It’s that time of year again when students of all ages are back at their desks and struggling with their homework. Harlan County has had exemplary schools through the years and excellent instructors. Back before consolidation, there were small schools strung out all over Harlan County and up every fork and hollow. There was one at Smith, a community about as far back on Martins Fork as it was possible to get. The “head teacher” there for many, many years was the well-known Judy Ball. She was related to the Henry Pope family of Harlan, as well as the Ledfords at Smith and on Little Creek above Cawood. Judy was a splendid storyteller who told dozens of them about her experiences as a teacher and about her unique relationship with her students, whom she loved. Those of us who heard some of those stories feel obliged to pass them on. Here goes one.
It seems that the elementary students at Smith had been using river mud for clay in art class. Judy made a trip to the bluegrass for some reason and while she was there, she managed to get ahold of some real, store-bought, colored modeling clay which she brought back to her students. At the first opportunity, she distributed the clay. The children set to work with glee, especially the girls, who fashioned miniature baskets of multicolored flowers or fruit. The boys, on the other hand, predictably, made toy guns and prehistoric reptiles. One little boy, however, quietly grabbed up as much clay as he could and with an air of great purpose returned to his seat. There, he bent over his work like a sculptor engrossed in fashioning his masterpiece. He never looked up, he never hesitated a moment and his concentration was intense.
When the art period came to an end, Judy walked up and down the aisles of her classroom, picking up each child’s handiwork, which she held up for all to see, as she praised each one’s artistic effort. When she reached the back of the room, where the little fellow had worked so intently, she was astounded. He had not made flowers, fruit, firearms or reptiles. He had made a miniature replica of a moonshine still, perfect in every detail. She was intrigued and took the boy’s handiwork to the front of the room and placed it on the corner of her desk. Judy invited the boy to come to the front and explain to his classmates what he had made and how it worked. Without hesitation, he came forward and began to point out the following: “This copper barrel, here, holds the corn mash. The wooden sticks go in the fire in-under the mash to make it hot. Then the steam from the mash drips through this copper coil and comes down here where it’s caught up in fruit jars.” The boy had made a perfect replica of the barrel, the fireplace, the wood, the “snake” or coil, and the fruit jars. His fireplace had a stone-like chimney sticking up at the back. As he explained the finer points and workings of the still, he made sure a flat piece of clay, resembling a rock, was on top of the chimney. The flat rock somehow disturbed Judy. Thinking it didn’t belong there, she kept removing the rock and placing it on her desk. As the little fellow continued with his explanation, he replaced the flat rock to cover the top of the chimney. This on-again, off-again business continued until finally Mrs. Ball said, “Now, we don’t want this rock on top of our chimney, do we?” To that question, the horrified boy adamantly replied, “Lord have mercy, YEAH, Miz Ball, WE’RE RUNNIN’ TODAY !”
Sociologists say that the people who live in “Appalachia” constitute an “anecdotal society.” That’s a fancy way of saying that mountain folk love to tell stories and swap yarns. When the stories are exceptionally good they are likely to be passed on, bearing the name of the person who related the tale in the first place. And Judy Ball will always be remembered as one of the best.