An old Kentucky home

A friend of ours recently brought up his recent voyage to Kentucky. As he spoke, my wife and I looked out across the snowscape that’s currently our lawn and thought of balmy temperatures and bluegrass (which is actually green) under blue skies and our sojourn in the Bluegrass State some years ago.

Our trip to Kentucky was for business, but as always we managed to blend in some pleasure. And there are few things more pleasurable than doing something that’s both adventuresome and tax-deductible.

After conducting an interview with a dairy farmer at Bowling Green, the plan was to motor back to our hotel headquarters in Lexington. As is our wont, we opted to take the back roads, the so-called “blue highways” that were so colorfully described by William Least Heat-Moon.

Much of rural Kentucky is more picturesque than a postcard. Rolling hills are toupeed with swatches of forest; limestone outcroppings grin from hillsides like gigantic chalky teeth; small farms (20 acres and a pond, we were told, is the ideal farmette) pepper the valleys; ancient tobacco sheds with gray, weathered siding bask in the sunshine.

We saw sagging old barns with rusty tin roofs, the Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements on their sides fading but still readable. Somewhere out in the country, we ran across a forgotten series of old-fashioned Burma-Shave signs that read “Past schoolhouses/ Take it slow/ Let the little/ Shavers grow/ Burma-Shave.”

Answering the essentials of nature and the need for gasoline, we stopped at a small town filling station. It being noontime, I asked the attendant where we could find a good meal. He recommended the local livestock auction barn.

The auction barn’s cafeteria was crowded. We took as a good omen and ordered their fried catfish special. Our meals came with sides of grits.

Being lifelong Northerners, we are baffled by the concept of grits. What do you do with them? They seem to have very little flavor. Are they, as I secretly suspect, actually spackle? Or maybe wallpaper glue? It remains a mystery.

As we dined, I noticed that some of the locals were eyeing us. They were no doubt wondering about these weird strangers who had odd accents and didn’t know how to use the phrase “y’all” and were confounded by one of their staple foods.

Fortified by the meal, we resumed our wanderings. We found another blue highway and wended our way generally eastward. The landscape became steeper as we edged our way closer to the Appalachians.

My wife, who is the original house hunter, suddenly exclaimed, “Wow, what a neat old house! But it looks haunted.”

She was correct. Out in the midst of a cow pasture sat a majestic Victorian mansion, complete with a soaring square turret and a red brick façade. The house had clearly been unoccupied for some years. Many of its windows were broken; cow pies and weeds ruled were there once was a lawn.

Intrigued, I drove our rental car slowly across a cattle guard and into the pasture, hoping to get a better look at the elegant derelict. We snapped a few photos and were in the process of exiting the pasture when a beat-up blue sedan approached.

I rolled down the window and spoke with the driver of the sedan. He was the owner of the pasture and the cows and was naturally curious about what we were up to. I smoothed things over by chatting with him in a farmer-like manner, noting that he had a fine-looking herd of Angus cows. The farmer soon relaxed and began to visit with us like long-lost pals.

We asked about the decrepit house. He replied that it had been built in the 1870s.

“There were three sisters who each inherited a pile of money,” he drawled. “They tried to outdo one another by building a house that was bigger and nicer than the next one.”

He paused to expel a streak of amber tobacco juice into the emerald grass.

“I heard that the sisters became bitter enemies because of it. None of them ever married and they lived alone in their mansions until they passed away. The houses have been sitting empty ever since. I reckon there’s a lesson somewhere in that.”

I agreed that there probably was. We thanked the farmer pleasantly and said our goodbyes.

As I slipped the car into drive, the farmer lowered his voice and intoned, “Y’all be careful where you go poking around in these parts, ya hear?”

We assured him that we understood completely and immediately pointed our car toward Lexington and our hotel, which was in much better repair and was far less ominous.