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A Company Man

Windle Branscum has a long history with the Stearns Company

By Eugenia Jones

Having spent more than half of his life working for the Stearns Company, eighty-three year old Windle Branscum knows what it is like to be a key player in a company town. His forty-seven years of service, spent as a resident mining engineer, land agent, and after retirement, as a consultant, placed him in a unique position to see the rise and decline of the Stearns Company.
Branscum was born in the community of Freedom less than a mile from the McCreary/Wayne County line. Living in that small neighborhood until he was six years old, he remembers his father moving the family to McCreary County’s White Oak Junction on Rock Creek.
“No one had any money living on those hillside farms in Wayne County,” Branscum shared. “Dad heard if you went to Stearns, they would pay you real money. So, that’s where we went.”
Three months after moving to White Oak, Branscum’s parents, Theo and Monnie, moved the family on down the line to Yamacraw. There, Fannie Morgan, one of Branscum’s teachers, made a lasting impression and went on to become a lifelong friend and mentor.
It wasn’t long until the family moved from White Oak to Whitley City where Branscum entered second grade at Whitley City Elementary School. The school, newly built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), marked a major transition for the young boy.
After graduating from McCreary County High School, Branscum completed two years of study through Eastern Kentucky University. His college experience enabled him to teach for two and one half years in McCreary County. However, hoping to find a better paying job, Branscum soon headed north to Cincinnati.
Ironically, it was while Branscum was in Cincinnati and away from McCreary County that he was approached about working for the Stearns Company.
“A fellow came and talked to me about working at Stearns,” Branscum reminisced. “Frank Thomas needed someone to do mine surveying, so I ended up going back to Stearns and taking a job in the mine engineering department. You know how it is-a country boy always wants to get back to the country.”
Interestingly enough, Branscum discovered the new career opportunity in mine engineering came about as a result of a former high school classmate, the wife of one of Frank Thomas’ associates, remembering their mutual high school days in McCreary County. After arriving home from work one day, Thomas’s associate mentioned the Company’s need for a mine engineer to his wife. Recalling that Windle was extra sharp at math in high school, she mentioned Windle’s name to her husband as being a possible candidate for the job. Acting on his wife’s remark, the associate tracked Branscum down in Ohio and approached him about the job.
Arriving back in McCreary County in October 1959, Branscum began work at Stearns as a mine surveyor in the mining department under the supervision of a University of Kentucky engineering graduate. The graduate worked about six months and then unexpectedly quit his job. Before leaving, the graduate assured Frank Thomas that Branscum could easily take over his position. Eager to advance, Branscum stepped in and worked as the resident mining engineer until 1966.
During his time as mining engineer, Branscum worked closely with the Forest Service.

“The Stearns Company sold a lot of the land to the Forest Service in 1939 but retained the mineral rights,” Branscum explained. “The deeds specified the Stearns Company had the right to go in and get the minerals, but we had to notify the Forest Service when we opened mines so they could keep track of who was on their land and so they could go in and replant grass. Back then, environmental concerns weren’t such a big thing. It was a lot easier to “fix” things.”
It was during the mid-sixties that the Stearns Company began to decline. Branscum was tempted by the prospect of getting a good job with the government for the same pay. He decided to leave the Stearns Company on good terms to go to work for the Forest Service for the next six years.
In 1972, after being approached by Frank Thomas to come back to Stearns, Branscum agreed to return to work for the Company. Knowing he had previously completed all the maps for the mines and that Stearns had up-to-date maps for their surface acreage, Branscum felt confident about going back to Stearns as a land agent.
“I also knew I had access to Nip Perkins, an assistant to W. A. Kinne who was the original surveyor sent out of Michigan to purchase land for the Stearns Company. Kinne was the fellow who sat under the gum tree in 1902 representing Mr. Stearns and signed the articles of incorporation that formed the Stearns Coal Company, Stearns Lumber Company, and Kentucky and Tennessee Railway. After Kinne passed away, Nip took over the surveying and was very knowledgeable about all of the Stearns Company properties.”
Branscum explained the method used by the Stearns Company to keep control of their vast amounts of land.
“It was important for the Stearns Company to keep an eye out for squatters because people could move in and lay claim,” Branscum said. “To avoid that, Stearns would lease out a small tract of land-say ten acres-as part of a much larger tract of land. The individual with the lease was responsible, in return, for watching over the total tract, keeping squatters away, and reporting back to the Stearns Company. These smaller, leased tracts were called possession lots. The individual living on the possession lot was allowed to live on the small tract, raise a garden, and have livestock. The possession lots were a legal way for the Stearns Company to maintain legal title to the larger tracts of land.”
Branscum noted Mr. Kinne and Nip Perkins often rode for miles to visit individuals holding leases to possession lots in the backwoods. While visiting, they would gather reports about the Company land ensuring squatters could not establish claims.
Branscum also spoke of the knowledge he gleaned from George Humble, the original mining engineer, and Mr. John Wright.
“I had access to all of John Wright’s knowledge,” Branscum remarked. “I spent one summer with John on the properties looking for prospective mine openings. Having access to his knowledge gave me a good base to work from in finding prospective mining opportunities.”
“John was a self-taught man and very intelligent,” Branscum continued. “He read a lot-everything from the Bible to “Mechanics Illustrated.” I think he read some every night.”
Branscum continued to work at Stearns until he retired, and after retirement, he stayed on as a consultant until the Stearns Company closed in 2012. Facing a lawsuit from the U. S. government claiming damages from mine drainage, the Stearns Company gave the Forest Service about 40,000 acres of mineral rights, land, and property records . With that action, the era of Stearns as a company town came to a close.
Today, Branscum laments the failure of McCreary County to incorporate one of its towns and expresses his concern about a lack of local leadership. He is honest in saying he doesn’t know the answer for McCreary County’s future, but he passionately wants to see better days for the place he calls home.
“Stearns built McCreary County on coal and timber,” he noted. “Now, both of those are gone.”


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