If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
Please enter your email and we will send your username and password to you.
I was sitting at the supper table with my family, watching Dad crumble cornbread into a glass of buttermilk so he could have it for dessert, when, out of the blue, he asked me if I would like to go camping with him for a week over on Cowhorn Creek. The words were hardly out his mouth before I answered in the affirmative. I was a pretty dumb kid in those days, but I was not exactly stupid. Dad explained that he was going to cook for some of his friends in the Forest Service and needed someone to help with the camp chores. I flexed my almost twelve year old biceps and assured him that he had found his man. Thus began a delightful week spent in what I came to understand was one of McCreary County’s last remaining old growth forests.
When President Franklin Roosevelt created the Cumberland National Forest as part of his New Deal for Americans, thousands of acres of land were purchased in McCreary County from property owners seeking to be relieved of burdensome taxes. Most of this purchased land was of little value, having been stripped of timber and laid bare by erosion and uncontrolled burning. However, there were a few exceptions. One of these was a tract of several hundred acres lying along Cowhorn Creek in extreme northwestern McCreary County. This tract had never seen a crosscut saw or a felling axe and was, almost, unreachable other than by helicopter. In the spring of 1951, the Forest Service turned its attention to this tract.
In the mind of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to which cabinet department the Forest Service belonged, American taxpayers needed a financial return for their investment in worthless land on the Cumberland Plateau. A long-term return could be achieved by reforestation and erosion control, but an immediate return could be had by logging existing forestlands. On the Laurel Ranger District, the Cownhorn Creek tract stood as a beacon to those seeking to achieve the latter goal. Consequently, in the Forest Supervisor’s office in Winchester, a timber sale was planned.
Edward L. “Chig” Hurst, the head of the Laurel Ranger District at Stearns, met with his professional foresters throughout the spring of 1951. They studied maps of the Cowhorn Creek drainage, consulted with people who knew the terrain, and developed plans to build access roads into what was an almost unblemished wilderness. By June, they had their proverbial ducks in a row and were ready to go. But first, marketable trees had to be marked for sale to the highest bidder.
Even though a new highway from Stearns to Monticello had recently been built, the Cowhorn Creek tract was much too far from the ranger station for a daily commute. Hurst planned to remedy this by establishing a spike camp on the creek and send his timber markers out each day from it to select trees suitable for cutting.
Spike camps don’t materialize out of nothing. They have to be built. Provisions for shelter, sleeping accommodations, food, water, and waste disposal have to be made. This is where my father entered the picture, and, to a much lesser degree, I.
My father had only recently returned to duty as Fire Control Officer on the Laurel Ranger District after having spent six months recuperating from a severe attack of rheumatic fever. He had been hospitalized for two of those months and, at one time, had lingered near death. He was very weak and under orders from his physician to avoid strenuous work. Ranger Hurst had assigned him to desk duty, a job he abhorred, but when he learned of the planned spike camp, he threatened to resign if he were not given permission to participate. Against his better judgment, Hurst had relented and put him in charge of erecting the spike camp. Although I did not know it at the time, I understand, now, why he needed my help.
So, on a gorgeous June morning, when a Forest Service stake truck was loaded with canvas tarps, sleeping bags, cots, picks and shovels, kerosene lanterns, cooking utensils, grates, ropes, boxes of groceries, and bags of potatoes, my father climbed behind the wheel and we began a long journey to the wild lands beyond the Big South Fork River. Ahead of us, Ranger Hurst led the way in his Army surplus Jeep. The rest of the crew would follow later, when we had the spike camp set up.
More than two hours after leaving the ranger station and after bouncing over roads that bore close resemblances to cow paths, a dark forest closed around us. The blue sky disappeared, hidden behind a canopy of green that rose a hundred feet over our heads. Great white oaks, throwbacks to an earlier time, stood before us, their mighty trunks bearing witness to the passage of centuries. Others, the scarlets, the reds, the blacks, and the chinkapins lined what had become a narrow track through the woods. Maples, both sugar and red, rode the ridgetops and enormous hemlocks loomed over damp drains that emptied into Cowhorn Creek. In the absence of sunlight, the understory was remarkably sparse and I recalled stories I had read about early explorers of Kentucky being able to ride their horses through the forest without having their hats knocked off their heads.
Hurst stopped the Jeep and got out. He stood with his hands on his hips, marveling at the giants that towered over him. “These are some mighty big trees,” he said. Dad and I could only agree. They were some mighty big trees, indeed.
By late afternoon, the spike camp had been established. The largest tarp had been stretched between two trees for a shelter, cots had been set up, a latrine had been dug, and a camp kitchen had been erected under an adjoining tarp. When the timber markers arrived with their marking axes, circumference tapes, and tally books, they found supper waiting for them. They would spend the rest of the week roaming these woods, looking for marketable timber to provide employment for local loggers and enrich the national treasury. That end would be served for the next ten years, or more.
The week I spent in the Forest Service spike camp on Cowhorn Creek in 1951 was one of the most memorable events of my long life. During that week, my father became a heroic figure to me. He was in constant pain with rheumatism, but he never complained. Each morning, he fried the best potatoes I have ever eaten and when the markers left for their assigned tasks, they were stuffed with bacon, eggs, and Dad’s incredible flapjacks. But, I have often wondered if we did the right thing.
While I understand the need of families to put food on the table during hard times and I also believe in the multiple-use philosophy advocated by the Forest Service, I wish that provisions could have been made to exempt the Cowhorn Creek tract from exploitation. A stand of old-growth forest would have enriched the cultural heritage of McCreary County in ways we can only imagine. It could have been set aside as a memorial to those native people who resided in the Big South Fork River region long before the first Europeans arrived. It could have served as an outdoor classroom for generations of young people who could have sat in the shade of trees that were alive when the Santa Maria dropped anchor in the Caribbean. It could have given my own children, and grandchildren, an opportunity to gaze in wonder at the majestic world created by some mighty big trees.