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History and Hard Work

Photo by Eugenia Jones Ruth Cordell holds a gasoline tank iron which she used for ironing in the early 1940s. Her family owned the first gasoline-powered washing machine in the community. “Everybody in the hills and hollows knew when mom was doing laundry,” Ruth recalled. “That machine would go ‘Putt, putt, putt.’”

Photo by Eugenia Jones
Ruth Cordell holds a gasoline tank iron which she used for ironing in the early 1940s. Her family owned the first gasoline-powered washing machine in the community. “Everybody in the hills and hollows knew when mom was doing laundry,” Ruth recalled. “That machine would go ‘Putt, putt, putt.’”

Eighty-seven year old Ruth Thomas Cordell is a goldmine of local history.  She can trace her family’s beginnings in McCreary County all the way back to the Civil War era when her Grandpa Irvin Thomas’s father owned a 3,000 acre plantation, won by playing a lottery, in Savannah, Georgia.  One day, Irvin, a young man at the time, returned home to the plantation from college to find his parents dead and his home burning with soldiers surrounding the home and watching it burn.  Young Irvin hid in a barn loft until the soldiers left and then hitched a train.  Eventually deciding to leave the train in Somerset, Kentucky, Irvin bought a horse and began travelling the area selling patented medicines.

While riding through the local communities with his medicines, Irvin met Cecilia Jane Barrier in Wayne County and the two married.  They eventually settled in Bethel, building a home and opening a store for the local residents.  The couple had fifteen children, including Ruth’s father, Everett.

In adulthood, Everett and his wife Mattie Hill Thomas had nine children who grew up in Bethel.  Ruth, born on December 27, 1927, entered the world when John Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States.

Her father kept a saw mill going, owned a coal mine, and managed to keep a lot of men in work.  Ruth remembers attending Shiloh school during her first and second grade years while her father set up a sawmill in the small community to log a boundary of timber.  It took three years to clear the timber and during that time Ruth’s father set up a store and built thirteen houses for his workers.

Ruth’s family were always store keepers.  They always operated a store and Ruth has fond first memories of the family’s old store in Pine Knot.   Ruth’s parents operated the Greyhound bus station out of the Pine Knot store, and young Ruth helped write out tickets and do other tasks as needed to ensure travelers could reach their desired destinations.

Ruth remembers when her father opened up one of the first hardware stores in McCreary County where the old Williams Hardware store building stands today.  Ruth recalls how her father pieced the business together by selling items that Albert Hickman had bought from an old hardware store in Chattanooga, TN.

After helping her father sort and price the items, Ruth would hurry home early from school at 2 o’clock, to work in the store.  She recalls how, at fourteen years old, she ran the store by herself when her parents attended an out of state funeral.

“I ran it as well as mom,” Ruth smiled.  “I also started keeping the books when I was fourteen.  I loved reading, bookkeeping, and those types of things.  Those early years are what put “storekeeping’ in my blood.”

Ruth met her future husband at a local café in Revelo.

“I didn’t have many boyfriends, but my sister fell in love with everybody!  When we were at the café, a soldier kept staring at me,” Ruth reminisced.  “He left his hamburgers and came over to us and introduced himself.  He was on furlough, so he started coming over to the store to sit and talk with me until the store closed at 10 o’clock.”

That young soldier, William Bradley “Diehard” Cordell, eventually married Ruth.

“We had seventy-five dollars and an old car when we got married,” Ruth laughed.  “We sold the car to buy furniture.”

Over the years and working side by side, the couple gradually built a successful trucking operation, hauling for Ohio Southern Express.  However, Ruth never lost her love for storekeeping and the couple bought land and built Cordell’s Food Center, later called the Village Center, in Revelo on HWY 27.

“I loved working in the store,” Ruth shared.  “The best memories are of the people who came in every day.  I loved dealing with them, and I miss it.”

Ruth has lived through many changes.  She remembers widespread poverty during the Depression and recalls the government setting her own mother up to give out clothing to folk in need.

Later during World War II, Ruth stayed home, tended the store, and delivered groceries while her sister went to work in Oak Ridge.

Cordell was returning home from a business trip to Birmingham when President Kennedy was assassinated.  Ruth heard the news when she stopped at an IGA store.  She remembers feeling concerned about the President’s tragic death.

When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, Ruth and her children were watching that giant leap on television.  Anything dealing with space or moon landings became “required TV watching” for the Cordell children.

Ruth remembers going on vacations with her children and making them read maps so they would “learn something.”  She laughs when she thinks about one of the trips when she sent her son to use a coin-operated pop machine and wondered if he’d get his change back.

Her advice to the young of today is clear cut.

“Don’t take drugs.  Get a job.  Work and earn your way through life,” she said emphatically.

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