ME AND MAYO
That's me next to the John C. C. Mayo monument in the Mayo cemetery overlooking Paintsville, Kentucky. It was said that it took ten to twelve oxen to drag this huge piece of granite up the hillside. Word also had it that it was modeled after Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb—a grandiose gesture indeed.
Shortly before his death in 1914, the Louisville Courier Journal named Mayo as Kentucky’s Richest Man. I have taken this for the title of the play I’ve written about this amazing individual.
Kentucky’s Richest Man is a three-act play to be performed at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg this coming April 2018. Casting is nearly completed and artistic director Terry Salyer is scheduled to begin rehearsals after the first of the year.
Our most noted and exploited historical events here are the Hatfield/McCoy Feud and the Jenny Wiley story—aside from General Garfield’s occupation here during the Civil War. However, in our long and varied past we have only one event that can be said to have drastically, and radically changed the entire culture of our area. Around the turn of the 20th Century John C. C. Mayo, along with Walter Harkins of Prestonsburg, brought in the C & O railroad and established Eastern Kentucky’s massive coal industry. This immediately provided good paying jobs for many and riches for entrepreneurs. Since then, for better or worse, the coal industry has been East Kentucky’s primary economic base, as well as given us our perception of ourselves.
Although at present there is a modest upswing in certain areas, the mining industry as a whole is said to be in decline, and in this sense may be said to be dying. So I thought the birth of the industry may now be relevant, hence the research and development of this play.
It is a narrative play spanning the years 1888 to 1914, the years in which Mayo struggled to bring—in his view— primitive eastern Kentucky into the 20th Century. Although highly celebrated for this achievement during his lifetime, he is now much vilified for the principle instrument he used to personally enrich himself, the Broad Form Deed—which like most legal documents, in the end, comes down to interpretation, for better or for worse. The ramifications of this deed can only be explored in the play, as it were, in relation to the politics of the times, and of course prior to huge earth-moving equipment.
Although the play is centered in the Big Sandy River Valley, its scope is statewide. Mayo’s money got senators and governors elected as well as ensuring that Woodrow Wilson would carry the state in 1912. The play also presents other little-known historical facts, for instance, the fact that after shooting Hamilton, Aaron Burr fled to Kentucky and tried to get the governor of New Orleans to annex Kentucky into the Spanish Empire. But Virginia quickly interceded and made Kentucky a state. Another incident has two survey parties from Kentucky and Virginia getting drunk and choosing the wrong river (The Tug) as the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. Had they been sober and chosen the intended longest fork of the river (The Levisa) Prestonsburg and half of Pike County would now be in West Virginia. The play also relies on local rumor that one woman outfoxed another to become Mayo’s wife.
Perhaps any good talented author could have researched and written this play, but not from the same perspective as mine. As a child, I once lived in the massive Mayo Mansion in Paintsville, and naturally, have memories of it. I once looked out and saw that the gate by the street was open and felt in my childish mind that it was my responsibility to go out and close it. I also taught at Our Lady of the Mountains School there once and was a little taken aback to see that it had been divided up into classrooms—although for a good purpose—and that the huge ballroom had sadly become nothing more than a storage space.
No, I’m not especially enamored of Mayo. I just think he is someone who has directly or indirectly affected all our lives. And this kind of makes him special. I tried to be as objective as possible in portraying all I know about Mayo, but if any bias shows through, it is only because I admire anyone who can accomplish the seemingly impossible. And he sure did!