There is a little creek that runs up a hollow (pronounced “holler” in eastern Kentucky) called Birch Branch. Now in case you don’t know what a holler is, I’ll tell you. It is the very narrow valley between two mountains. I’m not sure if that term is specific to Appalachia, but that’s the only place I’ve ever heard it used. Birch Branch is the creek that was beside the farms and houses where my family, for many generations back, lived and thrived. The name came from the Native Americans. I assume it was named because of the slight river birch trees that grow by the creek.
I didn’t live there. I grew up in northeastern Kentucky which is still Appalachia, but it isn’t the heart of the region. Birch Branch and the area around it, which is in Magoffin County, Kentucky, is in the heart of Appalachia.
When I was growing up, we used to visit my grandparents and other relatives in and around Birch Branch very frequently. That area was originally where my maternal grandmother’s people lived and, when I was a girl, most of them still lived there. My mother, dad, and I were often there every weekend. I developed an understanding of Appalachia and its people because I am one of its people. My mother grew up there. I have deep Appalachian roots through her that extend back to the Revolutionary War.
Back to Birch Branch. It was a beautiful place back in those days. Heavily wooded. Mountainous. A few homes miles apart. The road was dirt and gravel. My grandfather and grandmother married and bought a house on that road in 1901 along with a beautiful farm. They raised eight children in that farmhouse, including my mother.
By the time I came along, they had moved to another farm house on what they called the main road, an intersecting road with Birch Branch. All of my childhood, my cousins and I would play up and down the Birch Branch road and in that creek. We heard stories of what had happened there in the past. One story was that one of my great-grandfather’s wives had gotten angry with him and thrown herself into the creek. I’ll have to tell you that it would be very hard to drown yourself in that creek since the water level is usually low. That story is part of the family legend.
One particularly poignant memory for me is a trip I took up Birch Branch with my grandfather in his cart pulled by his mules. We went to his family’s homeplace, which was farther on from Birch Branch. I remember that, even as a child, the beauty of that place struck me. Green, lush, pure, clean. Not like it is today. The remains of the log cabin in which my grandfather had grown up were in the wonderous meadow to which he took me. I’ll never forget that special day. Circa 1960s.
Birch Branch is part of my heritage. Stay tuned for Part 2. Birch Branch today.