Land Before the Lakes

Murray, KY – Memories flood back to 52 year old David Nickell as he drives through the narrow roads of Land Between the Lakes. He knows the land, the trees and the streams of the northern section better than most people know their own subdivisions. Before campers and tourists populated this refuge, he lived here on a farm which had been in his family for six generations.

"Our house was right there, you know. The spring was right in there. They've got it all buggered up now because they built the bicycle trail over the top of it, but there was a spring right there. Jeremiah stuff should be cut, because you reference him later.

In 1966, 9 year-old David Nickell lived in the Star Limeworks Community in Western Kentucky. He played baseball, did chores and attended church in an inland peninsula known then as Between the Rivers. The land was situated between Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland rivers, cutting it off, in some ways, from the rest of civilization. From the stories he tells, Between the Rivers was a quiet place sparsely populated and full of farms and gardens. In his mind, it was ideal.

"We had woods, fields, there were neighbors all around - no real towns. We just lived in, you know, small holdings - kind of communities and not really towns."

Nickell's ancestor, Jeremiah, settled in the area long before anyone even thought of the Tennessee Valley Authority or its plan to dam the rivers. Several other settlers arrived around Nickell's time, just after the Revolutionary War. At that point, Western Kentucky was the new frontier, and once a family settled in the fertile ground between the river banks, they often stayed for decades creating longstanding and closely-knit communities.

"Most of our neighbors, you know, had been neighbors for many generations. I was the sixth generation on our farm, and we had some neighbors that owned the grocery store. If I remember right, their kids were the seventh generation on their farm. So, I mean, it couldn't be more tight-knit."

Very little of these communities remain. Visitors may see old cemeteries that dot the forests, and everyone once in a while, a hiker might pass the cement foundation of an old school or church rising out of the brush. LBL has erected signs in the area to mark particular historical sites, and some of the staff have working knowledge of Between the Rivers heritage. Kathryn Harper works as communications manager for LBL.

"I understand there was things like a tannery where leather was tanned in one community. If you go way back, prior to the Civil War, there was the iron industry in this area, which has its own unique history wrapped around it."

However, when you talk to the people who actually lived and worked in those businesses and schools it seems as if Between the Rivers never died. Years after all traces of their childhood home disappeared, sisters Della Oliver and Margaret Chambers stand in the Golden Pond visitors center gazing upon a display listing the details of their former life. The display mingles facts about the towns and culture with sepia-toned pictures collected from former residents - including a few from their family album.

"This is a picture of two of our great aunts that used to live together when they were older women. They kind of took care of each other, and we were real proud to see that up there - Aunt Beulah and Aunt Belle. That is my father-in-law in the pool hall. They had a pool hall in Golden Pond. This is the Tennessee House, very popular place."

The sisters describe their community in the 1940s as so safe children didn't think twice about spending summer nights sleeping on their porches, falling asleep to the sound of boats floating down the river. Policemen were rarely seen or needed and when a resident died, everyone stopped working to pay their respects. Even then, Della and Margaret say, that way of life was considered unusual.

"It was a very insulated place from, I would say, civilization as you all were enjoying it on the other side. We were a little bit, I guess, behind the times in some ways, but we never thought of it that way at all. (Margaret - We didn't know the difference.')"

Slowly, however, as TVA built the Barkley and then the Kentucky Dam and as the lakes and wildlife refuge soon followed, this culture ended. No matter how hard residents fought, eminent domain forced them off their ancestral farms and into the surrounding counties to begin life again.