By: Jack Swift
Johnson County Historian
As I was looking through my old high school literature Textbooks a while back, I came across a story by the late Jesse Stuart. It is somewhat ironic that I had thought of him recently before being re-reminded of him as a result of seeing the story. To me, he was one of the most interesting persons in American literature. It is no wonder that he was named Poet Laureate of Kentucky and served in that capacity for many years.
Born in a log cabin on August 8, 1906 in W-Hollow, Kentucky, James Hilton Stuart began his career as a elementary school teacher and went on to become superintendent of schools in Greenup County, and a prolific author. He worked his way through Lincoln Memorial College and a year of graduate study at Vanderbilt. He wrote poetry, stories, novels and books for children. Being a citizen of East Tennessee with its hills and mountains and fertile land, I could identify with Stuart and the emphasis he placed on his rural Kentucky home. Growing up on a farm where there was always work to be done,
He was the first in his family to graduate high school. He was a high school principle while growing corn and tobacco on his rough Kentucky farm when his first book was published in 1934: a book of sonnets called “Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow”. Other works include “Taps for Private Tussie,” “Kentucky is My Land,” “Head o’ W-Hollow,” “Beyond Dark Hills,” “Trees of Heaven,” and “ of the Mountains.”
In his autobiography, “The Thread That Runs So True,” he tells some of the work he did as a high school and college student. He tells about his first teaching job in a small school where some of the students were almost as old as he was. He taught in some one-and-two room schools, as did many other teachers of that era. Johnson County was no exception. I’ve mentioned a number of times in this column that I was a student at Dewey Elementary School — a two-room, two-teacher school where Dewey Christian Church now stands.
Jesse Stuart was a recipient of a number of awards for his work. He was visiting professor at the American University in Cairo in 1960 and was associated with a great deal of writing programs in the United States.
“The Thread That Runs So True,” was Stuart’s work featured in the freshman literature book that I found. It is a compelling story as he writes of his accomplishments and adventures. He produced some 50 books during his career. He died February 17, 1984.