John W. Combs was born on Montgomery Creek, Perry County, Kentucky, September 29, 1857. He was married to Clementina, daughter of Jehu Cody (b. in Virginia, 1831-1832), August 17, 1876; at her Uncle Tom Smith's, on the Jerry Smith farm, mouth of Smith Branch, Knott County [KY]. Clementina was born November 12, 1859, on Lott's Creek, Perry County. Jehu Cody's father was Thomas, who married a Bayes. Jehu lived on Lott's Creek. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and either after his discharge, or having come home on a furlough, he was murdered by a band of marauding Rebel outlaws, at the home of his brother, Thomas, on Mace's Creek, in 1865. He served in the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry. In recent years the Government has placed a stone at his grave.
Clementina's mother was Matilda (b. 1836-'37), daughter of William Smith, son of Richard Smith, who married Nancy (Alicia), daughter of "Danger Nick" Combs. She died in 1909, and is buried on Peamoulder Hill, on the Spencer Combs place, mouth of Irishman Creek, Carr's Fork [Knott Co., KY].
My parents, John W. and Clementina, upon their marriage, moved into a log cabin at the mouth of Trace Fork, Knott County, nearly a mile up Irishman Creek; this cabin was later occupied by my uncle, Samuel Combs, and stood on the spot where another cabin now stands. They lived in this cabin three years or a little more. They then moved about a quarter of a mile up Trace Fork, to a log house known as the George Watts place, where they made a crop, and remained through one winter.
About the year 1881 my father began to have a house built at the mouth of Irishman Creek [Perry Co., KY], on his own land. While waiting for the house to be finished, my parents and two children, French (B.F.), and Monroe, lived in an old log school house at the mouth of Flax Patch, half a mile up Irishman Creek. The house at the mouth of Irishman Creek, on Carr's Fork, was built largely by Sam Francis and Bill
Kelley. Tom Collins, father of May and Nat., built the chimney. (In recent years the house has been torn down). My brothers, Ira, Burnam and Denny, and my sister, Allie, were born in this house.
In 1884 my father was elected sheriff of Perry County, when he was twenty-seven years old; and again in 1886. (Our farm at the mouth of Irishman was in Perry County at the time). Jesse Hale, a negro with a large knot over his eye, drove up from Hazard in a painted new wagon, and moved the family to Hazard, in the summer of 1885. In these early years, "Shep" (Shepherd) Smith and Jerry Smith were the school teachers on Irishman Creek, and "Professor" Billy Thomas, up on Carr's Fork; I think George Kelley also taught school some.
In Hazard my father bought a house from Judge Josiah H. Combs. This house stood on Main Street, almost opposite the site of the present courthouse. In 1886 (the year in which the writer was born, in this house), my father was re-elected sheriff of Perry County. In those days the term of office was two years. It was about this time that the French-Eversole "War" broke out. My father, as Sheriff, would have no part in this vendetta; besides, my oldest brother, Ballard French, was named for B.F. French, leader of the French clan, and my mother always said that I was named for Joe Eversole (leader of the Eversole clan) as much as for Judge Josiah H. Combs. (Incidentally, in the family, I have never been called anything else but "Joe".) The French-Eversole feud was one of Kentucky's worst. Kinsman was often arrayed against kinsman. On one occasion our house in Hazard was shot up considerably, while my father lay sick. My mother seized a revolver and drove the feudists away. My second cousin, "Bad" Tom Smith, played a major role in the "war", having more killings to his (dis)credit than any other feudist. He is supposed to have helped kill Joe Eversole, in 1888. "Fult." (B.F.) French finally moved to Winchester, Clark County [KY], and the feud died down. A few years later, in 1893, Josiah H. Combs was brutally murdered.
In the summer of 1887, a few months before my father's term of office expired, he moved back to the mouth of Irishman, to the farm. In the meantime (1885), a new county, Knott, had been formed, and our farm was now in the new county. During the ensuing five years and a half my father looked after his farm, ran a general merchandise store, and was a brandy gauger. I sometimes rode behind him, horseback, from place to place.
My father was not neglecting the education of the older children
in the family (French and Monroe), and was sending them here and there to school, even as far away as Hindman, the county seat of the new county. He had not had much formal schooling, himself, but, possessing considerable, native talent and ability, he overcame many of the drawbacks incident to his environment. He had gone out to make his own living at seventeen, even teaching a country school at that early age. My mother had perhaps even less formal schooling than my father. She went to school only a few months, to Delphia Johnson Combs, at the mouth of Breeding's Creek, Carr's Fork. My mother began to teach some of her children to read and write before they were sent to the schools of the time. She was alert, industrious, a good manager, and was always ready to make any sacrifice for her children. The schools in the Kentucky Mountains went scarcely beyond the "three r's", in those days. One picturesque school teacher whom I remember very well was Ambrose Cox. He had an enormous head, wore a big, wide-brimmed straw hat, and had feet too big for any shoes made in the factory. At a teachers institute I once heard him respond to his name with the following masterpiece:
Arithmetic is hard,
Grammar I don't know;
When it comes to spelling,
Old Ambrose must go.
The facts relating to the early history of our family have been furnished largely by my brother, French, who has a prodigious memory. By January, 1893, all the children in our family but one had been born. The need for further educational facilities was apparent. And so, in this month and year, we moved to Hindman, county seat of the new county, where Professor George Clark had started school, in 1887. He came to Knott County from Greenup County [KY], with the intention of practicing law. A log school house was built for him in 1888, and stood where Dr. M.F. Kelley's stone residence now stands. It burned down in 1892. The information [formation?] of Knott County was brought about by the political chicanery and gerrymandering of old Bob Bates (then in the legislature) and Tom Fitzpatrick, down in Frankfort [Franklin County, KY].
Arriving at Hindman, the family spent a few days at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Emery Perkins, who lived in one of the houses now owned by the Settlement School. We then moved into a small, one-story, frame house, which stood on the spot where the residence of the late Professor George Clark is now located. Within a year or two my
father had built a new-two-story house, near the old one, and which is now the property of Elijah Hicks. Dora, the youngest of the family was born in this house. About 1898 my father bought the old Claib. Jones place, a mile up the Right Fork of Troublesome Creek. We lived there till about 1907, and moved back to town. My father organized the Republican party in Knott County. For a time he was U.S. Commissioner in the district.
Life was not easy for most of us in the Kentucky mountains while we were growing up. Hindman was forty-one miles from the nearest railroad, at Jackson, Breathitt County. Poor, muddy roads, often following the creek-beds; muddy streets in the town, with almost no sidewalks; a muddy road to school, a quarter of a mile above town. We used kerosene lamps, and usually went to bed early, and got up early. In the summertime we worked on one of the farms, and got up as early as four o'clock in the morning. When I went away to college, I usually walked all the way to Jackson. But our parents did everything possible to encourage us and to educate us. Considering the age, the environment and the lack of facilities, they did their job nobly. During those years, my mother was an inspiration to me, first, last and all the time. I don't think any woman ever lived in whom the maternal instinct was stronger.