Park Hensley House

Walter Gibbons at Cumberland Mtn Motel688
Younger members of the Settlement preferred better-paying jobs off the mountain.  Willie Gibbons’s son Walter (r ) helped build the Cumberland Mountain Motel, which once stood on the road over the Gap.

Photo courtesy of Gibbons family

2010-12-01_MJF_0687 400
Remnants of the Chadwell Gap Mining Company can be found along a trail to Hensley Settlement.

NPS Photo

Leaving the Mountain

As the twentieth century progressed, life on the mountain changed, and some of the younger generation began to move away from the settlement. Better money could be made in the coal mines or in the auto industry. Park Hensley says his brother, Jack, for example, "worked at Pontiac, Michigan. No, Detroit, Detroit, Michigan. He worked there till he died up there." Park himself went to work for the Chadwell Gap Coal Company, a small family-owned mining operation that had opened in the 1920s just down the Virginia side of the mountain. "I got to working off in the mines and I just liked it better, you know. Made more money. . . that's what caused me to move off. Once some started, they all just went off pretty fast," according to Park.

The chestnut blight also had a profound impact on the community. Sherman Hensley says "I remember when the chestnuts left. I missed them. . . . I missed my hogs a getting' fat" and he laments that "the chestnuts whenever they died, why that ruined all the game up there."

Others moved off for more personal reasons. Herbert Hensley says he left Hensley Settlement because "I married a girl off in Virginia and when I married her, I went back to Kentucky on the mountain . . . but after a while, she didn't want to agree to stay up there, so I just agreed with her."

carbide lamp
A carbide lamp (cat. #1170) in the park collection, with clip to attach to a miner’s cap.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Kentucky Park Commission began acquiring the land on the mountain for the newly created Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Many of the residents seemed glad to be able to sell their land for this purpose. Sherman Hensley, the last resident to live on the mountain, said he left the mountain because "I sold my land to the Park and everybody else was moving off. . . it was buying up by the Park that started them to leave. Of course, they was people that moved off, but the majority of them was just people that didn't own any land. . .some of them really wanted to sell, maybe some of them really didn't want to sell so much or rather not sell, anyway they sold.Some of them wanted to sell because, I know I heard them talk, they wanted to get off the mountain." He concludes that "my honest opinion is that it is good they sold their land to the Park because it was owned by a few individuals and they'd kindly cleared up the best of the land. . .and it was getting worn a right smart and probably they could do better to buy somewhere else. It was unhandy up there anyway."

chestnut tree

NPS Photo, Earl Palmer Collection

A Ghost Sleeps here . . .
Mountain people called chestnut "the best wood God ever growed." Time was when the mountain people looked up to the chestnut as their best friend in the trackless forests. They ate its fruit, raw, boiled, and baked.Sale of the brown nuts brought many things hillside land that wouldn't produce. As furniture chestnut could be rubbed to shine like a coon's eye in a full moon. Their straight grained trunks became sturdy cabins and long lived rail fences. Shingles rived of chestnut promised three generations of wear. But when in 1908, mountain people noticed chestnut trees dying in their forests. A blight was destroying the inner bark of the trees. Nothing could be found to stop the disease from spreading.The blight ate on, insatiably, up one green mountainside and down the other. At the time the entire plain atop Cumberland Mountain where the Hensleys had a way of life, was covered with chestnut trees from which their homes were built, but by 1935, the mountaintop plain had only the dead trunks and cabin homes to tell the story of the passing of the once mighty, spreading American chestnut tree.
- Earl Palmer

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Last updated: June 17, 2015

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