Readers of the Daily News may have seen a recent story about Elmo Lincoln Martin, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and the celebration of his 100th birthday. In that article Martin answered a reporter’s question about the secret to his longevity and success in this way: “The secret to that is don’t give up, keep doing something. Don’t get cantankerous because you’re old, or mad because you’re not going to live too long. I don’t even think about that. It doesn’t worry me a bit.”
The book under review is based on short stories he told his children and grandchildren from his early years growing up in nearby Butler County. Martin dedicates the book to his late wife, Ruth. In his Preface, “Linc” says his stories are “about what life was like for a boy growing up ... in the years of the Great Depression. A time when the ugly face and the hopeless hands of poverty had a firm grip on most of the families in the region. Where illegal moonshine whiskey flowed as free as water. It’s been said that the place was so remote that only God and the Internal Revenue Service knew where it was located. These stories are true life experiences with some humor and words of wisdom thrown in for good measure.”
“Butler County Memories” includes 130 short stories (generally two or three pages each) and several family photos. Martin explains that he was named after Elmo Lincoln, the actor who played Tarzan in a silent movie his parents attended in Bowling Green when his mother was pregnant and his father was going to college. Martin says that his generation was the “last link” to the pioneer days in America: “Our lifestyle was patterned very close to the way our grandparents lived in the 19th century. And things didn’t change much until after World War II. Before that, my generation had to walk to school – up to five miles was not unusual. Of course there was no electricity, newspapers, radios or telephones. When we did get news, it was usually by word of mouth, was weeks old, and had passed through a number of carriers, and generally was far different from the facts.”
The author has this to say about mother’s hands: “They are the hands that cradled us when we were small, they comfort us when we fall and skin our knees, and most of all, they soothe the inside hurts that no one else can see. Over the years mother’s hands become weak and frail. We must remember that they are the same hands that peeled the potatoes, baked the bread, gathered the eggs and churned the butter. They deserve our respect. At this time in their lives, they need you to hold their hands.”
Another story concerns the Ghost of Red Hill. Both Clora Cox and Dr. Embry each had sightings of this strange lady dressed in white. Martin says that he wasn’t “one to dispute the word of a fine Christian lady and a good doctor.”
Martin’s Dad taught at the one-room school he attended from first through eighth grade and the author frequently mentions the importance of family and of neighbors helping one another out in the depths of the Great Depression. He remembers fondly growing up with his brother and two sisters “in the little two-room house on Long Branch School Road.” The babbling stream, the grapevine swing and the large sycamore tree all contributed to making this “a happy place to spend our childhood years.” Of course, as his sisters grew into their teens they had to have perms to be anybody and their father complained that he didn’t have the money to pay for them. He got even, perhaps, by forbidding boys to visit his daughters in their house.
Kentuckians of a certain age should be able to relate to some of the food items Martin recalls from his early years: crackling bread, maple syrup, bulldog gravy, pole greens, sorghum, country ice cream and blackberry cobbler. The author demonstrates throughout the book that he is compassionate and a lover of nature. He is also patriotic and loyal to his country and to the values with which he was raised. Although he mentions a story about a soldier killed in the Battle of the Bulge, he does not mention that he knew this man and does not relate any of his personal war experiences. It would be interesting to hear if or how he kept in touch with his Butler County roots during this challenging period.
Martin does talk about the 1937 flood and how the water rose under the house and his family fled to their aunt and uncle’s house. When they returned they found the water marks inside had just reached a few inches and only caused some damage to furniture. He also mentions that he is proud of his Indian heritage and that his grandmother on his father’s side was one-quarter Cherokee. Martin says that there are several Indian mounds and grave sites in Butler County. The author also references the Yahoo Massacre near Whitney City, where a group of Indian fighters known as Franklinites murdered and mutilated 110 Indian women and children who were waiting to be transported to a new Indian school for their children.
During the Depression the failure of their banking company caused the family to lose its savings just when times were extremely tough. For Christmas the family home had no fireplace so the kids hung their stockings on a bed post, door knob, or nail in the wall. They had no room for a Christmas tree, but they considered the tree at their school partly theirs. Farming and coal mining were the major professions in Butler County. Martin mentions working for 50 cents a day when he was young and he loved fishing and swimming in the Green River. He also recalls watching Gene Autry movies in the small theater in Morgantown, weather prognostications by observing the wooly worm, building a storm cellar to protect the family from tornado damage, and the cheap price of gasoline with the additional bonus of receiving S&H green stamps. One funny story concerns his Uncle Sylvester, who lived to be 90 or so, but never left Butler County. There was a rumor that Sylvester once visited a friend on the Edmonson County line, but as long as he didn’t go into the back yard he could still stay in Butler County.
Martin has this advice concerning memories: “Memories are precious and beautiful. Perhaps they are divine, a gift from our Creator, something to turn to for strength and comfort, when the road to the future looks dark, stormy and difficult to travel. Perhaps it would be beneficial to each of us if we would take time to pause, and ponder the past, and listen to that small voice inside each of us. It guides our lives, and tells us things that no one else can.”
There are numerous typographical errors and a few errors in dates in the book: Kentucky became a state in 1792, not 1772, Presidents Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not on that day in 1820, and Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, not in 1800. However, these issues are minor when one considers the wealth of information that “Butler County Memories” provides its readers. It is truly a treasure chest of gold nuggets that provide valuable insights into Kentucky’s past and anyone who enjoys learning about life in a very different Kentucky will find it fun reading.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.