Kentuckians Hold True to Their Quiet Bend
As the sun sets over her farmhouse and a mouse scampers across the porch near her feet, Daisy Wilson welcomes the stranger who managed to find this desolate nub of land between the curves of the Mississippi River.
Visitors don’t often come around what locals call Kentucky Bend, aside from an occasional escaped convict, a drunkard or a hopelessly lost motorist. Most simply stumble upon the tiny, teardrop-shaped crook on Tennessee 22, the only road in and out.
Her Kentucky drawl dripping with Southern charm, Wilson greets her visitor like family, inviting him to sit and hear about life on these 15,000 acres in deep southwestern Kentucky across the Mississippi from New Madrid, Mo.
The land is a notch, which fits like a puzzle piece into a curve of Missouri land carved out by the meandering Mississippi. It’s surrounded on three sides by water, with the opposing shore all Missouri. The fourth side is Tennessee, leaving the bend cut off from the rest of the state.
But Wilson gets a bit riled when asked the question begged by the map: With the Bend conjoined to Tennessee and pinched off from the rest of Kentucky, do you feel Kentuckian or Tennessean? Or maybe just confused?
“I’m a Kentuckian through and through, very much so. And this is home,”’ says Wilson, 70.
Others call the geographic oddity Madrid Bend, New Madrid Bend or Bessie Bend. One magazine lovingly dubbed it Bubbleland, for its odd, river-wrapped shape.
Whatever the name, the Bend isn’t much besides a handful of houses, a graveyard, flat farmland, a few small fishing lakes, and pockets of deer and wild turkeys that run for cover in hunting season.
The Bend used to have the nation’s largest cottonwood tree down yonder, Wilson points out, but a lightning strike years ago cut it to a stump. The few schoolchildren take a bus 12 miles into Tiptonville, the Tennessee town touting itself as Carl Perkins’ boyhood home. Voting machines are long gone, requiring a 40-mile drive to Hickman, Ky., to vote.
The folks here who need emergency help, groceries or other supplies often get them from Tiptonville and Lake County, Tenn. Their mailing addresses are rural Tiptonville. Wilson doesn’t have a phone, and only four Bend dwellers have library cards for use when Marda Pate makes her monthly 55-mile bookmobile trek from Fulton, Ky.
The only store closed in the early 1960s. There is neither church nor gas station.
“But you’ve got your privacy here, your quietness. There ain’t everybody stuffing their noses in your business,” Wilson says about the land where she and her husband have spent 49 years, rearing 10 children and farming soybeans, cotton, wheat and corn.
“I wouldn’t live in the city; there’s too much meanness, too much ungodliness.”
Just decades ago, she recalls, several hundred occupied the flood-prone land. A head count today is accomplished with little effort. “Fifteen.”
Historians say English settlers arrived shortly after the Bend’s creation by the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes that shifted the Mississippi. Ferries shuttled residents to Missouri and back.
Helped by steamboats, the Bend’s population grew from just two in 1820 to more than 300 in 1870, with corn and wheat acreage giving way to cotton in nearly all the fields by the 20th century. The Bend even had a small gin, a couple of sawmills -- and six decades of 1800s bloodshed between the Darnells and Watsons, by some accounts over a horse or cow.
Mark Twain wrote about that, claiming that “in no part of the South has the vendetta flourished more briskly, or held out longer, between warring families, than in this particular region.”
“Every year or so, somebody was shot, on one side or the other, and as fast as one generation was laid out, their sons took up the feud and kept it a-going,” Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” quotes a man as saying. “And it’s just as I say; they went on shooting each other, year in and year out -- making a kind of religion of it, you see -- till they’d done forgot, long ago, what it was all about.
“The thing could have been fixed up, easy enough, but no, that wouldn’t go. Rough words had been passed, and so, nothing but blood could fix it up after that. That horse or cow, whichever it was, cost 60 years of killing and crippling!”
Finally, Twain’s character said, the last of the Darnells -- an elderly father and his two sons -- decided to leave the bloody Bend by steamboat. “But the Watsons got wind of it,” showed up as the Darnells were about to embark and opened fire, killing the brothers.
Old history, Wilson might say. Bendfolk, she says, have lots of other things to hang their hat on.
“This little ol’ Bend has decided several elections. You wouldn’t think it,” says Wilson, a self-professed full-blooded Republican who’s a registered Democrat. (That’s so she can vote more often, she insists.) “They say if you can carry the Bend, you have a higher chance of winning the election.”
Ed Whitfield hasn’t quite found it that way. Into his fourth term as a Republican congressman for Kentucky’s 1st District spanning 33.5 counties, he has never carried Fulton County. When told of Wilson’s talk about the Bend’s supposed election day clout, the politician who has been to that area maybe twice pledged with a smile: “After what you said, I’m going to spend more time there.”
“Kentucky Bend is as important as any other area,” he said. “But you have to make a special effort to get over there.”
So do inmates at the prison in Tiptonville, where Wilson’s son Virgil works as a guard. “Every time they break out,” Wilson says, “they head right down to this Bend. They think they can make it, but the river’s always in the way.”
The river has claimed at least three of the men. Another escapee stole her son’s car.
That’s about as exciting as it gets in these parts, where the Wilson brood grew up playing in the sloughs, hunting, fishing and working the fields. “I loved being able to do whatever I wanted, and no one said anything because there was nobody around,” says Virgil Wilson, at 40 living just a mile from his parents in Lake County, Tenn., where last month he finished last in a four-man race for sheriff.
Daisy Wilson yearns to see other parts of Kentucky where “they tell me they’ve got a lot of mines and caves.”
“But I guess I’ll never get no further than my back yard,” she says.
Nearby, a swing dangles from a tree, near a garden tiller covered by a metal washtub. And as the twilight chill sets in, her towels, a rug and a couple pairs of jeans hang limply from the clothesline.