Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

I’ve been going back to eastern Kentucky for over a decade. Since 2016, something there has changed.

Kevin Rogers has five rules: love God, love others, don’t do dumb things, don’t die, and “Get ye, therefore, over thyself.”

“Roger’s Rules” govern the work of Big Creek Missions, an inter-denominational Christian ministry center in eastern Kentucky, the heart of Appalachia. Every year, Big Creek Missions hosts hundreds who come to serve the Lord through service projects to communities in Leslie and the surrounding counties, Clay, Harlan, and Perry.

I was 16 the first time I visited Big Creek, on a trip with my high school, Orange Lutheran. As a kid who had only ever known the Southern California beaches and suburbs, I found an entirely different side of America waiting for me in eastern Kentucky, an America rife with poverty, riddled with drugs, and wrung out of opportunity. It was an America no one—especially in Washington or the other power centers of the nation—seemed to want to talk about. Why was that? How did America forget Appalachia and its people? Why was it left behind in the first place?

The trip triggered a fascination with Appalachia, its history, its people, its culture. It caused me to rethink and, over time, fundamentally change my view of politics. What kind of politics can seek the good for the people I met in the hills of eastern Kentucky? It’s not an easy question. My efforts at answering it myself have been downright embarrassing at points, and I still don’t have all the answers. I likely never will.

Between my first trip junior year and my return as a senior, a presidential candidate emerged who talked as if he hadn’t forgotten the people of the American heartland. In a bizarre twist, that candidate was a billionaire—a real estate mogul and a reality TV star from Queens.

Candidate Trump preached protectionism and derided so-called free trade deals that had hollowed out America’s manufacturing base. Immigration both legal and illegal, Trump said, was undermining the ability of working-class Americans to get good jobs and fundamentally changing the nation’s character. He vowed to unleash American industry and extolled the virtues of energy independence. He aimed to end the forever wars in the Middle East that cost America trillions of dollars and thousands of its sons and daughters’ lives. These issues, and the way Trump pilloried the establishment’s approach to them with ruthless delight, became the foundation of Trump’s political movement.

More importantly, Trump declared what Appalachians had already intuited: “The American dream is dead,” especially for people like them. What Trump was saying on the stump was what Appalachians have been saying around the dinner table for decades. By no means were Appalachians condemning their country by saying these things—Appalachians are the most patriotic breed of Americans you’ll ever encounter—they were simply observing reality and had the courage to say it aloud.

Nearly a decade on, a lot has changed. I’m engaged to be married. Trump’s first term has come and gone. A redux could be in the making. The right has coalesced around Trump’s platform and vision. What, if anything, has changed for the forgotten people of Appalachia? 

In November, I returned to Big Creek with my sister, now a freshman at Orange Lutheran, to chaperone her first trip to the hills of eastern Kentucky. 

Founded in 1878 from portions of Harlan, Clay, and Perry counties, Leslie County’s history reads more like folklore than fact. Records explain how the area’s creeks and streams received their curious names. Cutshin Creek received its name after an unnamed pioneer slipped and cut his shin on one of the sharp rocks while crossing. “Hell Fer Sartin” creek was named by two prospectors. Upon finding the creek, one prospector turned to the other and said, “This is hell.” The other, in the region’s throaty, rhotic Appalachian dialect, croaked, “Yes, hell fer sartin.”

Leslie is named after Preston M. Leslie, the governor of Kentucky from 1871 to 1875. Though he started out as a Confederate-sympathetic Whig and moved to the Democratic Party, Preslie became renowned in the region for driving out the KKK presence and the roving bands that were wreaking havoc in the backcountry in the aftermath of the civil war. Clay, Perry, and Harlan were pockets of some of the strongest Union support in the nation. More men enlisted in the Union Army relative to population in these and the surrounding counties than anywhere else in the nation. 

Leslie has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since its creation in 1878. From 1896 to 1928, no democratic presidential candidate managed to capture more than 10 percent of the vote. The closest a Democrat has ever come to winning Leslie was in 1964 when President Johnson captured 47 percent of the Leslie County vote against Barry Goldwater. 

In both 2016 and 2020, Trump received 90 percent of Leslie County’s vote. This was an improvement on the internationalist Republican candidates of the 90s and 2000s—Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain—who each lost at least 25 percent of the vote in Leslie County in their respective bids.

Trump’s message echoed through the hollers of eastern Kentucky. So, too, did the scorn of the former president’s political enemies. One Appalachian I met told me, “I feel like they hate Trump so much because he stands up for us and says what a lot of us think.” They’re out to get Trump, but “they want to go after us, too.” Another chimed in with a chuckle, “They already are.” 

In my travels to eastern Kentucky, nearly every person I talked to also told me some iteration of, “Here, we have to look out for one another because no one else will.” The Jacksonian strain of American thought is alive and well in the hills of eastern Kentucky, befitting for a place which started as a backcountry settled by yeoman farmers.

While Appalachia has been the target of substantial government aid on paper, you won’t hear many Appalachians suggest they are much better off than they once were. You also won’t hear many Appalachians credit the government or the NGOs for the improvements that have been made. They credit other members of their community, such as Kevin Rogers of Big Creek Missions, who have started local nonprofits to provide for the oscillating needs of these holler communities.

“I grew up in a house that struggled financially,” Rogers told Orange Lutheran students gathered in the Big Creek gymnasium. The financial constraints Rogers faced at home extended to his church community, where economic insecurity and social instability led to a revolving door of church leaders. “In my church, we didn’t have a lot of money. We had four or five youth pastors in four years.” When he graduated high school, Rogers took over as the church’s youth pastor, “because I got sick and tired of the church running them off,” he explained. “I wanted something deeper for my friends and for my students.” 

Shortly after taking the job, Rogers found out that “you can do disaster relief mission trips for really cheap.” In the next three to four years, Rogers and his high schoolers took 17 mission trips to disaster areas. “Because they were looking out for the needs of others, our youth group was growing spiritually. Their hearts were being changed.”

Some time later, the pastor of Roger’s small church approached him and said, “Kevin, my home church is looking for a youth pastor, and I think you should do it, get out of your home church, go do something else.” The pastor’s former church was in a whole other league compared to Kevin’s home church.

“I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to do it. Not me—I’m happy here,’” Rogers recounted.

Three months later, Rogers was settling into his new role at the larger church. The youth group Rogers was tasked with leading was four times larger than that of his home church. The students Rogers initially found there seemed to think youth ministry was for their entertainment, not for accomplishing the mission God had given them.

“Their idea of a mission trip was much more elaborate,” Rogers explained. Luxury charter buses would take students and their families to nice hotels. Recreation got in the way of the mission. “From the outside looking in, it appeared that their trips were more of a vacation than a mission trip,” said Rogers. He would do things differently.

The church also held a toy drive around Christmas time. Rogers, joined by members of his youth group and the media team, were tasked with taking the busload of toys northward to a small school in eastern Kentucky called Big Creek Elementary. 

“We set up this big production, we had lights, we had a stage, we had sound, all this fancy stuff to share the story of Jesus with these kids,” Rogers recalled. The production was not a classic retelling of the Redeemer’s humble origins. After the show, the church group distributed the toys to the children, but the way they gave the toys out left some of the elementary schoolers in tears.

“We go back to the church and all the students get up there and say how amazing it was, how everybody was changed in Appalachia, and how we changed all these kids’ lives—blah, blah, blah, blah,” Rogers said. “And I’m like, ‘did you not see the kids crying?’”

The time came to plan the church’s summer mission trip. “The student threw ideas at me: ‘Let’s go to Chicago! Let’s go to New York! Let’s go to Virginia Beach! Let’s go back to Orlando!” But Rogers had already made up his mind. “I asked my youth leaders, ‘Y’all love those kids and Big Creek School? Because y’all told me that you love those kids.’ ‘Oh, yeah. We love those kids.’ ‘Are you committed to those kids?’ ‘Oh, yeah. We’re committed to those kids.’ I said, ‘Cool. Because this summer, we’re going on our first mission trip to Big Creek Elementary School.’”

Big Creek was not the vacation destination students in the youth ministry had envisioned. There’s no Six Flags or white sand beaches in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky. “I ticked them all off,” Rogers admitted. Just 30 students and adults made the first trek to Big Creek.

For those who went, the trip was transformational. Students told stories about things they’d never seen before—homes with empty pantries where children had no toys to play with while mom and dad were strung out on meth in the bedroom.

The trip lit a fire in the bellies of Rogers’ students to serve Big Creek and the surrounding community. Word of the small but deeply spiritual trip to Big Creek made its way to the leadership of the association of churches. He was asked to lead an association-wide trip to Appalachia. The next summer, 100 students made the trek up to Leslie County. In the span of four years, the trip grew from 30 to 750 stretched across four weeks at Big Creek.

In 2007, Rogers’ pastor sat him down for a serious conversation. “‘Kevin, it’s time,” Rogers remembers the pastor telling him. “All you talk about is Big Creek missions. You need to ask the Lord if you need to be here, or you need to be there.’”

Rogers replied, “I love my students, and the youth group has grown so much spiritually and numerically.” The pastor told him to pray about it. “God said yes. I kept saying no,” Rogers said. That same year, Rogers received a call from the superintendent that oversaw Big Creek Elementary. “‘Kevin, we’re shutting down Big Creek Elementary, these kids are going to be going down to Mountain View Elementary in Hyden.’” Rogers recounted.

Rogers’ heart broke when he initially heard the news. But the superintendent had another proposal—for Rogers to buy Big Creek Elementary and turn it into a full-time mission. Again, Rogers prayed. Again, God said yes and Rogers said no. A few months later, “through a series of amazing things that happened, and a series of challenging things that happened, I knew it’s time to go and do this Big Creek thing.” Since, Rogers said, “we continue to do simple things. We serve people in need, we look in the community, find the greatest needs, and we go and serve.”

Orange Lutheran High School was one of the first major groups to start visiting Big Creek Missions after Rogers took over the school. The first trip Orange Lutheran took to Big Creek was on extremely short notice—Orange Lutheran had to cancel their plans to serve in Mexico over safety concerns. It found Big Creek Missions and gave Rogers a call. A few weeks later, 40 students and a handful of chaperones were on their way to Leslie County. Now, more than a decade on, Orange Lutheran brings about 170 individuals to Big Creek every fall.

Rogers and his small team of staff and volunteers have converted the old classrooms into dorm rooms, each lined with seven to eight handbuilt triple bunk beds. The old gymnasium is now a place for worship and assemblies. The kitchen and cafeteria are mostly left unchanged; the industrial-sized refrigerators and freezers hold meals for anyone in the community in need. The detached warehouse holds all the tools needed to maintain the campus and for Big Creek’s multitude of construction projects within a fifty-mile radius. In the parking lot, school buses have been replaced with Big Creek branded shuttles, flatbeds, and vans.

With a group of Orange Lutheran’s size, Rogers can dispatch teams of six to ten to work on nearly 20 different service projects, most of which fall into three buckets: construction, community, and caretaking.

The group of six students I chaperoned with one other adult were sent around 20 miles east to assist another area nonprofit, Hope in the Hills.

Jack is a short but sturdy man. His full, white head of hair and the hitch in his gait suggest he’s in his sixties. Arriving on site, where we’d be helping Jack repair and remodel the Hope in the Hills warehouse, Jack stuck out a thick, stubby hand. His handshake was firm and friendly, though his hands felt like sandpaper.

As we became acquainted, Jack explained that Hope in the Hills started as a small service group that would collect donations from his local church. Soon enough, Hope in the Hills was collecting more donations than the church could reasonably store. The group had to set out on their own, and Hope in the Hills was born.

Jack said things ran on a shoestring budget—everything, the donations and the man hours, “came from the good of people’s hearts.” Their regular giveaways, several times a month at local parks or other public meeting places, attracted beneficiaries from Leslie, Clay, Harlan, Perry, and beyond. Hope in the Hills’ donors also came from farther and farther away. Jack said they had to get a bigger truck to collect larger donations from the south and west. Hope in the Hills workers scour public marketplaces to haul back free furniture and other goods to give away, too. 

Jack is partially retired now, but four decades or so ago, he started out working in the timber industry, which came to Appalachia’s virgin forests starting in the 1880s. The increased demand for timber and technological innovations for the industry made logging more profitable in places it wasn’t before, though loggers would have to use mule teams, rivers, or even splash dams to get logs out of the hollers.

The timber industry Jack started working in was nothing like the Appalachian timber industry of a hundred years prior. Working conditions, while still perilous, were safer and corporate interests had been beaten back relative to the near-feudal conditions that prevailed before. 

By the time Jack found employment, the logging industry in Appalachia was dying. Advancements in sustainable practices for the industry meant once-depleted forests in other states were returning. An explosion of trade deals was making lumber easier and cheaper to import than previously. While the U.S. remains the largest producer of timber in the world, it’s the third largest timber importer in the world. Everyone has heard of Chinese steel’s effect on economic opportunity for working-class men; fewer know about Canadian timber’s impact on workers in Hazard, Kentucky.

Eventually, Jack changed career paths. He began working as a trucker, hauling products once made in the United States but now shipped in from overseas. Trucking was one of the few industries that did not necessarily create displacement. A trucker could still live in Leslie County, Kentucky, rather than move north to work in a factory, though he’d spend most of his time on the road and away from family. Compared to the alternatives in the area, trucking paid well and provided good benefits. There was also a fairly low barrier to entry. A commercial driver’s license takes about seven weeks of training to obtain. Trucking remains one of the top jobs in the United States, especially for working-class white men without college degrees. 

Working as a truck driver has allowed Jack to enjoy his partial retirement in the hills of eastern Kentucky without ever having to relocate his family as millions of Appalachians have done since World War II. Beyond his work with Hope in the Hills, Jack tends to a small herd of cattle. He lives in a nice, small prefabricated home overlooking the local school and a creek. A detached warehouse, mostly made of reclaimed tin, is where Hope in the Hills keeps most of its donations. 

Our task for the week was to repair and remodel the warehouse. The seasons slowly eat away at the wood and metal of Appalachian homes. Sometimes, they’re swallowed whole. A massive flood in July 2022 swept through 14 counties in eastern Kentucky. It claimed the lives of 45 and displaced thousands. 

One of the underappreciated reasons Democratic Kentucky governor Andy Beshear was reelected in 2023 was his handling of the flood. Even those I met in deep red Kentucky admitted the governor did a pretty good job in the aftermath. The electoral map bears this out. In deep-red southeastern Kentucky, Beshear greatly overperformed, managing to capture about a third of the vote. 

That said, the devastation is still easy to spot. On the drive to Jack’s place, we passed upside-down mobile homes that had been completely washed away. Others were simply twisted piles of metal. The land isn’t the only thing to carry the flood’s scars. Many of the families in Leslie still do, too. Thankfully, Jack’s property was spared, and the goods stored there have been used to help dozens of families in the community get back on their feet in the aftermath. 

Nevertheless, some of the roof’s tin sheets had rusted out and the support beams rotted. New siding was also in order. Inside the warehouse, we were tasked with laying down a fresh coat of paint, building shelves, and reorganizing.

Despite his height, Jack was a confident and commanding figure. He was quick to show friendship and respect when extended to him. We became fast friends when I told him my occupation. “Now, I’ll be completely honest, I’m a Republican,” Jack said as we ventured into politics. For the next three days, our political chat was off and on. “I’ll tell you one thing, Bradley,” he said as we stood at the base of a ladder, “there wasn’t any of these terrible school shootin’s when they taught the Bible in schools.” 

Jack had a general vision of what he wanted the finished product to look like, but he didn’t go into much detail. Only towards the end of our talk would Jack say, “If you need anything or any guidance, just ask my daughter Heather—she’s the brains of this whole operation.” Jack, even in retirement, had a boss.

Heather’s father wasn’t her only underling, either. As Hope in the Hills survived on donated time from volunteers, Jack had called in backup. These men were the most eclectic and wonderful group of hillbillies in all of Appalachia.

“Have you ever met a French hillbilly?” A voice like a rebel yell called out from the warehouse as I repaired the siding. I was certainly intrigued. I stopped what I was doing to meet this curiosity. As I entered, a man who seemed in his sixties looked upon a group of students, all frozen in position from their various tasks inside the warehouse. “The name is Bur-zhay,” he told the students in a faux French accent through his Appalachian drawl. As I circled around to this mysterious character’s front, I saw he sported a Ford motor company windbreaker over a neon yellow hoodie. Embroidery on the jacket atop the right side of his chest read, “Burgie.”

Over the three days we spent helping the folks at Hope in the Hills, I’m not sure Burgie handled a tool, lifted a paint brush, or shelved a can of soup. But Burgie is retired—he’s earned that right. What Burgie did was make a long day’s work fly by. With the radio out, Burgie’s stories became a neverending variety podcast with zero breaks or advertisements.

Burgie spent most of his career working at a Ford factory manufacturing parts, mostly transmissions. He got the nickname “Bur-zhay” while on a trip to France with Ford. “When I got there, all these French folk were telling me that I had been pronouncin’ my name wrong my whole life!” He laughed. 

Burgie was one of the millions of Appalachians who participated in one of the largest internal migrations in American history. The road north became known as the Hillbilly Highway as job opportunities dried up in the coal mines and forests and Appalachians sought work in the industrial Midwest. In the three decades between 1940 and 1970, 3 million Appalachians took to the Hillbilly Highway. Dwight Yoakam’s 1985 tune “Readin’, Writin’, and Route 23” memorialized the migration in song.

The migration transformed Appalachia. The era of the yeoman farmer, which tapped into the region’s precolonial roots, was over. In the 1950s, forty counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia lost about 70 percent of their farm population. Harlan County lost 82 percent, Leslie County a mind-boggling 98 percent. Only 20 fulltime farming operations remained in Leslie by the end of the decade.

A bevy of factors led to the decline of manufacturing in Appalachia. Environmental struggles, increased regulatory burdens, mechanization, and some companies’ difficulties paying retirement benefits all played their part. But it all took place against the backdrop of an increasingly globalized market economy, governed by a ballooning number of “free” trade agreements that spanned thousands of pages, which made foreign goods, and more importantly foreign labor, more attractive than Appalachia. Between 1970 and 2001 in Appalachia, the number of apparel workers declined by 66 percent and textile workers by 30 percent. For those who remained, living off the government dole became a way to make ends meet.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, was the nail in the coffin for manufacturing and other Appalachian industries. Six years later, Clinton would deliver remarks from Tyner, Kentucky, to bring public attention to Appalchian poverty. “I’m here to make a simple point,” Clinton told the nation. “This is the time to bring more jobs and investment to parts of the country that have not participated in this time of prosperity. Any work that can be done by anybody in America can be done in Appalachia.” The problem for Clinton was that those jobs were no longer being done in America.

Burgie spent decades working in that Ford plant far from the hills of Appalachia he called home. He became involved in the plant’s United Auto Workers (UAW) chapter and eventually ascended to a number of leadership positions. As the years passed, Burgie became increasingly disenchanted with his involvement in the UAW. “I don’t want to get into detail about it,” Burgie told me, as we sat on a bench sipping Diet Cokes. “But the point is it stopped being about the workers and more about the politics, and I just didn’t like that so much.” 

I asked him what he thought the future of union work might be. “The unions are wondering why people don’t want to be a part of ’em anymore,” Burgie said. “I’d tell ’em the same thing I tried to tell ’em when I was there: just focus on the workers. Folks have a hard time finding good jobs that can provide for a good retirement without the unions, and I think that’s still true. But there won’t be any unions to help people get these jobs, and no jobs to begin with, if they keep going down this path.” 

Burgie admired what certain Republicans, Trump among them, were doing to reach out to union workers. Trump, Burgie told me, was the first politician in a long time to name and shame the macro forces making it hard for working class people to get good jobs—immigration and globalization. “Whatever you think of him,” Burgie added, “it was the right thing to say. That takes some guts. I respect that.”

Joe was also in his sixties but much more prepared to do construction work than Burgie. He wore flannel, a vest, and an old rope cap. Thick, wire-rimmed glasses covered a good portion of his short face and rested heavily on the broad bridge of his nose. Myself, Joe, and Matt, one of the other chaperones, and Johnny, another member of our curious band, spent most of the first day working on the roof and siding. Joe had spent his working years in the timber industry, though he was afraid of heights, as our work on the roof quickly made clear.

As Matt and I huddled to figure out how to remove a particularly stubborn piece of rusted tin, Joe made his way to the spot with a chainsaw, slowly inching his way across the gable roof—none of the rotted beams had been replaced yet. This plan definitely violated rule three and potentially four of Rogers’ Rules, but it was already in motion.

As Joe approached, you could clearly see him shaking. “I think it’ll work.” Johnny said. “Be careful,” he yelled at Joe. “He’s afraid of heights,” Johnny said, turning to Matt and I. As I looked back at Joe, he had made his way over the peak of the gable and was heading down the slope to the corner of the roof. Once there, according to Johnny’s plan, he would fire up the chainsaw and punch down through the metal roof. A few steps onto the downward sloping side, Joe surmised this plan wasn’t as good as it initially sounded. With chainsaw in hand, Joe gingerly made his way down the 14-foot drop to the ground.

New plan: We’d use a smaller, cordless metal saw and approach from the bottom. Two men would be on ladders—one sawman, one scrap collector—and the other two supporting the base of the ladders. Joe, who we now knew was afraid of heights, would remain with me on the ground. 

“Was being afraid of heights difficult when you were logging?” I asked Joe. “No,” he said, his voice a whispering gruff. “Climbing trees is no problem when they’re on the ground.” 

Matt and Johnny were hard at work near the roof while Joe and I got to know each other on the ground. I could tell Joe wasn’t much of a talker. He kept his eyes fixed on Johnny, who teetered at the top of the ladder to reach where he needed to cut. Joe answered my questions about the area and his work experience with a sentence or less. 

After about 30 minutes, Joe warmed up. It really got rolling when I asked about the present problems Appalachians face. Joe, with his coughing drawl, spoke about the difficulties young people face in communities like Leslie County. By the government’s metrics, Appalachia is much less impoverished than it was when he was a young man. In 1965, 219 of the 420 counties that make up Appalachia were considered impoverished. Today, that number is 82. 

While less of the region faces poverty, things seem much worse by Joe’s telling. Good-paying jobs are few and far between not just here but in the places Appalachians once fled to. It might be a Detroiter’s first time facing the reality of massive job displacement; for many Appalachians, it’s their second. Meanwhile, price increases for the most essential goods—housing, health care, education, groceries—have outpaced inflation at best and skyrocketed at worst.  

To add insult to injury, the health care that workers in the area have received has mostly been in the form of prescription opiates. “The drugs have really done a number on this place,” Joe told me. “It’s devastated whole families.”

The opioid epidemic ravaged the American heartland. It almost appears to have been designed to do just that. Companies lied about the nature of the wonder drugs they created. Some extremely bad actors moved in to take advantage of the profits the drugs offered. Even good doctors wrote prescriptions that ruined lives. The influx of fentanyl from the southern border brought another wave of drug abuse. The pandemic ushered in a deadly round of relapses.

Opioids have sapped Appalachia, particularly Appalachian men, of their vitality when their distressed communities needed it most. When opioid addiction takes a life, that’s sad enough. Here, it crushes whole families, even whole communities. Hopelessness begets more hopelessness.

Eventually, our conversation got sidetracked when Joe asked, “Why do you speak with your lips so much?” I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, then I realized that the rhotic Appalachian drawl comes from the back of your throat. My southern California speech patterns are very tip of the tongue. “I’m not quite sure, but I guess you’re right, Joe,” I replied.

An old blue truck kicked dust up on the gravel road leading up to Jack’s property. A man dressed quite similarly to Joe got out and approached. “What’s going on, Joe,” he asked. Joe explained to the man, whose name was Ronnie, that Johnny and Matt were entering their second hour of wrestling with a rusted out tin roof. Johnny and Matt climbed down to greet Ronnie, and Johnny told Ronnie of the original plan for Joe to use a chainsaw. Ronnie, seeming to know Joe was afraid of heights, stared at Joe with a shocked expression on his face. He was a soft-spoken man, but suffice it to say Ronnie didn’t need to say anything to make clear his disapproval of the original plan.

“Ronnie worked in the mines,” Joe told me. Mining had been one of the topics we covered in our conversation at the base of the ladders. I asked Ronnie what that was like. “Dark,” Ronnie chuckled. Ronnie explained that his office was a crawl space hundreds of feet below ground. Ronnie gestured a rounded box around his chest to his thigh to show the size—a few feet by a few feet. Ronnie, also a retiree, was the most slender of the hillbillies assembled but also the tallest, which I assume must have been a disadvantage underground.

Appalachia once produced two-thirds of the nation’s coal. Coal fields cover 63,000 square miles in the region. In eastern Kentucky alone, there are 80 major seams. Most of the region’s mining is done how Ronnie once mined, deep underground, and a third is surface mining, a more controversial form because of its impact on the environment.

Even in the glory days of mining in Appalachia, it was a cycle of boom and bust. World War I brought a major spike in coal production, only to give way to the Great Depression. During World War II, the Office of War Mobilization encouraged coal production as a patriotic duty. Thousands of workers and small-scale operations took advantage of the government’s demand, but that revival was short-lived. 

Mechanization arrived after the war as coal operators sought to cut down on labor costs. Inventions like the continuous miner, which integrated drilling, blasting, and loading into one process, “made it possible for ten men to produce three times the tonnage mined by eighty-six miners loading coal by hand,” Ronald Eller writes in Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. “By 1960 fewer than half of the 475,000 miners in the region at the end of World War II still found work in the deep mines” Eller continues, “and by 1970 the number had declined to 107,000.” Today, coal mining employs just 2 percent of the Appalachian workforce.

Johnny Muncy is Leslie County royalty. He’s not one of the barons who made their fortunes from King Coal nor one of the titans that built holiday homes in the Appalachian hills like the Vanderbilts. He’s not wealthy by any means. But the Muncy name has been associated with the area that is now Leslie County since before its creation.

One of his ancestors, also John Muncy, came to the hills from Burke’s Garden, Virginia. When the Civil War began, John Muncy was too young to fight but convinced commanding officers to let him join the 47th Regiment of the Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. There, Muncy would be among the 77,000 troops that won the pivotal battle of Vicksburg, which secured Union control of the Mississippi river. He’d go on to become a corporal in Company C and serve in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 

John Muncy had eleven children from two marriages. One of his sons, John M. Muncy, born 1868, would go on to establish Hyden’s first and only newspaper, named the Thousandsticks, and serve as a county judge and school superintendent. For the final five years of his life, before he passed in 1937, J.M. Muncy was chairman of the Leslie County Republican Party. 

As we joked about Burgie’s frenchified nickname, Johnny Muncy said the best hillbilly nickname he’d ever heard belonged to his grandfather. “His name was William Muncy, but everybody always called him Powder Bill.”

William “Powder Bill” Muncy was a logger around the turn of the century. When a logflow jammed in the river, his grandfather was the only one crazy enough to head down to the jam with a stick of dynamite and clear it. “Whenever they had a jam, they always called for Powder Bill, and he always made sure the logs started flowin’ again. Nothin’ bad ever happened to him, though.”

I never tired of talking to any of my new hillbilly friends, but especially Johnny Muncy. Like Jack, Johnny became a trucker. For three decades, he crisscrossed the country hauling whatever needed transporting. “I spent a lot of time away from home, away from my family,” Johnny said. “Those years on the road take a toll. You miss a lot. I needed to be home.” 

Later, Johnny and I got to talking politics. He wanted to know if I had any dirt on powerful people in D.C. I told him that, if I did, I would have already written it.

I asked Johnny what issues people here cared about. He didn’t hesitate: “The drugs.” All over the community, you can find people strung out, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, even grandparents. Babies live covered in their own excrement, their parents too high to care or too busy looking for the next score. Johnny and Jack knew of at least two drug-related deaths nearby in the last week. In many cases, addiction here starts with prescription pills—from surgery, a disability, or a relative’s medicine cabinet—then moves on to the hard stuff, much of which is now laced with fentanyl.

The epidemic has touched Johnny’s family: One of his sons has struggled with drug addiction. Though his methods were unconventional, Johnny made sure to get his son clean. “It came to a point where I had to physically lock him in a room to get the drugs out of his system,” Johnny said. “I had a six shooter and said, if you come out of there, I’m goin’ to shoot you, because if you keep goin’ down this path, you’re as good as dead anyways.”

“It was a rough few days,” Johnny said, “but he’s strong, and he pulled through.”

Before Johnny issued that ultimatum, he thought he had done all he could to keep his son on the straight and narrow. He bought him a rifle so they could go hunting together. Johnny’s son sold the rifle for drugs. Then Johnny bought him a new hunting bow. That, too, got sold for drugs. Johnny even bought his son a truck to get to and from work. “He stripped everything he could out of that truck. The radio, everything, even the seats, he stripped out of that car to sell for drugs.”

“Young people used to go to church, now their gods are sex and drugs,” Johnny said. “This rotten culture has corrupted their souls.” These days, on Sunday mornings, you can find Johnny’s son in a church pew. “Now he’s given that up, he’s going back to church,” Johnny said.

The right has only begun to grapple with the lives of men like Jack, Burgie, Joe, Ronnie, and Johnny. How to bring manufacturing jobs back, how to end the opioid crisis—these are topics of roundtable discussions across institutional Washington. There’s little agreement on an agenda, but we had to start somewhere.

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The men I met in Appalachia have intuited that a realignment is happening. They’ve been waiting for it for a long time. If the right succeeds in bringing a revival to Appalachia, don’t expect these men to direct their thanks to the Republican Party. Their thanks will go to the men and women like Kevin Rogers who have done the Lord’s work and kept hope alive in the hills. 

But don’t expect Rogers to take credit. “God gets the glory for what he has done through somebody as messed up as me,” he says. “I cannot stand up here and say, ‘Well, look at what I’ve done.’ Because I kept saying, no, no, no, no, no, no, no to God.”

“I don’t know why people keep coming back to Big Creek, but they do. God brings them here. He gets the glory for it from the beginning to the end. Wherever you are, give Him the glory,” Rogers told students in closing. “Thank you all for being a part of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.”

This article appears in the May/June 2024 issue

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