A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Visit to Adair County Book Fair offers first hand look at area’s unique ‘sense of place’

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Good writers work hard to convey a “sense of place,” meaning to give the reader an authentic feel for where their story is staged or reported. It is an important skill, with Kentucky novelist Silas House saying that this story element must both “entertain and inform the reader.”

A few weeks ago, on a trip to the small town of Columbia, in Adair County, I left with a strong notion of place in the county and other counties in the region. I was both entertained and informed. The occasion was the 7th Annual Adair County Book Fair, and I was one of the more than a dozen authors set to meet interested readers and hopefully sell some of our published books.

Steve Flairty with Marshall Smith (Photo submitted by Steve Flairty)

Before the event, knowing that I might spend six hours without a chance to eat a substantial meal, I found the local McDonald’s, where I ordered a guilty pleasure Big Mac meal, something I usually go months abstaining. Twice, a twentysomething female employee voicing a slight southern twang called me “Sweetie” while hunting me up some ketchup for my fries. With that gesture, I got a small sense of where I was… that sense of place thing, you know. And in this case, it reminded me of people I grew up around, ones who lived far from an urban setting–them being small-town and rural… and calling total strangers kind names like Sweetie.

I was charmed, and with a full belly and excited for the book fair to start, I drove a few blocks to the attractive downtown area surrounding the Adair County Judicial Center/Courthouse. The location is surrounded by a circular street where traffic doesn’t ever seem to stop, like the one not far away in Bardstown. Paying attention to avoid an auto mishap, I noticed the drivers—likely locals and many driving pickups—as being courteous and careful; right neighborly, you might say. Gratefully, the stress it could have been for me proved not much at all.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Next door was the Columbia Baptist Church, the event location. Arriving, I wheeled my books up a long blacktop ramp, where a handful of event volunteers and local author participants welcomed me with smiles and offers to help. One of the first persons I met was event director Mike Watson, a former public school teacher who lives in Harrodsburg. His gracious and light manner immediately made my two-hour trip from Versailles seem worthwhile, and he promptly assigned me a table next to acclaimed Kentucky novelist Ann Gabhart.

It took some five minutes to set up my book display, and with plenty of time, before the book fair officially started, I moseyed around the several small rooms where authors presented their books. I quickly noticed a goodly number of genealogical/local history type offerings, mostly softcovers, and it was apparent that efforts made to put them together must have required long hours of work. Knowing that there’s little chance that such products would secure enough sales income to make a viable living, I surmised that passion for family and community heritage loomed large as the motivating force. Bravo to the citizens representing various counties around the area; their individually gratifying efforts benefit those around them, too. I was already noting the “salt of the earth” kind of people I was spending an early Friday in November around.

The book fair opened, and I introduced myself to a man and a black-colored cowboy hat wearing a greying mustache and a black eye patch fitted over his left eye. He looked advanced in age and sat at a small table displaying a thin, five-by-seven-inch paperback with the title, Folk Art Memories, a book with poems he had written. The cover looked artfully crafted and showed an abandoned framed house sitting amongst high, brown grass.

His name, I learned, is Marshall G. Smith and he is 87 years old. He appeared glad that I reached out, and after some small talk, he shared story after story about his upbringing on Robinson Ridge, in the Adair County community of Knifley. He noted that the picture on his book cover is the remnant of the home he was raised in, and he told me that he had issues with his left eye, thus the patch. From our talking and his bright, energetic countenance, Marshall came off to me as a joyful person, one you’d like to be around on a long bus trip. His family, his friends, and the handcrafting he does for a profitable hobby were his conversation topics. Each time a customer came to my table to buy or simply converse, Marshall politely pulled away to be respectful.

Marshall entertained and informed me on that day; he gave me a real sense of the solid, unpretentious place he has lived all his life—where simple kindnesses matter — and it made me figure there are lots of others like him.

Meeting Pamela Hoots, Columbia’s mayor, was special, too. She came by my table and we discussed Kendall Harvey, a local icon I had profiled in a couple of my books about heroes. Kendall, as many in the town know, built over 150 three-wheel bikes for children with disabilities. He leaves a remarkable legacy, even several years after his death. Mayor Pamela promised to buy a couple of my books when she came back from a prior commitment. She did so, and I had the feeling she would have spent all day standing there praising the citizens in her town if not for her busy schedule. If I lived in Columbia, I’d probably vote for her, as she seemed so genuine.

The people in the area value family values and respect for each other; their feeling of “place” is deep and abiding, shown through these individuals and others I met that day. And if they have the 8th annual book fair next year, I’d again like to participate.

I like feeling the sense of place they feel. It is real.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment