The Story of Josephine Bingham Belcher (1901-1988)

 By Camilia Belcher, as told to her by Josephine Bingham Belcher

            The young girl was lying on the mountainside, searching the sky.  Blazing a trail through the May morning, it came--a magnificent object.  Nine-year-old Josephine was dazzled by the long tail of Halley’s Comet as it flashed overhead.  Scientific recordings showed that the broad, radiant band extended across the sky for almost 120 degrees, and the splash of color that glowed over the horizon was so long that Josephine couldn’t see the end of it.  To the girl’s eyes, it seemed as if the sun quivered back and forth as the comet passed between it and the earth.  The comet and the sun were wrestling in a celestial encounter high above the mountains of eastern Kentucky.  What the young girl was witnessing had been observed in the year of Governor Jonathan Belcher’s birth, and now Halley’s comet had made another of its periodic returns.

            After gazing at the comet, the girl turned to her sister, who was with her, and together they walked down the mountain road through the thick forest, toward their father’s sawmill.  Near the sawmill was her house at Belcher, Kentucky, where her mother and father were waiting for her.

            As Josephine walked, she glanced at the oak trees, their leaves silvered by the morning mist that sparkled in the tall mountains of Belcher, Kentucky--the place of her birth.  She climbed those mountains on her way to one of the schools located in Belcher, where she received her education.  Balanced on the slope, carrying her metal lunch pail containing cornbread and milk, she blazed her precarious trail, hollowing out footholds with her shoes.  Below the mountain flowed a stream, and in times of high water, she had to secure her footing carefully.  Wagons splashed past her, their wheels churning in the stream bed.  Farther down the road was the other Belcher School, built near the river, and another sawmill (Belcher Sawmill).

            The girl did not know then that seventy-six years later, she would see the time when Halley’s Comet returned again.  When the comet made its second appearance during her lifetime, she would be living in a house near Belcher Sawmill--a house built by her timberman husband, William Kerry Belcher.  This was her home in the heart of coal and timber country.



            The cry resounded throughout the stand of trees as William Kerry Belcher and his men jumped clear.  The giant oak began to sway, branches swishing against those of its neighbor, and then came crashing down with a loud crack and a rumble.  William and the timbermen hitched a mule called “Old Dutch” to the oak tree, and Old Dutch set her shoulders against the harness, pulling the oak to Belcher Sawmill, located near the bank of the Big Sandy River.  Water from the river was changed to steam to power the sawmill and William’s gristmill.  In addition, the river turned the waterwheel of another gristmill nearby.

            After William cut a tree, he would remember to later plant a seedling in its place.  With an ax and a two-handed saw, he tackled the tall timber.  After trimming off the branches and cutting the tree into logs, he transported the logs to the river near the sawmill.  As the logs floated past the mill, William caught them with hooks and skidded them to the mill.  Some of the timber he logged for various companies such as the Yellow Poplar Company, whose “Yellow Poplar mules” were known for their strength and working ability.

            At Belcher Sawmill, he sawed his logs into boards, beams, and other pieces of lumber.  In the spring, when the river thawed, William floated some logs to the lumber mill at Catlettsburg, Kentucky.  He lashed the logs into rafts and tied the rafts together.  Braving the river current, William rode the floating log rafts down the river.  The river was wide in places, deep and swift in others as it rushed between gunmetal-gray walls of rock..

            In the evening, William piloted the raft toward the riverbank and walked ashore to a nearby boardinghouse, where he spent the night.  He mounted his raft again early in the morning, continuing the ride toward Catlettsburg.  There the logs would be milled for the lumber markets, while William returned to his own Belcher Sawmill at Belcher, Kentucky.

            Each evening as William worked at his sawmill, William’s wife, Josephine, came to the back porch and rang the small bell, signalling suppertime.  The constant hissing of the sawmill’s steam engine put out a staccato rhythm. At the sawmill, William pulled the whistle of the steam engine, and it let off a high, piercing sound, while at the same time, across the river, the freight train pulling the long line of cars (gons) loaded with coal answered with its own piercing whistle.  By now, it would likely be rolling past the Belcher Store and the post office.  She heard the freight train’s high whistle as it pulled into the railroad station, which was built on land given to the railroad by pioneers named Belcher.  The train slowed at the station, and the mailsacks were tossed out of the railroad cars and were hooked by the station platform’s iron post.  After some of the passengers, returning home after a day at the circus or listening to the speech of a visiting celebrity, disembarked, the train rumbled on.  A locomotive had already rolled past the station that morning and at noon; now the evening train was heralding suppertime.

            Josephine awaited the arrival of her husband and the timbermen who worked for him.  She knew they would enjoy the supper she had prepared.  She had risen early that morning to cook breakfast for William so that he could go to his sawmill.  William sawed the lumber the railroad used to make cross-ties, clapboards needed for the region’s mining camps, and lath strips sawed from ash timber, among other items. 

            In those pioneer days, when the major source of food was homegrown vegetables and corn, William’s gristmill ground corn into meal for the area’s residents.  The cornbread Josephine baked to complement the evening meal was prepared from corn grown in her own cornfield; she had tied the corn into shocks, hauled the shocks to the gristmill by mule, and shucked and shelled the corn.

            Josephine prepared food for the timbermen who lived in the “hollows” located within the area.  She rode a mule through the forest and led a string of pack mules that carried food supplies in sacks.  After an arduous journey, she arrived at the temporary clapboard dwellings that served as homes for the lumberjacks while they were on a logging job, where she delivered the food to the hungry loggers.  On the return trip, she paused on the summit of one of the largest mountains in the area.  The mountains were just turning red-gold, a nip was in the air, and the flaming leaves were a sight to behold.  She felt pride and joy in the knowledge that this place was home.  After she had thanked the Lord for all of His bounty, she took up the reins to continue her journey, and as she turned from the crest of the mountain, the Lord answered her with one of the most beautiful sunsets that anyone could have wanted.

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