Unlike a character in the movie “The Sixth Sense,” I do not see dead people. I do hear their voices, however, because of “Connecting People & Place,” a documentary series first broadcast in 1997-98, on WKMS-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Murray, Kentucky.
What began as a cooperative oral history project between WKMS and Land Between The Lakes Association, ended up as a 13-part series, with support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Oral History Commission. Over the years, the series has been a favorite among WKMS listeners, so the station decided to re-broadcast it in observance of their 50th anniversary. The first episode airs on Thursday, May 21, at noon.
Each installment of “Connecting People & Place” explores historic aspects of life on the slender peninsula now known as Land Between The Lakes, but formerly Between the Rivers. Originally, the slender peninsula between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in western Kentucky and Tennessee, was composed of dozens of small communities. Some residents’ ties extended all the way back to the Revolutionary War.
Over the years, hundreds of families were displaced with construction of dams, bridges, and roads. Homes, businesses, churches, farms, and schools, were bulldozed and buried to create a National Recreation Area. Today, most vestiges of human habitation are gone, except for the 200-plus small cemeteries that dot the 170,000-acres expanse of LBL.
More than 60 former residents of Between the Rivers were interviewed for “Connecting People & Place,” most of them by me. When I close my eyes, I can hear their voices. Memorable events like the arrival of the showboat are recalled, along with riveting recollections of the Flood of 1937. Everyday events like hog killings, pie suppers, rural schools and school teachers, breathe life into the past.
I will never forget listening to Vara Lillian Sykes Wallace, who was 93 when I interviewed her back in 1996. Her father’s businesses at Sykes Landing in Tharp, Tennessee, included a blacksmith shop, and a flour and grist mill. There was a general store too, that sold just about anything.
I can hear Mrs. Wallace saying, “You could buy anything in there you could buy in Nashville. Corsets, shoes, hosiery, hats, dress clothes and house clothes. And gloves.”
As she described the store, she pointed out each location while itemizing the lavish materials on display, the kind of fabrics that could be fashioned into fancy attire and everyday apparel. Vara’s recitation was almost a poem: Pongee, crepe de chine, china silk, linen, calico, gingham and corduroy.
Just as vivid in Vara’s memory was the morning in 1917 when five boys from Tharp were at her father’s store, waiting for the boat to take them to Nashville and then on to fight in World War I. She could name each one and recalled their fate.
Not everyone returned when it was over, over there.
Vara Sykes Wallace is just one of so many voices featured in “Connecting People & Place.” The first segment includes background about the geological history of Between the Rivers and information about its earliest inhabitants. More current history features former residents from Kentucky and Tennessee reminiscing about growing up in small, self-sufficient communities, where people were proud, self-sufficient and generous.
Mildred Phillips Bruton recalled growing up in Mint Spring, Tennessee, and the sacrifices her parents made so she could attend high school in Dover. Oneida Ahart Boyd reminisced about her family’s move to Murray from Between the Rivers, a journey of more than miles. Verona Smith Grogan, who lived near the Birmingham Ferry, recalled life on the farm with her parents and sisters.
Historian Betty Joe Wallace spoke of the Scots-Irish heritage of Between the Rivers, and how that shaped communities’ values. Another highlight of the first episode is a reunion of former roommates Mildred Bruton, Bea Quinn Adamson Kennett, and Maretta Quinn Knott, who fondly recall escapades of their high school days in Dover.
Mildred Bruton’s sentiments about her homeplace are echoed in every segment of Connecting People & Place. “I wish they could see it like I remember it,” she said.
Every Thursday at noon between May 21 and July 2, WKMS will play two segments of the series. For more information, go to the website, wkms.org.
Online clips from a film project about Between the Rivers are available at http://www.betweentheriversfilm.com/.