They call them Kentucky’s Appalachians-that range of hills running down the eastern edge of the Bluegrass State. Kentucky’s mountain heritage has its roots here, where Route 23-Country Music Highway-links the Ohio River with Virginia and Tennessee.
Paintsville and Prestonsburg, twin cities in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachians, have effectively updated that mountain heritage, but retained all the best of small-town living.
Paintsville, Prestonsburg, and their environs are attractive places: attractive to visit, attractive to live in, and attractive as workplaces.
It’s no accident that the two cities are similar. Originally, Floyd County covered the whole of the Big Sandy Valley, plus some additional territory as well. Between 1806 and 1884, all or parts of 15 other counties were formed from the original 3,600 square miles.
Today, Floyd County, with Prestonsburg (originally Preston’s Station) as the county seat, is only about one-tenth of that, with 393 square miles. Johnson County, with Paintsville as the county seat, was formed in 1843 from parts of Floyd, Lawrence, and Morgan counties. Its 261 square miles abuts Floyd County on the north. Paintsville takes its name from Paint Creek, where early settlers found Native American drawings on trees and rocks along its banks.
Hunting and subsistence agriculture formed the economic base of the region until the late 1830s, when steamboats navigated the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. With the river route open it was possible to raft timber to Catlettsburg, at the mouth of the Big Sandy, for shipment elsewhere.
After the War Between the States, logging became a mainstay, reaching its height between 1890 and 1910.
In 1904, the economic base changed again. Paintsville and Prestonsburg lie in the heart of Kentucky’s eastern coal and gas fields. In the early 20th century, well-to-do Paintsville native John C. Mayo acquired vast mineral rights to the coal lands, and then convinced the C&O Railroad to extend its line into Johnson County. With the coming of the railroad it was possible to economically harvest the immense coal seams, bringing national mining companies into the region.
Despite the railroad, the area remained insular until 1920 when the Mayo Trail, the first hard-surfaced road in the region, broke the isolation. Today you can reach the area by a network of roads, including routes 23, 460, and 80 and the Mountain Parkway.
Route 23 itself has been named “Country Music Highway,” because each of the counties it touches has produced at least one country music superstar. Johnson County leads the pack with three, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, and Hylo Brown; while Floyd County gave us Dwight Yoakam.
Coal mining remains a major economic base for the region. But today it is matched by other manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and tourism. American Standard, for instance, has a major factory here, and there are large national and international companies in the wood products, engineering, and construction fields as well. The result is a level of sophistication and cosmopolitanism unusual in such a “remote” region.
You can see this most clearly in the education system of the two cities. The Paintsville school system, for instance, is considered one of the most successful in the state, with a student body that scores consistently among the top on both nationally normed and KIRIS state-mandated tests. More than 90 percent of graduating seniors go on to college or technical school, with more than 60 percent of them receiving academic scholarships. In 1997, Leslie Kendrick, who came up through the Paintsville school system, went on to become a Rhodes Scholar.
The area is dotted with opportunities for advanced studies. Mayo Technical College can be found in Paintsville, and Prestonsburg Community College has campuses in both Prestonsburg and nearby Pikeville. At least six other colleges and universities are an hour or so away from the two cities, including Pikeville College, Alice Lloyd College, and Ashland Community College.
Still, the region retains its down-home roots, with friendly people and an abundance of sites and attractions.
The crown jewel of these is the $7 million Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg. The dream child of local music teacher Billie Jean Osborne, the center entertained more than 20,000 people in the first four months after it opened in 1996.
The Mountain Arts Center blends performance and education in an elegant, state- of-the-art building that includes technical capabilities that rival any in the country-an audio recording studio and an art gallery that highlights area artists and artisans.
The center’s 1,000-seat auditorium showcases both local talent and top performers from around the country, with performances ranging from classical to country. It’s also the home of the Kentucky Opry, a 20-member ensemble of singers, dancers, musicians, and comedians who regularly hit the stage with an exhilarating mountain-style revue that includes country, bluegrass, oldies, and gospel favorites.
Once a month, the center hosts the U.S. 23 Talent Showcase of local performers. Who will be the next Loretta Lynn or Ricky
Skaggs? You might see them first at the Mountain Arts Center.
Twenty miles and a century’s time separate the Mountain Arts Center from The Mountain Homeplace, in Paintsville. The Mountain Homeplace is a living-history park that re-creates an 1850-1870s era working farm and farming community.
Numerous special events add to the experience of The Mountain Homeplace. There is, for instance, an annual re-creation of Civil War activities in the region. And periodically, musicians gather at the farm for impromptu concerts on the porch. You never know when you’ll stumble onto a hoedown, with fiddles, guitars, banjos, and other instruments filling the mountain air.
The Land of Tomorrow, an award-winning video narrated by actor Richard Thomas, serves as an introduction to the farm and the region. Making the video was a real homecoming for Thomas. For starters, The Mountain Homeplace looks like something right out of The Waltons, which Thomas starred in. In addition, his family roots are in the area. Thomas himself is a Paintsville native.
The region’s mountain roots are celebrated in other ways, too. Frontier heroine Jenny Wiley is buried in Johnson County, for instance. Her saga of escaping capture by Indians and making her way back home is considered one of the most dramatic captivity stories in Kentucky history. Nearby Jenny Wiley State Resort Park is named after her, as is the Jenny Wiley Trail-a 180-mile hiking trail that purports to follow the route of her escape from captivity.