STEVE FLAIRTY: Story of Two Amazing Women in Knox County
This column by Steve Flairy first appeared in Lexington-based KyForward.com.
Irma Gall, amazingly spry to be in her mid-eighties, was only too happy to show me her cabin, one she built “on a wide space on the road” at the base of a steep hillside just a few hundred yards from Stinking Creek.
“I’m a rock mason, and I believe in good foundations,” she noted, pointing out the intricate meshing of native stones holding together a split-railed frame house, wood set firmly on both vertical and horizontal planes.
It comes naturally that she uses the word “foundations” in describing the cabin. Irma and her long-time friend, Peggy Kemner, dreamed of establishing good foundations, literally and metaphorically, when they decided over a half century ago to join their talents to, in their words, “lend a hand” to the poor and often uneducated people around Stinking Creek, in Knox County. They started their long tenure perceived as outsiders. No more is that true with the area locals today.
Since 1958 until recent years, as Peggy’s health declined, the two have personified the concept of caring; they might be considered doing so in a westernized Mother Teresa way. If Mother Teresa still lived, she might even learn a few things from them.
And what sustained acts of caring have Irma and Peggy brought to bear at Stinking Creek? When they met in the late fifties in Leslie County while doing mission work, Irma from Indiana and Peggy from Pennsylvania, they soon decided that their individual backgrounds could be put to use on a synergetic course. “I’ll teach school and you deliver babies,” recalled Irma. “We came over the mountain to Stinking Creek.” And when they arrived in the poverty-stricken community, they did those things and much more.
Peggy, left, and Irma, right in early days (Photo from Knox Historical Museum)
But first, they had to find a place to live. How they got one showcases the remarkable character of the two women. A place to live came to be after initial resistance by the Stinking Creek folk, who were simply suspicious of their motives. But on a hot and dusty day in August 1958, the somewhat discouraged lookers came upon an old and weathered, framed two-story house. It sat pitifully amongst high horseweeds in bottom lands near a Stinking Creek tributary, Kenningham Branch. Intrigued, Irma and Peggy walked down into the low land for a closer look. About all one could say of a positive nature was that the house still standing; it would take imagination to see it as a livable home for humans.
“The flood of ’57 had ravaged that house,” explained Irma. “There were snake trails all through the house and dead birds. The windows were gone and (also) part of the roof. But it was a six-room house, four rooms on the bottom and two on the top. We immediately thought: ‘This is it. This is it!’”
They soon found the person who owned the property and bargained to allow them to move in. He was dubious about their request, but agreed to allow them to live there rent-free if they agreed to fix it up using their own labor and resources. They eagerly took the challenge and in what must have seemed an insurmountable task for most, they embraced the challenge and didn’t look back.
“Doing the windows, we put a longboard sticking out and Peggy sat on it inside and I sat on it outside and put the panes in,” explained Irma. There was mud to clean out, leaks to fix, and critters to fend off, and there would always be a threat of a flood from Kenningham Branch. But the two women, tough and buoyed by their religious faith and tenacious spirit, rebuilt themselves a house that became a home.
In time, they acquired the property and hundreds of acres. The land became the base of operations for the organization known as Lend-a-Hand, where eventually a legion of humble souls saw their lives get better.
In those early days of their startup, Irma rode her horse over rough and hilly terrain to teach at Alex School in a one-room building some eight miles away. Peggy, a graduate of the acclaimed Frontier Nursing Service, also rode horseback to serve as a midwife and attend to medical needs for the poor in their homes. When time was available, Irma traveled and assisted Peggy.
“Peggy delivered the first baby within three months there. Word got out quickly, ” remembered Irma. The two “do-gooders,” as those mission-minded in Appalachia were often termed, believed that self-respect developed when receivers of help also took some personal responsibility whenever possible.
Consequently, Peggy charged $25 for delivering the babies. Included in the service was both pre and post-natal care. Some paid with food (beans and rice was popular with Irma and Peggy), chickens, pigs and goats; that arrangement was just fine for the two of them.
Peggy had no problem getting clients, and she quickly gained respect for her demonstrated expertise. Besides teaching, Irma used her agrarian childhood experiences to launch herself excitedly into farming on their bottom land, producing food for the two and also to share in the community. She acquired a tractor and other implements, such as a corn planter and plow, and built a barn and other outbuildings, and with that, raised an assortment of livestock such as cattle, rabbits, goats, and pigs. They planted thousands of pine seedlings on the hillsides to support the slowing down of soil erosion.
Irma also plowed patches of soil for neighbors to plant gardens, and she mowed yards. “We made a lot of women mad because I was out in the fields with their husband somewhere,” said Irma with a grin. “I usually had someone with me because I didn’t trust them either.” She even ventured into doing some rudimentary veterinarian work, and extended it to others with animals in the Stinking Creek area.
Irma and Peggy were now shaking off the resistance first shown to them at Stinking Creek.
“Within two years they were asking, ‘What creek are you from?,’” noted Irma. “Evidently we were not considered snobs. We had talents. We’d hear a woman screaming (ready to give birth) and we’d walk in and it would get quiet because they knew Peggy was there.”
As the years advanced and new buildings of intentional purpose were built, a multitude of items under the banner “lend-a-hand” became a part of what Irma and Peggy did. They started a 4-H Club for young people, teaching such things as healthier eating and farming activities. They taught Sunday School classes and informally counseled and mentored troubled youth, and at times gave them a place to stay. The operation became a haven for college student volunteers and others with like-minded desires to be of service. The mission of delivering babies was enhanced when Peggy opened a clinic inside the Center, where many of the other activities are done.
Always a teacher, Irma talked about the way she’s used what she calls “life lessons” to communicate with the young. In discussing Bible teachings, turning abstracts into practical connection in the Stinking Creek community is the goal. Often that means doing chores together and bonding. And with that, she likes using the metaphor of having a “sparkle in your eye” to describe the passion needed to live fully; she likes to demonstrate that in concrete ways. For example, instead of telling one what a “lever” is, they literally move a rock. She relishes lessons to be taught from the daily duties of raising crops and livestock.
And though life at Lend-a-Hand does not have the frenetic pace it once had in the younger days of Irma and Peggy’s mission, it still makes a mark. Irma writes a column for the Barboursville newspaper, Mountain Advocate, and Lend-a-Hand is now partnering with the organization, Grow Appalachia, based in Berea, which seeks to help “as many Appalachian families grow as much of their own food as possible.” While Irma still lives at her cabin at Lend-a-Hand, she continues to serve and navigates the acreage with her all-terrain vehicle she calls “The Mule.” Despite Peggy’s diminishing health, serves as an inspirational spirit. both have written books about their experiences.
Certainly, the courageous and tenacious lives of Irma Gall and Peggy Kemner are leaving a legacy of caring in Stinking Creek--a strong