Mountains Changed Young Missionary

By Stephen D. Bowling

Young men and women from around the world were drawn to the mountain of Eastern Kentucky in the late 19th and early 20th century. The call was sounded by early Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian missionaries who ventured into the rugged corners of the nation looking for opportunities to serve. In Kentucky and Breathitt County, they found opportunities to help their fellow man.

Many young persons packed up their bags and set off for “parts unknown” to answer that call. Often they came from the elite of society on the east coast or from evangelical communities in the midwest. These workers in the field found conditions not nearly as ideal as their lofty visions had allowed them to believe. They found the work harder and that there was more need than they anticipated. Many learned that the people, who were so easily labeled as “poor dregs” and “white trash,” lived in very complex societies that were difficult for elitist outsiders to join or understand.

One of these mission workers who learned far more than they taught was a twenty-one-year-old Pennsylvania woman named Martha Kendall who came to Breathitt County in September 1909. In December 1909, she wrote her first letter home to McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, less than three months after arriving at the Houston MIssion. Her local paper, The Fulton County News, printed her article on the front page of the December 9, 1909 edition.

Mission Work in Kentucky

Miss Martha Kendall Tells of Condition as The Exist Among the Mountaineers

Martha Gibson Kendall

As we stated in the News of September 9th, Miss Marth Kendall, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kendall, of Ayr township, went to Kentucky under the auspices of the Associate Presbyterian church.  Miss Kendall is a graduate of McConnellsburg High School, and of the Cumberland Valley State Normal, and had she chosen to engage in the work of teaching in the public schools of her own township, could readily have gotten a salary of fifty dollars a month. 

But her heart was touched by the stories of the condition of the “poor whites” who live in the mountain of eastern Kentucky, and she chose to leave a comfortable home, and go among those people at a salary of twenty dollars a month, trusting in the consciousness of being an instrument of God’s hands in assisting those unfortunate people to rise to a higher plain of right living, would more than compensate for the difference in salary.  The following letter from Miss Kendall, telling something of the conditions that surround her, will be read with interest:

Our mission is on Turkey Creek, Breathitt county, familiarly known as “Bloody Breathitt.”  This is one of the largest counties in Kentucky, being nearly sixty miles in length. It has become notorious on account of the many bloody deeds committed within its borders. Smoldering flames of ancient feuds still exist, which occasionally burst forth in the perpetration of some new crime.

The cause, however, of most of the crimes, now, is intoxication.  Whiskey must be used freely on y all occasions, the mountaineers think. Just this week a ‘”party” was given at one of the homes about three miles down the Creek from our cottage; drinking was indulged in; this brought about quarreling, and as a result, one man was shot and very seriously wounded.

Martha Kendall (right) with the founders of the Houston Mission Susan J. Cunningham of Richmond, Kansas and Elva M. Foster of Albia, Iowa.

The people of this section make their living by farming- corn and cane being the chief crops. Their food consists, principally of pork, cornbread, beans, sweet potatoes and sorghum- although a few other vegetables are raised.  Much weaving is done both for the bedding and for clothing.

The homes are in a most deplorable condition. They contain from one to five rooms, are heated by fireplaces, and only the barest necessities exist in the way of furniture- while they are void of anything pertaining to beauty and culture.

A great many houses have no windows at all; hence light must be admitted through the open door, even in the coldest weather. But of the people, it must be said, they are the kindest and most hospitable we have ever met. They are of Scotch-Irish descent but have lived in the mountains so long-each generations becoming more illiterate and indifferent that the sterling characteristics of their ancestors have become almost extinct.

The school building (left) and dormitory on the campus of the Houston Mission and School.

Education is sadly neglected.  In Breathitt county alone there are 5,500 schoolchildren. Only about one-fifth of these attend school.  Hundreds of as bright, promising boys and girls as could be found anywhere are growing up in ignorance because they have never been led to see the need of an education. The teachers are very often wholly incompetent, and the schoolhouse is many cases scarcely better than a shed; hence nothing but an innate desire for knowledge could attract the children to school. Compulsory attendance laws are not enforced; in fact, no laws are enforced in the mountains, as you probably know from the accounts many of you have read, of the fall election in Breathitt county.  It is said that newspapers reports are sometimes exaggerated, but conditions were anything but flattering during the election season. Yet we are glad to say that but little blood was shed. 

The mountaineers are a very self-satisfied people. They emphasize morality to a great extent; yet their ideals are, indeed, very low. So many of them think that morality will affect salvation.  This is a hard barrier to break down. The native preachers are illiterate and immoral their lives being anything but models for others to pattern after. 

A view of the Houston Mission campus during its 50th Anniversary in 1957 as printed in The Reformed Presbyterian Advocate.

The county of course is very mountainous.  The mountains are not in a straight range, but are very irregular, rising more as peaks, which are situated on all sides, unsystematically. Between these peaks flows the creek- which is also the road. While the autumn leaves hung on the trees, the scenery was magnificent, and is, still; although the leaves added much.

All roads are in the creek bed and are very rough.  No buggies are ever seen here. There is very little level land.  Farming land is obtained by clearing patches on the mountain side.

These are so steep that very often cultivation has to be carried on by means of hoes.  While the mountaineers live in an uncouth style, there is no reason why they may not attain to better things. They need help and enlightenment; and when they get this surely there will be a change.

Martha Kendall, Houston, Ky.

The Fulton County News, McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, Thursday, December 9, 1909, page 1

The young dreamy-headed missionary had a hard view of the people of Breathitt County and the conditions that she voluntarily accepted in her first letter home. The Houston Mission was established in 1907 by Susan J. Cunningham and Elva M. Foster. The team had worked with locals to understand why conditions were as they had been for generations. They were patient and deliberate with their actions. Over time, the community warmed to them and aided the growth and development of Turkey Creek’s school.

The Houston Post Office on Turkey Creek served the school and the community.

Martha Kendall came from a very different place than the people she now wished to serve which required a change in her attitude. She was the child of wealthy parents who had received the best of educations and was of a social “class” considered far above the “poor white people” of the mountain. Martha Gibson Kendall was born to John Francis and Martha Jane (Nelson) Kendall on July 31, 1888, in Ayr Township, Fulton County, Pennsylvania. She was the son of a prominent businessman and farmer who was also a hero of the Union Army having served two different tours in the Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War.

Martha attended “graded schools” in the exclusive Cove section of McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, and graduated from McConnellsburg High School. She enrolled and completed her course of work at the Cumberland Valley Normal School at the top of her class in 1908 when most mountain women were not expected to attend school past third grade to gain only a basic understanding of reading and math. After reading about the efforts of Cunningham and Foster in a remote section of Breathitt County, Kentucky, Kendall was interested in finding out more about “the plight of the people in the mountains.”

Willis Turner and his friends at the Houston Schoolhouse.

She contacted the Houston Mission and was invited to come down for a year to help with the expansion of the school and the opening of a new dormitory for students. She agreed and made her way to Kentucky in September 1909. For the next five years, she assisted the founders in expanding the school and became to many the “third founder.”

In December 1914, news came from Pennsylvania that her father’s health was in decline. She completed her duties in Kentucky and returned to McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania a very different woman. After years of working with the people of Breathitt County, She said that she now “understood them and their ways.” “I now look at them and feel the pain and challenge they feel,” she said in a letter. “I know them and love them.”

Martha Kendall announced that she was leaving during a visit to The Jackson Times in December 1914.

Her return to Pennsylvania was intended to be temporary, but as it often does, life interfered. Her father, John Francis Kendall, did not improve and died on November 26, 1920. She took a job teaching school in the city of McConnellsburg and stayed. She met Harry Wilson Kelso (1877-1966), and the couple married on April 5, 1921, in Cito, Pennsylvania. They settled in McDonald, Pennsylvania where they raised two daughters and a son together.

Martha Kendall Kelso’s obituary from page 22 of The Chambersburg (PA) Public Opinion on July 6, 1971.

She lived out her retirement after more than 30 years of teaching but always spoke kindly of her time at the Houston Mission. Martha Gibson (Kendall) Kelso died on July 3, 1971, in McConnellsburg, Fulton County, Pennsylvania. Her children buried her beside her husband in the Union Cemetery at McConnellsburg, Fulton County, Pennsylvania.

Martha (Kendall) Kelso’s tombstone in the Union Cemetery in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. Source

Although she did not stay long, Martha Kendall gained a valuable understanding that the people of the mountain had the same hopes and dreams as she did. All the “poor people” of the mountain of Breathitt County needed was the same opportunities she had to flourish and grow. Martha came to understand this, and it changed her life forever. In truth, she most likely grew much more than the people she served- thus is the nature of true service.

A poor man served by thee shall make thee rich;
A sick man helped by thee shall make thee strong;
Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense
Of service which thou renderest.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900)

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling

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About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Education, Women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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