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Meet the people who make Jellico gel: part one of a two-part series

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By Brent Schanding

JELLICO—Despite its present-day reputation as a financially-struggling (and oftentimes dysfunctional) mountain town, Jellico is a place steeped in history and Appalachian culture. From its early coal and lumber roots, to its mid-century reputation as the “marriage capital of Tennessee,” to its future plans to become a destination for recreational enthusiasts and green business enterprises, there’s a lot more to Jellico than meets the eye.
With less than 2,500 people — the town offers a 200-acre state park, a regionally-renown medical facility that boasts the only birthing ward in a tri-county area, a quirky downtown museum that features the largest local collection of historical memorabilia, as well as the headquarters of a leading national manufacturer.
In this closer look at the “other side of the mountain” the LaFollette Press delves into some of the people who are making Jellico “gel.”
From politicians, to educators, to park rangers and businessmen, we’ll explore who’s actually holding the town together behind the scenes, as officials prepare to ask the state for a partial financial takeover to become solvent.
We’ll bet that even lifelong residents of Campbell County will find something unique in this report. And if we missed something, we welcome you to share your own anecdotes on how the people of Jellico are bonding together in tumultuous times.

Stiers is all Jellico

ust ask Jellico Mayor Les Stiers, who “eats, sleeps and breathes Jellico.”
“We’re just a small city on the other side of the mountain, but we have a lot of activity going on,” he said.
While he’s often at political odds against his own board of aldermen, the Alabama-born leader and former Jellico MIddle School coach says the town is trying to overcome “hard-headed” opponents to progress and other obstacles.
Still, there’s several challenges, Stiers admits — namely, the fact that 2 out of 5 in the town lives in poverty.
“Jellico is a poor town. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we’ve got to create jobs for our people. You’ve got to do something that sets Jellico above some of the other cities. People resist change around here sometimes,” he said. “…But you’ve got to look for change and go with that.”
The town is preparing to install high-tower lights at the Interstate 75 exits near its junction to make the entrance more attractive to visitors.
“We are the doormat for the state of Tennessee,” Stiers said.
Grants also are being finalized, Stiers said, to connect a series of biking trails and walking paths through the town.
“We’re going to build a trail that connects Kentucky to the downtown area of Veterans Park to the Indian Mountain State Park,” he said.
The 10-foot wide path would be illuminated at night, he said, and integrate additional plans for better kayak access at a nearby creek.
About $180,000 in grant funding will also help the city rebuild its crumbling sidewalks to the baseball field. It’s a hub of activity for the town’s high schoolers, who don’t have a dedicated playing field of their own.
 “We’re fixing to build a farmers’ market,” Stiers said.
An 11.5x7.5-foot gazebo will be erected to anchor the community gathering area.
“It allows farmers in the area to bring vegetables and honey and eggs downtown to sell,” he said. “It gives them an area for commerce.”
The town is also attracting private enterprise to the area.
Two separate oil recyclers are eyeing to open in the town, and Stiers touted the “green impacts” of the industrial venture.  
Other future business openings are an optimistic sign of an improving economy there.
“McDonald’s is also getting ready to locate here,” Stiers said. “That’ll bring more revenue and jobs.”
But the mayor’s top agenda includes more involvement from the town’s youth.
“The name of the game is about getting the kids involved,” he said. “We firmly believe in getting our kids involved in the community.”
Several high school art students have already transformed a dull flood wall into a historically-accurate mural. The town also operates a community center at a former church. The center features a gymnasium, which hosts recreational games, dances and movie nights, he said.
But future success of the town, he said, depends on more of these ventures.  

Keeper of the grounds

On any given day you’ll likely find a flurry of hikers, bikers and outdoor lovers at Indian Mountain State Park.
“I’ve literally seen people walking in pouring rain or snow,” said Amanda Gurganus, a park ranger who helps tend to the 200-acre patch of parkland.
Constructed in the 1960s from a former surface coal mine, Indian Mountain is one of the younger parks in the Tennessee system. It now boasts more than three trails, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, horseshoe pits and a few ponds for fishing.
They’re stocked yearly with bass, crappie, catfish and bluegil, Gurganus said, but some stray carp have also found their way into the mix.  
The ponds are a recreational site for paddle wheelers and small jon boats, which can be rented there for less than $4 per hour from March to October.
During the summer and fall months, the park attracts several campers. Forty seven paved sites are open for RVs — each come equipped with electricity and water.
Even if you don’t plan to stay overnight, the park is the perfect place for a family picnic.  Just beware of the birds. Flocks of Canada geese, along with dozens of ducks, seem to be waiting for a few stray bread crumbs.
  “Of course we also have raccoons, possums and deer,” Gurganus said, pointing out the other various wildlife that inhabits the state park.
Look around and you’ll also notice the variety of flora and fauna.
The majority of these native trees — about 200 in all — were planted five years ago through endowments supplied by the Iris Fund.
“You’d think that’d be fairly easy [to maintain], but the ground — because it was a former coal mine — is not too fertile,” Gurganus said. “But so far, only three have died, and [the rest] are doing very, very, well.”
Several park goers are still mourning the demise of the park’s swimming pool earlier this season. It was forced to close after the revenue it generated dropped by more than 40 percent in the past few years. It also faced increased competition from the Kentucky Splash Waterpark in nearby Williamsburg, Ky.
“It needed major repairs and there was no money to fix it,” Gurganus said.
But here’s a silver lining:
“We’re hoping to fill it in and convert it to a basketball court or two tennis courts,” Gurganus said.
The pool’s bathhouse would be converted to an enclosed pavilion and be rented for family reunions and other get togethers.
“If they do have that big basketball game at a family reunion, they can still take showers,” she said.
There’s also plans to launch a disc golf course at the park.  
Indian Mountain Sate Park will play host to the “Miner’s Mile” 5k/10k run and 2-mile walk on Sept. 2. Proceeds will benefits several Jellico organizations.
For more information, please call the park office at 423-784-7958.

Hardware and History
Where else in Campbell County can you get a copy made of your house key and span more than 100 years of local history?
Buck’s Jelico Hardware & Jellico Family Museum, 152 N. Main St.
Constructed in 1919 as a garage, the original building has since been transformed over the decades into a part hardware-part museum conglomeration. It’s slowly expanded into neighboring buildings to amass the largest collection of Campbell County memorabilia around.  
If the unpolished hardwood floors and high-ceilings don’t take you back to an earlier time, the relics in this place will.
Mixed in with paint cans, plungers and other typical hardware store offerings are hundreds of photos, collectibles and newspaper clippings from more than a century ago.
“We try to get all the pictures we can of stuff that’s happened in and around this store during those days,” said Ronnie Buck, who operates the enterprise with his brothers.
One large framed black and white photo, showcases Jellico in its mid-century glory days. Several of 1950-style automobiles flank the town’s main streets, as people hangout near the former Tibbie’s Steakhouse.
“It was a pretty busy town back in the day,” Buck said. “We actually had a theater. And on Thursdays, the town would have a raffle and dispense tickets for a chance to win $250.”
Several old photos pay homage to the town’s former history as a rail center.
“The reason Jellico is here, is the train got here first,” Buck said.
The museum has even become a defacto memorial for the tragic 1944 Jellico train wreck. While few markers exist to commemorate the 34 young World War II Army recruits who died near Jellico in the July 6, 1944, L&N Railroad train crash, the museum displays several photos and newspaper clippings of that time. The wreck was believed to be one of the worst stateside military disasters of that era.
A small, lone sign is all that marks the site today.
“One of the best things Campbell County could do is work the train wreck into a pullover stop [for travelers and tourists],” Buck said, however, survivors of the soldiers have found solace at the museum.  
Through the years, several out-of-town visitors have sought the museum’s help to locate keys and clues to their ancestry. Some time ago, a group of hopeful travelers came from as far as Michigan to trace the genealogy of their family member, M.J. Steinberg.
As luck would have it, they stumbled upon a newspaper archive, which chronicled their relative.
“They walked right in here and found it,” Buck said.
 While visitors to Buck’s often enjoy reliving the past there, they are not the only ones having a fun experience.
“It’s a lot of fun for us, too,” Buck said. “We argue back and forth about who’s wrong and who’s right [about local historical accuracies.]”