Hunkey Hollow – A Fictional Short Story set in the real lost community of Himlerville, KY

The wind blows warm and soft across the Appalachian Mountains as I look down at my own grave.  Lonely and forgotten.  Abandoned really, except for the presence of others like myself, holding on to the past, afraid of the future, and pessimistic about the present.  The graves within this graveyard are long forgotten.  The weeds grow high, names from the stones that once gave us a voice, eroded.  As I look around these hills and into the valley, I remember a forgotten culture, my culture, now almost mythical.  But once, not so long ago, a progressive Hungarian community thrived here.  I was part of that community and here I will remain, body and soul, on this mountain, until I cease to exist in this realm. 

 

As I stand on this mountain and look out over what has become a desecration of my heritage, I feel empty and hopeless.  Is all that is left of my community these ruins that I see?   These hills do not sparkle with the life of hope as they once did.  The wind no longer sings a song of progression.  People do not live in this valley today; they merely exist, going about their day to day lives, never bothering to look up at this mountain, to remember those that tried to become part of the greater good in this county.

 

My name is Agnes and I am a Hungarian Jew.  My parents brought me to this country of promise and hope many years ago.  As a child, I was told about the prosperity in the United States and the hope of the American Dream.  It was here, in the hills of Martin County, Kentucky, that my people came to realize that dream.  And realize it we did, even if it were for only a short while. Believe it or not, in this desecrated valley and on these lonely hillsides where I stand there was once a progressive Hungarian culture that thrived with determination and hope, if only for a short time.  

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When I look at the old building which originally served as our General Store, I am reminded of on incident in particular which bears hard on my soul.  As transplants, we tried so hard to be a part of the native mountaineers life, to fit in.  We welcomed them into our town and they were free to shop at our stores, take in a show at our theater and otherwise take advantage of all we had to offer, with the exception of owning part of our co-operative coal mine.  It was not unusual to see a native mountaineer family in town.  No matter how much we tried to befriend them, it seemed that we could not completely close the gap that divided us.  Locally, Himlerville was known as Hunky Town and the locals operated under the suspicion that, if given the chance, we would steal their pets, specifically their felines, and have them for dinner. 

 

Our General Store had almost anything you could imagine from food to farming supplies and everything in between.  It was a two story building with a big front porch where everyone would gather during their spare time to socialize.  From the porch you could look upon the hill at the Himlerville Mansion, which overlooked the entire town.  The town came to life at the store.  You could hear the laughter and whispers of friends, the hustle and bustle of workers and news from â??back homeâ?? in Hungry, all at the General Store.  It was the epicenter of our 1920â??s mining town. 

 

I arrived at the General Store late one summer evening.  I was expecting a package from New York and as the postmaster, with a smile on his face, handed it to me across the counter, I felt a sigh of relief that the material I had special ordered for my new dress had finally arrived.  I was anxious to get started sewing, but first I had to pick up a few things. 

 

After picking up some essentials I grabbed a chocolate bar, which I had been craving for two days, and paid my bill.  As I turned to leave, I noticed two mountaineer children staring at my candy.  One tugged on his mothers dress and pleaded with her to purchase a bar for him.  She looked at him with sad eyes as she shook her head no.  I heard her say â??we only have enough to buy flour today; maybe I can get a bar for you next week when your father gets paidâ??.  The child was obviously very disappointed and my desire to eat the tasty treat was gone.  I walked out on the porch and looked at the candy.  At that moment, the two boys came out of the store and set on the front stoop to wait for their mother.  I approached them, asked their names and introduced myself.  â??Today is a great day for a candy bar!â?? I said.  â??We donâ??t have the money.â?? the younger boy said.  â??We only have enough to buy flour.â??  â??Wellâ??, I said, â??I happen to have a candy bar, would you like it?â??  â??We donâ??t accept no charity.â??  Said the older boy. 

 

The mountaineers were reared with a strong sense of pride, even if it caused them to do without some things.  They worked hard for what they got and took pride in it, but to offer them something they felt they hadnâ??t earned was often seen as a slap in the face.  I had to approach the situation with great care. 

 

â??Well, that is good, because I donâ??t give charity.â??  I said, â??I will give you this candy bar in exchange for you promising to do an extra good job on your chores this weekâ??.   After a little negotiation, the boys took the bar and divided it between themselves.  When they almost had their candy eaten, their mother came out of the store with her purchases.  â??Where did you get that candy bar?  Did you steal it?  Go straight back in there and tell the clerk what you have done!â??  â??No! I gave it to them.â?? I interrupted.  â??Well, we donâ??t take no charity, especially from a cat eating hunky.â??  I was shocked and stood there momentarily unable to move.  The natives were a proud people and unfortunately I had crossed the line as far as this woman was concerned.  However, I had never eaten a cat in my life and must admit that I was highly offended at the prejudice remark she had just had thrown in my face.  I decided to take the high road so as to spare the children from seeing an argument.  â??Iâ??m sorry that you are upset, I only gave the boys the candy toâ?¦â?¦â?¦.â??  â??You gave it to them out of pity.â?? she stammered and walked off.  There I stood, dumbfounded and in some way ashamed.  Ashamed because I knew that I had offended the mother, and in some way embarrassed her and in a way, I was ashamed of the prosperity in which I lived. 

 

Even though it was the early 1920â??s I had electricity and other creature comforts that most of the native population did not have.  Yes, my family worked just as hard as the mountaineers did, but still, it seemed sad to see other struggle amiss such prosperity. Still a hint of anger resided inside my heart as well.  Why did she call me those names and make those assumptions about me. She didnâ??t even know me, didnâ??t want to know me.

 

My feelings were more than hurt, they were destroyed.  After all, we were all human, werenâ??t we?   A tear fell down my cheek and I wiped it away as the younger child quickly turned and gave me a quick smile.  After I went home, I wondered, what had gone wrong and if I could somehow help this community to understand that we wanted to be neighbors and not intruders.  I also asked God to take the hatred from my heart and allow me to forgive the injustice I had just endured at the hands of those I was trying to help.

*********

Himlerville, being determined to share in the American Dream, boasted its own baseball team.  Our young boys would practice at least three times a week for their all important Saturday games.  After school, the boys would rush home to do their chores and head off to the baseball diamond where they would stay until it was almost dark.  Sometimes during my evening walk, I would go by and watch them practice.    There were two coaches a Hungarian that knew my family and a native mountaineer named Jim.  Jim was named for his father and everyone called him Junior.  I had fallen for Junior, and I did not care that he was not Jewish or that both of our families would rather we â??stay with our ownâ??.   When I was near him all I could see was his dark hair, muscular arms from days of hard work and a huge smile that engulfed me.  I was in love.

 

 

Soon Junior began coming to my home to see me.  I was 17 and he was 19.  Even though we were from two different continents, it soon became clear that we were soul mates.  Seven months after we met, Junior asked me to be his bride.  I had no hesitation in accepting his proposal.  We were in love, but there was one thing that we had to do before we tied the knot.  It was the one thing that I had dreaded from the time we began to court.

 

I had never met Juniorâ??s family and more than anything I wanted their blessing.  One Sunday afternoon I went to his motherâ??s house to have dinner.  When I walked in the door the smell of fried chicken filled the air.  I could practically taste the fresh biscuits melting in my mouth.  The fried kraut filled my nostrils and my mouth immediately began to water.  Juniorâ??s mother, who everyone called â??Mawâ??, was a very quiet woman.  She had brown hair peppered with gray which she pulled back in a braid and wrapped in a bun at the back of her head.  The lines of many years of servitude to her family were plain on her face.  Her eyes glistened black.  Although she disapproved of the union, she had accepted the fact that Junior, being headstrong, would indeed take the marital leap with me.

 

I asked if I could be of help in the kitchen.  Maw smiled at me and asked me to get the apple pie out of the oven.  I immediately felt warmed that she was allowing me to take part in the dinner ritual.  As family members began to arrive, I set the table and tried my best to fit in.  When we were about to sit down, Juniorâ??s sister Elizabeth and her children walked in the door.  I became immediately ill and almost fainted.

 

As Junior introduced me to Elizabeth we both stood in silence.  â??Do you know each other?â?? Junior said.  â??Have you met before?â??  â??Yea, we sure do know each other; this is the hunkey who gave my kids the candy bar because she felt sorry for them.â?? Elizabeth fumed.  â??Elizabeth, donâ??t you ever call her that again!  She is going to be a part of this familyâ??, said Maw.  â??I brought you up better than that.  This is my house and you will respect my company.â??  Elizabethâ??s face turned bright red, her eyes narrowed and she stomped outside.  I was left with the family staring at me and apologizing for Elizabethâ??s behavior.  I could feel the heat coming off of my face.  I was mad at her ignorance and the fact that she would never accept me into this family which I so desperately wanted to be a member.  One of Elizabethâ??s children came up to me and hugged me.  â??Iâ??m sorry we got you in trouble.â??  He said.  â??You did nothing wrong, sweetieâ?? I said, hugging him back.  â??Did you do a good job on your chores?â??  â??I sure did”, said the child, “but I cheated a little because she didnâ??t let us finish the candy barâ??.  In spite of myself, this angelic child had brought a smile to my face.  It was all worth it.  I then excused myself and went outside to get some air.

 

As I walked outside I saw Elizabeth sitting on a tree swing in the front yard.  I didnâ??t know what to do.  Should I approach her, or leave her be.  I couldnâ??t let it go.  I needed to make peace with this woman; she was going to be my sister-in-law after all.  I walked over to the tree.  She swung slowly back and forth, ignoring my presence.  â??Can I talk to you?â??  I asked.  â??No.â?? she replied.  â??I want to be friends with youâ??, I said.  Iâ??m sorry about the candy.  I was trying to be kind to your boysâ??.  She looked me strait in the eyes, her eyes burned hot as she said â??I will never be your friend.  You are not one of us, and you never will be.  Why donâ??t you leave us alone and go back to your town, live in your nice house and forget about my brother.â??  â??I would rather die, than live without Juniorâ??, I said.  â??We can get along or not, but no matter what you do, I am going to marry Junior.  I turned on my heels and stomped off, disappointed, sad and mad a hell.  The rest of the day was uncomfortable, but I survived.  At least Maw accepted me, and that was what really mattered to Junior.

 

Two weeks later Junior and I were married in a beautiful outside ceremony, absent his sister, who was still protesting the union.  For whatever reason, she hated me, but I was going to make the best of everything.

 

*****

 Eleven months after we were married, I delivered a beautiful baby girl who we named Grace.  Junior and I were so proud of her.  Maw cherished this new grandchild.  Elizabeth even accepted her, even though she still did not accept me.  I frequently sent pictures back to Hungry to my parents who, during the unforeseen bankruptcy of Himlerville Coal Company, had moved back home.   

 

Everything was going great.  Grace was becoming smarter every day.  She smiled constantly and at the age of two, she was coming into her own personality, and I, in turn, was developing my newfound insanity.  Then everything turned to night. 

 

I was standing in my kitchen the day when I got the news.   Junior had been killed in a mining collapse.  I was devastated and in shock.  What was I to do?  I was in such agony, I could not stop crying. I pulled Grace to my chest, as if somehow to protect myself from this awful truth. Still clinging tightly to Grace I went straight to tell Maw.  She fell apart, her heart already being weak from old age, collapsed in front of me begging me to tell her it wasnâ??t true.  Once the tears finally ceased, I busied myself trying to keep my mind off of the tragedy, while poor little Grace, unable to understand what was happening, lay asleep like an angel in Mawâ??s bed. 

I went down to the spring to fill the water bucket as I knew family would be arriving soon, and as soon as it could be removed from the mine, so would Juniorâ??s body.  My eyes filled with tears, I could barely see to fill the bucket. How I was going to live?  As I headed up the hill, I slipped on some mud.  Trying no to spill the water, I ended up falling against a tree.  I hit my head on a branch and darkness came over me.  When I came to, I heard a scream; I ran up the hill as fast as I could.  Maw was running toward me. When I asked her what was wrong she did not stop to answer and ran right past me.  When I turned to follow her I saw what she was screaming about.  It was me.  She was leaning over my body sobbing.  A river of red flowed towards the spring.  I was bleeding profusely from my head.  My water bucket lay beside me.  I was dead. 

 

 

*******

Elizabeth took care of Juniorâ??s funeral arrangements.  Although we died on the same day she made sure that we were not buried together. She had Junior buried in the family cemetery behind Mawâ??s house.  I was laid to rest, not with my love, but with the other Hungarians who had died during their stay in Himlerville.  She could not separate us in life, but in death, she was victorious.  She contacted some of the remaining Hungarians in the community and told them it was their responsibility to take care of my remains.  I was soon carted away to my wake at a home in Himlerville and given a proper Jewish funeral, but I could not rest in peace knowing that my daughter would never know me or her father. 

 

Elizabeth took my precious Grace into her home to raise.    She raised my child like any other mountaineer child, showing her love, caring for her when she was sick and providing her with food, clothing and shelter.  Grace was never given great details about her Hungarian heritage and was discouraged from asking questions.  She was told that I ran back to Hungry when her father died.  She believes firmly that I abandoned her.  Now she is a grandmother herself and has never told her children or grandchildren of the â??ugly secretâ?? that was her mother.  No one even knows that I am here on this mountain, not even my own daughter.  My grandchildren do not know that they have a Jewish bloodline.  All they know is that they were raised in these hills and that at one time there were â??Hunkysâ?? in this hollow.

11 thoughts on “Hunkey Hollow – A Fictional Short Story set in the real lost community of Himlerville, KY

  • May 23, 2009 at 9:15 am
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    This story is set in Himlerville, Ky now renamed Beauty, KY. It is located in Martin County and some of the original buildings are still there. It was the dream of Martin Himler, a native Hungarian Jew, to create a progressive community where all of those who worked in the mine had a vested interest in it. Himlerville, KY is the only cooperative coal mining community ever in the United States. When I was a little girl, I would look up on the hill and see the Himler House. I was always so curious about it, what happened and why. Unfortunately there is limited information about the town known by those who live there and on the internet, Doug Cantrell, of Elizabethtown, Ky, has been a tremendous source of information to me and I appreciate him sharing his research and documentation with me.
    I hope you enjoyed this story and I hope it has opened your eyes to the fact that prejudice is unacceptable anywhere in the world, that it hurts people and it is wrong. Itâ??s important to embrace other cultures and to learn from them. We all have something to teach each other. At the same time, if you are visiting this site and are not from Appalachia, I hope you will embrace my culture, both the good and bad. I hope you enjoy this site as you learn about my culture.
    Christy Howell Sweeney

  • May 28, 2009 at 12:10 am
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    The house is still standing. It isn’t the pristine home of long ago, but still serves as a beacon in the area. Thanks for telling the story of Beauty. A resident of Beauty, KY. – Donald York

  • June 1, 2009 at 6:18 pm
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    My father was Hillard Pelfrey ,,my mother Folella Rose. I was sent the piece on Himlerville, now Beauty, Ky. The story was interesting even if fiction. Yet, me,my brother @ sister lived in that home on the hill in the 1940’s. It really was too big for a family of five. Vast rooms, 13 bed rooms, I beleive 8 bathroms, a kitchen made for maid and servants to use, two large dining rooms , 1 for only proper atire. the other for family., too many french doors, beautiful hardwood floors. a cistern for drinking water. and the steps to get up there too many to count but my father knew he left for work one winter morning slipped on the first step from the porch and with his dinner pale following to the bottom of the steps. CAUSE-ice and snow. It was great fun laiving up there but until my dad accepted a job in Indy, Indianna and we moved. So much memories there on that hill. but the one I just read I did not know. I did know about Mr Himler and his mines and about when he left the home place. I cant imagine how much it cost him when it was constructed. Thanks for the memories coming back.. I was raised in Martin co., KY went to school and graduated in Warfield in 1956. I now at 72 live in Easton, Md. on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay. and close to the beaches and a 5 hour drive to the mountains. I am Prentice Ray Pelfrey, 9048 Rockcliff Dr.,

  • June 3, 2009 at 5:57 pm
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    I loved this story. I grew up in Beauty and remember the big house on the hill. I used to imagine what the inside was like and the descripion from Mr. Pelfrey is just as I imagined. My Dad used to tell us about Himlerville that heard from his Dad. Thanks so much for the story.

  • June 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm
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    Cool story. I grew up in Beauty, Ky. So I can still see the building that she talks about in the story. I went to church in the tiny little church that sits close by there my whole childhood.

  • June 9, 2009 at 7:16 pm
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    I also was raised at Beauty, Ky. I remember the Packs lived in the house on the hill. My parents were Nathan and Viola Maynard, they owned the furniture stores at the fork of Buckcreek on Rt. 40 going toward Warfield. My home place, I grew up in was recently torn down, along with the two stores that my parents owned for many years. My husband Glen is a well known wood carver and we were down at Easter and he pulled a piece of wood from my home place at Beauty and carved me a Santa (about 15″tall and two smaller ones with a quilt pattern on them). My Mom loved Christmas and quilts and he did a beautiful job on the three Santas. One I will give to my baby sister Christine and the other two I will keep. They are priceless to me. It breaks my heart to see how Beauty is today. I also went to school with Mildred Pauley, a beautiful young lady, she and her family lived in the old store at the forks of the creek and they had a small grocery store. This story brought back great memorys. One of my teachers was Ms. Zsoldas. We would see her brother almost everyday in the summer, taking flowers to the Cat. Church and up on the hill at the Forks of Buckcreek is the hHngarian cem. I was also married in the old bank building that was turned into a church. So Beauty has a lot of great memories for us. Thanks for the Story. Merline Maynard, 66200 Bethel Road, New Plymouth, Oh. 45654

  • December 1, 2009 at 8:23 pm
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    Good fictional story Christy. Jon and Robin bought a house down below the big empty house on the hill. It can be seen plainly from their yard. It looks dark and creepy in its own unique way now. There is one lady still in Martin County if she is still living. Her name is Mrs Zoldas. She was one of the Hungarians that moved to Himlerville and lives on up Beauty ,up a road that used to be called Hunky hollow believe it or not. She has told different people stories about that time. Now alone since both her brothers died, she would be in her 90’s now. I have been to her house and it was like stepping back in time. She dressed and lived meagerly. She was a librarian at the Warfield High School for many years and that was a long time ago. Your story brought back memorys of her and her stories even though it was fiction. You did a great job.

  • December 15, 2009 at 9:46 pm
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    The Sheridan and Bertha Booth family was reared in the valley that lead to Hunky Hollow in Beauty, KY. The seven of us children were taught that the Hungarian families had status in the community and we always considered and referred to them with respect. However, we were taught that every family was to be respected regardless of their socio-economic status. I didn’t know how much our parents regarded diverse families until I was an adult. Our father was a miner during that era and had a grocery store at the mouth of Hunky Hollow. During that time, it was appropriate to call it Hunky Hollow and we were not “politically incorrect”. I remember as the youngest child, growing up in the 1950’s, with my brother’s next in age to me, Jim and Jr., enjoying the Hungarian familes who lived “up the hollow”. We especially, loved the Zsoldas family. We also knew other families
    who lived there and loved them.

    We have great childhood memories of growing up in Beauty, KY.

  • December 16, 2009 at 2:08 am
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    i loved this story,my grandparents were from around marti county:molly martin thompson.carson thompson they both passed away when i was a young girl ,i dnt know much history about them ,let me know if anyone reading this does ,i appreciate it,i live in wayne wva

  • September 27, 2011 at 12:08 am
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    My name is not Annie Jones I use it as a pseudonym
    However, I grew up in Beauty right down the road from the Sheridan Booth family and played with Don, Peggy and Morris when we were young and we bought from their store. The story of the Himler family was told to me as follows:
    Mr. Himler did provide work and security for the people in Himlerville. His home was the big house on the hill and there was a brick building down below the hill that he had for a bank. (That building was used as someone’s home when I lived in Beauty.) Apparently Himler got homesick for the old homeland because one night he cleaned out the bank, left his home, took his family and deserted back to Europe. He left the people broke. Don’t know how everything worked out for the people back then. If the story is true, what a shock to wake up and find your savings all gone. I heard that story from several sources so I took it as fact.

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