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SPECIAL FEATURE A Bit of Appalachian Eden: Hensley Settlement Judith Victoria Hensley I TOOK MY FIRST TRIP TO HENSLEY SETTLEMENT fresh out of college as I was beginning to explore my family roots and learned that my great-great grandfather purchased the undeveloped land in 1903 and that my great-great uncle was the last resident to leave in 1951. I rode in the back of a flatbed pickup that shook bones and rattled the brain as my uncle shifted straining gears and struggled up the rutted road on the Brownie's Creek side of Brush Mountain. I've made the trip to Hensley Settlement many times since on the Wilderness Road Tours van that departs twice daily from the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Visitor's Center outside Middlesboro, Kentucky. My great-great grandfather, Burton Hensley Srv acquired a sizeable boundary of land in the late 1800s that included bottomland in Martin's Fork to which he added a sprawling 500-acre plateau on Brush Mountain in May 1903. The land was purchased from C. and R. M. Bales, who had been granted the land from Kentucky Governor William Owsley. The Bales heirs had leased the land out for farming and grazing while they retained ownership. Some buildings, fences, and cleared meadows already existed at the time Burton Hensley Sr. made the purchase. Before he died, Great Grandpa Burt made an offer to divide the mountain land among his sixteen children and deed a portion to any of them who would live on the land. In the tradition ofOld World land-owning families and New World plantation owners, keepingland holdings "in the family" was looked uponfavorably. WhenBurton's daughter Nicey (my great-great aunt) agreed to marry a cousin, Sherman Hensley, the family blessing and a tract of about twenty acres of the newly acquired land went with them. Sherman bought an additional 38 acres, built a home place, and moved his pregnant wife and one child up the mountainin December of 1903. Early in 1904 the Gibbonsin-laws began taking their places on the settlement along with Sherman and Nicey. Over time, Sherman bought out the individual tracts of land from Burton's heirs who chose not to live at the top of the mountain. Eventually these combined tracts would become known as Hensley Settlement. Some have attributed the move to this isolated section of Kentucky highlands largely to the desire for making and marketing moonshine without interference from revenuers. According to family information, the majority of those living on the settlement were very religious folk who did not hold with bootlegging. However, by all accounts, there were individuals relegated to the perimeter of the settlement who were acclaimed for the quality of their mountain brew. After the difficult journey up the mountain, one would doubt that making shine would have inspired the hard work and self-sufficiency needed to make life successful in the settlement. Sherman Hensley spent the last two years of his life on Hensley Settlement in solitude and became the last to leave in 1951. He had watched his dream come and—what must have seemed to him—go in his lifetime. By the time I was born in December of 1951, no one was left on the Settlement. I have tried to visualize life at the Settlement in its prime with people busy about their daily chores, talking quietly on front porches, with children laughing as they run freely between the houses. The eerie silence of unoccupied buildings and wispy fog that rolls in and out at will remind me that my visits to the Settlement provide only glimpses of the past. Varied styles of fencing border pastures and create lanes that seem to welcome visitors and entice them to take the journey backward through time. Now a winding one-lane graveled path snakes its way for five miles upward along the outline of the mountain past creeks, crevices, and cascading waterfalls—in the rainy seasons—through a tunnel of lush vegetation and a forest canopy that filters little sunlight through to the road. There are days when the drive up the mountain is unforgettable. Sometimes rain-swollen Shilallah Falls thunders down the...


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