The Jesse and Adah Rich Family
Members of the Jesse Rich family are, front row from left, Norma, Alfred, Perry, John, middle row, Jesse Jr., Alba, Jesse Sr. holding Sandra and Marmion, Adah, holding twins Jane and Jean, Enola, Margaret, back row, Clifton, Ava, Willis, Frantie, Adah, George, and Colin.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s in two neighboring communities of Pickett County, a young girl and boy who I think were destined for a rather unique life together were living and growing up, and more than likely, neither one could even begin to imagine what life held in store for the two of them. Had it been possible for them to look through a telescope into their future, I wonder what their reactions would have been. Would they have run from each other to the very ends of the earth? Regardless of the answer to that question, the story of how their life together actually did evolve is truly an amazing one.
The young man whose name is Jesse Webster Rich was born and grew up in the Faix Community of Pickett County near Obey River. He was the son of Reuben Nathan Rich and Margaret Loretta (Garrett) Rich. Jesse’s father logged timber down the Obey River. In a nearby community called Boom, which is also in Pickett County, Adah Winningham, daughter of Willis Garfield Winningham and Rhoda Jane (Clark) Winningham, grew up. The area where the Winningham home was located is now under water following the construction of Dale Hollow Dam and Lake. Adah’s father also logged timber down the Obey River as a means for making a living.
Thus begins an out of the ordinary story about the lives of Jesse and Adah (Winningham) Rich.
The couple met when Adah was 16 and Jesse was 22. Adah had an eighth grade education, which I am told in those days entitled anyone to be able to teach school. Jesse had either a sixth or seventh grade education. By today’s standards, we might not consider this enough time to receive much training in the school system; however, both Jesse and Adah were considered above average and very intelligent and well-read young people. Adah received her education at the Hill School in Boom. The most recent building that housed the Hill School still stands across from the Boom Community Center, up on a little hill on the left side of Highway 111 going toward Byrdstown. The original Hill School was a log building situated across from J.W. Keisling’s general store, and Adah walked from her home to attend this school. Adah had no way to know at the time she attended Hill School that one day one of her daughters, Ava, would teach at that very school. And among the students Ava taught would be six of her younger sisters and brothers.
Jesse attended the Union B. School in the Faix Community. In 1917, Jesse joined the Army, but before he left to serve his country, he proposed to Adah and asked that she wait so they could be married after he had completed his time in service. Adah agreed that she would marry Jesse and was willing to wait for his return, but neither one could have known that when he did come back from service, he would never be able to hear a single word or sound again. While serving in the Army, Jesse developed spinal meningitis, which left him completely and totally deaf. An article that appeared in the Nashville Tennessean dated February 13, 1949, referred to Jesse as a hero who served in the 81st Wildcat division of the United States Army.
Upon Jesse’s return from service, Adah’s mother took her to visit him, and the fact that he could no longer hear did not stand in the way of the prior commitment she made to Jesse before he left for service. The young couple were married on February 15, 1920, by Justice of the Peace E.A. Garrett, Jesse’s uncle, and a long, happy, and extraordinary life together began. As time went along, that life came to include an astounding and unbelievable total of 20 children: 10 boys and 10 girls.
Jesse and Adah began their married life in the Faix Community in a log cabin that belonged to Jesse’s parents. Over the years, they lived in Byrdstown, in Livingston, where several of their children were born, then Clarkrange. In 1946, the couple finally settled to complete the raising of their large family in the Boom Community.
I’m told the name “Boom” was given to this area because of the use of dynamite which released logs that sometimes became jammed up after being rolled into the Obey River for the purpose of floating on down the river to timber companies as far away as Nashville.
The first child of Jesse and Adah Rich was born in 1921, a son named Clifton. The others who came along after Clifton were Jesse Webster Jr., Frantie Mae, Daniel Boyd, Willis Reuben, Alba Faye, Ava Rae, Ada Gray, George Luther, John Jacob, Alfred Landon, Enola Gay, Perry Collins, Margaret Kay, Norma L., Foss Mannion, Sandra Lee, twin daughters Juanita Jane and Chiela Jean, and last of all, Colin Kelly.
After the birth of their 20th child, Dr. Malcolm Clark, who got to the Rich home a little while after the baby was born, asked what was to be the name of this child so he could complete the birth certificate. Jesse replied his name was to be Finis, which he believed to mean “finish”, but Adah had other ideas and quickly told Dr. Clark that her husband had named not a single one of the other 19 children, and that he wasn’t going to name this one either. She said the baby was to have the name Colin Kelly, and she also told both Dr. Clark and her husband that it was possible that this baby may not be the last. Jesse paid Dr. Clark with a $2 bill, which the doctor later had framed in honor of the birth of the 20th Rich child.
I asked Norma and Jane to tell me about how it was to grow up in such a big family, and without hesitation, they both agreed that one word would describe their childhood – that word is happy. Jane told me they were never without enough people to make up a ball team – the kids in this family alone were more than enough for any sport they chose to play. Neighborhood children always came to their house to play. Everyone loved to be included in the various activities the Rich kids always had going on. Norma and Jane said that among some of their happiest memories were the times when they picked blackberries. The girls both agreed that George was the best blackberry picker of the whole bunch. Often they came home at the end of a summer day with as much as 25 gallons of berries that their mother made into jams and jellies.
On days that were set aside for blackberry picking, Adah got the children up before daylight and before they left home, she prepared biscuit and sausages to be carried along in case anyone got hungry before they returned in the afternoon. Jane remembers her mother’s remedy for preventing chigger bites was to rub vinegar on before going out to pick berries. This remedy was very successful in keeping those pesky insects away. Norma said that many times after a day out picking blackberries, her mother’s feet would be tired and swollen by nighttime, so she would soak them in a pan of water before going to bed. But never a moment was wasted for Adah as she took advantage of this time to catch up on her reading, something she loved to do.
Norma said both her parents were avid readers and that her mother’s favorite books were Zane Grey. History books and stories of war were those Jesse enjoyed. The Rich home was one of the stops the regional library van made to leave books to be checked out by the community. Norma told me both her parents read most every book that was left at their house by the book van.
Hog-killing time was another one of Norma’s favorite memories. Neighbors were truly neighbors during the time the children of this family grew up, and folks came to each other’s homes to help when it came time to kill hogs. Neighbors shared in the work hog-killing involved and also got a portion of fresh meat for their help. The day’s work also included a meal that Adah prepared for the family and for neighbors too who joined the Rich household on these occasions. Canning sausage for use during the winter months was something else Adah managed to find time to do after the hog killings took place.
Adah’s cooking talents began at the early age of 6, when she stood on a box in front of her mother’s stove to learn what later became something she was quite noted for. The use of herbs and spices incorporated in many dishes she prepared set her cooking skills apart for her day and time, since ordinarily these items were not often used by most housewives. She did practically all the cooking when her children were growing up, leaving other chores for the girls as well as the boys to do, such as the endless task of dishwashing. Jane said it seemed they would get finished doing dishes for one meal just in time to turn around and begin doing them from another. If company was expected in their home over a weekend, Adah began cooking on the Thursday before in order to have the extra food it took to feed everyone.
Breakfast at the Rich house without fail always included these items: sausage, bacon and ham; scrambled as well as fried eggs; biscuits and homemade gravy; homemade jellies and jams; hot cereal; and homemade butter. This meal was on the table for breakfast seven days a week.
Sunday dinner always consisted of fried chicken (the chickens were raised on their farm), homegrown green beans, corn, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers when in season, and biscuits. All sorts of homemade pies and cakes were baked for dessert. Norma said extra food was always prepared on Sundays since their mother never knew how many kids her own would bring home with them after church, which would often number 10 or more.
Three complete meals were prepared in the Rich kitchen every day of the week: breakfast, dinner and supper. Sandwiches were completely unheard of by the Rich family.
Norma referred to her mother as the most organized person in the whole world; otherwise she would never have gotten anything done with as many children as her family consisted of.
Christmas was another very happy time in the Rich house. Jesse had a Santa Claus suit and every year he would dress up and deliver bags he and Adah prepared around the neighborhood. The treats inside the “brown paper pokes”, as everyone who grew up in the country referred to them, contained an orange, a banana, an apple, grapes, chocolate candy, and mixed hard candy. Jesse hid the fruit in the barn each year just before the holiday rolled around, and a few days before, Adah tied the brown paper pokes with brightly colored ribbon or thread after each one was filled. The Rich kids spent Christmas Day playing Rook and another card game called “Pigs”. Playing jacks, and putting jigsaw puzzles together were also included in the festivities. Snowy winter days were also spent with these same activities that the Rich family rarely got tired of doing.
A store-bought mattress was never an item that made it across the threshold of the Rich home. Straw tick mattresses were used by the kids until each one no longer wet the bed at night. Those children who had not yet gotten past this stage all had to sleep together. When each one got beyond bed wetting, they were allowed to graduate to a feather mattress. The bedrooms in their home consisted of three double beds in each bedroom.
During the time the family lived at Clarkrange, one of the crops they grew was green beans. Hired hands helped to pick the beans each year, and Jesse would pay each one on a daily basis, never knowing from one day to the next which ones would come back the following day. Many of the hired hands were migrant workers who came to the area especially for the purpose of harvesting crops. Large trucks came in and were filled with beans to be hauled to canneries for processing. Picking strawberries at neighbors’ farms was another of the many chores the Rich kids had while growing up. A crate of strawberries would earn each picker $2 per crate. Norma sometimes used the money she made to buy Dan River gingham fabric, which was sold at J.W. Keisling’s general store in Boom. She told me she loved the brightly colored gingham material, and even today she remembers how good it felt to the touch.
Adah made all the children’s clothes, including shirts for the boys as well as her husband, while petticoats and can-cans were skillfully made by her hands for each girl, along with their dresses, skirts and blouses. Over the years, Adah completed a colorful quilt for each of her 20 children. Across the top of each one she embroidered her and Jesse’s names, the date of their marriage, and their birth dates, and on blocks all across the quilt were the names and birth dates of each child. Norma said that none of them would have an excuse for not remembering who had a birthday on what day because their mother had carefully included that information on each person’s quilt for future reference.
I asked Norma and Jane how their father’s disability of not being able to hear effected his and their daily lives. Jane told me when she was 3 or 4 years-old, she suspected something was wrong with her father’s hearing, but she didn’t know that for sure. One day she decided she would try something, so she stood behind her father and screamed to the top of her voice. When he didn’t respond at all, she realized that he could not hear. But she went on to say that there was never a doubt in her father’s mind when it came to being sassed. He knew his children well enough that despite his lack of hearing, he could always tell when he was being talked back to, and he dealt with the misbehaving accordingly.
Jesse always carried a small notebook and pencil in his pocket to be used by others as a way to communicate with him. Jesse was considered a rather strict father and would not let the younger of his daughters date until they were 18 years-old.
Norma recalled how the kids in their family would test the waters sometimes with their father, and one thing they would try to get away with was smoking. Most of the time, they made their own cigarettes out of rabbit tobacco. On one occasion, Jesse suspected Norma had slipped out to smoke. Everyone was called in to the supper table, and when Norma took her place, her father came around to her chair and asked her if she had been smoking. She denied that she had been, so he went one step further with his inquiry. He leaned over and said, “Let me smell your breath.” Rather than exhaling, Norma inhaled, still trying not to get caught in her lie. But her father wasn’t satisfied with the breath test either, so he took one of her hands in his and smelled her fingers, and then the truth came out.
Because of Jesse’s hearing disability, the Rich family never owned a car. When it was decoration time each year in the Faix Community, Jesse hired someone with a truck to come and pick up the family so they could all ride over to the cemetery for decoration and dinner on the ground. Adah cooked for days getting ready for this special occasion. The children were always excited at the prospects of visiting with relatives and friends they hadn’t seen for a while. They attended decoration services at four different cemeteries each year.
Writing was something Jesse must have been interested in from a very early age. The day he left for service, September 22, 1917, he gave Adah a ballad which was titled “Lay My Head Beneath a Rose” which reads as follows:
“Darling fold me to you closer
As you did in day of yore,
Press your lips upon my forehead
Ere I see the golden shore.
Life is from me fastly fleeting,
Soon I’ll be in sweet repose,
Let my grave be like your cheeks, love,
Covered with a blushing rose.
Lay me where sweet flowers blossom,
Where the dainty lilies grow,
Where the pinks and violets mingle,
Lay my head beneath a rose.
Darling one, where first I met you,
Where I pledged your hand and heart,
There were roses on your cheeks love,
And we vowed we never would part.
One more kiss for I am going,
Far beyond all earthly woes,
Let my grave be like your cheeks, love,
Covered with a blushing rose.”
Over the years, Jesse wrote many articles for newspapers and always prepared whatever he wrote on an old Underwood typewriter using the “hunt and peck” method. Even letters to family, friends, or acquaintances were type written rather than done by hand. In February of 1972, he wrote a book entitled “Cutting, Rafting, and Running Logs Down The Obey River”. In the book he describes the work involved in logging from the years 1880 to 1920, and he also included a great deal of what we now consider historical information about families all around this area. He makes mention of Cordell Hull’s father, William Hull, as being one of the first log buyers in Pickett County. The book consists of 27 pages and some photographs. At the conclusion of the book, Jesse dedicates it to the memory of those he worked with in the woods and on the river, and also to a school teacher he had whose name was Enola Hill Elledge.
He says with this teacher’s help, he learned as much or maybe more than he had from all his other teachers. Ms. Elledge had a special knack of inspiring her students to observe and learn all they could. He pays her a very high compliment by saying he thought of her as the best teacher Pickett County ever produced. Copies of this book are still available at the Cordell Hull Museum in Byrdstown, or by calling Norma Kerbaugh (931) 823-7170.
Electricity reached the Rich home in 1949. At that time, though, not everyone had been able to have wiring done to their homes in order to have electricity. This was the case with a neighbor near the Rich home. This particular neighbor had relatives from Louisville, KY, to come for a visit every summer. One of these visiting relatives worked for a theater in Louisville, so when he and his family came for a visit with the relatives in the Boom Community, he would bring along a movie projector and all the current movies being shown at that time. A very long electric cord was run to supply electricity for the projector, and the whole neighborhood sat out in the yard and watched movies that were shown on the outside wall of the Rich’s woodshed. Norma told me she would never forget how much fun they all had watching movies shown on the wall of their woodshed.
As the Rich children grew into young adulthood, and after each graduated from high school, all 10 boys went into one branch or another of the Armed Forces. But military life wasn’t limited to just the boys. Ada Gray was the first woman in Pickett County to serve in the Armed Forces. She made her career in military life and retired after many years of service.
I cannot begin to even imagine what it would be like to be a parent of 20 children. Just to think about the mountains of laundry for that many people that had to be washed either by hand or on a wringer washing machine and then hung out on a line in all kinds of weather to dry would have made me want to run away from home. And doing laundry was just one of the many daily things that had to be done for a family of that size. It’s just overwhelming when you stop and think about what everyday life included in order to feed, cloth, educate, nurture, not to mention discipline, that many children. But the proof of what good parents Jesse and Adah were is evident – 15 of the 20 children obtained some kind of higher education following high school.
Jesse was quoted in an article about the family that appeared in the Nashville Tennessean in February of 1949 as saying, “Rearing so many children is not such a job as you might think. After the first dozen it sorta comes natural and you hardly notice the extra work and cost. We had 19 at home two years ago, but when 5 went away to their jobs and schools, it did seem pretty lonesome with just 14 left.” That statement alone leaves little doubt that Jesse wouldn’t have changed a thing had he been able to look through that telescope into his and Adah’s future. I feel sure he would have said, “Let’s leave things just as they are.”