Interview with Willard McBurney, March 20, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:01:17 - Upbringing on the East Side of Corbin, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: This is an interview with Willard McBurney, the mayor of Corbin--(laughs)--on March 20th, 2015, recorded at the train depot in Corbin, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Willard McBurney introduces himself. He has lived in Corbin his entire life, only moving away to go to college. He retired from a career as postmaster before becoming mayor of the city. He attributes his interest in politics to his mother's side of the family. He describes his ties to the railroad on his father's side. He speaks to the diversity of his neighborhood. He talks about the interaction with a Jewish family that operated a funeral home, and their eventual conversion to Christianity because of the lack of a synagogue.

Keywords: Businesses; Catholic schools; Diverse; East Side (Neighborhood, Corbin, Ky.); Family; Funeral homes; Growing up; Gypsys; Immigrants--Italian; Immigrants--Jewish; Jewish community; Jewish merchants; Judaism; Mayors; Pauper caskets; Polish; Public schools; Railroader (Profession); Retired postmasters; Saint Camillus Academy (School); Schools; Unique

Subjects: Childhood; Corbin (Ky.); Families.; Politics and government; Railroads--Employees.; Religion

00:09:34 - Education

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Partial Transcript: So, there was something I wanted to ask you. You said your dad wanted you to go to a public school here and not the Catholic school he went to, is that right?

Segment Synopsis: Financial uncertainty that went along with railroad work was the reason his father put him in public school rather than in the Catholic school his father attended. He describes his only time leaving Corbin was when he went off to college at Eastern Kentucky University. He talks about the different lifestyle that came with going to college in the relatively populous Bluegrass region while Corbin was beginning to decline. He discusses the role that Corbin serves in the region.

Keywords: Catholic schools; College; Culture; Differences; Eastern Kentucky University (EKU); Finances; Public schools; Railroad employees; Richmond (Ky.); Saint Camillus Academy (School)

Subjects: Corbin (Ky.); Education--Kentucky--Corbin; Railroads--Employees.

00:11:37 - The drive toward politics

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Partial Transcript: Um, when you were, uh, getting your education, what drove you into--in politics and did it have anything to do with the railroads or any of that past history?

Segment Synopsis: When asked about the reason he got into politics, he returns to the topic of his mother and her family's civic-mindedness. His mother helped to start youth centers all across Eastern Kentucky. Harland Sanders was on one of the first youth boards. His mother used to entertain politicians. He was on a post-retirement hunting trip in Wisconsin when some friends convinced him to run for mayor.

Keywords: After school activities; Children; Civic-minded; Depot Street--Corbin (Ky.); Eastern Kentucky; Harland Sanders; Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) (Restaurant); Lieutenant governors; Mayors; Mothers; Retirement; YMCA; Youth centers

Subjects: Childhood; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky

00:14:16 - Population decline and the mechanization of labor

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Partial Transcript: So, so, um, you mentioned that, you know, Corbin used to be very hustle bustle and that, um, eventually, um, the population did start to drop as the railroad industry maybe--

Segment Synopsis: McBurney describes the decline of railroad employment due to mechanization and its correlation with the population decline. He talks about businesses declining from a peak of 160-200. He attributes the transition of bustling streets like Depot St. into parking lots as a part of the city administration's "urban renewal" projects. He talks about the depot fire that occurred in the 1970s.

Keywords: Boilermakers; Businesses; Conductors; Corbin Railroad Depot; Decline; Depot Street--Corbin (Ky.); Diesel engines; Downtown Corbin (Ky.); Engineers; Fathers; Fireman; Fires; Historical buildings; Kentucky Street--Corbin (Ky.); Main Street--Corbin (Ky.); Mechanization; Passenger trains; Railroad crew; Railroad employees; Railroad industry; Steam engines; Streets; Technology; Trains (Passenger)

Subjects: Corbin (Ky.); Railroad passenger cars; Railroad travel.; Railroads--Employees.

00:18:08 - Train hopping--Part I

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Partial Transcript: And I--and what's ironic is I've never rode a passenger train in my life.--(laughs)--I've, I've rode these old boxcar trains from one end of town to the other.

Segment Synopsis: McBurney describes his upbringing as a "very curious child." He remembers seeing the passenger trains come in to town despite never having ridden them. He talks about his youthful experience jumping trains, his friendly association with hoboes who waited under the trestle for north-bound trains. He talks about the reprimand that he would receive from his African-American mentor, Howard, and the killing of a hotel porter by a mass murderer. He recalls reminiscing with a friend during their 50th class reunion about the unforgettable moment of laying down on the tracks and letting the train pass over them. When asked if his father ever clued in to his behavior, he recalls being spotted by the switchman and having a "big foot hit [him] right in the rear end." Lesson learned: Ride on the other side of the car. He stopped jumping trains when his friend broke his leg.

Keywords: African Americans; Broken legs; Children; Discipline; Fathers; Hell's Half Acre; Hobo camps; Injuries; Murders; Reprimands; Riding trains; Switchman; Train travel; Train trestles; Trains (Passenger); Tramps (AKA Hoboes); YMCA

Subjects: Childhood; Communities.; Railroad accidents.; Railroad stations.; Railroad tracks.; Railroad travel.; Railroads.

GPS: Hell's Half-Acre, site of hobo camp that McBurney describes.
Map Coordinates: 36.955843, -84.095424
00:25:44 - Family's on the railroad / "yard work" versus "road work"

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Partial Transcript: Now, uh, did you tell us that he [your father] worked for the railroad?

Segment Synopsis: McBurney says his father started out as a fireman, his grandfather was an engineer, and his brother was a railroader. He never had a desire to work on the railroad because of the long days away from home. The railroad touched so many families, and paid for many educations. Corbin was a railroad town until the 1960s when industry started to shift in a different industrial direction. He reiterates the fact that mechanization and efficiency in coal extraction lead to a decline in population. He remembers the workers walking out of their houses during shift change while he was outside playing. He talks about his mother complaining about the soot falling while their clothes were on the line. He responds to a question about railroad workers being on call all of the time. He distinguishes between "yard" work and "road" work: road workers kept irregular hours and were compelled to keep their schedules clear; road workers earned higher wages. He concludes with comments on growing up with his mother while his father was away. He recollects packing his father's lunch, his cigarette habit, and his death at 56 due to lung cancer.

Keywords: American Greetings Corporation (Manufacturing plant); Brothers; Community; Diesel engines; East Side (Neighborhood, Corbin, Ky.); Education; Engineers; Factories; Fathers; Fireman; Grandfathers; Laurel County (Ky.); Lunches; Manufacturing; Mothers; National Standard Company (Manufacturing plant); On-call; Postmasters; Railroad employees; Railroad towns; Roadwork; Routines; Smoking; Travel; Women; Yard work

Subjects: Families.; Railroad conductors.; Railroad engineering.; Railroad stations.; Railroads--Employees.

00:35:08 - Career with the postal service--Part I

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Partial Transcript: So you--instead of going to the railroad, you became a postmaster, right?

Segment Synopsis: McBurney says his career as postmaster prepared him perfectly for his future as mayor of Corbin. It taught him skills regarding budgets, as well as social skills. He and his wife both became tired of retirement, and so continued careers: he as mayor, she as part-time university professor.

Keywords: Budgets; Mayors; People; Postal workers; Postmasters; Retirement; Socializing; Training

Subjects: Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky; United States Postal Service

00:37:53 - A story about Harland Sanders

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Partial Transcript: Um, I have a question. Did you ever have any like run-ins with Harland Sanders, or did you not go that far back?

Segment Synopsis: While delivering papers, McBurney witnessed Harland Sanders, who he described as "impatient," dumping a pot of hot water on the windshield of his Cadillac one frosty morning. His windshield exploded and he drove away swearing.

Keywords: Character; Colonel Sanders; Harland Sanders; Impatience; John Y. Brown; Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) (Restaurant); Personality

Subjects: Sanders, Harland, 1890-1980.

00:39:43 - Career with the postal service--Part II

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Partial Transcript: So when you be--when you decided to go into your career, was there something that drew you to the postal career?

Segment Synopsis: McBurney started his career with the postal service while an undergraduate. He says that the rules have changed; you can't work around a school schedule now that post office is under USPS. He describes the service in his youth as being not as good. He talks about the RPO train delivering mail to the town, and also bodies of Vietnam soldiers. He talks about having to wait for all the bodies to be picked up by the funeral home before the mail could be delivered.

Keywords: Bodies; Employment; Highway Post Office (HPO); Mail trains; Postal Department; Postmasters; Rail Post Office (RPO); Soldiers; Vietnam soldiers; Vietnam veterans

Subjects: Railroad cars.; Railroad stations.; Railroads.; United States Postal Service; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Veterans.

00:41:37 - Urban geography of Corbin

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Partial Transcript: So I know that you had told us when we were talking the other day about how there's different sections of Corbin.

Segment Synopsis: McBurney talks about the diversity of his neighborhood, and the playful territorial attitude of Corbin children--no one could cross the underpass into other kids' territories. He describes the intermingling and reconciliation that occurred because families of L&N Railroad employees were able to swim at the YMCA pool for free, and everyone had family members who worked for L&N. South Corbin was Section houses and railroad families. East was diverse; every strata of Corbin society was represented.

Keywords: Central Corbin (Neighborhood, Corbin, Ky.) (AKA Downtown); Children; Diversity; Downtown Corbin (Ky.); East Side (Neighborhood, Corbin, Ky.); L&N Railroad (Louisville and Nashville Railroad); Membership passes; Railroad employees; Railroaders; Rivalries; South Corbin (Neighborhood, Corbin, Ky.); Swimming pools; Territory; YMCA

Subjects: Childhood; Communities.; Corbin (Ky.)--Buildings, structures, etc.; Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company; Railroads--Employees.

00:44:38 - Train hopping--Part II

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Partial Transcript: I have a question about, um--when you were train-hopping, um, what was it like to be like in Cincinnati and to travel, you know, from here to there and--

Segment Synopsis: McBurney says he never rode further than from one end of town to the other. Sometimes they would ride to the tipple in Grey, 3 miles to the east. The furthest he ever rode was to Barbourville, by accident. His mother would always find him. His uncle was the chief of police and would come to the section houses to find him. He talks about a "Gypsy" family, and likens one of them to "Little Beaver." He describes one as a fortune teller. He goes on to talk about other nicknames that Corbin people had. He talks about sports and recreation: basketball, football, soapbox racing. He talks about a Sister of a Catholic order who was concerned with his safety; McBurney would exploit her concern to get lemonade and to be read to.

Keywords: "Red Ryder and Little Beaver"; Barbourville (Ky.); Catholics; Discipline; Employment; Family; Fortune tellers; Grey (Ky.); Gypsys; Italy; Mothers; Nicknames; Nuns; Playing; Railroad yards (AKA Train yards); Reading; Section housing; Soapbox derby; Sports; Tipples; Train travel; Trouble

Subjects: Childhood; Communities.; Corbin (Ky.); Race relations--Kentucky--Corbin; Railroad stations.; Railroad tracks.; Railroad travel.; Railroads.

00:52:40 - Restoration projects: Engineer Street Bridge, urban blight

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Partial Transcript: Now I know you mentioned Engineer Street a little while back. Um, would you want to tell us about the Engineer Street Bridge here in Corbin and the work that's gone on there?

Segment Synopsis: McBurney talks about a wooden bridge from Engineer Street to Laurel Avenue. It was dilapidated; to keep people off of it, they put police tape around it. One of McBurney's goals as mayor was to restore the bridge; he used inmate labor. Engineer Street used to be one of the prettiest streets in Corbin; not anymore. Yards were immaculate, proud people, single family houses. Now there are renters, HUD, duplexes, apartments. He compares it to Master Street: trees that lined the road before the street was widened. He talks about being encouraged to run for mayor. He took office in 2007. He combated urban blight, now lots of small business are coming back. He spoke optimistically of the quarter horse track that Keeneland was investing in.

Keywords: Appearance; Businesses; Encouragement; Engineer Street--Corbin (Ky.); Horse racing; Main Street--Corbin (Ky.); Master Street--Corbin (Ky.); Mayors; Prison labor; Railroad employees; Railroaders; Repairs; Restoration; Retirement; Shopping; Wooden bridges

Subjects: Communities.; Corbin (Ky.); Corbin (Ky.)--Buildings, structures, etc.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky; Railroads--Employees.; Roads--Design and construction--Kentucky.

GPS: Engineer Street Bridge
Map Coordinates: 36.953136, -84.094458
00:59:41 - Railroad museum and Corbin's railroad history

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Partial Transcript: So I know that you have been a big supporter of the Railroad Museum. Maggy and Jeffrey told us about that.

Segment Synopsis: Maggy has been a big boost to the campaign. Previous efforts to start a railroad museum have lost momentum. The railroad made Corbin--particularly the L&N. Seaboard and CSX were less caring, less family-oriented. He goes on to talk about notable moments of Corbin railroad history, in particular, the 1955 strike which became violent. The telephone company was on strike as well. Unions were strong. Strikebreakers were called derogatory names, families were divided. Kerns Bread would feed workers and union families wouldn't eat their bread after that. Management had to cross the line. He compares it to the postal worker strike under Reagan--no winner, just hard feelings.

Keywords: Anger; Artemus (Ky.); Attitudes; Barbourville (Ky.); CSX Railroad Company; Diesel engines; Fathers; Fireman; Ill-feelings; L&N Railroad (Louisville and Nashville Railroad); Labor Unions (AKA Trade unions); Maggy Kriebel; Managers; Outsiders; Picket crossers; Picket lines; Polarizing; Postal workers; Railroad towns; Railroaders; Renovation; Ronald Reagan; Seaboard Railroad Company (SBD); Strike of 1955; Strikers; Telephone company; Telephone operators; Train wrecks

Subjects: Communities.; Corbin (Ky.); Families.; Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company; Railroad accidents.; Railroad museums; Railroads--Employees--Labor unions.; Railroads--Employees.; Strikes and lockouts

01:11:36 - Stereotypes about Appalachia

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Partial Transcript: I still want to know, like, uh, how you feel about people trying to stereotype, you know, Eastern Kentucky...

Segment Synopsis: McBurney talks about the desire to show people the diversity in Corbin's history.

Keywords: Attitudes; Catholics; Diverse; Eastern Kentucky; Heritage; Hispanic; Immigrant--Italian; Italian

Subjects: Appalachian Region--History; Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Appalachians (People); Corbin (Ky.); Stereotypes (Social psychology)

01:13:56 - Changing times / alcohol referendum / hopes and challenges

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Partial Transcript: So this is kind of a broad question but I just wanted to ask, so I know that you've had a lot of in, interesting experiences, you've seen a lot happen during your life.

Segment Synopsis: McBurney talks broadly about the shift toward drug abuse and away from alcohol abuse. He talks about I-75 as a drug corridor: young people dying of overdoses, family values are different. He talks about not knowing what marijuana was until he was married, and realizing that he had seen it growing along the railroad tracks while he was growing up. He notes the recent push in legislation for hemp to replace tobacco. He talks about changing norms: kids all have expensive cars, peer pressure is greater, single parents, and kids raised by grandparents has become commonplace. He contrasts today's culture with the traditional attitude toward elders, corporal punishment in schools and at home, drinking responsibly, in moderation. He talks about becoming a wet city, mentions the rough-and-tumble history of pre-Prohibition Corbin and contrasts it with current advantage of being the only wet city in the region. He mentions other local governments in the region that are resistant to this sort of change on a moral basis, and how the resistance to change holds development back. On a final note, he comments on the decline of DUIs since Corbin had the alcohol referendum and how many things have changed for the better.

Keywords: Advantages; Alcohol referendum; Alcohol taxes; Arenas; Business opportunities; Changes; Children; Community; DUIs; Discipline; Drugs; Dry counties; Economy; Elders; Family ties; Family values; Fire departments; First responders; Funding; Generations; Hemp; Horse tracks; I-75 corridor; Incentives; Keeneland; Kids; Lifestyles; Marijuana; Mayors; Moist cities; Mothers; Paramedics; Peer pressure; Progressive; Prohibition; Race tracks; Red Mile; School systems; Smoking; Society; Wet cities; Whitley County (Ky.); Young people; Youth centers

Subjects: Alcohol--Law and legislation--Kentucky; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Business enterprises--Kentucky--Corbin; Communities.; Corbin (Ky.); Drug abuse; Economic development--Kentucky; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky