months in which she was held, Jennie Wiley saw them kill her baby by dashing its brains out against a tree.

During the winter the Indians camped near the head of Cherokee Creek. While they were on one of their hunting trips, Mrs. Wiley, bound with rawhide thongs, crawled to the corner of the cabin; she allowed the rain to drip through the roof and to fall on the leather until it stretched. Then she freed herself and escaped down Little Mud Lick Creek and up another small stream, which the settlers later named Jennie's Creek in honor of this brave pioneer woman. At East Point she crossed the river on a log and reached Harmon's Station just before the Indians who were pursuing her appeared on the opposite side. The Bottoms between East Point and Prestonsburg were used as camping grounds during the War between the States by Union forces under Gen. James A. Garfield.

PRESTONSBURG, 121.2 m. (643 alt., 2,105 pop.), between the river and the hills, was first known as Preston Station, named for Col. John Preston, a surveyor from Augusta County, Virginia, who camped here in 1791. The erection of John Spurlock's house on this site in 1791 distinguishes Prestonsburg as the oldest settlement in the Big Sandy Valley. The building stood here for many years as a landmark. On Second Ave., north of Court St., is the house used as COLONEL GARFIELD'S HEADQUARTERS (open by request) during his Big Sandy campaign. The building, facing the river, is a rambling two-story frame structure with brick end chimneys and a two-story veranda across the front. Soldiers camped 300 yards north of the house.

During the War between the States the Big Sandy Valley was the scene of an important military campaign. The Battle of Middle Creek, fought on January 10, 1862, within three miles of Prestonsburg, determined the control of eastern Kentucky and drove a Union salient into the broken Confederate line that cut across southern Kentucky. Col. James A. Garfield, who commanded a brigade of Ohio and Kentucky troops under General Buell, planned and executed the campaign. In a month he succeeded in driving the Confederate forces under Gen. Humphrey Marshall from the Big Sandy Valley, causing them to retreat into southeastern Virginia, thereby preventing them from descending the Ohio River to Cincinnati. The Battle of Middle Creek was the first substantial victory for the Union cause. It was the success of Garfield's campaign in the Big Sandy that gave him the general's star and started him on the road leading to the Presidency.

A story is told that illustrates some of the difficulties of the campaign. The Big Sandy was in flood, the roads deep in mud, and the brigade in need of supplies. Garfield, with one other soldier, descended in a skiff from Pikeville to Catlettsburg where they found the steamer Sandy Valley. He loaded the boat with supplies and commanded the captain and crew to pilot him back to Pikeville. The captain refused, so Garfield took the wheel himself, and after a perilous trip reached Pikeville.

Between Prestonsburg and Pikeville the highway winds along the east side of Levisa Fork, much of the distance in plain sight of the river.

At 130.5 m. is the junction with State 80 (see Tour 18). US 23 passes through several little towns whose men work irregularly in the numerous hillside coal mines of the area (see Tour 19). Since the highway has opened this region to products from the South, the farmers, living a mile or two back from the road, are no longer able to sell the garden products with which they formerly paid their taxes; their situation is desperate. In this region dwell many relatives and descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families, whose feuds were notorious for several generations (see Tour 19).

Back from the highway are isolated little graveyards usually perched on hilltops under a cluster of oak trees. Many of them have "grave houses" rude log and clapboard shelters that the mountaineers customarily erect over and around the graves of their relatives.

PIKEVILLE, 152.2 m. (680 alt., 3,376 pop.), with its long narrow streets, is surrounded by thickly timbered countryside that ranges from the hilly to the mountainous; neighboring roads reveal scenes of wild, almost breathtaking, beauty. Although the Levisa, which flows through the town, no longer carries its once heavy burden of logs and other freight, Pikeville is still a lumbering and coal mining center. It is also the administration office of the Pikeville terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. It was named for Zebulon M. Pike, the explorer, and was developed chiefly by the younger sons of the Rees family of Virginia who took up thousands of acres here.

The HOTEL JAMES HATCHER, Main St., completed in 1931, has an odd assortment of relics on display in its lobby ox-yokes, hoop skirts, cannon balls, ox-shoes, chain dogs, cant hooks, bootjacks, spinning wheels, looms, and flintlock rifles. On the walls are popular bits of rural humor: "To live a long life, reside in Pikeville the only city on the map where an undertaker ever failed in business"; "There is a noticeable increase in population in these mountain counties. Why? True mountaineers obey the commandments and never allow a twin bed in their homes"; "Visiting Pikeville is like making love to an old maid. You'll have to do it all over again"; and "We serve free beer if you are over 95 years old and accompanied by your parent." Pikeville is at the junction with US 119 (see Tour 19); between Pikeville and JENKINS, 191.5 m. (1,527 alt., 8,465 pop.) (see Tour 19), US 23 and US 119 are united (see Tour 19).

South of Jenkins the route leads over continuous elevations to the crest of Pine Mountain, thence through historic POUND GAP, 194.6 m. (2,366 alt.), a mountain pass that connects the South with the Big Sandy Valley. It is called a wind gap because water no longer flows through it. Pound Gap, like many mountain passes, has been a highroad of adventure and romance. The Kentucky, the Cumberland, and the Big Sandy head near it; Indian trails passed through it; pioneers eventually utilized it. At first called Sounding Gap because the rocky formation seemed to give back a hollow sound, the name was corrupted to Pound Gap.

A marker on the Kentucky side of the gap lists important dates in the early history of the State and of this pass. Pound Gap is on the Virginia Line, 20.5 miles west of Norton, Va. (see Virginia Tour 15).

This information was Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project
of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kentucky - 1939

 



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