Wolf Pen Mill Farm, Prospect, Kentucky
When I was a woods-running girl, years ago in Kentucky, I explored every inch of the old overgrown farms I could get into, sometimes shamelessly cutting barbed-wire fences (the cattle long gone) in order to get my horse to new territory. The most daring adventure involved riding under a four-lane highway through an enormous culvert, twenty feet high, with the constant thrum of traffic grinding overhead. My calm old mare had a little trouble with that, but we finally made it through.
On the other side, a long lane abutted by high slopes and thick trees led downhill to a gravel drive, a stream, and a bridge with a cattle guard; we crossed the stream and rode with some apprehension past a dark log house which belonged to Eva Lee Smith Cooper. Later I learned that she’d come to Kentucky from Tennessee years earlier, with her three small sons, after her husband was murdered mysteriously—something to do with politics, or with Prohibition—and she was told not to try to find out what happened to him and to get out of the state. So she came on into Kentucky, bought the old grist mill I passed on horseback and the miller’s house above it—Butterbean Miller was the last to run the overshot wheel and grind corn; he was a Miller who was also a miller, and grew butterbeans, hence his nickname.
Eva Lee was a character in that rural neighborhood; the Harrods Creek switchboard operator used to call everyone who lived nearby and warn, “Stay off the road, Mrs. Cooper’s driving to town.” This was because she was known to drive down the middle.
She is buried deep in the woods beyond the mill, near a tall waterfall falling down limestone shelves before flowing into Harrods Creek. Her three sons and their wives are buried near her, their flat granite tombstones bearing only names and dates. A murdered great-niece, dead only a few years, has an elaborate headstone with engravings of her face and lists of her accomplishments as well as excerpts from her diary; she was an accomplished college athlete who seems to have roused the ire of an assassin.
When I bought the farm, I thought I would spend the rest of my life there, but that was in the eighties before everything changed and I decided to move out to the Southwest and begin over, to the degree that such a thing is possible. The farm by then was in the midst of an endless sea of sprawl, strip malls, highways, apartment buildings—the nightmare that rural America has become. I couldn’t bear the thought of Eva Lee’s legacy devoured by more Wallgreens, more Costcos, more starter castles, and so with the help of a local conservation group, RiverFields, I ceded development rights by putting all 420 acres into conservation easements. This ensures that the land will never be developed, no matter who owns it, and that the creeks, the mill, the waterfalls, the wildflowers, the wild turkey, the deer and all the other creatures who thrive there will never be destroyed.
I never knew Eva Lee yet her farm became mine to the degree that land is owned by anyone—a very small degree—and now it belongs to all those other inhabitants as well as to the frozen pond, the old barn, the trees, and the little cabin in my photographs.