“Adventure is in the eye of the beholder.”– Annie Andre, travel and lifestyle blogger.
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“Welcome to the city of Pikeville,” the travel booklet beckoned to me last week. “A beautiful gem nestled in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.”
The Pikeville promotional piece triggered a smile, reminding me of my one visit to the Blue Grass State’s eastern city some 30 or more years ago. It was an old car hunter’s dream adventure. For most of my life, I’ve chased stories of old cars hidden and forgotten by time. Still, Pikeville was for me the most incredible example of what is commonly called “barn find” cars—collectible cars long concealed out of sight and out of mind.
It all started at a family reunion in Winchester in north-central Kentucky, my mother’s birthplace and home, until she married my father in 1944. “Anybody want to go see my part of Kentucky,” offered my Uncle Freddie. He was married to my Aunt Jo, the middle child of five Johnson siblings born and raised in Winchester.
Freddie Scott was from Hazard, a couple hours east of Winchester over in the coal mining region of Kentucky. When his invitation came with the mention of visiting an eccentric relative near Pikeville who used to have some old cars hidden away, I was the first to sign up.
Pikeville is located in the Appalachian Mountains, along the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. Getting to Hazard and then to Pike County entailed an adventure of its own winding through several smaller towns reminiscent of scenes from the 1980s movie, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” about country music singer Loretta Lynn.
My Uncle Freddie’s uncle, who also answered to “Uncle Freddie,” greeted us on the parking lot of his residence wearing his best pair of overalls and a ball cap advertising his wrecker service. That residence was unmistakably once a motel on the uphill side of narrow two-lane highway 23 outside Pikeville.
“My nephew likes old cars,” my Uncle Freddie said. “You still got yours?” Nodding across the road toward what appeared to be an old country store clinging to the mountainside above the river, the other Uncle Freddie responded, “Sure do.”
Shafts of afternoon sunlight following us into the dark building first revealing a ’49 Ford that looked like someone had painted it using a cheap brush years ago. In stark contrast, beside it sat a pristine white ‘60 Chevrolet Impala similar to the one I remembered Mount Pleasant friend Troy Alders driving when we were in high school.
As I was about to declare this “stash” nice but not spectacular, the elder Freddie began throwing old quilts and feed sacks aside to uncover one more vehicle. What emerged was an immaculate red ’61 Corvette. It didn’t take long to notice the odometer that was not yet displaying 10,000 miles and the “Fuel Injection” badging on the front fender indicating this early version of “America’s Sports Car” was equipped with the highest performance option motor for that year. The originality of the paint, interior, and every detail dazzled: every inch of the car screamed, “untouched factory original.”
“Got it years ago from the guy who bought it new,” he said. “The dealer in Pikeville offered me a brand-new Corvette for it not long ago—even trade. I just laughed at him.”
I was still busy, drooling and trying to fathom the car’s condition when it was apparent Freddie “two” was still digging through the myriads of makeshift car coverings. Then, finally, when the last piece had been tossed aside, there sat another “showroom new” Corvette. This one, a 1956 sporting an odd but popular color combination for that year, Pinecrest green with red interior, registered just over 2,000 miles. Under the hood, dual air cleaners gave away Chevrolet’s highest performance V-8 available for that year as well.
“Do you ever drive them,” my uncle asked? After a moment’s pause for pondering, the elder Freddie said, “Started ‘em up a few years ago and drove ‘em across the street when the river got up … it was about to get up in this building.”
“Ever consider selling them,” I followed? No pensive reflection was needed that time. All I got was a laugh, probably the same one the Pikeville Chevy dealer got.
My Uncle Freddie passed away too few years after that. And I never heard what became of the pair of incredible time capsule Corvettes my eyes beheld one day in Kentucky. Still, I never forgot them … or the Pikeville adventure.
(Photo above by Leon Aldridge about 1984 — The cars pictured are not Corvettes and that barn find adventure was not in Kentucky. Sadly, no photos of the Corvettes in Kentucky exist. The cars above were technically not “barn find” cars in the strictest sense of terminology either, they were an East Texas “chicken house find.” I have found old cars waiting to be discovered in every imaginable type of structure. The “chicken house adventure” above yielded a 440 powered 1969 Plymouth GTX convertible (left), a 428 powered 1969 Pontiac Bonneville convertible (center), and a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible (not in the photo.) The 1961 Cadillac limo was also in the chicken house, but unlike the three cars listed above, it and several others did not go home with me that day.
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, and the Alpine Avalanche.
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