LEATHERWOOD, Ky. — The community of Leatherwood comprises a large area of southern Perry County, all the way from the Leslie-Perry County line on Highway 699 to Cornettsville. It fills in nearly all of the spaces left by other southern Perry County communities like Slemp, Delphia and Cornettsville, and is split into two parts, Big and Little Leatherwood, both aptly named for their physical size.
Leatherwood has played a large role in the historical development of Perry County, being the home to the Brashearville salt works, the site of a local skirmish during the the Civil War. An annual re-enactment is called the Battle of Leatherwood, although the current day site is in Cornettsville.
The salt works was important part of life during that time, and was highly guarded and sought after. One of the cabins from the compound at the salt works is still standing on the Miniard farm at the end of Little Leatherwood Road.
Leatherwood also served as home to one of the largest and most elaborate coal camps in Perry County. Fess Halcomb, a lifelong Leatherwood resident, helped build the coal camps in the area as a foreman for the homes built on the site. He also helped bring in the first load of wood to build the camp at Clover Fork.
“Me, my father, and Ed Shepherd took the first load of ship lap lumber on a 1939 Ford flatbed truck into Clover Fork,” Halcomb remembered during a recent interview. “Old man Bass Holbrooks had a still making moonshine on the big cliff, and when we drove up with that truck and he came down there and said, ‘If you fellers are moving in here I am going to have to change places.’”
Before that time, few vehicles had ever traveled into Leatherwood, especially some of the hollows and forks. Halcomb said that they had to drive the truck behind a bulldozer to a clear path to transport the lumber.
Halcomb started out digging coal in the Leatherwood mines, but decided he would much rather be in construction. For 44 years Halcomb built thousands of homes in coal camps. He said they built one a day. Each crew would complete their job every day, so once each stage of the construction was complete on several houses, they could build hundreds of homes in less than a year.
Halcomb said that he watched the builders work on the old commissary and put the stone veneer on the face of it.
“They took a fork, a regular table fork, and cut the center prongs out and would make a mark across there,” said Halcomb.
The commissary is nearly gone as it sits in ruins with garbage, fires and graffiti covering the sprawling compound. Since it closed, it has been used for partying, which has taken a toll on the building.
“Those three buildings at Blue Diamond will cost you more than a million dollars apiece, but they are the worst abused buildings,” said Halcomb.
The commissary acted as the town for the coal camp, housing all of the necessary services and goods for the hundreds of families. At the time it was built, it was a very modern entertainment center as well.
“The second floor was furniture and hardware, the bottom was groceries and the top of it was office space,” said Halcomb. “And we had a town within itself. We had a barber shop, beauty shop, shoe shining shop, pool room, good restaurant, big theater, very modern theater.”
During the time the Blue Diamond Coal Company moved from the Bonnyman area to Leatherwood, hundreds of families moved into the camp.
“One of the houses there we kind of made a hospital thing out of to deliver babies in,” Halcomb continued. “There were about 319 families in that camp.”
During the relatively short time that the camp was open, it saw some of the greatest advances in mining technology. According to Halcomb, it was eventually the machinery and the new-found speed in extracting coal that caused the mine to close and the families in the camp to move on.
“It took about all the work out of it when they put the joy miners in first, and then the continuous miners,” said Halcomb. “If we would have had the continuous miner when we moved from Blue Diamond below Hazard to Leatherwood, those mines wouldn’t have lasted no time.”
As the mines began to slow down and close, the families living in the camps nearly all moved. Within just a few short years most of the Leatherwood population had moved to camps in western Kentucky and Middlesboro. During that time, Halcomb said his job changed.
Since there were no more homes to be built, he and the only other foreman left at the mine spent their days in the mines saving the remaining equipment from floods.
“We would have to go in the mines and shut down. We would have to put all of the mining equipment on the highest places we could find in the mines so water couldn’t get to get,” he said. “Then we had to keep the pumps running to keep it from drowning out.”
After many of the coal camps died out and moved on, the thousands of homes Halcomb helped build were nearly all destroyed as well.
“We built the houses on the coal level, or right in front of the coal level, but the coal was worth too much to sell the house and let it sit there and not get that coal,” said Halcomb.
After the mines completely closed, most of the people left in Leatherwood were the old families that had founded it.
“There is not a whole lot of people in Leatherwood left that came from the coal mining industry,” Halcomb noted. “There are a few, but most of the people in Leatherwood are what we call old settlers.”
Many of these old settler families ran stores and other businesses like farms. Some of these families continue to run businesses in Leatherwood, like the Miniard family.
Many of these longtime families have also helped bring different things back into Leatherwood after they left with the coal camp. One of these is the Mountain Comprehensive Health.
After the person in charge of building the clinic refused to pay for the land, Halcomb and Lois Baker each bought an acre of land, giving them two acres to build the clinic. Since then the clinic has serviced a large area of around 1,800 people in a 12-mile radius.
And it was some of these old settler families that gave Leatherwood its name. The bark of the Leatherwood tree, which according to one history was in abundance when the area was first settled, could be used much like leather, hence its name.
“I have always been told that they got the name Leatherwood on account of the wood that was on some kind of tree in here,” said Halcomb.
Halcomb added that after 86 years in Leatherwood, building 13 homes for himself, and thousands in the camps, that he has left his mark on this community, and it on him.
“You go up through there and you might just see a few of my foot prints,” he said. “I have done a lot of stampin around through Leatherwood.”