Letter to the Editor - Miracle on Jefferson Street : Lemons & Langston Save Cultural History
(Clinton KY, February 12, 2013) -The time was around 1:00 a.m. There was danger in the air.
In the early morning hours, 30,000 bricks and 3,000 linear feet of rough cut 2 X 12 poplar and rose timber beams shifted.
Building hell resulted.
The roof fell down on the second story floor, driving it down onto the first floor. Left briefly intact was the eight feet deep full basement.
In the early morning darkness was a scene of destruction of wood, bricks, computers, antique furniture and records resting inside a 40 foot long, 24 feet wide, 30 feet deep crater. The debris field was scattered over most of Jefferson Street , next to Clinton Hardware.
At first dawn’s light, the worst fears of local historian LaDonna Latham and her mother, Norma Gene Humphries were realized. On this date in history, Monday, February 11, 2013 the 100 year old brick building at the corner of North Jefferson and West Clay housing the Hickman County Historical & Genealogical Society office and museum collapsed.
With tears, LaDonna and Norma Jean, these two founding members of the Historical Society, realized their world of meetings, research, genealogical records and filings now lay amongst the broken wood and bricks.
A much harder reality was setting in. Clinton now had a major problem of a partially destroyed building with brick, glass, and wood hanging in mid air, ready to fall on passersby.
Like a scene out of a John Wayne movie, where the little band of settlers have circled their wagons to fight off the hostile natives, the cavalry came over the hill in the nick of time to save them.
On this cold winter day, the cavalry took the form of two men and their crews: Jimmy Lemons and Jack Langston.
Early on Tuesday morning, Lemons moved into position his large Kamatsu with its heavy duty claw bucket. He brought a specially trained crew of four men to help. Meanwhile, Jack Langston and his city crew of another four men showed, up ready to take up the challenge.
Both men knew that time was against them. WPSD Channel 6 weather forecaster Jennifer Rukavina had forecast the rain to start sometime early Wednesday morning or late on this Tuesday.
From 8:00 a.m. until 4:38 p.m., these 10 men fought broken wood, brick rubble, dust to clog eyes and ears, and the constant fear of the building collapsing on their heads or falling through the first floor down into the basement.
Lemons handled his equipment like a lion tamer with a giant metal cat. Using the giant claw to move it close onto walls and fallen debris, the yellow body held in place by the hand of God and skill of the operator.
Lemons’ team worked in four foot squares, shifting through the mess to retrieve torn pages, maps, books, other artifacts of history. They were not able to carry anything away from the recovery zone squares because the footing was so dangerous. Broken wooden beams and flooring left teeth of exposed nails. At the slightest touch, bricks shifted away from their feet.
They loaded the giant metal maw with books, papers, and history over and over. Lemons turned the metal claw filled with priceless Hickman County history into the waiting arms of John Turner and Jack Langston’s crew. Turner and Langston guided the load down gently onto a large trailer.
This procedure went on for hours. Lemons shifted his equipment into the debris, filling up the basement, moving deeper into the building. As he moved, bricks would fall and the remaining walls would sway in the sunlight as if it was their turn to collapse. Moans would erupt from deep inside the small mountain of wreckage.
By late afternoon, Lemons and his crew had worked their way from the back to the front door of the building. Here were the most prized possessions of the Society. Taking pride of place were files of deaths and marriages from the many years of history of Clinton and Columbus and all of the other small communities in Western Kentucky, historical photographs, and the wooden desk that Clinton native Harry Lee Waterfield used in his office used during his term as Kentucky’s lieutenant governor.
I just want to express my admiration and heartfelt thanks to the many volunteers who came by to help but had to be turned away for fears of life threatening structural damage.
Of course this meant that Lemons, Langston and their men faced an even larger and more daunting task of working in harm’s way, beating seconds off the time left before the rains came.
We are defined by the people who came before us.
Those generations of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends all helped to contribute to what we now call culture and heritage. For many of them, their stories and moments of life are in our records. Their marriages, deaths, war, peace, births, education, hardship are the things that make up the foundation of who we are.
Thanks to ten good men, who worked as one to save our records, we believe that something like 85% to 90% of the most important records were saved. Even though priceless antique tables, chairs, furniture from every part of our local community’s history were destroyed, no one was hurt.
What we lost was a building, not our spirit.
Like so many who came before us, we now know the hurt and pain of tragedy. But the sun will rise tomorrow. We intend to pick ourselves up off the ground and make the good fight to once again document our culture and history for this county and the people who call it home, whether they live here or are from here.
Thank you all for your support and help.
Let us now unite and march boldly into the future, making our past generations proud of our spirit.
President, Hickman County Historical & Genealogical Society