Early last week, Matthew Smith, Public Programs Director at Miami University Regionals, attended a discussion at Reading Public Library featuring Christine Harper McKinney. McKinney is the 96-year-old author of The Harpers of Pongo Ridge, a memoir of a childhood in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. McKinney eventually settled with her husband in Cincinnati, and ended up running a Shell service station near the current site of McCluskey Chevrolet. He originally blogged about this author discussion at the link below: https://extraordinarytimes.weebly.com/home/an-evening-of-appalachian-reminiscence-with-christine-harper-mckinney
This week’s blog post is a re-blog of the one mentioned above.
On the evening of July 12, Reading Historical Society welcomed a special guest at the local public library. Flossie Harper McKinney—who also goes by “Christine”—was born in 1926. Back then, as host Dale Farmer remarked, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, DeFord Bailey became the first black musician on the Grand Ole Opry, and Greta Garbo captivated American audiences in her debut film Torrent.
Christine McKinney—born in Rockcastle County, Kentucky, but now residing in West Chester Township, Ohio—is a lively woman whose energy belies her ninety-something years. Her family memoir The Harpers of Pongo Ridge was recently republished, recounting her childhood and kinsfolk in the Bluegrass State. Originally composed in 1989, the book inspired independent filmmaker Farmer—whose own Kentucky family McKinney described —as source material for his 2019 movie The Mountain Minor. Like the memorable characters in that film, McKinney and her late husband Ivan participated in the Appalachian Great Migration to southwestern Ohio. They settled in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Reading. There they raised four children and operated a Shell service station and car maintenance business for many years.
Following a brief introduction, McKinney regaled the audience with tales of her rural Appalachian upbringing. Her stories were humorous, sometimes riotously funny, though occasionally quite tough to reflect on. She conveyed a world long since vanished—a world of few modern conveniences, where indoor plumbing, the motor car, soft drinks, and electrical appliances were luxuries unknown to most folks. The family kept pigs and turkeys, but while meat was enjoyed in the form of bacon and sausages, “hams were sold and some kept for the relatives when they came to visit.” McKinney’s colorful father, Christopher Columbus McKinney (“Lummy”), eventually purchased a radio, “a wonderful thing that played music and talked.” Though Lummy enjoyed the latest music, he never lived to enjoy television—“this show and tell thing”—and “would never have believed Elvis.”
It was happy world overall, though shaded by hardship and occasional trauma. McKinney’s earliest memory, for example, arose when she was four years old. Having wandered off into the snow against her mother’s cautioning, she got home up bedraggled and soaking wet. “I held up my petticoat over the blaze,” she recalled, trying to dry out her clothes over the hearth. Although her mother got back to her in time, McKinney was “burnt all over,” when her dress caught fire. She was lucky to survive.
Despite her traumatic early experience, McKinney’s childhood was mostly carefree and happy. Even still, many of her escapades might offend the cautious standards of modern childhood. These included plying a fat toad with her father’s booze until “it got to bouncing off the tree.” McKinney and her siblings “played round with that toad all afternoon.” On another occasion, she went to purchase some chewing tobacco for her father, but she and her brother wound up sampling it on the way home. “We chewed and we chewed. One of us tried to get up, but these rubber legs wouldn’t work.”
All these stories and more are reflected in McKinney’s book. As she recalled, when asked about her “typical day”: there was “no such thing.”
Misadventures to one side, McKinney grew up to be a smart, thoughtful woman. She always valued learning, though education was hard to come by. School was a four-mile round trip on foot, with no transportation. She voluntarily repeated eighth grade, and “wouldn’t quit going to school.” Eventually, aided by a sympathetic principal, she transferred to Mount Vernon High School. At that time, high school education was no foregone conclusion, and college education was a virtual pipe dream. At Mount Vernon, she met her future husband Ivan, marrying in 11th grade. “They wouldn’t let you come to school after you got married,” McKinney noted. But she and Ivan enjoyed a long, happy marriage, moving to Cincinnati and raising their family. McKinney’s four children benefited from parental values of hard work and self-reliance. Each of them “grew up pumping gas and checking oil” in the family auto business. And McKinney at last is reaping the recognition she deserves thanks to her book, which placed Pongo Ridge firmly on the map. Perhaps the greatest recognition came last year, when at age 95 McKinney was at last presented with a diploma from Mount Vernon High School. To mark the occasion, her Kentucky alma mater celebrated “Flossie Day” in her honor. And quite rightly so. McKinney’s wonderful story has so much to teach us, a living thread to a vanished world.
UACC Steward Nora Stanger blogged about The Harpers of Pongo Ridge on our website a year ago. To read that post, visit https://uacvoice.org/2021/07/looking-back-to-see-forward-the-harpers-of-pongo-ridge-by-nora-stanger/