As a kid growing up in Cumberland, my big decision on Saturdays was whether to go to the Novo Theatre at 20 cents or the Corlee at 15 cents. I never knew what was playing at either (unless it was one of those cliff hangers from the week before), but I knew it would be good: Cartoons, news reels and a western short film starring Tom Mix or Hopalong Cassidy, maybe my favorite, Lash LaRue. In these short films I first learned about ghost towns in the west, areas where the gold and silver mines had played out and where from time to time outlaws went to hide out.
I never thought about the coal in Harlan County playing out, or that major industries would find that several factors made it not as profitable as it had been at one time to remain in the area. They began selling mining properties to lesser-known companies, which would be willing to take a smaller profit margin and work with the unions.
The U.S. Census of 1940 reported that 4,149 people lived in Cumberland, and the 2010 census reported a population of 2,237 which was a decline of 14.3 percent from the previous census in 2000.
As the population has declined, the animals, which at one time enjoyed free reign in Cumberland, have returned. They love the Cumberland River area with a few structures on either side of the river and then the glorious mountains that go on and on, places where they can birth and raise their young in safety.
But on occasion they come to the river for a nice cool drink of water or to the homes along the river foraging for easy prey. I know of such excursions.
When my niece Lisa in Evarts had a dispute at an Evarts City Council meeting with a neighbor who objected to the very vocal rooster she kept, she petitioned my sister Frances in Cumberland to rescue the animal. My sister bought supplies and had a cozy, rather large chicken lot built and transported the rooster and several hens from Evarts. When she went out to feed the new residents, all that was left of the rooster and the four hens who had joined him were feathers. The suppositions began. Was it a wolf, a coyote, a weasel? It wasn’t a bear although bears have been savvy scavengers around that area for at least three years now.
On the same street where Frances lives, Bob Sturgill says a red fox descended upon his chickens, stealing one with each visit until there wasn’t a single one left.
The beavers had worked on Frances’ dogwood trees before the arrival of the rooster, reducing them to the shape and size of pencils — even uprooting the wire cages she had put around the trunks of the trees.
And then there were the five rabbits that disappeared with no trace except a mangled cage. Add to that the 20 kittens over time who were there one day and gone the next. She has one cat remaining and declares, “He’s smart enough to get on the house or climb a tree when danger is afoot.”
My brother Bill maintains that if Florence and J.B. Duckworth were still alive, all those wild things would find themselves cooking in a pot on Mrs. Duckworth’s stove before sundown. Frances reports Mrs. Duckworth had recipes for everything from squirrel dumplings to turtle soup.
Frances has been particularly provoked by a Sandhill Crane who was injured a year or so ago and was unable to migrate with his companions and stopped off in Cumberland for respite. The crane decided to just hang around because food was so plentiful in the shallow Cumberland River. Then the crane determined that eating the fish in my sister’s two small ponds in her yard was much easier than flying up and down the river and diving for fish. With limited exertion, he could just stand on the edge of a pond and get his fill.
One day my sister’s grandson Hunter, age 7, told her that a big bird with long legs was at the pond. She ignored him and said, “Go back outside and ride your bike.”
The next time she went to the pond to feed her fish, 20 of them, all purchased at the Fish Hut in Harlan with prices ranging from $9.95 to $15, there were only three remaining. Now the crane can’t be accused of eating all 17 because my sister found a snapping turtle, a full 12 inches long, that had entered the pond. Her granddaughter removed the turtle and relocated it down by the railroad bridge going into Cumberland from the Fairview section.
She was advised by a person, who shall remain unnamed, to sit outside with her revolver and wait for the crane to appear and put an end to his Cumberland vacation. When she told me this, I said, “That’s illegal. You can’t kill a crane. It’s protected. You’ll end up with a big fine, or I’ll be visiting you in jail.”
So I called Mark Marraccini, Executive Staff Advisor at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, who told me that all Kentucky cranes are a protected species and some such as the whooping crane are protected by federal regulations. Although there is a hunting season on Sandhill Cranes in Kentucky from mid December to mid January, parameters for that game are clearly defined. To kill certain species of cranes is to invite financial disaster for the person wielding the firearms and maybe even some jail time.
So what are Cumberland residents to do when the wild animals encroach on what people think is their territory? Get educated, use your common sense, know the law and remember that the animals were here first. They are not “just visiting.”
For information on educational programs provided by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, just go to the website.
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