Al Brumfield, banjo, Billy Adkins, blind, Bob Bryant, Brandon Kirk, Burl Farley, Charley Brumfield, Ed Haley, Fed Adkins, fiddlers, French Bryant, Green McCoy, Harve "Short Harve" Dingess, history, Hollene Brumfield, Hugh Dingess, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lincoln County Feud, Martin County, measles, Milt Haley, music, Nashville, Piney, Smokehouse Fork, Tom Holzen, West Fork, Wolf Creek, writing
Brandon and I also called Bob Bryant, a son of the infamous French Bryant, who lived with his son at the mouth of Piney Creek on West Fork. Billy Adkins had encouraged us to call Bob, saying that he would probably tell us what he knew of the Haley-McCoy murders. When we called Bob, his son said we were welcome to talk with his dad, although he warned us that his memory wasn’t very good.
Bob said he was born on Piney in 1911.
When I asked him about French Bryant he said he knew very little about him because his dad “was pretty old” when he was born. He said he did remember his father talking “some” about the Haley-McCoy affair.
“Milt and Green were pretty rough fellers who got in a lot of trouble all the time,” Bob said. “They were bad to drink. Milt Haley and Green McCoy was fiddlers — I think so. Maybe they was. Yeah, I almost know they was. One of them picked the banjo, I believe, but I don’t know for sure.”
Bob said Hugh Dingess, who was “kind of an outlaw,” organized a posse to fetch Milt and Green after they shot Al and Hollena Brumfield. They found them over around Wolf Creek in Martin County, Kentucky.
“Them Dingesses up there killed them,” Bob said. “It didn’t take much to get them to shoot you back then. People’d shoot you just to be a doing something.”
I asked Bob if he ever heard anything about who took part in what he kept calling “the shooting” and he said, “Hugh Dingess and four or five more.”
He paused, then said, “A few of them I wouldn’t want to tell you.”
We were just waiting for him to say his father’s name when he said, “Short Harve Dingess was pretty rough. Seems like he was in that bunch some way.”
Some of the others were: Al Brumfield, Charley Brumfield, Fed Adkins, and Burl Farley.
Bob never identified his father as a member of the mob but mentioned that his father was a friend to the Dingesses on Smokekouse.
He said he remembered seeing Ed play at the schoolhouse above the mouth of Piney when he was nineteen years old.
“He was a real fiddler,” Bob said.
In subsequent weeks, Brandon and I went through most of our information — processing it, sorting it, discussing it. We thought more about the story of Milt causing Ed’s blindness by dipping him in ice water and wondered how anyone would have ever equated those as cause-effect events. I got on the phone with Dr. Tom Holzen, a doctor-friend of mine in Nashville, who said Milt’s dipping of Ed in ice water, while a little crude, was actually the right kind of thing to do in that it would have lowered his fever. Based on that, Milt seems to have been a caring father trying to save Ed’s life or ease his suffering. Was it the act of a desperate man who had already lost other children to disease?
accordion, Al Brumfield, Andy Mullins, banjo, Bernie Adams, Billy Adkins, Birdie, Blackberry Blossom, Brandon Kirk, Charles Conley Jr., Chinese Breakdown, Clifford Belcher, Crawley Creek Mountain, Down Yonder, Ed Belcher, Ed Haley, fiddle, fiddler, guitar, Harts, Harts Creek, history, Hollene Brumfield, Joe Adams, John Hartford, Johnny Hager, Logan, Logan County, Milt Haley, music, piano, Pop Goes the Weasel, Raggedy Ann, Soldiers Joy, Spanish Fandango, timbering, Trace Fork, West Virginia, Wirt Adams, writing
Satisfied that we’d taken up enough of Andy’s day, we drove up Trace Fork to see Wirt Adams, an older brother to Joe Adams. Wirt was busy installing a waterbed but took a break to talk with us. “Well, come on in boys, but I’ve only got a few minutes,” he seemed to say. Inside, however, after I had pulled out my fiddle and he had grabbed a mandolin, he seemed ready to hang out with us all day.
I told Wirt that I was trying to find out about Haley’s life. He said old-timers in the neighborhood used to tell stories about Ed playing for dances on Saturday nights with Johnny Hager, a banjo-picker and fiddler. Ed eventually left Harts Creek and got married but came back to stay with his cousins every summer.
Wirt said he sometimes bumped into him in local taverns:
“It was in the forties,” he said. “About ’47, ’48, ’49, ’50 — along there somewhere. We called it Belcher’s beer garden. It was a roadhouse over on Crawley Hill. Well, I just come in there from the mines and Ed was there and he heard somebody say that I was there and he said, ‘Come on over here Wirt and play one.’ I think the fella that’d been playing with him had got drunk and passed out. Well I played one or two with him and then Charley Conley and them boys come in and Charley says, ‘C’mon over here Wirt and get in with us.’ Ed said, ‘Don’t do that, you’re playing with me.’ I really wasn’t playing with him. I had my mine clothes on. I just come in there and picked up Bernie Adams’ old guitar. If you was playing they’d sit you a beer up there — no money in it. Mostly for fun, we thought. We’d gang up on Saturday night somewhere and play a little. Sometimes they’d dance.”
Wirt felt that Ed was “a good fiddler, one of the best in that time.”
I asked him about Ed’s bowing and he said, “It didn’t look like he moved it that far over the whole thing [meaning very little bow usage] but he played tunes where he did use the long stroke. But most of it was just a lot of movement but not no distance. Just hacking, I call it. Him and Johnny Hager were the only two fellas I know who done that.”
Brandon wondered about Ed’s tunes.
“Well, he played that ‘Blackberry Blossom’ — that was one of his favorites — and then he played ‘The Old Red Rooster’ and he played ‘Raggedy Ann’ and ‘Soldiers Joy’. He had one he called ‘somethin’ in the shucks’. I forget the name of it. Anyhow, it was one of the old tunes. And ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’, I’ve heard him play that.”
I asked if Ed played “Birdie” and he said, “Yeah. Now, that’s one of Charley’s favorites. ‘Chinese Breakdown’, that was one of Ed’s. ‘Down Yonder’.”
Wirt told us more about Johnny Hager and Ed Belcher.
“Johnny Hager was a banjo player but he could play the fiddle, too. He played the old ‘overhand’ [on the banjo]. He was a good second for somebody. Now Ed Belcher was a different thing altogether. He played all kinds of stuff. He played classical, he could play hillbilly. He played a piano, he played accordion, he played a banjo, he played a guitar. He was a good violin player. He tuned pianos for a living. Well, I’d call him a professional musician. They had talent shows in Logan. He’d sponsor that. He’d be like the MC and these kids would go in and play. He was a head musician. He was good. He could do ‘Spanish Fandango’ on the guitar and make it sound good. He could play all kinds of tunes. I never could play with him but then he could take the piano and make it talk, too. He was just an all-around musician.”
Brandon asked Wirt if he knew the story about how Ed came to be blind.
“Milt Haley was Ed’s dad,” Wirt said matter-of-factly. “They said his dad was kind of a mean fella and he took Ed out when he was a little kid — held him by the heels — and ducked him in the creek. He had some kind of a fever in wintertime. I’ve heard that, now. Ed never would talk about it. I never heard him mention his dad.”
Wirt had only heard “snippets” about Milt’s death.
“It was pretty wild times,” he said. “I understand the whole thing was over timberworks. These people, they’d have a splash dam on this creek and they’d get their logs and haul them in this bottom at the mouth of Trace — this was one of them. They had a splash dam and when the water got up they’d knock that dam out and that’d carry the logs down to Hart and they had a boom and them Brumfields owned the boom. They charged so much a log. Some way over that, there was some confusion. But I’ve seen Aunt Hollene. She was supposed to been riding behind old man Al Brumfield, her husband, and they shot at him and hit her.”
After Milt was caught, he made a last request.
“They said they asked him if he wanted anything and he wanted them to bring him a fiddle,” Wirt said. “He wanted to play a tune. Now this is hearsay but I’ve heard it several times. They said he played the fiddle and they hung him.”
Andy Mullins, banjo, Bernie Adams, Bill Adkins, Bill Monroe, Billy Adkins, Black Sheep, blind, Bob Dingess, Brandon Kirk, Buck Fork, Claude Martin, Dingess, Dobie Mullins, Drunkard's Hell, Ed Haley, Floyd Mullins, George Baisden, George Mullins, Green McCoy, Grover Mullins, guitar, Harts Creek, history, Hollene Brumfield, John Hartford, Logan County, Maple Leaf on the Hill, measles, Michigan, Millard Thompson, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, moonshine, music, Naaman Adams, Roxie Mullins, Smokehouse Fork, Ticky George Hollow, Trace Fork, West Virginia, Williamson, Wilson Mullins, writing
From Naaman’s, we drove out of Trace and on up Harts Creek to see Andy Mullins, who Brandon had met a few months earlier at Bill Adkins’ wake. Andy had just relocated to Harts after years of living away in Michigan; he had constructed a new house in the head of Ticky George Hollow. Andy was a son to Roxie Mullins, the woman who inspired my fascination with Harts Creek. Andy, who we found sitting in his yard with his younger brother Dobie, was very friendly. He treated us as if we had known him for years.
“I was just catting when you fellas come up through there,” Andy said to us. “One of the girls lost a cat down there over the bank last night — a kitten. This morning I went down there and it was up in that rock cliff and I took its mother down there and it whooped the mother. And I took one of the kittens down there and it whooped the kitten. The old tomcat, he come down there and he whooped it. It went back up under that damn rock.”
I liked Andy right away.
We all took seats in lawn chairs in the front yard where Andy told about Ed Haley coming to see his parents every summer when he was a boy, usually with his wife. He described him as having a “big, fat belly” and weighing about 200 pounds.
“He wasn’t much taller than Dobie but he was fat,” Andy said. “I can remember his eyes more than the rest of him because his eyes was like they had a heavy puss over them or something. It was real thick-like. Not like they were clouded or anything.”
Even though Ed was blind, he could get around all over Harts Creek and even thread a needle.
Andy had heard that Milt caused Ed’s blindness.
“They said that Ed got a fever of some kind when he was a baby and Milt went out and cut a hole in the ice and stuck him under the ice in the creek to break the fever,” he said.
Andy knew very little about Milt.
“Just that Milt got killed, that was it, over shooting the old lady down at the shoal below Bob Dingess’ at the mouth of Smokehouse,” he said.
“All the old-timers that knows anything about his daddy is probably dead,” Dobie said.
Brandon said we’d heard rumors that Milt and Green were innocent of shooting Hollena Brumfield and Andy quickly answered, “That’s what my father-in-law told me.”
Changing the conversation back to Ed, Andy said, “Ed used to go up on Buck Fork to George Mullins’ to stay a lot and up to Grover Mullins’. He lived just above George’s place — the old chimney is the only thing still standing.”
He also went up in the head of Hoover to see George Baisden, a banjo-picker who’d hoboed with him in his younger days. The two of them had a lot of adventures, like the time Ed caught a train at Dingess and rode it over to Williamson to play for a dance or at a tavern. Just before they rolled into town, George pushed him off the train then jumped off himself. It made Ed so mad that George had to hide from him for the rest of the night.
I asked Andy if Ed ever told those kind of stories on himself and he said, “He told big tales, I’d call them, but I don’t remember what they were. Well, he set and talked with my grandmother and grandfather all the time he was here, and Mom. I never paid any attention to what they talked about really. I guess, man, I run these hills. I was like a goat. Hindsight is 20/20.”
Not long into our visit with Andy, he got out his guitar and showed me what he remembered about Bernie Adams’ guitar style. From there, he took off on Bill Monroe tunes, old lonesome songs, or honky-tonk music, remarking that he could only remember Ed’s tunes in “sketches.”
I asked, “Do you reckon Ed would sing anything like ‘Little Joe’?” and he said, “I don’t know. It’s awful old. I heard him sing ‘The Maple on the Hill’. He played and sang the ‘Black Sheep’.”
“He played loud, Ed did,” Dobie said.
“And sang louder,” Andy said immediately. “He’d rare back and sing, man.”
The tune he best remembered Ed singing was “The Drunkard’s Hell”.
I wanted to know the time frame of Andy’s memories.
“1944, ’45,” he said. “I was thirteen year old at that time. Now in ’46, we lived across the creek up here at Millard’s. Him and Mona Mae and Wilson — they wasn’t married at the time — went somewhere and got some homebrew and they all got pretty looped. That was up on Buck Fork some place. Ed got mad at Wilson and her about something that night and that’s the reason they didn’t play music — him and Claude Martin and Bernie Adams.”
I asked Andy about Ed’s drinking and he said, “Just whatever was there, Ed’d drink. He didn’t have to see it. He smelled it. Ed could sniff it out.”
Brandon wondered if Ed ever played at the old jockey grounds at the mouth of Buck Fork. Andy doubted it, although it sure seemed to me like the kind of place for him to go. There was moonshine everywhere and men playing maybe ten card games at once.
“They’d get drunk and run a horse right over top of you if you didn’t watch,” Andy said. “It was like a rodeo.”
The last jockey ground held at the mouth of Buck Fork was in 1948.
Bernie Adams, Big Branch, Billy Adkins, Brandon Kirk, Cacklin Hen, crime, Dood Dalton, Ed Haley, fiddle, fiddler, fiddling, Green McCoy, guitar, Harts, Harts Creek, history, Hollene Brumfield, John Hartford, Logan, Luster Dalton, Milt Haley, Mona Haley, music, Rockhouse Fork, Stump Dalton, Wild Horse, writing
From Harts proper, we headed up Harts Creek to the home of Luster Dalton, a son of Ed’s friend, Dood Dalton. Luster was born in 1924 and used to play the fiddle on weekends for free drinks at local “dives” with his brother Stump and two cousins. I asked him if he learned much from Ed and he said, “Yeah, I learned a lot from the old man Ed. He was a real fiddle player, son.”
I wondered if anybody around Harts played like Ed.
“Not as good as he could, no,” Luster said. “I’d have to say no to that. That old man really knew how to handle that job, buddy.”
Luster tried to remember some of Ed’s tunes.
“Way back in them days, they had one they called ‘Cacklin’ Hen’ and ‘Wild Horse’ and such as that on down the line,” he said.
I got my fiddle out and pointed it toward Luster, who said, “They ain’t a bit of use in me to try that. I’ve had too many bones broke.”
I tried to get him to just show me anything — but he refused.
He chose instead to talk, starting with how Ed came to visit his father on Big Branch.
“He came about onest a year and would maybe stay a month,” Luster said. “He’d maybe stay a week at Dad’s and go to some other family and stay a week and go up Logan and stay a week or so with somebody. Him and his old woman both would come and a couple three of his kids. Mona was one of them’s name. About all of them I guess has been to my dad’s. I don’t see how they raised a bunch of kids — neither one of them could see. That’s something we got to think about. They was good people. And a fella by the name of Bernie Adams used to come with them — he was a guitar picker — and they’d sit up there and sing and pick up at my dad’s till twelve o’clock and go to bed and go to sleep, get up the next morning, go into ‘er again. I went in the army in 1940, I believe it was, and I know I’ve not heard from them since then.”
Luster didn’t know if Milt Haley was a fiddler but had heard the old-timers talk about how either him or Green McCoy had shot Hollena Brumfield through the jaw at the mouth of the Rockhouse Fork on Harts Creek.
“They were murdered in a little log house,” Luster said. “They took a pole axe and beat them to death and then chopped them up.”
Al Brumfield, Albert Dingess, Ben Adams, Bill's Branch, blind, Buck Fork, Dorothy Brumfield, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, feud, French Bryant, Green McCoy, Harts Creek, Harve "Short Harve" Dingess, history, Hollene Brumfield, Hugh Dingess, John Brumfield, Lincoln County Feud, Logan County, Milt Haley, Piney, Smokehouse Fork, Ticky George Adams, timbering, Violet Mullins, West Virginia, writing
Sensing that Dorothy had told all she knew about Ed and knowing that she was one-quarter Dingess, we asked her about Milt Haley.
“Some terrible things went on about Ed’s daddy,” she said. “I heard about that.”
Dorothy blamed the trouble squarely on Ben Adams. She said he was a “bully” who wanted to control all the timber on Harts Creek. He hired Milt Haley and Green McCoy to kill Al Brumfield but they accidentally shot Hollena.
“And them men that shot them went back in towards Kentucky somewhere and they put out a reward for them,” Dorothy said.
Haley and McCoy were soon caught and a Brumfield posse took possession of them.
Ben Adams organized a mob to free them at the mouth of Smoke House Fork but the Brumfields were warned by a spy and detoured up Buck Fork and over a mountain to Hugh Dingess’ house.
“The Adamses come a hair of catching them,” Dorothy said. “You can just imagine what kind of war would have been if they had a got them.”
A large number of men gathered in at Hugh’s for protection, including Albert Dingess (her great-grandfather), “Short Harve” Dingess (her great-uncle), John Brumfield, and French Bryant, among others. At some point, they took Milt outside and shot a few times to scare Green into making a confession inside Hugh’s, but Milt yelled, “Don’t tell them a damn thing. I ain’t dead yet!” McCoy yelled back, “Don’t be scared. I ain’t told nothing yet!”
Dorothy said the mob eventually took Milt and Green up Bill’s Branch and down Piney where they “knocked their heads out with axes and the chickens eat their brains.”
Just before we left Dorothy, we asked if she remembered any of Ed’s family. She said his uncle Ticky George Adams (the grandfather of her late husband) was a ginseng digger who spoke with a lisp and loved to heat hog brains. This image contrasted sharply with what others around Harts Creek had said: that he was a moonshiner who’d shoot someone “at the drop of a hat.” Violet Mullins had told us earlier how Ticky George would get “fightin’ mad” if anyone called him by his nickname. The only thing Dorothy knew about Ed’s wife was, “She went in the outside toilet and then after that some woman went in there and said they was a big blacksnake a hanging. They said she went places and played music.”
Al Brumfield, Ben Adams, Bernie Adams, Brandon Kirk, Cain Adkins, Caroline Brumfield, Cecil Brumfield, Dave Dingess, Ed Haley, fiddle, French Bryant, Harriet Brumfield, Harts Creek, Henderson Dingess, history, Hollene Brumfield, Hugh Dingess, John Hartford, John W Runyon, Lillian Ray, Logan, Milt Haley, Paris Brumfield, Sallie Dingess, Smokehouse Fork, Tom Martin, writing
A little later, Brandon visited Lillian Ray, a seventy-something-year-old daughter of Cecil Brumfield who lived in a beautiful two-story house on the Smokehouse Fork of Harts Creek. Lilly, he discovered, had a lot of the old Dingess family photographs. To Brandon’s surprise, there were several thick-paged Victorian velvet-covered albums full of tintypes and a few boxes of sepia images on decorative cardboard squares. Only a few were labeled, but he recognized some of the faces: Al Brumfield, Henderson and Sallie Dingess, Hugh Dingess, Mrs. Charley Brumfield, Mrs. John Brumfield, and Dave Dingess. No doubt, there were pictures in the album of Ben Adams and Hollena Brumfield in their youth.
Before leaving, Brandon asked Lilly about Ed Haley. She said she remembered him coming to her father’s house when he lived in the old Henderson Dingess homeplace. He would just show up, leading himself with a cane, and stay for two or three days. Lilly hated to see him come because he was so hateful to the Brumfield children — “always running his mouth.” She described him as a “little short man” who “drank a lot” and told how he and Bernie Adams once borrowed a fiddle from her father and then pawned it off in Logan. The fiddle originally belonged to Tom Martin.
Not long after visiting Lilly, Brandon sent me a letter updating me on his research along with pictures of people we’d only imagined. As they turned up, I wondered if I were to go into a room with Al, Paris, Milt, Green, French, Cain, Runyon — without knowing who any of them were — which ones would I take to strictly on a personality basis? Which ones would I have a gut reaction to think, “Well, he’s a pretty fair good old boy,” or, “Boy, I don’t know about that feller there. Something’s just not right.” I mean, you walk in the room and, “That’s Al Brumfield?” No way. “That’s Cain Adkins?” Nope, I can’t believe that.
Al Brumfield, Bill Brumfield, Bill Fowler, Billy Adkins, Black John Adkins, Brandon Kirk, crime, Fed Adkins, feud, Green McCoy, Harts, Harts Creek, Harvey "Long Harve" Dingess, history, Hollena "Tiny" Brumfield, Hollene Brumfield, John W Runyon, Lincoln County Feud, logging, Milt Haley, Paris Brumfield, Pat Adkins, writing
Later in the summer, Brandon visited his friend Pat Adkins, who lived in a little trailer just back of where the old Al Brumfield home once sat at the mouth of Harts Creek. Pat was raised in the magnificent Brumfield house and was its owner at the time of its burning. He was a first cousin to Billy Adkins.
Pat first spoke about Al and Hollena Brumfield, who he said charged people a ten-cents-per-log tax at their boom. The tax was a constant source of friction in the community. Even Al’s in-laws weren’t fond of the fee…and apparently weren’t spared from it, either.
“One time, Harvey Dingess had a big huge amount of logs out there and he said he wasn’t gonna pay no ten cents a log tax,” Pat said. “Harvey was Hollene’s brother. They all liked to drink so he come in there being jovial and friendly and brought Al and Hollene in a big special-made malt whiskey. They got a big drunken party going and finally around twelve o’clock they all got so drunk they went to bed. Harve had his men stationed over there on that hillside and when he waved a light from that porch upstairs them men come down there and cut that splash and let his logs through. The Brumfields got up the next morning — all their hangovers — and went out and looked and that splash had been cut and all of his logs had been run through and Harve was gone. He was on his way to Huntington to sell them.”
Brandon asked Pat if the log boom was the root of the 1889 troubles.
“Bill Brumfield’s wife, Aunt Tiny, told me about the famous posse ride to lynch Milt Haley and Green McCoy,” Pat said, cutting to the chase. “Runyon had a store up on Hart and that was among Hollene’s relatives up in there and she had the big timber operations down here — the splash dam, you know — and had a saloon. Runyon had a legal still where people brought their apples in and stuff to make brandy. Somebody else run one of them too up there — a Dingess. They was into it over the business. Runyon thought that if he could kill them, he could take control of the mouth of Hart. When Hollene came into business that was what she done. She killed out her enemy, or never killed him — burned him out. That was Bill Fowler. Bill Fowler was a businessman and he come into possession of the mouth of the creek. He had him a big saloon out there and she burned him out and burned his saloon and then she took it over. So, I guess Runyon got the same idea: ‘You took it. Now I’m going to get it from you.’ So he hired these guys to kill them and if he’d a killed them they’d a been out of the way and that woulda pretty well cinched him for it. He had plenty of money and he’d a rolled in here and coulda bought it. He’d been the top man then.”
According to Pat, locals quickly determined that Haley and McCoy were involved in the ambush of Al and Hollena Brumfield and formed a mob to capture them.
“They formed about sixty men,” he said. “I know Black John Adkins was in it. John was there a holding the horses. He wasn’t taking no part in it — just going along to show he was in support. I think everybody in the country around in this area and all of Hollena’s relatives were in it. Runyon, he left the country when he realized that they might be coming after him because they suspected him as hiring them.”
Pat said Mrs. Brumfield believed that her husband Bill was too young to have participated in the killings but would have “been in on it if he’d a been old enough.” Pat didn’t think his Grandpa Fed Adkins was in the mob either, but then said, “He might have been — probably was. You know, the killing took place there, I think, about where Lon Lambert’s house is, down under that riverbank. Black John said when Paris came out from under that bank he was just as bloody as he could be where he had stabbed on them men. Said, Paris Brumfield was bloody as a hog. Said, he just took a knife and cut them to pieces and I think they gave Paris the honor of killing them because it was a vengeance killing. They dared anybody to ever touch their bodies. I think they laid about nine days and got to smelling so bad they finally give them permission to bury them.”
In Pat’s view, those who participated in the killing of Milt and Green were not typically violent men. Haley’s and McCoy’s apparent guilt in ambushing Al Brumfield provided a justification for their bloody murders in the eyes of locals and ensured that the “peace-keeping” reputations of the vigilantes would endure as stories about the feud were handed down to later generations. For instance, despite the dangerous reputation of Paris Brumfield, Pat said, “Other than the killing of Haley and McCoy, he was really not a mean person. That was understandable that he helped kill Haley and McCoy if somebody was trying to kill your son. I never heard that he was a mean person. I don’t think he deliberately went around plotting up mean things to do. And I don’t think he was a cruel person.”
Just before Brandon left Pat, he asked him about growing up in Al Brumfield’s house. Pat said when he was young he often hid behind some large framed Brumfield family photographs stacked in an upstairs room. There was one in particular that he remembered: a picture of Al Brumfield — worn and blind, sitting in a chair on a porch.