In Sept. 5 IssueBy Kim GrahamRussell County News Reporter
“I’m an old 1935 model,” said Billy Stearns of Clinton County.
Stearns looks at the world through the eyes of a historian carrying his memories with him and sharing them along the way.
“I’m like my dad,” said Stearns. “I’ve never seen a stranger.”
Son of the late J.H. and Ova Stearns, Billy Stearns was born in the Indian Creek community in Clinton County which is now covered by the waters of Lake Cumberland. Beginning in 1941, Stearns attended Indian Creek School and remembers the school superintendent riding a horse to visit.
“He’d come to school and bring those old yellow pencils,” said Stearns. “All the children’s faces would light up. Having a new pencil was a big deal.”
School in those days didn’t have a cafeteria or even running water.
“At lunch time, our mother would come down with a bag of food and a quart of sweet milk,” said Stearns. “My mother and dad were poor but they were rich in heart.”
Stearns remembers bringing water from the branch and all the children drinking from the same water dipper.
School days at Indian Creek came to an end with the completion of Wolf Creek Dam and in 1948, the school closed.
Like many families in the area, the Stearns joined in construction of Wolf Creek Dam.
“My dad worked on the dam from start to finish,” Stearns said. “My brother, Harlon ‘H.C.’ Stearns worked on the dam, too.”
Building the dam, they knew, would eventually lead to leaving their home place and community behind.
All the old buildings that weren’t moved were burned and the timber cleared in preparation of filling Lake Cumberland he said.
“My dad gave $30 for 5 acres and a log house in 1931,” said Stearns.
In 1948, the government paid the elder Stearns $675 for the property and the family packed up to move.
“I was 13 years old and I helped load up and move,” said Stearns. “Moving our furniture won’t no big deal. We had it all on one big stock truck.”
He said instead of mattresses, they had straw ticks for bedding. Ticks are mattress covers and the mattress was formed by filling them with straw. After the move, the family refilled ticks to set up beds.
“We went back to get some canning jars we’d left at the house and when we topped the hill, the house was already up in flames,” Stearns said. In 1951, Stearns remembers receiving his driver’s license the same month Wolf Creek Dam was dedicated.
“Harry S. Truman was president when I got my driver’s license in September of 1951,” said Stearns. “I drove a 1937 Chevrolet that belonged to my dad.”
Billy Stearns moved to Indiana in 1969 but never forgot his roots in Clinton County beneath Lake Cumberland.
He moved back to Kentucky after retiring in 1990 and currently lives south of the dam just across the county line in Clinton County. A walking history book and self proclaimed historian of the area Lake Cumberland now covers, Stearns tells his story wherever he goes and has the memorabilia to back it up.
“Old history will never die as long as I’m around,” said Stearns.
He has pictures of classmates who he remembers each by name and where their lives took each of them. Stearns recalls the last day of school at Indian Creek in 1948 through pictures he carries in his photo album and his memory.
“I could go back to the old lifestyle like that,” Stearns said snapping his fingers. “Cut the lights out and go back to coal oil lights. I’ve got ‘em, too.”
Stearns began attending the Indian Creek Reunion in 1990 upon his return to Kentucky.
He brings with him pictures, copies of old pay stubs from dam work and his most prized piece of history, an original program from the September 1, 1951 dedication of Wolf Creek Dam.
Indian Creek School alumni, folks who lived in the community and their descendants gather each year to reminisce the old days.
The Indian Creek Reunion will be held Saturday, September 12 at Kendall Park below Wolf Creek Dam.
“If you like beans and taters, be down there,” said Stearns.