SEPTEMBER 5, 2015
Growing up in Louisa – Fort Gay
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
As a writer, I often have to search for memories to come up with anything that has any promise of entertaining the reader, or reminding them of bygone days. General subjects are safest, for sure, because we all experienced much the same, whether it was a favorite TV show, a location, bus trips, school events, or even tragedies. Sometimes I trip over memories when a sound, such as a song, or a picture, or a phase brings something out of the cobwebs of my mind. Some subjects are rejected outright for they are controversial, or outside of my goal of staying light hearted. Others are rejected because I know my knowledge is so lacking on the subject. Oh, I may have a memory or two, but I have no reason to think it has any commonality with other folk’s experiences. I will take on one of those, today, so don’t expect the detailed memories to be all that identifiable. They are just simple memories of a young man that didn’t have a high level of exposure to the subject.
Thinking back the other day I decided to list some of my memories about that little town across the river from my ancestral home. As already said, please don’t expect a long article this time because the list is shorter than I would wish. Certainly, I was there, but as a protected youth, I avoided close ties since the town’s reputation, right or wrong, was portrayed by my family to be a little on the dark side. Ft. Gay, being a wet town, as opposed to Kentucky’s being dry, may have been maligned by some of the good citizens of Louisa. I was not encouraged to visit ‘over there’ during my adolescent years, or later on in high school. I did however make a number of trips by paying a few pennies at the toll booth and walking the wooden planks that paralleled the steel grid that cars used to cross the two rivers into another state. That old bridge is gone now, and is replaced by a more modern and safer structure.
In my youth, going ‘to Fort Gay,’ meant that someone was going across the river to get some beer. In my family, that had a negative meaning. It was also sometimes, untrue. There were other reasons to go to, or perhaps through, the little town. I knew the reputation was unfair and misleading, but it was there anyway. Certainly, I figured that the people over there were just people. I knew some that were very nice and not at all drunkards. In fact, some that were family friends didn’t drink at all. Still the perception that cars and trucks from Kentucky lined up across the bridge to fill up with cases of stuff not allowed in Lawrence County, left a darker meaning to this young fellow. Often this was reinforced when stories got out of a mad wife complaining over her derelict husband, or an accident that was caused by the effects of alcohol. Some people I knew would die because of the effects of booze. But saying one town was somehow ‘worse’ than another was overlooking that the customer base that supported the bars and liquor sales were as much from Kentucky as from West Virginia. None-the-less, the connotation was there.
There was also rumored fights between Louisa boys and Fort Gay boys, usually over girls. Playing sports against each other was too great a problem for teachers to deal with. They weren’t arch-rivals because in the wisdom of adult communities, opportunities to compete were rarely allowed. I was told that at some point there were games, but the subsequent riots killed any chance the rivalry could continue. Perhaps there were serious injuries or death, I don’t know, but those were wilder days, perhaps even before I was born. Growing up, I did play ball on their fields and had no troubles, but a high-school game would likely have been war. Paintsville and Russell were enemies enough.
The best I can remember about my personal trips was that once on the WVA side, one could take a left and find a couple of bars just a block or so downriver. As I got older I did this a few times, but not to buy a brew, but rather because they carried a particular soft drink that wasn’t marketed in Louisa. Vernor’s Ginger Ale was a much more mellow drink than other kinds of ginger drinks because they aged the substance for four years in wood kegs. It not only made a wonderful pop, but was good to use for those ice cream floats I loved so much. I was there often enough when I was older that the proprietor would recognize me and allow me in where young teens should never go. Once or twice he would meet me and have a six-pack of Vernor’s ready.
Another place I went a few times was a good ways further into town, down near the high school. It was a restaurant, whose name I have forgotten. It had booths and a dance floor. Kids would go there and flat out boogie. Being a devote wall-flower, I was there only to observe. Doing the jitterbug, especially with girls I didn’t know, was not something I was comfortable with. The chicks looked so good doing the fast spins and wiggles the jitterbug demanded. They were wearing saddle oxfords, white turned-down socks, full skirts and soft pastel sweaters. I think I remember Little Richard singing ‘Long, Tall Sally’ before anyone really knew who he was. They kept his identity a secret for a long time, but he’d keep coming out with new hits song. Many of those were wild but pretty neat.
During baseball season, the league I played in, used the ballfield down by the tracks behind the high school. On those hot summer afternoons I would walk the bridge in my wool uniform, dragging my mitt and bat along, wishing it wasn’t so hot. I remember the water being low in the river and some of the river bottom was just sand bars. Of course most of the time while walking I was entertaining dreams that one day I’d be in the majors. Silly boy! Those are the meanderings of Little Leaguers everywhere.
I’d soon enough find myself across off the bridge and would cross the tracks. These weren’t the C&O tracks of Louisa, but N&W. I reasoned that the C&O was somehow better, likely because I had an uncle that worked for them. The Fort Gay depot was down river on the left, but once I crossed the tracks I turned right and walked parallel to the tracks for a couple of blocks. The road turned left for a block and I then had to turn right. I remember some of the people sitting on their porches waving and speaking to me as I walked by. At the end I found myself at the top of a little rise just above the playing field. I could look down and see the backstop and baseball diamond. I played a lot of games on this field, some good, some not so good. I remember that right field seemed shorter and within my hitting range, but I never hit a homer that direction. Some did, and one looked like it hit a coal train. Couldn’t swear it did, but it looked that way. I remember catching ‘Lighting’ there in a game. He was a really good and tricky pitcher. I think he played in a black league, but if not he should have. He reminded me of Satchel Page, who I was lucky enough to meet around that time.
My family had a friend that lived farther out the highway toward Wayne. It was the first split-level house I’d ever seen. His first name was Harm, but I don’t recall his last name. We sometimes went that way to Huntington, but the roads were scary and slow with my aunt driving. She’d have a whole line of cars backed up behind her when we broke through and could pull off. I hid my head in embarrassment. The one mountain just east of Ft Gay had a horse-shoe curve at first, then another at the top. It took a good while at a slow speed to top that mountain. The roads stayed curvy all the way to Wayne, the county seat. After that, I don’t remember the trip to Huntington being so bad. The Kentucky route had some tall hills, too, but not so bad after passing Fallsburg.
There was a turnoff in Ft Gay to the right, which led south to Cabwaylingo state park. Many of our camps were held there. In my school years I went there a number of times. I think the first time was for a church camp, but later I went to LHS band camps out there. It was so much fun. I remember Kay Varney (Maynard) chasing around with shaving cream and catching Mr. Armstrong. I think that ended play for a little while. The football camp was held there, too. I rode with Bill Cheek taking groceries to the football camp. The ride in his little red jeep was fun. We both smoked cigars on the way. I purposely didn’t on the way home. It did nothing to settle my stomach.
The only other Fort Gay memory was that horrible tragedy when the train hit a carload of Ft. Gay cheerleaders. I still can’t pass that part of the track without lowering my head in memory of that horrific event. Now that I have a daughter, several sons and loads of grandkids, I can’t imagine the pain that parents, family and the whole community must have suffered. My heart still goes out to them.
Well, I warned you this wouldn’t be long. Maybe some of you readers can identify with what I’ve written about. I’m sure many will have more to add. I know the drinking crowd know more than I do about the little town, but with the recent votes the economy of both communities will likely change. I really don’t know what other industries are in Fort Gay, but I wish them well. While I had relatives over there, they are all gone now. I’m sorry if my memories are a little lop-sided, but the little town across the river seemed nice enough, well-kept, and friendly. I expect they are still that way. There’s a lot of good people in the ‘Sandy Valley’ on both sides.