This story is published as part of The Geeky Press/Youshare Project reading series
I came from nowhere. And that would make the journey home difficult. And slow.
After years of wandering, I’d finally found my way to solid ground. I’d gotten sober in California. Quit my job at Wired. Moved back to Austin. I was in the only place I’d ever really felt at home. With that stability came a new purpose. When I arrived in Texas this time, I wasn’t running from something. No, this time I came to Austin with a clarity. I was ready to slow down. To lay roots. To be like everyone else. I was done pushing back against the world.
For the first time that notion excited me even as it felt foreign. I wasn’t sure who I was, or where I fit. I’d fought with so many people for so long that I didn’t know how to move through the world without that rage and anger. I didn’t know what life was like away from the edge. I only knew that I was ready to try. With that came a sense of calm. The isolation I’d felt in California was gone. Set aside. The rage still burned within me, but it felt more like dying embers. A remnant from another time. Another life. The ashes still sometimes popped. But the new wounds they caused were superficial. The old scars less prominent.
What this new clarity hadn’t given me was direction. Because where do you begin looking when you’re trying to figure out where you story begins? I’d like to tell you that it came from a place of great meaning and depth. But that’s not how it happened. No, I found my answer while watching television.
The History Channel was airing a program called Vendettas: Clay County War, the story of the infamous and bloody Kentucky feud between the Baker and White clans. The name caught my attention: Baker. My dad was a Baker. And I knew he’d had some connection to Clay County. But I didn’t know much else. So I dialed the phone.
“Hey, I’m watching this documentary on the Baker feud of Clay County. Are we related to them?”
There was a long pause.
“I guess we should talk,” my dad said.
* * *
Before I tell you what my dad and I talked about, I need to tell you what we’d never talked about: our family’s history. Our family was small. My mom and dad. My sister. A few uncles. An aunt. A handful of cousins. That’s as far as the stories went. My parents never told stories, and I never thought to ask.
That’s what life is like in small towns. Or that’s what it was like in my hometown. That was my home. That was my history. Everything was filtered through its lens. It never crossed my mind to ask about the world outside those borders. It never crossed my mind that the world might be bigger than what existed around me. After all, how different could my life really be from the rest of the country?
So it never crossed my mind to ask how we’d ended up in little Loveland, Ohio, a small enclave tucked in the middle of southern Ohio outside of Cincinnati. Like much of Appalachia, our part of Loveland was rural. Railroad tracks separated the Clermont side of Loveland where we lived from the Hamilton side that housed the downtown. To this day I recall bouncing across the railroad tracks into a different world, one where the houses were bigger and the world better. I don’t know if the reality matched my imagination, but when I think back to my time in Loveland I can tell you that crossing those railroad tracks always felt grand. Not until years later did I understand the irony: Even at the edge of Appalachia, we lived on the wrong side of the tracks.
But I also knew something else: when any of us breached the town’s geographic lines and headed to Cincinnati, we were all outliers. So while my Appalachia was culturally removed from the Appalachian culture of Eastern Kentucky where my family had once lived, the implications even in Loveland were the same. We were different.
* * *
History poured out from my father during that phone call.
I’d heard that our family had helped found Clay County in 1807. That years later my great-grandfather was murdered in downtown Manchester, Clay’s county seat. And that the “Bad” Bakers had been run out of the area. But those were half-told stories, accidental skeletons that were quickly shoved back into the closet.
I never heard how it all went together. I never heard why it mattered. I never had the chance to understand who I was. Who we were. I hadn’t realized how much my family’s history was tied to the Appalachian region. What spilled out from my dad was the start of my roadmap.
The Bakers, along with a handful of families including the Whites, had helped settle Clay County, which was nestled into Southern Kentucky, seventy miles southeast of Lexington, just a stone’s throw from four states: West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These prominent and educated families came from the East and South. For them, Clay County represented the chance to build a future away from the reach of the encroaching British rule and the increasingly hostile economic forces of the colonies.
The County then was rich with salt and timber, which fueled its economy before it cratered in the mid-1800s. That downturn sparked The Clay County War, a one-hundred-year feud between families that were split by ideological lines. While there were countless families involved in the war, the ones who took center: the Whites and the Bakers. The two families battled politically and economically at first, and then turned to bloodshed. More than one hundred and fifty people would get killed during the fighting, which came in clusters across the second half of the nineteenth century after the Civil War had destroyed much of the remaining natural resources.
In 1898, the Clay County War came to a head when the Bakers and Whites tried—and failed—to negotiate an end to the hostilities. In the fallout, George “Baldie” Baker and his son “Bad” Tom Baker were killed. Soon after that president Woodrow Wilson declared in The New York Times that Clay County had been overrun by uneducated, drunken hillbillies and made it clear he’d be wasting no more federal resources on the area.
By then major hostilities had ended. The County’s resources were largely gone. Outside speculators had stripped much of the good farmland leaving the residents unable to create a sustainable community. The government failed to build a workable transportation system, and so the timber and salt resources weren’t economically competitive anymore. Clay County, like so many other Appalachian enclaves, was no longer a useful commodity. It became an island unto itself.
Crime began to take the place of commerce, and the War officially ended in 1934 when my father’s grandfather, Bobby, was murdered. I’d heard bits and pieces of that in my childhood, but the story had always changed. Sometimes he was murdered because of the feud. Sometimes he was murdered because he was a car thief. Sometimes it was just revenge. Even the family couldn’t agree. What was true was that by the time of Bobby’s murder, my father’s family had left town, the last refugees of the War. The Bakers, my line, had lost. We’d been run out. We’d scattered across the country.
We faded into the background of history.
* * *
And there it was: the beginning of my search. Because it’s one thing to be from a place. It’s quite another to have helped create it. But that’s the where I was from, my father told me. Or, that’s where my family was from. That was the start of the map. And if I was going to understand my family, I had to understand the place they helped create. I needed to understand Clay County.
So I began preparations to go.
[Photo credit to Brad King]
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