On our way to Berea, KY, my husband and I stopped to see Loretta Lynn's home place. My aunt and uncle were there last year, and the photos they showed us made us curious to see the place ourselves. Loretta's beloved Butcher Hollow is in Van Lear, KY.
There's no easy way to get to Van Lear, but we meandered our way, following small signs that said: "This way to Loretta Lynn's home place." We stopped at a store, and I'm sure it's a continuing establishment for many decades, and bought a diet Dr. Pepper. I asked the lady behind the counter how to get to Loretta's. She graciously gave her rehearsed answer: "Go down this road seven tenths of a mile and you'll see a big rock with Butcher Hollow painted on it in white. Turn there and go about a mile." The man sitting nearby in a rocking chair, who looked to have been there when the store opened, grunted. I guessed it was affirmation.
Off we go and soon we see the rock. Weather has worn part of the rock away and you can see only B-TCHER HOLL_W. We turned onto a small blacktopped road. I glanced out my passenger side window once to see a sharp drop down to the creek below and nothing in the path to stop a rolling car. I fervently hoped the car’s tires maintained a purchase on the edge.
We roll onto a gravel road for a short way, only to slip onto blacktop again. Finally, in an area just past a wide turnaround, clearly for tour bus parking, we spy the narrow dirt lane leading up hill to Loretta’s home. We arrive at a dirt parking lot--with room for three cars. Luckily, we're the third one.
The cabin is clearly as it was when Loretta and Crystal Gayle grew up. Perched on the slope of a hill, the wooden batten board home is weathered grey and brown, the front canted over the sloped yard, leaving plenty of space underneath for an old harrow, a large zinc tub, a bicycle, and three dogs. To the front of the house, down over the hill, is a fenced pasture with a small barn and a tin-roofed shed. The barn is home to a white mule and two small brown horses. As we approach the porch steps, the three dogs come out to greet us, friendly as mutts generally are. Then they spy something under the storage shed. Off they go to corner whatever it is they've seen. The mule watches from her lounging position near her barn. Suddenly, she's had enough and rises and charges the dogs, running as nimbly as a race horse. She means business, though. She nipped at the dogs' flanks, and all three scurried fast under the fence and to safety.
Once on the porch, we see two hand-lettered signs: "No Smoking," and "Tours: $5 each." Inside a family is listening to Herman Webb, Loretta's brother. We wait on the porch swing, and occasionally catch snatches of conversation, which is how we know who Herman is. The sky is clear, the breeze soft and I can hear the sounds of various song birds in the nearby trees. One tree, an ancient holly, is the largest I've ever seen. Its lower branches are trimmed and if you didn't pay attention, you'd think it was an apple tree.
Finally, the family emerges and a slender man in his late 60s, with wavy white hair and still-sexy blue eyes says, "Oh, I didn't know there was someone else out here. Come on in." And he launches into his stories as he leads us through the four rooms downstairs, all with original furnishings. The first room, most likely the parlor, has a bedroom suite, a few scattered old wooden chairs and a fireplace. Over the mantel, and really in many places on the walls, are photos of family and dignitaries. I see a photo of Loretta and Tommy Lee Jones, several of country music stars, a four star general--the only one from Kentucky--and scads of family photos. Herman points to a photo of his great grandfather, whose last name is Butcher, and tells us the man was part Cherokee. In fact, many of the family are either full or part Cherokee.
In the second room, a bedroom, the first guitar that Loretta played rests on her parents' bed. He said he knew it was the first guitar she'd played because he has a photo of her playing it when she was just 12 years old. It was his daddy's guitar. He keeps it there on the bed, the strings undone, surrounded by other memorabilia--an old banjo, more photos of Loretta on her rise to fame as a music star, and a red t-shirt emblazoned with Loretta's name. The quilt is an old tacked patchwork, brilliant in the dim room.
Each wall in this room is covered with graffiti. It appears that every person nearly that ever visited this room, famous or not, signed the walls. An old Victrola stands ready to take another 78 and on top of a trunk sets an old wooden swing, the one his mom and dad courted in.
The next room is crowded with kitchen implements, such as an old wood fired cooking stove, sad irons, a cast iron kettle, and part of an old copper still that Herman says his uncle used to make moonshine. A battered white wooden table holds coal mining equipment--a miner's helmet with carbide lamp, a zinc lunch bucket and a round metal jug with a funnel top that Herman used to carry dynamite when he worked in the mines.
The dining room has an oak round table with roaring lion heads on the legs curving down to claw and ball feet. A saddle belonging to Doolittle, Loretta's husband, perches on an old singer sewing machine cabinet.
We step from the dining room back to the front parlor. Dan hands Herman $10, who never asked for payment. Besides tamping dynamite for the mines, Herman assembled furniture in a factory, played music in his own band, drove a green 1947 Chevy convertible, and he lost his wife of 51 years this past February to Lou Gehrig's disease. They met and started courting when she was in the first grade and he was in the second. He waggled his finger, "I didn't marry her until she was 18, though." Loretta, he said, does visit her home place. So far this year she'd come to see his wife and then she returned for his wife's funeral.
As we left, the dogs were still under the porch, covered in ticks and fast asleep. Three more vehicles had parked in the small lot, one an RV, making our exit a bit exciting as we rocked the car back and forth to be able to back down the small dirt lane. Two more families waited on the porch for their tour.
I can imagine the many famous stars who've come here to pay homage to a great star in country music, and I'm sure there have been droves of entrepreneurs who imagine what this place might look like lit up, smoothed out, slicked up and polished. I don't know much about Loretta and her family, but I admire them. I know, without ever being there before, that not much has changed at Loretta Lynn's home place. The only concession seems to be a boom box that blares Loretta Lynn songs to an outdoor speaker. There are no CDs and t-shirts for sale.
They clearly know and appreciate what it means to remember where you come from and who you are. And that, by golly, maybe you can go home again, if nothing more than to sit in the quiet country, on a porch swing, listening to horses crunch grain, and the snoring of three old dogs, cool in their under-the-porch wallows, and wait for a good rain. I don't know what happens to the $5 each Herman collects, but I hope it supplements his social security. As for us, he told good stories and that's worth more than $10 any day.