Home Town Destroyed

April 23, 2012

I’m overdue to write this. On March 2, 2012, occurred the worst thing ever to happen to me: My hometown of West Liberty, in eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills, was largely destroyed by a tornado. If I feel so devastated while not even living there, how much worse must it be for those who lost their very homes and livelihood.

Mercifully, no one in the town perished, although the twister claimed several lives elsewhere in the county of Morgan. Those included two of my dear friends, an elderly couple named Wilmer and Emma Dean (Carpenter) Cecil, who were my neighbors while I was growing up.

Although West Liberty’s death toll was zero, there were nevertheless close calls. For example, newspaperman Earl Kinner, publisher of the weekly Licking Valley Courier, had just gone home for the day when the tornado struck. He made it to the basement, but the house collapsed on him, and, although he was not seriously hurt, he was trapped until rescuers arrived and pulled him out. He was taken to a shelter, but he soon asked to borrow a notebook and then was off, covering the story of his lifetime. Although his offices were completely lost, he and his staff managed, with the help of a larger paper fifty miles away, to get out the next issue—only a day late.

My ties to the town are very strong. I not only grew up there but spent summers in West Liberty from 1980 to 1995 (while otherwise studying and teaching at the University of Kentucky). I spent much of that time in local-history research—cranking out books like Morgan County Cemetery Records and Raids & Skirmishes: The Civil War in Morgan. I was active in the historical society, helped create a museum and an historical park, got the town’s oldest house listed on The National Register of Historic Places, helped write the text for monuments and markers, and much more. As Courier Historical Reporter, I often covered stories for the newspaper and, for more than 20 years, have continued to pen a monthly column, “Historical Sketches.”

Not surprisingly then, in 2010 I was asked to write a history of my boyhood church (somewhat ironically in that I am now a religious nonbeliever). This was so that—for its one-hundredth anniversary—the West Liberty Christian Church could be listed on the National Register. That occurred, and then, on March 2, along with many other historic structures as well as numerous businesses and homes, it was reduced to rubble.

Some buildings survived, however, or appear to be salvageable, including the beautiful old courthouse (minus its clock tower) which is the centerpiece of the town. And already West Liberty is on the road to recovery. For example, the newspaper staff are working out of a mobile unit placed on the site of their former building. I have an article, “in press,” telling how the 200-year-old town was destroyed before—torched by Rebel raiders during the Civil War, and its Main Street lost to subsequent devastating fires—and how each time it rose again like a phoenix. I just received a new assignment from publisher Kinner; for now, it’s what I can do to help, calling on my humanist values.