Jesse Stuart

Jim Shoup talks about the site of Jesse Stuart's first school.

WARNOCK Half a dozen cars snaked up a gravel road in rural Greenup County Friday and crunched to a stop outside a ramshackle corrugated metal building.

The occupants piled out and gathered at the open end of the structure, where a glance inside revealed a few pieces of farm equipment and not much else.

No one looked at the farm equipment. They weren’t there to see farm equipment, or the building it was in, for that matter.

They had driven to the isolated country community to see a building that no longer exists.

The phantom building was a one-room schoolhouse of the type still common early in the 20th century, and they were there because of the man who taught there, a man who died in 1984 but who lives on in the books he wrote, many of which were set in Greenup County.

The man, of course, was Jesse Stuart, once poet laureate of Kentucky, in his time one of the most famous authors in the United States, whose books chronicled rural Kentucky life and continue to please readers with their literary portraits of Greenup County’s hills and hollows.

The trip to Warnock, where Stuart held his first teaching position after graduating from college, and which he immortalized in his classic memoir “The Thread That Runs So True,” opened the Jesse Stuart Weekend, an annual celebration of the author’s life and work.

Among those who made the trek were enthusiasts from Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan and Delaware, all of whom are avid Stuart fans and all of whom have at least some personal connection with the author.

“My grandfather lived in Greenup and took us to see Jesse Stuart. He told us he was a world famous author. I thought he was pulling my leg. I thought famous writers lived in Paris and wore golden berets or something,” said Doug Harrell, who made the trip from Wilmington, Del., for the weekend.

His grandfather, James William Harrell, was a minor — very minor — character in “The Thread That Runs So True,” and an educator who rose from football coach to teacher to principal to superintendent of the independent Greenup district. Harrell finished out his career as assistant superintendent of the merged Greenup County district.

Allen Englebright of Paris, Ill., read Stuart’s books in high school, and the books made such an impression that in the early 1970s he found his way to Greenup County and met Stuart.

A college roommate from Grayson invited him. The roommate didn’t know Stuart either but they went to the Greenup drugstore where the proprietor, Sam Leslie, sold Stuart’s books, and Leslie called the author on their behalf.

The gregarious author welcomed Englebright and friends and showed them around the county, he said.

Englebright recently donated photographs, slides, books and other documentation to the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

It helped that Englebright was an educator himself. “If you were a schoolteacher, you were in with Jesse Stuart, because he loved teachers,” Englebright said.

It was an assignment to do a feature story that led retired newspaperman Jim Shoup of northern Michigan to Stuart in 1974. His paper sent him to find Stuart and write about him, and once they met, getting the story was easy. “Any time Jesse Stuart met somebody, you were a long lost buddy from then on,” he said.

Shoup, who has researched the history behind the story in “The Thread That Runs So True,” was able not only to pinpoint the exact location of the former grange hall that had been converted into the school where Stuart taught, but to lead visitors to another site — the field where Stuart famously got lost at night in sub-zero weather and dug into a pile of corn shocks to stay alive and warm.

Despite the school being long gone, the pilgrimage to its site was important to a small group of high-school students who have been reading Stuart’s books.

“No matter what age you are, you can read his books. We read them in elementary school,” said Kylie Brown. She and Phoebe Allen, both seniors at Greenup County High School, live nearby; they’ve passed the road Stuart’s school was on countless times and never known its significance, they said.

Stuart brought the story of Greenup County to readers all around the world, Allen said. “So much history and he lived where I’ve lived all my life.”

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Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.