The Town That Faded Away
Published in the Corbin Times-Tribune Oct. 6, 2006

Residents recall growing up in former mining community

school drawing

By Fred Petke
Staff Writer

   The last remnants of Bon Jellico are fading back into the mountains of southern Whitley County.
   Seventy years ago, the coal mine closed leaving dozens of families without work in the midst of the Great Depression. Decades of neglect and vandalism have left little more than memories of the coal tipple, the three room school and the 75 four-room homes that stretched around the base of the camp and the mine.   
    For the former residents, memories are all they have left.
   "The house we lived in just burned a couple years ago," said Dora Sharpe, who was born in the camp 91 years ago.  "There's no houses left. To me, it was a great place."
   Bon Jellico was one of dozens of coal mines throughout Whitley County during the first half of the 20th century. The Whitley County Historical and Genealogical Society listed 61 camps as existing through those first 50 years including French, Blue Gem, Cumberland River Coal and Oil, Pocono and Patterson Creek employing anywhere from 15 to 200 people.

   Sharpe's father M.G. "Melt" Lovitt was one of the first employees at the mine and operated the mine cars up and down the hill for more than 30 years.
   Ivan Bunch spent 10 years living in the camp as a child. His was a mining family. His father Lewis ran the cutting machine in the mines. His grandfather was the blacksmith. Four other uncles were miners, too.
   "It was not the good old days," Bunch said.
   Miners were only paid a couple dollars a day in coal company scrip, which was expected to be used in the company's commissary, Bunch said. Pricers were higher at the company store than in town, he said, and his father lost one mining job because he was trading his scrip in town.
   Families rented their homes from the company as well for $1 per room per month. They paid $2 a month to the company doctor, which covered all medical expenses, he said. Those who went down in the mine also had to buy their own carbide for their lamp for about five cents a day.
   Sharpe's family included seven siblings, which crowded into one of the company homes. There was a water pump for every five homes, she said.
   "Most families had a cow and raised hogs and chickens," Bunch said, to supplement what food they could buy.
   There was also a three-room school in the camp for primer through the eighth grade, with classes split between the three rooms. It wasn't always Bunch's favorite place to be.
   "I was super hyper," he said. "My medication was a hickory switch. I usually caught it once a day."
   Sharpe went through the camp school, Williamsburg High School and Cumberland College before returning to the camp to start her teaching career. Five of her other siblings eventually became teachers as well, she said.

M.G. Melt's home at the Bon Jellico coal camp was the first of 75 homes built and the last one to be demolished, his daughter Dora Sharpe said.
   It was a very hard way of life.
   Bunch went barefoot from May until the first frost in the fall. He had two pairs of overalls: a good pair for school and a second pair to play in.
   "That's life. We didn't know any different," he said.
   Church was a traveling preacher who came to the camp school. Entertainment was usually watching the camp baseball team play on the weekend, he said.
   By the time World War II broke out, Whitley County's coal mines started to play out. One by one, the mines closed and the camps did the same.
   "Most of the mines in Whitley County worked the Jellico seam of coal," Bunch said. "It was a pretty fair seam but it worked out around World War II."
   Bunch's family moved into town when he was 10 and his father started working at the Mountain Ash mine. Sharpe's family bought their home and stayed there for a while longer.
   The mine shut down in 1937 when they pulled up the tracks to the mine," Bunch said.
   For many decades following the closure, those who worked, played and lived at Bon Jellico returned to Williamsburg every Labor Day for a reunion. Pictures were posted at the picnic shelter where the camp once stood. Stories were shared and memories lived on.
   In recent years, the reunions have ceased. Those who remember cling to those memories.
   "To me, it was a great place," Sharpe said.
Fred Petke can be reached at

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