The woods surrounding the narrow hollows of W-Hollow were alive with small game in those days. In his early years, he took the old single-shot shotgun down and went hunting.
It was of necessity, not of sport. His parents, homemaker Martha and railroad laborer Mitchell, welcomed the fresh meat for the dinner table.
He bagged squirrels, a fat rabbit of two, sometimes quail feeding around the fodder shocks of the picked-over cornfield.
But in his later years, Jesse Stuart was a protector of wildlife.
I was there on his front porch, notebook in hand, in the fall of 1978. Also, there for the interview was Dr. Harold Richardson, an English professor at the University of Louisville, who was working on a biography of Stuart.
Jesse, then 72, paused in the middle of questioning and gazed across the meadow at the wooded hills.
“What will happen to this land when we (he and his wife, Naomi Dean) are gone?” he asked, more to himself than to his interviewers.
Developers were expressing interest in the nearly 1,000-acre farm, trying to entice him to sell portions of it. In his mind, Stuart could see bulldozers leveling the land, the great oak, gum and hickory trees being felled, and square, look-alike houses of a subdivision dotting the landscape.
“And what will happen to the wildlife?” he continued. “Where will the creatures find a home?”
He had bought the land, tract by tract, with royalties earned from his writing.
Stuart wanted to preserve the land for future generations, and that day Richardson set in motion the wheels that eventually would involve many people on the local and state level.
The dream became a reality just over a year later. On Dec. 7, 1979, Gov. Julian Carroll came to Jesse’s bedside ( a stroke suffered in the spring of 1978 had left him paralyzed down his left side) to take part in a very special dedication: The land was purchased by the state Nature Preserve Commission and set aside as one of the state’s few nature preserves.
Except for a few hiking trails open to the public, the land is protected from any development whatsoever.
While the Jesse Stuart Foundation owns the rights to Jesse’s literary works, the home and several acres surrounding it were left in the Stuarts’ hands.
Jesse died in 1984 and Naomi Dean died nine years later. The home is now lived in by their only child, Jane, who earned a Ph.D., taught at the university level and has authored several books herself.
One of the people present at the dedication was Paul Blazer Jr., at the time vice chairman of the foundation. He hailed the recognition by the state and the nation of a native son.
“People of the world will know of the integrity that makes up a Kentuckian, what it means to work for what you get,” he said.
Jesse said it was the biggest event to happen in his life since he was able to buy his first acre of land, a purchase financed partly by the sale of ‘possum hides.
Jesse did not attend a luncheon to honor the Stuarts given by Carroll at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park, but said through a message shared by Naomi Dean:
“This land is as close to me as my skin. Many of my poems have been written under its trees and on the plowed hillsides.
“We are grateful, more than grateful, to have this dedication of the land we love to the state we love and to the people we love. We want everybody to enjoy it, as we have enjoyed it.”
And was that a squirrel uttering a resounding “Amen!?”
Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.