History of the Renfro Valley
A Peek at this Famous Scene in Tratitional Country History:
The Year was 1940
Ye Ol' Map
Photos: Red Foley, Whitey Ford, others
THE RENFRO VALLEY SETTLEMENT.
A 1940 view of the Renfro Lodge. The Trading Post, the Old Water Mill
and the Music Library. Directly across from the lodge is the Big Barn.
The area was named so by John Lair, after the area's first settlers, John and Lula Renfro. Lair also named the creek after them - "Renfo Creek" which flows throughout the whole valley. The folks there loved their little green valley and were happy others did as well.
The first broadcast of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance was from the Cincinnati Music Hall on Saturday night, October 9, 1937, over radio station WLW. After a record year at the Music Hall it was moved to Memorial Auditorium, Dayton, Ohio, for another year of highly successful operation and on November 4, 1939 it took up permanent quarters in the big barn in Renfro Valley built expressly for that purpose.
For the actual beginning of the idea which later developed into this famous presentation, we must go back to the time when John Lair was growing up on the old homestead at the junction of "Big" and "Little" Renfro. Though not talented in a musical way himself, John was more or less the patron saint of such as scraped upon the fiddle or thumped upon the 5-string banjo and early organized a string band of neighborhood boys who gathered in secret to escape the attention of his Grandfather, Judge Jerome Burke Lair, a typical Southern Gentleman of the old school in appearance, deportment and convictions, but with an abhorrence of string music and musicians almost Puritanical in its intensity. He judged all men by the stern maxim "There's no good in a man who plays the fiddle or parts his hair in the middle." To tell the truth, in those pre-radio days, the future of any boy who preferred fiddle to hoeing corn did appear slightly cloudy, to say the least.
Being "mixed up with a string band" had the inevitable result of storing John's memory with never-to-be-forgotten scenes in the Staverson barn loft, the Redbud Schoolhouse and many private homes where the bright-eyed boys and rosy-cheeked girls of the neighborhood met on snowy winter nights to play "Four Hands Up to Rouser," "Wars of Germany," and Skip-to-M'Lou to the merry strains of fiddle, guitar and banjo.
In due process of time along came the World War to break up the little parties and social gatherings up and down Renfro Creek, After the Armistice most of the boys came back, but things had changed in Renfro Valley. The younger generation was fast getting away from such "backwoods" diversion and play-parties, bean stringings, quilting parties and the like were done for.
Soon after John's return from the war his father passed on, leaving him with a big farm to manage and a widowed mother to support. He had always dreamed of owning The Valley some day. His two grandfathers had almost done it one time and it was his one great ambition to complete to job. He wanted to rip up the weather-boarding of the houses up and down Renfro to reveal the beauty of the old log walls. He wanted to remove most of the fences and let the land revert to wilderness so the wild game of any earlier day would came back to the cliffs and rocky ridges that rimmed the valley and make it a spot where future generations would come for a glimpse of the Pioneer America that was.
Not much use for a farm boy with no money to dream such dreams, though, so he tried to get the Valley off his mind by going out to buck the world which lay beyond it. Following, briefly, many trails he came at last to a radio job on station WLS. In eight years there he had gained a lot of experience, continued heavily to the development of so-called hill-billy, then a newcomer, and acquired the rather empty distinction of probably knowing more about American Folk-Music and "home folks" radio than anyone else in the business. Still he wasn't satisfied. The barn dance of program which he had helped to develop don;t ring true, somehow. It didn't remind him enough of the real things as he had known it in the good old days in Renfro Valley. He felt that what radio needed was a little realism - a little less "showmanship" and a little more heart-felt sincerity. The old dream of doing something for Renfro Valley kept bobbing up and he finally decided to cut loose from a good job and pleasant associations and try his hand at doing some of the things more experienced radio men had always told him couldn't be done.
A young executive of a new advertising agency became interested. He had either the foresight or the sporting blood to take a chance. A couple of sponsors were lined up and the big adventure was on its way. Red Foley, one of the best of the many radio stars John Lair had developed for radio, declared himself in on the deal. Slim Miller allowed he might as well go along, too. Lily May Ledford was encouraged to build an all-girl fiddle band (first of its kind on the air) and Milly and Dolly Good, who had been one of the sweetest harmony team on the air, were brought together again and offered a job. Whitey Ford was picked up at a St. Louis radio station. Margaret Lillie and Harry Mullins were teamed up as A'nt Idy and Little Clifford and the first program was soon ready for the air.
From this point on the history of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance is almost too well known to require repeating here. Huge crowds flocked to see the Saturday night broadcasts and when that cast made personal appearance in the theatres in the largest cities in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia unheard-of box office grosses were rolled up to break all records. Money was pouring in and here at last was the long-awaited backing for the Renfro Valley Project. Buildings were started at once and a soon as the barn was finished the Renfro Valley Barn Dance moved in and started getting settled for the winter. To John Lair and the boys and girls he had taken into radio work from Renfro Valley it meant coming back "home."
From the first Saturday night the venture was an assured success. In spite of dire predictions of some of the neighbors that it would all be over in a couple of weeks - as soon as the novelty had worn off - the crowds got bigger and bigger. Radio experts who had held that people wouldn't drive a hundred miles or more to see a barn dance out in the country had been so amazed by even the first night's business that they had quit prophesying and were sitting back watching radio history in the making. All winter long the crowds kept coming from almost unbelievable distances and when spring brought ideal traveling weather all roads seemed to lead to Renfro Valley. License plates from as many as fifteen different states have been checked in a single Saturday night and at no time had there ever been less than seven states represented at any barn dance. Parties came from as far west as California and Oregon, as far north as Canada, as far east as New York and as far south as Florida. (The Monday night broadcast from the Redbud Schoolhouse also rapidly developed a similar "draw." Probably the most noted example of this occurred on a November 18th evening when Burnis Fetters and her aged grandmother, Mrs. C. B. Fetters, made a trip of twelve hundred miles from Moose Lake, Minnesota, to be present at the "hayride" broadcast on that night).
It is a remarkable fact that visitors from Ohio and Indiana often outnumbered those from Kentucky, but the Renfro Valley Barn Dance did not lack for loyal local support. Mountain people had been especially interested and arrived in almost every conceivable type of conveyance - in buggies, wagons, ox carts and on horseback. There was always a welcome for everyone, but not always room, altho the barn could accommodate a thousand at a time. All through the spring, summers and fall season it was frequently necessary to give three performances each Saturday night. On two separate occasions more than five thousand visitors gathered at this shrine of American Folk-Music down in the Kentucky Hills.
Nobody knows just how old this building actually was. On its walls were carved the initials of many generations of Renfro Valley students. The building itself was always basically the same, but it's interior layout and use changed often during the years. Only one thing remain the same - the row of wooden pegs, placed at varying heights along the wall for coats, hats and dinner buckets. For many years the building served as the only community center for the folks in the valley. On Sunday it served as Sunday School headquarters and, occasionally, traveling preachers used it. Elections and communities events were held there and it also served as a theatre for the wandering fiddlers and banjo players who brought The Valley its only glimpse of the professional entertainer.
When the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, searching for a radio program that might bring listeners a steadying sampling of pioneer America at the time, picked the Renfro Valley folks as the ideal cast for such a program. It was inevitable that the old log schoolhouse should be brought back into service. From it each Monday night it's sounds were broadcast over a network of southern NBC stations, making it one of the most unusual series of programs being presented in the early 1940s.
A special thanks to Dixie Redden for her research help.
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