The following article is from the September 1994 issue of the Letcher Heritage News (Pages 25-30):
Joseph Enoch Cornett
Joseph Enoch Cornett, youngest son of William Jesse Cornett, grew up on a farm at the mouth of Bull Creek, near Cornettsville, Perry County, Kentucky. He developed into a tall, big footed, raw boned sort of fellow. He wore a size 14 or 16 shoe, and was known to many as "Big Footed Joe". Some time in his early life (before 1838) he married Sally Brown, who was the daughter of John Q. Brown. Her father was born in Ireland in 1783 and died in 1873. He was the first school teacher in Letcher County, Ky. Joe and Sally settled on Dry Fork Creek, which is now known as Crown, Ky. There, he built a large two story log house, and eventually acquired large land holdings. Some say that he owned at least 10,000 acres. A large set of elk or deer horns once adorned the arch over the gateway of his house. One room of this original house is still standing, near the Dry Fork Baptist Church. A short way below this Church a large beech tree is still standing, which bears the carving of his name and the date 1875. Joe was one of the more prosperous citizens of Letcher County, a condition which may have been brought about by his extreme thriftiness. Stories are still being told in Letcher County about how "tight" this Dry Fork resident was.
As to his thrifty spirit, the late Jim Brown of Ulvah, Ky once told of the time Joe told him to come over and get himself a mess of Gooseberries. Jim went and found Joe sitting on the porch. It seems that Joe had thought long about the loss of the Gooseberries after that offer, and when young Jim asked about them, he replied," Gooseberries! Gooseberries! What Gooseberries?" Jim was then told that there were Gooseberries all through the woods; on other people's property too, and to go and pick them. Thus old Joe saved his own patch for himself.
Joe was a self-made doctor, brewing up his own medicines from the roots, herbs and barks of his native hills. His sons were often sent into the dark woods searching for these products, while he brewed up a batch of tonic in an old iron kettle in his back yard. Some of this brew brought a dollar a bottle, a tidy sum in those days. It is said that he had some old Indian formulas from which he worked. Later, these formulas were passed on to others, but alas, they are now lost, much to the disappointment of medical history.
Doctor Cornett (as he was called many times) went a little farther than most herb doctors, in that he performed some surgery. On at least one occasion, he amputated a man's leg, with a knife and a handsaw for instruments. The leg had been crushed by a log falling off a wagon. The man (a Cook) survived this crude surgery, and lived on for many years.
Alamander Whittaker, who lived on Rockhouse Creek, had heard of this amputation, and he knew of the skill of Dr. Cornett. Sometime later, Alamander broke his leg, and Dr. Cornett was sent for to see it. Joe came riding up to the Whittaker home with a handsaw in his hand. When Alamander saw Joe coming toward him with a handsaw, he promptly fainted. However, the leg was set, and no amputation was necessary, much to Alamander's relief.
Joe seems to have been a leading civic leader of that section. In 1842, when he was 28 years old, he was on a committee to lay off a county seat for the newly formed county of Letcher. Some say that the group intended to lay off the site in a large bottom at Pine Mountain Junction. A snow storm struck that day, so the trip was cut short, and Whitesburg, Ky was laid off at its present location. At that time, this land was owned by John A. Caudill, who was an Uncle of Joe's wife, and the husband of his sister. It has been told that the town was named Whitesburg because of this snow storm, but other evidence disputes this tale. Joe was elected as the second Judge of the newly formed county of Letcher, serving for some time. When Sarah Caudill Cornett was a child, she stayed at Joe's home. On his way to do "Courthouse" work in Whitesburg, Joe would take Sarah on horse back to the home of his sister Rachel Caudill, and pick her up again on his way home.
Joe was also the Educational Commissioner of Letcher County in those days, such an officer had the power to issue teaching certificates. He was riding along one day when he met a man who expressed a desire to teach. Joe never dismounted from his horse, but conducted the examination then and there, and then handed the man a written statement permitting him to teach. Then Joe rode on, and there was another school teacher in Letcher County. One mile below Blackey, on the road to Hazard, Ky. is a creek. It has been said the Joe Cornett and another fellow chased an Elk over the bluff near the mouth of that creek, killing it. Thus, the creek is now called Elk Creek. That was the last elk killed in the county, or at least in that part of Kentucky. Joe Cornett was a man of much endurance. He was shot in the hip by bushwhackers during the Civil War. He was ever after crippled, and he walked with a pronounced limp. Perhaps this is why he was sitting by a fire one day out in the woods, while his sons hunted nearby. A "Panther" (as Mountain Lions were once called) came near and started stalking him. Just as Joe saw it, the panther made a lunge for him. Joe then jumped over the fire to evade it, but the panther ran around the other side. Joe jumped back across the fire, and kept this see-sawing up for a while, until he got out of time and landed on the other side of the fire at the same time as the panther. The only weapon he had was his hands, which are said to have been very large. Joe was doing a good job of choking the panther to death, when his boys came running from the woods to make the kill. There was one less panther in Letcher County that day.
He seems to have been fond of attending various social affairs all over the county. He was the undisputed "divider" at the fish seinings or trappings. When a large number of fish were caught, small piles were made of them. Joe would have the men who caught the fish turn their backs, then he would point to a pile and call out, "Whose pile is this?" Then one man would call back, "Thats my pile". This way, each man would choose his own fish, and there would be no quarrels between the men about someone being selfish. (Feuds have started over less). Ike Maggard of Isom once said that he could still hear the call, "Whose pile is this?", as if it was yesterday. He last heard this call as a youth.
Though rugged, brave and individualistic to a marked degree, he was still kind and gentle. In his rides all over the county, he would always carry a bag of apples or candy. Upon seeing a child by the wayside, he would call to it, and hand down one of these favors. The late Dr. Isom of Blackey once said as a child, he was playing on a sandbar by the river, and looked up to see an old man astride a great white horse coming toward him. At first, he was frightened of the man, but soon came to his side when the man called to him. Old Joe handed down a treat to the child from his saddle bag. Those who regarded Joe as "Contrary" and given to a sarcastic moment now and then would have had a hard time convincing this small boy that the kindly old Judge was that way.
Even in his old days, his stubborn courage was still evident. Once, while laying off some land, a neighbor was standing by, watching closely, intent on catching him in making a mistake, and thus lay claim to the land. A few angry words were exchanged, and the neighbor threatened to go get his gun and then return to kill Joe. He finally did go and get his gun, and sat a little way off by the roadside, waiting for the Judge to pass. With pride that he would rather die than admit to fear, old Joe rode right past his neighbor, calmly saying "Howdy" as he passed. Unknown to either of them, two of the Cornett boys were watching from ambush far up on the hill, with cocked guns aimed at the would-be killer.....just in case.
Since he owned more land than he could ever use, he gave each of his children a farm as they got married, along with other favors. The other favors usually included featherbeds, a milk cow, or perhaps a new sewing machine.
Joe was fond of the old Baptist hymns, and all the neighbors sometimes gathered at the Cornett home to have a hymn sing by the fireside. He had written some songs, a few of which are still sung in the Baptist Churches in Eastern Kentucky. One of these was called "Little Bessie" which I have heard sung many times in the churches. At one of these hymn sings, a humorous event took place. He had a granddaughter living there, who was later Sarah Caudill. Sarah told by her Uncle Bill to go and stand by the fireside while the singing was going on and just as soon as the singing stopped to sing out what he then whispered to her. She went to the fireside as she was told. When the last refrain of a very sad hymn had ceased, she sang out very loudly what went something like this: "Short tailed rooster and a long tailed crow: did you ever see the devil Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe". Well, Uncle Joe found the joke far from humorous and he made a grab for little Sarah threatening swift and furious punishment. Sarah fled to her grandmother's arms who had sensed why the girl did it. Sally shielded little Sarah, and reprimanded her Uncle Bill for his engineering the joke. Then grandma put Sarah to bed with a tin cup of milk and bread. The singing went on, and no doubt many a neighbor had a hard time keeping a straight face, in spite of all of the solemnity of the hymn sing.
Joe was a member of the Sandlick Baptist Church near Whitesburq. He is remembered for his ability to keep order during meeting time. It was his compulsion to keep the young folks quiet and reverent while the singing was going on. Once he was attending a meeting on Rockhouse creek. The meeting was held under a large tree, because it was in the hot summertime. Some girls kept making frequent trips to the dense underbrush nearby. Rest rooms, even the out door type, were almost unknown in that part of Kentucky at that time. Old Joe took it as long as he could, and when the girls started for the brush for the "umpteenth" time he raised up and loudly called out, "If I was that bad off with kidney trouble, I'd have brought a gourd"!
Long before his death, he had some coffins made for himself, and his wife, and put them in the upper story of his home. Little Sarah got curious about what these boxes were, and asked Joe about them. Joe explained that they were just some boxes in which he might put apples in sometime.
He also had his grave stones made before his death. They were made of mountain stone from his beloved hills, and were carved into a design, popular even before those days. The gravestone maker used old Joe's sled to haul them to the Cornett home for approval. He brought them to the door of the house, and held them up for Joe to see. Though seriously ill (maybe on his death bed) the trading spirit had not left him. Then and there, he made a deal with the stonemaker to take his sled in payment for making the stones. These stones are now standing over Joe and his wife, now crumbling to dust, their lettering no longer visible, after eighty years of standing on that high hill in winter blast and summer sun.
Judge Joseph Enoch Cornett, who was born on April 28, l8l4, died at his home on Dry Fork, Letcher County, Ky on May 30, 1891, aged 77 years, one month, and two days. His wife Sally, lived on until April 19, 1892, and then went to be with Old Joe for eternity. There on a windswept hill, under brush and crumbling stones, rests that illustrious old Judge and his kind wife, foreparents of a large generation of Cornetts who are scattered throughout the hills and valleys around them, and to regions far beyond. The songs he wrote live on, and are shown on the following pages. "Little Bessie" has now been made into a country and western song, and has been heard far and wide. I cannot help but believe that the death of his 11- month old daughter Easter inspired this song. "The Orphan Girl" is probably pure imagination.
Joe E. Cornett
Hug me closer, closer, mother, Put your arms around me tight,
For I am cold and tired, dear mother, And I feel so weak tonight.
Something hurts me here, dear mother, Like a stone upon my breast;
Oh I wonder, wonder mother, Why it is I cannot rest.
All the day as you were working, And I lay upon my bed,
I was trying to be patient, And to think of what you said.
How the King, Blessed Jesus, Loves his lambs to watch and keep,
Oh, I wish he would come and take me, In his arms that I might sleep.
Just before the lamps were lighted: Just before the children came,
While the room was very quiet, I heard someone call my name.
All at once a window opened, On a field of lambs and sheep:
Some far out were in a brook drinking: Some were lying fast asleep.
In a moment I was looking, On a world so bright and fair,
Which was filled with little children, And they seemed so happy there.
They were singing oh so sweetly, Sweetest songs I ever heard:
They were singing sweeter mother, Than our own little birds.
But I could not see the Saviour, Tho I strained my eyes to see,
And I wonder if he saw me, Would he speak to such as me?
All at once a window opened; One so bright upon me smiled,
And I knew it must be Jesus, When he said," Come here, my child."
"Come up here, little Bessie, Come up here and live with me,
Where little children never suffer, Suffer through eternity."
Then I thought of all you told me, Of that bright and happy land;
I was going when you called me, When you came and kissed my hand.
And at first I felt so sorry, You had called, I would go,
Oh, to sleep and never suffer, Mother, don't be crying so.
Hug me closer, closer mother, Put your arms around me tight.
Oh how much I love you mother, And how strong I feel tonight.
And her mother pressed her closer, To her own dear burdened breast,
On the heart so near it's breaking, Lay the heart so near it's rest.
At the solemn hour of midnight, In the darkness calm and deep,
Laying on her mother's bosom, Little Bessie fell asleep.
THE ORPHAN GIRL
Joe E. Cornett
No home, no home, cried the little girl, As she stood in the Prince's Hall.
Trembling, she stood on the marble steps, And leaned on the polished wall.
Her clothes were thin and her feet were bare, And the snow covered her head,
Give me a home, she feebly cried, A home and a bite of bread.
My father's love I never knew, And tears dropped from her eyes,
My mother sleeps in a new-made grave, Tis' an orphan here tonight.
The night was dark and the snow fell fast, As the rich man closed his door,
His proud lips curled as he scornfully said, No home or bread for the poor,.
I must freeze, the trembling child cried, And sank to her knees at the door,
To wrap her feet in her tattered dress, All covered with sleet and snow.
The hours rolled on and the midnight storm, Rolled on like a funeral knell,
The earth seemed wrapped in a winding sheet, And the chilly snow still fell.
The rich man slept on his velvet couch, And dreamed of his silver and gold,
While the orphan lay on a bed of snow, And murmured, so cold, so cold.
When the morning dawned, the little girl, Still lay at the rich man's door,
But her soul had fled to it's home above, Where there's room and bread for the poor.
No more she stood at the rich man's door, And cried so cold, so cold,
With a crown on her head, and a harp in her hand, She sang in a house of gold.
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