The South Fork of the Kentucky River begins at Oneida in Clay County, where the Red Bird River, Goose Creek, and Bullskin Creek come together, and tales of feuds have not been forgotten.
The Baker-Howard feud has been described as “probably the largest and longest of the feuds” in Kentucky. It outdid the Hatfields and McCoys by a long shot.
James Anderson Burns was a man who saw the light and did something about it. There’s an account of him in Darrell C. Richardson’s book, Mountain Rising.
Burns showed the feudists that accord was better than discord, no matter how much pride might be involved. James Anderson Burns is the founder of the Oneida Baptist Institute.
Born in the West Virginia mountains in 1865, James was the son of a Primitive Baptist preacher in Clay County. The family had moved to West Virginia to escape the feuds that were expected to become worse after the Civil War.
In his autobiography, The Crucible, Burns recalls the words of his father: “Jim, I can never give you an education. I have no money. But I do want to teach you this: never accept anything you do not earn.”
Burns returned to Clay County, irresistibly drawn there by tales of blood feuds. He became a legend in private, church-sponsored education.
“He was an individual of few words who rarely smiled. He usually did the unexpected,” Darrell C. Richardson has written. Once, Burns was hit over the head and left for dead. It was a turning point that led him away from fighting to education.
Burns briefly attended Dennison University in Ohio, then returned to Kentucky and taught school at Rader Creek in Clay County. He first preached at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church near Benge. He preached at numerous churches, including Pleasant Run Baptist Church near Sidell. He taught school at Crane Creek in the heart of feud country.
Burns was a disciplinarian who began to gain the support of even the feudists. He taught for a brief time at Berea College. It was there that he and a Baptist preacher, H. L. McMurray, planned the beginning of Oneida Baptist Institute, patterned after the Berea College concept that “work is good.”
For the past 100 years, Oneida Baptist Institute has opened its doors to any student in Clay County, grades six through 12. In recent years, students have paid to come here from Atlanta, Detroit, Lexington, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, and New York City. International students have come from Brazil, China, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Japan, and Thailand.
A student doesn’t have to be a Baptist. Atheists are not turned away. Nonbelievers are shown respect, and they in turn are expected to be considerate of those wedded to the Baptist faith.
Attendance at daily chapel is not an option at the school for more than 400 students and 150 full-time faculty and staff members. On a day in February 2000, the huge chapel was filled with voices singing favorite hymns upon request-The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace, and When the Roll is Called up Yonder.
Neither is work an option. Some students clean floors. Others work on the school’s 20-cow, 80-sow farm. Ken Martin is the farm manager. His wife, Nancy, supervises students’ work and learning in the greenhouses. It has been said that the main crop on the OBI farm is the young people.
When a student is disciplined for misbehavior, the suspension from classes is spent working. The faculty and staff would be the first to acknowledge that there is no perfection this side of Heaven, but working in that direction is a calling handed down-the legacy of James Anderson Burns.