A town that floods repeatedly is bound to be lost eventually. But try telling that to the residents of Martin, Kentucky, who lived on the banks of Beaver Creek for nearly a century, stoically ignoring the foolishness of an existence that forced them to flee to high ground nearly every year. Upon returning home, they simply replaced the waterlogged linoleum in the kitchen. Again.
This is the story of an improbable place during its serendipitous heyday, when 860 people lived in an isolated hill town they loved so much that they rebuilt it, year after year after year. Why? Maybe they couldn’t live without the annual Fat-Lean Men’s Ball Game (sponsored by the PTA). Maybe the memory of the smell of chili wafting from the Hob Nob Café lured them back. Or perhaps they just couldn’t imagine a life without old Dick Osborn wandering down Main Street in a bathrobe, carrying a pot of steaming turnip greens and muttering to himself because, he said, he liked to hear a smart man talk.
In the 1930s, Michelle Slatalla’s great-grandfather Fred, a railroad man, arrived in town to take a job transporting coal out of the booming mines that ringed the valley. The family, fresh from the civilization of bluegrass country, stepped off the train at the Martin depot to find gunslingers on the platform, moonshine brewing in the basement of Doc Walk Stumbo’s hospital, and moviegoers patiently waiting for the final reel to arrive on horseback from the next town.
Before fate caught up with Martin, Slatalla’s great-grandmother Hesta moved her family from house to house so often that friends couldn’t remember which one to visit on a given day. The savviest businesswoman around was Lula Slade, who hit it big during the Depression by introducing exotic fare called spaghetti to the menu at her restaurant. And Tavis Flannery, the town’s only policeman, patrolled the streets wearing a mail-order bulletproof vest that laced under his arms like a ladies’ corset.
But in the end, the water won. After decades of floods, the government thought that the way to fix Martin’s problems was to demolish the town and rebuild it on higher ground. This ten-year, $100 million flood-relief project recently started with the razing of two rental houses Dick Osborn once owned at the base of Mulberry Hill.
Before the town disappeared, Slatalla went to Kentucky to collect stories–from her family and from a hundred other people who lived in Martin–about a remarkable American hometown. With research materials that included court records, diaries, long-lost love letters, interviews, and newspaper archives, she has vividly reconstructed a portrait of the town in its prime, when snowball bushes bloomed behind picket fences, a distant train whistle signaled noon, and her grandparents fell in love in the springtime.
Animated by Slatalla’s lively and humorous writing, The Town on Beaver Creek is an enchanting and intimate history of life on a twentieth-century frontier, evoking a time and place suspended forever in the amber of memory.
About Michelle Slatalla
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Published August 1, 2006
by Random House.