Let me tell you about Hooten Holler. It’s a real place, and the man who rules the roost there, 60-year-old Ralph W. Marcum, is as real as they come. He has solid white hair, a twinkle in his eye, and a bounce in his step. He can look at a piece of wood and carve it into something useful, and he can swap yarns seven days a week.
Ralph’s home of homes is Hooten Old Town on Hooten Branch about a mile up a gravel road, about two miles off KY 89 in Jackson County. Best not go unannounced in the middle of the night: “If I don’t know you, I’m not home,” says Ralph, a believer in the old idea that a man’s home is his castle…or his gristmill.
“I’ll have a good old time if nobody comes but me,Ó says Ralph, whittling a piece of cedar and speaking of the mid-summer Hooten Old Town Antique Power Show–“Bring your antique engines, gristmills, tractors, cars, and trucks for a day of old-time fun and fellowship.”
The thing about Ralph, he doesn’t charge admission. The other thing about him, he’s a walking, talking, cancer survivor miracle. Six and a half years ago the doctors removed his stomach, gall bladder, spleen, and part of his pancreas. “I went in weighing 155 and three months later I was 108.” Using five inches of his small intestine, the surgeon built Ralph a new stomach, and he’s now back up to 130 pounds of boundless energy. He moves faster than any varmint up Wildcat Holler.
Hooten Holler Town looks like a movie set: blacksmith shop, saloon, gallows, jail, church, funeral parlor, buggies, stagecoach, 1856 printing press, photography shop, original gristmill, water mill, and a “good dog” named Dolly. “You don’t have it, it has you,” says Ralph whose wife, Mertie, works daytime at the Jackson Energy Cooperative office in McKee. After hours she goes to Hooten Holler to cook, clean up, and check on her buzz saw, Ralph.
Ralph Marcum’s careers include 26 years as a featured fiddler at Renfro Valley, 27 years as a school teacher, and since his operation, editor and publisher of the Hooten Old Town Epitaph.
This phantom of the Daniel Boone National Forest is a Civil War re-enactor who rides a horse named Buck and is available as a Confederate or a Yankee, take your pick–Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky horse-drawn CSA Artillery or 1st Kentucky Cavalry horse-drawn U.S. Artillery–it doesn’t matter.
Once a day, Ralph goes up to Sand Gap to check on his 88-year-old parents–“Just me being a good fellow,” says Ralph with no resemblance to the old Li’l Abner stereotype.
Standing alongside Hooten Branch at the headwaters of the middle fork of Rockcastle River is something like being in a different time, B.A.C. (before Al Capp)–the 1880s or thereabouts–and somehow it feels natural and reassuring to be there. Nothing was perfect then, of course, any more than now, 122 years later. But there’s quality time to be spent off the main road from Sand Gap to McKee, and it has a certain way of making you forget your troubles–whether it be cancer, road rage, televised tabloid, or just too many dern bills to pay.
Ralph Marcum and I get worn out with folks complaining about every little thing. So we agree to meet again, not to talk about our cancerous aches and pains, but rather to enjoy for the sake of enjoyment–taking a slow stroll along the wooden sidewalk past Buffalo Bull Hotel & Opera House, Forks of Wildcat Trade Co., Oregon Trail Outfitters, and Judge Roy Bean’s The Jersey Lilly.
We’ll set aside our modern duds and dress up the old-time way. Mainly, we won’t worry about tomorrow. We’ll take a healthy swig of yesterday, relax, and mellow down to now.