A subsistence farm in the 1930s provided the backdrop for Harriette Arnow’s distinguished Kentucky novel. Today the land has grown into a wilderness.
Harriette and Harold Arnow were writers who met working on the Works Progress Administration Writers’ Project in Cincinnati in the 1930s. They dreamed of getting through the Depression as subsistence farmers in Harriette’s home area of Southeastern Kentucky, writing in their spare time. What dreamers.
They bought 150 acres in the hills of Pulaski County in 1939 and purchased chickens, a pig and a cow. The pictures above show the farmhouse as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the time Harold and Harriette owned it, the place was in rough condition. It is now collapsed.
Like many others in the mountain South, they found farming arduous and precarious. And like many of their neighbors, in the run up to World War II, they moved to where the jobs were in Detroit.
Harold went back to being a newspaperman covering the courts at the Detroit News. They lived in public housing for a time, raising their two children, Marcella and Tom. Later they moved to a small farm on Nixon Road in Ann Arbor.
Inspiration born of hardship
Harriette wrote histories and novels set in Kentucky and Michigan. The novels Hunter’s Horn and The Dollmaker, published in 1949 and 1954, are her most well known. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates called Hunter’s Horn “an American masterpiece,” comparing it to Moby Dick because of one man’s destructive obsession with a predator, in this case, a red fox.
The setting of Hunter’s Horn, as seen in the first edition’s inside covers–was this farm–with the place names changed.
The inside cover of the novel Hunter’s Horn illustrated with a map of the Arnow farm and surrounding area in the 1930s, and the 1968 survey map of the land. Harriette’s first novel, Mountain Path, about being a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse, was set on adjacent land.
After the Arnows moved to Michigan, the farm remained uninhabited, the tiny community of Keno depopulated. Today the farm has grown into a remote forest. You have to cross Indian Creek to get to most of the property. It is wild and beautiful.
After Harold died in 1985 and Harriette in 1986, the farm went to their daughter Marcella. When she died in England in 2010, the land came to me—Harold and Harriette’s niece. Marcella hoped to preserve the land wisely. I was able to do that under the US Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Forests Reserve Program. The land is now under a conservation easement. It can never be mined, drilled or developed. It is a wild and beautiful forest today. Here is the USDA’s description of the program and this land.
Many thanks to Wanda Worley, who is one of the descendants of people who owned the land before the Arnows did. She visits and worries about and cares for the land–and for me.
For more information e-mail Pat Arnow.