Living 'round the bend
With a bloody feud long over, folks are enjoying the quiet life in Kentucky.
Published Sunday, August 4, 2002
KENTUCKY BEND, Ky. — As the sun sets over her farmhouse and a mouse scampers across the porch near her slippered feet, Daisy Wilson welcomes the stranger who managed to find this desolate nub of land between the curves of the Mississippi River.
Visitors don’t often come around what locals call Kentucky Bend, aside from an occasional escaped prison inmate, a drunkard or a hopelessly lost motorist. Most simply stumble upon the tiny, teardrop-shaped crook on Tennessee 22, the only road in.
Her Kentucky drawl dripping with Southern charm, Wilson greets a visiting reporter like family, inviting him to sit and hear about life on these 15,000 acres in deep southwest Kentucky and the middle of nowhere, across the Mississippi from New Madrid.
The land is a notch, which fits like a puzzle piece into a curve of Missouri land carved out by the meandering Mississippi River. It’s surrounded on three sides by water, with the opposing shore all Missouri. The fourth side is Tennessee, leaving the bend cut off from the rest of the Bluegrass State.
But Wilson gets a bit riled when asked the question begged by the map: With the Bend conjoined to Tennessee and pinched off from the rest of Kentucky, do you feel Kentuckian? Tennessean? Confused?
“I’m a Kentuckian through and through, very much so. And this is home,”’ says Wilson, 70, clad in a striped robe.
Others call the geographic oddity Madrid Bend, New Madrid Bend or Bessie Bend. One magazine lovingly dubbed it “Bubbleland,” for its odd, river-wrapped shape.
Whatever the name, the Bend isn’t much besides a handful of houses, a graveyard, flat farmland, a few small fishing lakes and pockets of deer and wild turkeys that run and duck during hunting season.
The Bend used to have the nation’s largest cottonwood tree “down yonder,” Wilson points out, but a lightning strike years ago cut it to a stump. The few schoolchildren take a bus about 12 miles into Tiptonville, the Tennessee town that touts itself as Carl Perkins’ boyhood home. Voting machines are long gone, requiring a 40-mile drive to Hickman, Ky., to cast a ballot.
Residents needing emergency help, groceries or other supplies often get them from Tiptonville and Lake County, Tenn. The Bend’s mailing addresses are rural Tiptonville. Wilson doesn’t have a phone, and only four Bend dwellers have library cards for use when Marda Pate makes her monthly 55-mile bookmobile trek from Fulton, Ky.
The only store here closed in the early 1960s. A church? Forget it. A gas station? Nope.
“But you’ve got your privacy here, your quietness. There ain’t everybody stuffing their noses in your business,” Wilson says about the land where she and her husband have spent 49 years, raised 10 children and farmed soybeans, cotton, wheat and corn.
“I wouldn’t live in the city; there’s too much meanness, too much ungodliness.”
Just decades ago, she recalls, several hundred occupied the flood-prone land. Today’s head count requires just a tally on Wilson’s fingers.
Local historians say English settlers arrived here shortly after the Bend’s creation in the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes that shifted the Mississippi. Ferries shuttled residents to Missouri and back.
Helped by steamboats, the Bend’s population grew from just two in 1820 to more than 300 in 1870, with corn and wheat acreage giving way to cotton in nearly all the Bend’s fields by the 20th century. The Bend even had a small gin, a couple of sawmills — and six decades of 1800s bloodshed between the Darnells and Watsons, by some accounts over a horse or cow.
Mark Twain wrote about that, claiming that “in no part of the South has the vendetta flourished more briskly, or held out longer between warring families, than in this particular region.”
“Every year or so, somebody was shot, on one side or the other, and as fast as one generation was laid out, their sons took up the feud and kept it a-going,” Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” quotes a man as saying. “And it’s just as I say; they went on shooting each other, year in and year out — making a kind of religion of it, you see — till they’d done forgot, long ago, what it was all about.
“The thing could have been fixed up, easy enough, but no, that wouldn’t go. Rough words had been passed, and so, nothing but blood could fix it up after that. That horse or cow, whichever it was, cost 60 years of killing and crippling!”
Finally, the man said, the last of the Darnells — an elderly father and his two sons — decided to leave the bloody Bend by steamboat. “But the Watsons got wind of it,” showed up as the Darnells were about to embark and opened fire, killing the brothers.
Old history, Wilson might say. Bend folk, she says, have lots of other things to hang their hats on.
“This little ol’ Bend has decided several elections. You wouldn’t think it,” says Wilson, a “full-blooded Republican” who’s registered as a Democrat so she can vote more often. “They say if you can carry the Bend, you have a higher chance of winning the election.”
Ed Whitfield hasn’t quite found it that way. Into his fourth term as a Republican congressman for Kentucky’s First District spanning 33˝ counties, he has never carried Fulton County. When told of Wilson’s talk about the Bend’s supposed Election Day clout, the politician who has been to that area maybe twice pledged with a smile: “After what you said, I’m going to spend more time there.”
“Kentucky Bend is as important as any other area,” he said. “But you have to make a special effort to get over there.”
So do inmates at the prison in Tiptonville, where Wilson’s son Virgil works as a guard.
“Every time they break out,” Wilson says, “they head right down to this Bend. They think they can make it, but the river’s always in the way.”
The river has claimed at least three of the men. Another escapee stole her son’s car.
That’s about as exciting as it gets in these parts, where the Wilson brood grew up playing in the sloughs, hunting, fishing and working the fields.
“I loved being able to do whatever I wanted, and no one said anything because there was nobody around,” says Virgil Wilson, at 40 still living just a mile from his parents in Lake County, Tenn., where he was among four men on Thursday’s ballot for sheriff.
Daisy Wilson yearns to see other parts of Kentucky where “they tell me they’ve got a lot of mines and caves.”
“But I guess I’ll never get no further than my back yard,” she says, arms crossed as she shakes her head. Nearby, a clothesline holds towels, clothes and a rug. A swing dangles from a tree, near a garden tiller covered by a metal washtub.
Her three dogs ramble nearby, one of them being smacked by grandchildren.
“Kids, quit whoopin’ that dog,” Wilson snaps before more straight talk about the Bend.
“I don’t have much complaining about the Kentucky Bend,” she says. “Farming, fishing and good people. That’s the Bend.”
Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright © 2003 The Columbia Daily Tribune. All Rights Reserved.