Ohio County, Kentucky, has a population of 23,999 spread among six incorporated cities, one unincorporated city, and twenty-seven populated places. The unincorporated city, Rosine, is the birthplace of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. Nine miles north of Rosine is a town called Dundee, respectably-sized with 106 inhabitants. Three miles east of Dundee, on a winding road that hugs the Rough River, is a collection of barns and houses amid rolling cornfields. This collection of barns and houses calls itself Narrows, Kentucky.
You would think that driving through Dundee looking for Dundee-Narrows Road would be a surefire way to locate this remote settlement. As we head north on KY-69, the cornfields morph into grass lawns, two-story houses, and a 35-mph speed limit. My mom eases the car around a bend. The open road stretches before us, surrounded by nothing but silver-green soybeans, the proud foliage of walnut trees in summer, and a 55-mph sign. “Did we miss it?” she asks, making a U-turn and heading back through Dundee. In about ten seconds, we find ourselves back in the cornfields. “It should be up here on the right,” I say on our third attempt, zooming in as far as possible on a screenshot from Google Maps.
“There are four ways to get into Narrows,” Grandpa once said, leaning back in a rocking chair in his Colorado living room. “Two!” Grandma countered. “One across the bridge, one along the railroad tracks where you turn right.” “There are four ways,” he insisted, “but it took me twenty years to find them all.”
My great-great-grandmother moved to Narrows in 1945. My grandma used to visit in the summers as a little girl. Back then, the whole town was family — my great-great-grandmother, her cousins, her husband, her husband’s sister, her husband’s sister’s husband, and their son. My mom and I decided that if we’re going to go as far south as Nashville on our college tours, we might as well pop into Kentucky and see the town of my grandmother’s stories.
“Dundee-Narrows Road!” I say, pointing to a strip of asphalt hidden between two rows of houses. Before long, the tires rumble over a cement and metal bridge, which has replaced the wooden one my grandmother crossed many times. “When anybody come across that bridge,” she once told me, “everybody knew somebody was comin’, ‘cause it just rattled and made all kinds of noise.” The Rough River still meanders below, though the “Tranquil Trickle” might be a more apt appellation. There used to be a sawmill here, as logs drifting downstream would get trapped in this bend where the river narrows. Just across the bridge, there was once a house that always flooded, a mechanic garage, a general store with a post office inside, and a grocery store. “They had the telephone switchboard in there,” Grandma said. “People didn’t have telephones. If you had to make a call, you’d go down and ask her to put it through. If you got a call, she’d go run up to your house and let you know.”
Telephones and electricity were unknown to Narrows until at least after my grandparents were married in 1954. Until then, residents used oil lanterns, aligned their sleep schedules with the hours of the sun, and heated irons on the stove, two at a time, so that one would be ready to use when the other grew cool. Milk and butter were kept cold in a bucket down the well or in the creek, chilled by the frigid water. Bricks were heated in the fireplace and laid at the foot of the bed for warmth. Coal would have been delivered from one of Ohio County’s famous mines — it remains the second-largest coal-producing county in the state — though there was a fair amount of coal up in the local hill as well.
“Two guys that were my age knew that there was a cave in that hill,” Grandma said to me. “Mama used to tell us that that cave went way back, and you would come out on the other side of the hill. Those two guys were gonna try to find the opening to the cave, because nobody had used it since Mama was a kid. They took Jim and Rich,” — my father and uncle — “and they took their little bucket and pail, and they were gonna go dig it out. They never found nothing, but it kept them busy for a couple of days.”
There was also a church atop the hill that has since fallen to pieces, and a second one at the edge of town by the railroad tracks. Traveling preachers would only come to each church once a month. Residents attended both services in their work clothes. Women’s skirts might be dotted by water droplets from an afternoon spent scrubbing clothes on a washboard. Men’s boots might impress outlines of the soles on the church floor, leaving traces of muck from livestock pens and vegetable gardens. To many, cotton undershirts would cling the sweet aroma of tobacco, a crop that Scotch-Irish settlers began cultivating long before Kentucky was a U.S. state.
“In the wintertime, around February, they would burn off an area up in the woods,” Grandma told me. “It was a small spot because the seeds were very, very small. They would just throw them out there, and then they would cover it with cheesecloth. When I would go about Easter time, I would go with my uncle to plant plants. He had a stick about so big” — she held up her index finger — “and he’d make a hole and drop in the tobacco plant. Then he’d go down to the river and carry water up, no irrigation of any kind. Then you’d spend all summer cleaning out tobacco worms, great big ol’ ugly green things that make you sick to your stomach.” She scrunched her nose and stuck out her tongue, making me laugh. “In the fall, they would take this tobacco, string it across poles, and put it in a barn to dry it out. Then about late November, early December, they would take it down and auction it off.”
Tobacco farming became a lot less labor-intensive with the arrival of electricity in the late-fifties. Mechanical planters and harvesters, along with a chemical spray for the worms, cut the time required to farm tobacco in half. In 2004, the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act withdrew federal support from the tobacco business, providing transitional payments to farmers to incentivize them to cultivate other crops. The old airing barns, whose unevenly spaced planks already gave the impression of collapse, fell into disuse across the American South.
My mom and I spot the remains of one such building as we inch through town. It stands far removed from the one-lane road, half-hidden in the haze of the July heat, suffocated by the lush expanse of Kentucky woodlands. Four horses graze near a fence. “I guess people still live here,” my mom comments in surprise. I peer more closely into the thicket and notice a handful of bungalow-style houses, their driveways merely tire tracks in the underbrush.
Most of the original houses in Narrows, some of which even had dirt floors, have been torn down. Children who grew up in these hills set off for nearby towns like Dundee, looking for better-paying jobs than the cultivation of tobacco, corn, and soybeans. Upon retirement, some moved back and built new homes furnished with modern comforts and appliances. Some kept family lands in family hands; others, like my relatives, sold, moved on, and never looked back.
The trees clear abruptly to reveal a white church, recently painted, with a black steeple. Up ahead, the tracks of what used to be the Illinois Central Railroad mark the northern boundary of downtown Narrows. “Was that it?” I ask as I step out of the car, squinting back down the road.
I saw none of it: no general store with a post office inside, no church atop the hill, no tobacco fields, no mechanic garage, no grocery store, no old sawmill. All that remains are the houses, much fewer than and different from what they once were; the Rough River, reduced to a languid stream; the bridge, now cement instead of wood; and this little white building next to a sign that reads “Narrows Baptist Church. David Ford, Pastor.”
“That’s it. There’s really not much out here, huh?” my mom replies, walking up to the church doors and finding them locked. “Do you want to take a picture?”
The humidity swells in the afternoon sun. A drop of sweat trails down the nape of my neck, mingling with the soil below. “You know what? Sure,” I say, leaning against the sign. “I’ll send it to Grandma when we get home.”