Friday, August 19, 2011

Biography of Joseph Enoch Cornett s/o William Jesse Cornett

The following article is from the September 1994 issue of the 
Letcher Heritage News (Pages 25-30): 

Joseph Enoch Cornett
by Jim Cornett 

Biography of Joseph Enoch Cornett s/o William Jesse Cornett
Joseph Enoch Cornett, youngest son of William Jesse Cornett, grew up on a farm at the mouth of Bull Creek, near Cornettsville, Perry County, Kentucky. He developed into a tall, big footed, raw boned sort of fellow. He wore a size 14 or 16 shoe, and was known to many as "Big Footed Joe". 

Some time in his early life (before 1838) he 
married Sally Brown, who was the daughter of John Q. Brown. Her 
father was born in Ireland in 1783 and died in 1873. He was the first school teacher in Letcher County, Ky. Joe and Sally settled 
on Dry Fork Creek, which is now known as Crown, Ky. There, he built 
a large two story log house, and eventually acquired large land 
holdings. Some say that he owned at least 10,000 acres. A large 
set of elk or deer horns once adorned the arch over the gateway of 
his house. One room of this original house is still standing, near 
the Dry Fork Baptist Church. A short way below this Church a large 
beech tree is still standing, which bears the carving of his name 
and the date 1875. 

Joe was one of the more prosperous citizens of 
Letcher County, a condition which may have been brought about by 
his extreme thriftiness. Stories are still being told in Letcher 
County about how "tight" this Dry Fork resident was. 

As to his thrifty spirit, the late Jim Brown of Ulvah, Ky once told 
of the time Joe told him to come over and get himself a mess of 
Gooseberries. Jim went and found Joe sitting on the porch. It seems 
that Joe had thought long about the loss of the Gooseberries after 
that offer, and when young Jim asked about them, he replied," 
Gooseberries! Gooseberries! What Gooseberries?" Jim was then told 
that there were Gooseberries all through the woods; on other 
people's property too, and to go and pick them. Thus old Joe saved 
his own patch for himself. 

Joe was a self-made doctor, brewing up his own medicines from the 
roots, herbs and barks of his native hills. His sons were often 
sent into the dark woods searching for these products, while he 
brewed up a batch of tonic in an old iron kettle in his back yard. 
Some of this brew brought a dollar a bottle, a tidy sum in those 
days. It is said that he had some old Indian formulas from which 
he worked. Later, these formulas were passed on to others, but 
alas, they are now lost, much to the disappointment of medical 

Doctor Cornett (as he was called many times) went a little farther 
than most herb doctors, in that he performed some surgery. On at 
least one occasion, he amputated a man's leg, with a knife and a 
handsaw for instruments. The leg had been crushed by a log falling 
off a wagon. The man (a Cook) survived this crude surgery, and 
lived on for many years. 

Alamander Whittaker, who lived on Rockhouse Creek, had heard of 
this amputation, and he knew of the skill of Dr. Cornett. Sometime 
later, Alamander broke his leg, and Dr. Cornett was sent for to 
see it. Joe came riding up to the Whittaker home with a handsaw 
in his hand. When Alamander saw Joe coming toward him with a 
handsaw, he promptly fainted. However, the leg was set, and no 
amputation was necessary, much to Alamander's relief. 

Joe seems to have been a leading civic leader of that section. In 
1842, when he was 28 years old, he was on a committee to lay off 
a county seat for the newly formed county of Letcher. Some say that 
the group intended to lay off the site in a large bottom at Pine 
Mountain Junction. A snow storm struck that day, so the trip was cut 
short, and Whitesburg, Ky was laid off at its present location. At 
that time, this land was owned by John A. Caudill, who was an Uncle 
of Joe's wife, and the husband of his sister. It has been told that 
the town was named Whitesburg because of this snow storm, but other 
evidence disputes this tale. Joe was elected as the second Judge of 
the newly formed county of Letcher, serving for some time. When 
Sarah Caudill Cornett was a child, she stayed at Joe's home. On 
his way to do "Courthouse" work in Whitesburg, Joe would take Sarah 
on horse back to the home of his sister Rachel Caudill, and pick 
her up again on his way home. 

Joe was also the Educational Commissioner of Letcher County in 
those days, such an officer had the power to issue teaching 
certificates. He was riding along one day when he met a man who 
expressed a desire to teach. Joe never dismounted from his horse, 
but conducted the examination then and there, and then handed the 
man a written statement permitting him to teach. Then Joe rode on, 
and there was another school teacher in Letcher County. One mile 
below Blackey, on the road to Hazard, Ky. is a creek. It has been 
said the Joe Cornett and another fellow chased an Elk over the 
bluff near the mouth of that creek, killing it. Thus, the creek 
is now called Elk Creek. That was the last elk killed in the 
county, or at least in that part of Kentucky. 

Joe Cornett was a man of much endurance. He was shot in the hip by bushwhackers 
during the Civil War. He was ever after crippled, and he walked 
with a pronounced limp. Perhaps this is why he was sitting by a 
tire one day out in the woods, while his sons hunted nearby. 
A "Panther" (as Mountain Lions were once called) came near and 
started stalking him. Just as Joe saw it, the panther made a 
lunge for him. Joe then jumped over the fire to evade it, but 
the panther ran around the other side. Joe jumped back across 
the fire, and kept this see-sawing up for a while, until he got 
out of time and landed on the other side of the fire at the same 
time as the panther. The only weapon he had was his hands, which 
are said to have been very large. Joe was doing a good job of 
choking the panther to death, when his boys came running from the 
woods to make the kill. There was one less panther in Letcher 
County that day. 

He seems to have been fond of attending various social affairs 
all over the county. He was the undisputed "divider" at the fish 
seinings or trappings. When a large number of fish were caught, 
small piles were made of them. Joe would have the men who caught 
the fish turn their backs, then he would point to a pile and call 
out, "Whose pile is this?" Then one man would call back, "Thats my 
pile". This way, each man would choose his own fish, and there 
would be no quarrels between the men about someone being selfish. 
(Feuds have started over less). Ike Maggard of Isom once said that 
he could still hear the call, "Whose pile is this?", as if it was 
yesterday. He last heard this call as a youth. 

Though rugged, brave and individualistic to a marked degree, he was 
still kind and gentle. In his rides all over the county, he would 
always carry a bag of apples or candy. Upon seeing a child by the 
wayside, he would call to it, and hand down one of these favors. 
The late Dr. Isom of Blackey once said as a child, he was playing 
on a sandbar by the river, and looked up to see an old man astride 
a great white horse coming toward him. At first, he was frightened 
of the man, but soon came to his side when the man called to him. 
Old Joe handed down a treat to the child from his saddle bag. Those 
who regarded Joe as "Contrary" and given to a sarcastic moment now 
and then would have had a hard time convincing this small boy that 
the kindly old Judge was that way. 

Even in his old days, his stubborn courage was still evident. Once, 
while laying off some land, a neighbor was standing by, watching 
closely, intent on catching him in making a mistake, and thus lay 
claim to the land. A few angry words were exchanged, and the 
neighbor threatened to go get his gun and then return to kill Joe. 
He finally did go and get his gun, and sat a little way off by the 
roadside, waiting for the Judge to pass. With pride that he would 
rather die than admit to fear, old Joe rode right past his neighbor, 
calmly saying "Howdy" as he passed. Unknown to either of them, two 
of the Cornett boys were watching from ambush far up on the hill, 
with cocked guns aimed at the would-be killer.....just in case. 

Since he owned more land than he could ever use, he gave each of 
his children a farm as they got married, along with other favors. 
The other favors usually included featherbeds, a milk cow, or 
perhaps a new sewing machine. 

Joe was fond of the old Baptist hymns, and all the neighbors 
sometimes gathered at the Cornett home to have a hymn sing by 
the fireside. He had written some songs, a few of which are still 
sung in the Baptist Churches in Eastern Kentucky. One of these was 
called "Little Bessie" which I have heard sung many times in the 
churches. At one of these hymn sings, a humorous event took place. 
He had a granddaughter living there, who was later Sarah Caudill. 
Sarah told by her Uncle Bill to go and stand by the fireside while 
the singing was going on and just as soon as the singing stopped 
to sing out what he then whispered to her. She went to the fireside 
as she was told. When the last refrain of a very sad hymn had 
ceased, she sang out very loudly what went something like this: 
"Short tailed rooster and a long tailed crow: did you ever see 
the devil Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe". Well, Uncle Joe found the joke 
far from humorous and he made a grab for little Sarah threatening 
swift and furious punishment. Sarah fled to her grandmother's arms 
who had sensed why the girl did it. Sally shielded little Sarah, 
and reprimanded her Uncle Bill for his engineering the joke. Then 
grandma put Sarah to bed with a tin cup of milk and bread. The 
singing went on, and no doubt many a neighbor had a hard time 
keeping a straight face, in spite of all of the solemnity of 
the hymn sing. 

Joe was a member of the Sandlick Baptist Church near Whitesburq. 
He is remembered for his ability to keep order during meeting time. 
It was his compulsion to keep the young folks quiet and reverent 
while the singing was going on. Once he was attending a meeting 
on Rockhouse creek. The meeting was held under a large tree, 
because it was in the hot summertime. Some girls kept making 
frequent trips to the dense underbrush nearby. Rest rooms, even 
the out door type, were almost unknown in that part of Kentucky 
at that time. Old Joe took it as long as he could, and when the 
girls started for the brush for the "umpteenth" time he raised 
up and loudly called out, "If I was that bad off with kidney 
trouble, I'd have brought a gourd"! 

Long before his death, he had some coffins made for himself, 
and his wife, and put them in the upper story of his home. Little 
Sarah got curious about what these boxes were, and asked Joe about 
them. Joe explained that they were just some boxes in which he 
might put apples in sometime. 

He also had his grave stones made before his death. They were 
made of mountain stone from his beloved hills, and were carved 
into a design, popular even before those days. The gravestone 
maker used old Joe's sled to haul them to the Cornett home for 
approval. He brought them to the door of the house, and held them 
up for Joe to see. Though seriously ill (maybe on his death bed) 
the trading spirit had not left him. Then and there, he made a deal 
with the stonemaker to take his sled in payment for making the 
stones. These stones are now standing over Joe and his wife, now 
crumbling to dust, their lettering no longer visible, after eighty 
years of standing on that high hill in winter blast and summer sun. 

Judge Joseph Enoch Cornett, who was born on April 28, l8l4, died 
at his home on Dry Fork, Letcher County, Ky on May 30, 1891, aged 
77 years, one month, and two days. His wife Sally, lived on until 
April 19, 1892, and then went to be with Old Joe for eternity. 
There on a windswept hill, under brush and crumbling stones, 
rests that illustrious old Judge and his kind wife, foreparents 
of a large generation of Cornetts who are scattered throughout 
the hills and valleys around them, and to regions far beyond. The 
songs he wrote live on, and are shown on the following pages. 
"Little Bessie" has now been made into a country and western song, 
and has been heard far and wide. I cannot help but believe that the 
death of his 11- month old daughter Easter inspired this song. "The 
Orphan Girl" is probably pure imagination. 

Image Source: Find A Grave/ Joseph Enoch Cornett
Article Source: Biography of Joseph Enoch Cornett

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