The community of Harts sits indiscreetly in the narrow section of the Guyandotte Valley on land that makes up the northernmost region of the Logan County coalfield and what was once “feud country.” Located some ten miles from a four-lane federal corridor linking the state capital to eastern Kentucky and fifty miles up a two-lane rural highway from Huntington, the second largest city in West Virginia, it is a settlement just on the cusp of modernization. It is a treasure trove of hidden history, quickly disappearing even in the minds of its locals, who have little if any recollection of its booming timber era or the exciting times of the railroad hey-day. It’s really the kind of place you might drive through without noticing much — or never have a reason to drive through at all.
Basically, Harts is an old timber town divided in the center by a lazy muddy river and intersected by a two-lane highway, Route 10. On the west side of the river — site of the old Brumfield business headquarters — is an empty store, a tavern-turned-church-turned-beauty shop, a garage, and a brick tabernacle. On the east side is an old brick general store, a nice video rental establishment, a state highways headquarters, an old wooden general store, a small brick post office, a fire department, a grocery store, a hardware store, a general merchandise store, a Victorian general store-turned-restaurant, and a new brick Head Start center. Running between those buildings on the east side is a track owned by CSX (formerly C&O) Railroad. Just behind the businesses are a few dozen houses of all vintages: brick, wooden, single-story, two-story… There are no street signs or traffic lights or even stop signs.
Route 10 connects Harts with the city of Huntington to the north and with the Logan coalfields to the south. From town, Big Harts Creek Road heads west up the creek to West Fork or Smokehouse Fork, while a little unnamed road diverges north past the tracks toward extinct post offices named Eden Park and Sand Creek. The four streets in town are paved but very few locals even know their proper names, which are Railroad, Beecher, Ward, and Brumfield Avenues. Just down the river is a brick house-turned-bank, a rural health clinic, a brick construction company headquarters, a new coalmine development area called Heartland, and a mechanic shop/gas station (owned incidentally by one Charles Brumfield).
Culturally, Harts might be thought of as an inconspicuous Harlequin romance and Wild West show gone wild, at least in its not-so-distant past. Many of the rabble rousers and roustabouts are long since dead. Actually, somewhat to my disappointment, a lot of the old families are gone completely from the area and no one really feuds any more. Many residents seem to work as schoolteachers or run small stores or work in the coalmines or draw government relief. People are nice and treat each other well. Most are related or at least seem to be. They watch TV or go to church or tend their yards or hunt or fish or ride four-wheelers or hop on the four-lane at Chapmanville and drive to Wal-Mart some 45 miles away. Old-timers are quick to say that Harts has a bad reputation for no reason — the only two murders within town limits occurred almost a century ago. There are no parks, museums or movie theatres — and only a few registered Republicans. It’s the kind of place where you can leave your doors unlocked at night or if you’re gone all day…and feel safe about it.
I have to admit, after several visits to Harts, I loved it. On one visit, I learned from Billy Adkins that the old Ben Walker farm was for sale…and seriously considered buying it. (I passed on the idea when I realized that my wife would never forgive me for it.) Harts, then, would remain a place to “see.” I began telling folks out on the road that it was “my Ireland.” It represented a desire on my part to get back to the kind of places where (at least in my romantic imagination) a lot of fiddle playing originated. A lot of my friends were from these kind of places. For them, when they wanted to tap into that ancestral ancient tone, they thought of Ireland, whether they were Irish or not. For me, coming from St. Louis, Harts was the closest I could ever hope to get to that. Such places are at the heart of the music I love.
Venturing up Harts Creek, the first thing you really notice is Harts High School, a forty-some-year-old two-and-a-half-story yellow brick structure near the mouth of West Fork with a gymnasium, annex building, and a baseball field, all situated on what was a prison camp during the early fifties and, a little further back in time, the upper reaches of the Al Brumfield property (and, a little further still, an Indian camp). In many ways, this school is the lifeblood of the community — at least in the lower section of the creek. In the mid-sixties, just as Harts began to turn away from its violent past, the high school basketball team won a state championship and began building a program known regionally for its successes. Today, basketball is what this community is best known for — not the murders or moonshining traditions of years past — with crooked politics maybe finishing a close second.
A little further up the creek, just below the Logan County line, a few miles past an old country store, a little restaurant, another baseball field, and a place of worship named the Cole Branch Church of Jesus Christ of the First Born. From there, the road forks left onto the Smoke House Fork of Big Harts Creek, location of the Hugh Dingess Elementary School and Dingess, Butcher, Farley and Conley country; or the road forks right into the head of Harts Creek to “Ed Haley country.” Of course, no one calls it that. People think of it as “Adams country” or “Mullins country” and really, that’s about all there ever was in that section. Ed himself is often identified with the Mullins family — his mother’s people. The adults in this part of Harts Creek vote in Logan County — not Lincoln — and send their kids on buses over Crawley Creek Mountain to Chapmanville High School. This section of the creek — where gunshots once rang out regularly and where moonshine was so readily found — is now remarkably quiet and low-key outside of the occasional marijuana bust. Unfortunately, it seems to have lost its musical tradition as well.
Trace Fork, the site of Ed Haley’s birth, is attributed by Ivy Branch in its head, Adams Branch, and Boardtree Branch toward its middle and Jonas and Dry House Branch toward its mouth. There are several small family cemeteries on Trace, with the maroon-bricked Mountaineer Missionary Baptist Church at its mouth. In previous days, the Upper Trace Fork School (now Trace Old Regular Baptist Church) sat in its headwaters, where the Logan-Lincoln-Mingo county line meets. As a matter of fact, Ivy Branch heads near Kiah’s Creek at the Wayne-Mingo County line, while Boardtree Branch heads at McCloud Branch of Twelve Pole Creek in Mingo County. Adams Branch heads at Rockhouse Fork in Lincoln County.
A little further up the main creek is Buck Fork, an extensive tributary comparable to West Fork or Smokehouse in size. It is the ancestral home of the Mullins, Bryant, and Hensley families whose names still dominate the mailbox landscape. In previous decades, it was the location of the Hensley School and Mt. Era Church. Just below Buck Fork on main Harts Creek is a large Adams family cemetery, while just above it is the equally large Bob Mullins family cemetery.
Continuing up Harts Creek is Hoover Fork, home of the Mullins, Adams, and Carter families as well as the Hoover Church of the General Assembly. Henderson Branch, home seat for Tomblins and Mullinses is the next tributary, followed by Lambert Branch (at Whirlwind) and Workman Branch. Bulwark Branch follows (populated by Carters and Workmans), trailed by Brier Branch (Smiths) and Tomblin Branch. In the headwaters of Harts Creek are Tomblins, Daltons, and Blairs, as well as the Pilgrims Rest Church and Hannah Baptist Church.
In all sections of Harts, gossip reigns supreme as a source of local entertainment. (This in spite of Bob Adkins’ warning that people should “tend to their own business.”) Maybe that’s why we hear so much about a 100-year-old murder when we ask about it and a bunch of other things we don’t ask about. Genealogy is super important. When you sit down to talk with someone, the first thing they want to know is how you fit into the community pedigree. It’s a way of squaring you up.