Claude Freeman, my wife’s late father, was born in Pikeville, Kentucky, near the Russell Fork River, 99 years ago in August.
In October 1945 he married, Brenda’s mother, brown-eyed Margaret Whitt of Southwest Virginia.
Life in Pikeville has always been tough. Between 1860 and 1891 the Hatfield-McCoy feud raged in Pike County and in the bordering mountains. The Freeman and Whitt families lived around Pikeville and had front row seats to the senseless violence.
The Freemans and Whitts were caring people who were brought up on faith and hard work. The Great Depression struck the people of the Appalachian Mountains particularly hard, making tough times even tougher.
Growing up as a boy who loved to hunt in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Claude hunted squirrels, rabbits and other small game, resulting in him becoming a crack shot. His shooting prowess was renowned, winning so many teddy bears for the girls at the fairgrounds the “carnies” began to limit his shots.
Alcoholism, poverty, and unemployment were constant companions of the mountain people of Pike County. Nicknamed ‘The City That Moves Mountains’ the region is home to coal mines that produce most of the jobs for the third and fourth generation of miners.
The Rev. Harrison Mayes was a coal miner from Middlesboro, Kentucky. While trapped in a coal mine, Mayes made a promise to God that if He let him live, he would spend the rest of his days spreading His word.
Mayes erected countless signs in more than 40 states that read, “Jesus is coming soon.”
“He sure would be disappointed if He did,” country music singer Tom T. Hall, a native of Olive Hill, Kentucky, once sarcastically wrote.
Claude Freeman became a coal miner. His parents were poor, and even being the youngest; they counted on him to help feed the family of eleven. So, every day he loaded his lunch pail, adjusted his tin hat with the small lantern in front, said a prayer, and headed to the mine.
In December 1941, the Second World War came to the mountains of Kentucky. Claude loved America, and one afternoon he told his foreman he was going to enlist in the Army.
Other than his trips to Southwest Virginia or West Virginia for a dance or to the county fair, he’d never traveled outside of the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
A few months after enlistment, his superiors pinned ribbons on Claude’s chest recognizing his outstanding marksmanship and proficiency with a firearm. Soon, he received his orders and found himself on a crowded troop ship headed to Ireland and then to England. On June 6, 1944, Claude debarked at Normandy.
The family never knew if Claude used his skilled marksmanship, because like most others of his generation, he seldom spoke of his war years. He did what he needed to do and returned home.
After the war, Claude returned to the coal mine.
Brenda remembered when her father would come home from the mine wearing the tin hat with the small lantern in front that guided his way. He would walk slowly over to the water pump in the front yard, his face covered in coal dust.
He removed his miner’s hat, and scrubbed his face for 10 or 15 minutes, or until his face returned to some normalcy — the stubborn soot clinging to his eyelids.
Claude knew he would return to the deepest coal mine on Monday, but on Sunday, the family went to a small Primitive Baptist Church in the foothills of the mountains. They thanked the Lord for what He had given them – good health, food, a roof over their heads and a shining intelligence.
People married young, and many packed up their old cars, headed north to Ohio and Michigan, to the auto plants and factories in Detroit and Dayton.
After 15 years working underground, the coal mines shut down.
In 1959, Claude had the opportunity to move to Ohio. He packed up his family and headed where his brother and sister-in-law had moved years earlier. He found work immediately, and soon called Blanchester home.
Only a few months after their move to Ohio, Claude was diagnosed with Black Lung Disease and underwent major lung surgery at the Dayton Veterans Hospital to remove part of his left lung. Black Lung Disease is an incurable lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust.
Claude would battle the disease, as well as, emphysema, the rest of his life although he continued to work until he ultimately became disabled near 60 years of age.
As we know, Claude grew up tough. He fought the insidious disease for years, but in the end, Black Lung claimed another miner.
On January 10, 1983, at the age of 63, Claude Freeman died. After his death, the family gathered to distribute his belongings. Her mother handed Brenda her father’s “tin hat” with the light in front.
It’s something she continues to cherish to this day – a lasting symbol of the sacrifices her father made to support his family.
May his light never go out.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.