An Outsider’s Look at Jackson in 1939

By Stephen D. Bowling

Nestled in the quiet hills of the Cumberland plateau, Jackson has long been the cultural and historic center of the lower Appalachians. In 1939, the Works Progress Administration produced In the Land of Breathitt: The Feud Country, a collective history of the county. An accurate description of Breathitt’s County seat was among its 150 pages of scattered geographic, historical, and demographic outlines.     

“Jackson, seat of Breathitt County, straggles over the bottomlands and hillsides of the North Fork of the Kentucky River at the beginning of the famous Panbowl bend. Ranges of hills, rising abruptly like great fortifications on the west and more gently sloping on the east, surround it on every side. Two state highways that intersect here wind in long sweeps over steep hills or skirt rather narrow defiles along the riverbank before entering the town. 

Marion Post (later Wolcott) took a series of photos of Jackson in 1939 and 1940 for the Farm Security Administration. Miss Posts’ images are now in the collection of the Library of Congress. They are a “time capsule” of Breathitt County during this time.

On the far side of the North Fork, where it forms a quarter-circle as it begins to swing into the Panbowl bend, bluffs having the appearance of ancient fortifications scarred in immemorial battles, embolden the town’s varied landscape. In this picturesque setting, Jackson has slowly grown from a wilderness settlement into a leisurely mountain community of a little over 2,000 people. 

It has passed through its boom period, sown its wild oats, and has now settled down to a quieter, more orderly development. As the commercial center of one of Kentucky’s larger counties, Jackson presents a motley and democratic picture.

Farmers and shoppers at the end of the South Jackson Bridge in 1940.

The corner of Main and Court streets unfolds an interesting cross-section of life in Jackson in the earlier part of the morning. The courthouse, a chain grocery store, and the Breathitt County High School at the foot of the hill bring together a medley of young and old, of city folks and those “out in the country.” High school boys and, to a lesser extent, high school girls while away ten or fifteen minutes before going to school. 

Farmers and their wives stand around to talk a bit before or after buying their groceries or going on “down” into town. The dignified, hard-working mountain woman, dressed in cotton, and more concerned with food and her children than the latest hat craze or the length of this year’s dresses, may stop to exchange some pleasantry with a town cousin or a visiting relative turned out in metropolitan chic.

Some of the “overalled gentry” at the Breathitt County Courthouse in 1940.

Around the dilapidated courthouse the overalled gentry and tenantry of the county gather to talk of their affairs, to exchange the latest local news, to review the political situation, and finally, to attend to whatever business, if any, they may have in town. On Saturdays, court days, during elections, and on other special occasions, when the weather permits, the town becomes a lively confusion of aimless chatter. Trucks, jalopies, and new cars pull in at the curbs, load and unload, stay awhile and then pull out. 

A view of “Taxi Row” on the opposite side of the courthouse. Note the space between the Jaxon Theatre and the Hargis Bank building is open, and the building that would eventually house the Ben Franklin “dime Store” has not been constructed.

“Taxi row,” directly across from the courthouse, adds to the bustle of Courthouse Square. About a half dozen private cars used as taxis make fairly regular runs as far out in the county as fifteen or twenty miles. There is no delivery of mail to Jackson homes and stores. For a brief spell in the early morning, and especially in the late afternoon after the train has arrived from Lexington, the post office becomes a magnet, drawing a small crowd from various parts of town.

The crowds gathered at the Post Office on Broadway.

The depot’s waiting room, opened only around the time of the two daily train arrivals, affords another slice of Jackson’s life. Students going home on weekends, men working someplace along the line, and other passengers coming to and going from Jackson add a bustling moment to the town routine. Jackson is primarily a town of people rather than of things and particular historical events. It has a definite and intimate personality that can only be fully savored by experiencing its many aspects. More important still, one must learn its people and be on their side. Blood ties and neighborliness count for much, and must be given their proper consideration. 

The town cannot be hurried, for it has retained much of the leisure of the countryside where time is measured by the rising and setting of the sun. It caters to no one as it still abides by the proud independence of the mountains. It is easygoing and sufficiently courteous to the stranger to be inquisitive and then become friendly.”

Stoppers entered Noble’s Store in the Stacy Building at the corner of Broadway and College Avenue. The sign for Stacy’s Apartments & Rooms can be seen on the right.

Clearly, much has changed in the big city of Jackson, but more surprising is how so many things have stayed the same. The children and the grandchildren of those who made Jackson a great little town live here today, carrying on the old traditions of blood kinship and courteousness. Jackson is still a town of people.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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