By Scott Honeycutt
Affiliation: Eastern Kentucky University. Managed by the EKU Division of Natural Areas.
Location: Skyline, Letcher County, Kentucky. 7.0823196°N, -82.9932266°W. 2 hours and 25 minutes and 136 miles by car from Eastern Kentucky University’s main campus in Richmond, Kentucky.
Size: 252 acres of old-growth forest inside 659 overall acres.
Trails: There are two restricted trails: a 1-mile trail and a 2.5-mile trail. The trails are unmarked and rugged, and both require reservations to walk. Hikes are led by park management. Guided hikes can take three hours for the short hike and up to six hours for the long one. During guided walks, managers will showcase specimen trees, discuss forest ecology, and give a history of the woods. In addition to the restricted trails, Eastern Kentucky University constructed a half-mile, self-guided loop trail that winds through younger, less fragile areas on the property. This trail is located on a newly acquired 100 acres.
Amenities: Small welcome center with handicap access restrooms. Picnic tables. Bunkhouse lodging for researchers and students. Research station includes a wet lab with scientific equipment, a classroom, and library.
Region: Southeast Kentucky. Cumberland Plateau. Line Fork Creek helps to form the headwaters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River.
Forest type: Mixed mesophytic. Dominant trees in the lower elevations are beech, hickory, and white oak, while chestnut oak dominates the upper elevations.
Disturbance history: The 252 acres of old growth have been largely undisturbed. However, in the middle of the 20th century, Lilley Cornett and his family logged dead and dying American chestnuts. Near the bottom of Little Everidge creek, the family dug a shaft coal mine, but it was soon abandoned due to seasonal flooding.
Conservation status: The land deed from the Cornett estate prevents any trees from being harvested. In the 1980s and ’90s, the Kentucky River Coal Company and Virginia Iron, Coal, and Coke Company ceded mining rights in adjacent properties to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Lilley Cornett Woods is the home of the Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station. Over the years, researchers and students have used the forest for a variety of short-term and long-term studies, including archeological digs of rock houses; hydrological surveys; studies of snakes; dendrochronology; and wildflower counts.
Contact: Curtis Cox, Manager of Lilley Cornett Woods. 91 Lilley Cornett Branch, Hallie, Kentucky 41821 Curtis.Cox@EKU.edu
We had been walking up trail for five minutes, when a loud snap and crackle began on the ridge above us. As I looked over my left shoulder, I could see the shadow of a tall tree, perhaps a pitch pine, begin to fall. The crashing sound echoed down into the hollow and what followed this clear-day-thunder was what follows all sudden noises in a forest — silence. It was the silence of old trees and older hills, and nothing else could now be heard but a gathering breeze and the trickle of Big Everidge creek.
I looked over to my guide, Curtis, and he merely shrugged his shoulders.
“It happens,” he said. “In the late winter, after many days of frost and thaw, combined with wind, many trees simply tumble over. Let’s keep our heads up.”
We continued to hike the steep grade, following mossy stones, and moving deeper and deeper into the largest tract of remaining old growth in Kentucky — Lilley Cornett Woods. We were five minutes into a five-hour hike, and the forest was welcoming us.
Lilley Cornett Woods is one of those special places in the East. The Cumberland Mountains are known for their sharp hills and dark “hollers” but in our contemporary sylvan imagination, and in historical fact, the Cumberlands have lost their legacy of ancient forests. During the past 150 years, nearly all of Southeast Kentucky has been logged or exploited by other extractive industries, such as coal and gas mining. Lilley Cornett Woods stands as an anomaly, a vestige from Kentucky’s deep past of long hunters and indigenous tribes.
Lilley Cornett Woods is owned by the Commonwealth of Kentucky but is managed by Eastern Kentucky University. The property spans 659 acres, 252 of which are regarded as a minimally disturbed old growth forest. Even though the woods have been designated as a registered National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department Interior, it remains largely unknown outside the region. Perhaps this obscurity is due to its isolated setting, a fact that no doubt helped lead to its initial preservation. To be sure, Lilley Cornett Woods is not an easy place to find. Located in Letcher County, the forest rewards those visitors who take the long drive out to view it. For those of us who do not live in the mountain towns of Hazard or Whitesburg, Lilley Cornett Woods seems to be about three hours from everywhere. The tract sits about an hour and half from the nearest interstate, and roads that lead to this palace of trees are serpentine and narrow.
For years, I had wanted to hike Lilley Cornett, but it was only a few weeks before my visit that I learned a truth about its namesake. Lilley was not a woman. My wrong-minded reading of Cornett’s first name can perhaps be forgiven. After all, there is another old growth forest located in western North Carolina that also bears a traditionally female name — Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. When I was a young man, I spent many days camping in Joyce Kilmer. On my first trip there I distinctly recall imagining an aged, wizened woman named Joyce who sat smoking a corncob pipe in a log cabin, far from any road. The smoke from her chimney would curl up into the overstory. This fantasized Joyce evaporated the moment I observed a bronze plaque at the visitor’s parking lot. On it, Kilmer’s stoic face looms out from an embossed map of the park, and etchings of hemlock needles are interwoven throughout. The plaque reads, “DEDICATED JULY 30, 1936.” The resolute, far-looking eyes of this bronze Kilmer forever dispatched any images I had of a folk woman serving biscuits lathered with apple butter.
Both Joyce Kilmer and Lilley Cornett fought in World War One. Unfortunately, Kilmer died in Europe, leaving behind his most famous poem, “Trees.” The poem’s magnetic final couplet is known to school children throughout the United States: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.” These lines would help inspire the lasting protection of towering tulip poplars, American chestnuts, and eastern hemlocks that grew in the loamy coves near Little Santeetlah Creek of the Nantahala National Forest. Of these three species, only the poplars remain. By mid-twentieth century, the chestnuts had succumbed to blight, and in the early 2000s, many hemlocks had also succumbed to the ravages of a new invader: woolly adelgid insects. Beyond the unique first names of Joyce and Lilley, however, the lives of these two namesakes and their forests differ. Kilmer is buried in France, having never seen the great forest that would bear his name, but Lilley Cornett is still on his property. He is buried along with most of his kin in the family plot along the access road into his forest. All visitors should stop and give their respects.
Lilley Cornett was born in 1888 and grew up along Line Fork Creek, not far from the woods that would eventually bear his name. After his return from Europe, Cornett worked in local coal mines and saved his pay. He purchased land along Line Fork in the early 1920s. His initial property included rich bottom lands as well as steep ridges, both full of what at the time was called “virgin timber.” Because these woods remain largely intact today, it may be easy to conclude that Cornett preserved them due to some ecological foresight. Certainly, the woods meant a lot to this mountain farmer. Cornett, however, was known to be more of a shrewd businessperson than a poet. Some have speculated that the real reason Cornett did not log his trees was more practical; He never got his asking price. Over the decades, after the W.M. Ritter Lumber Company and American Column Lumber Company had logged much of the forest in Letcher County, Cornett’s woods became ever more valuable.
Harry M. Caudill (1922-1990), a noted author, attorney, and politician from Letcher County, gives an account of Cornett’s life in the first chapter of The Mountain, the Miner, and the Lord (1980). The book consists of character sketches and anecdotes from Southeast Kentucky. Throughout the chapter titled “A Visit to the Whitehouse,” Caudill renders Cornett’s spoken voice. When he writes from Cornett’s perspective, saying, “As long as I live, I aim to be able to look out and see them big trees agrowin',” readers get a sense of the mountaineer’s colorful personality.
Caudill tells how Cornett baited one of his rivals into thinking he wanted to cut his trees. According to Caudill, in 1954, Cornett hinted to a local speculator named Sam Collins that he was ready to lumber. “You’ve been a good friend to me and now I want to be a good friend to you,” Cornett told Collins. “I’ma thinking to sell my timber and I don’t know how to go about hit.…I’ll sell it to you at the right kind of price, and I’ll appreciate hita sight in this world if you will help me out so I won’t lose my shirt on the deal.” Collins was pleased with this idea and was taken in more by what Cornett offered next: “I’ma going to see that you come outta this in real good shape because of all the trouble and cost you put into it. I don’t need much money myself, but a man like you needs a whole lot and I aim fer you to git hit.” Thinking that Cornett’s timber would amount to a handsome payday, Collins hired a tree “cruiser” (a person who inventories tree species) to categorize and record all of the old timber. After two weeks of meticulously cataloging every commercially viable tree on Cornett’s property, the cruiser gave his formal inventory to Collins.
Since this would be one of the last big lumber transactions to be had in the county, Collins was ecstatic, and he could almost feel the money in his pocket. Yet, on the morning that the deal was to take place, wily ol’ Cornett baulked. After Cornett was handed the cruiser’s register, he looked Collins in the eye and said, “I’m a man of few words and I’ll make you one proposition— take hit or leave hit. My price is one million dollars cash before a single tree is cut.” Cornett understood his asking price was way out of range, but in stringing Collins along he had gotten what he had wanted: a free-of-cost, detailed species and board-feet analysis of his woods. Caudill goes onto narrate that Cornett also received several cases of beer out of the whole affair, beer which he sipped each day as the cruiser worked in his woods. Gobsmacked, and knowing that he had been played, Collins drove off down the twisting roads toward Whitesburg without a deal. He didn’t return.
With no agreement on the lumber sale, Cornett continued to live in the minimally disturbed forest. Over the years, his family cleared the bottomlands for corn production, and they let their hogs roam free in the upland hollows. While he never allowed the healthy hardwoods to be cut, he and his family did fell the blighted chestnuts, and so by mid-century his property had become an island of original forest surrounded by miles and miles of strip mines and clear cuts. After Cornett’s death in 1958, the patriarch’s four sons inherited the land and split ownership. At the urging of his widow, Polly, the family put their beloved woods on the market in the 1960s.
The aforementioned author, Harry Caudill, and his wife, Anne, would play a part in Kentucky’s acquisition of the property. Anne was an amateur horticulturist who, like her husband, was active in community stewardship and in the cultural preservation of Appalachia. In 1962, she attended a garden party in the town of Hazard, and one of the guest speakers was Charles Prather, superintendent of the Commonwealth. Days later, Anne wrote a letter to the forester. In it, she tells how she and Harry “hiked up into a marvelous stand of virgin white oak” near the Skyline post office. Sentences later, she would make a blunt appeal for the oldest trees in Letcher County: “Harry and I would like to see the tract bought by the federal government and preserved.” Without Anne’s correspondence, the fate of “Lilley’s Woods” could have been a lot more dubious. Though the federal government would not be involved in purchasing it, the letter did serve to put the forest on the state’s radar. A few years later, Lilley Cornett’s forest was sold for over $270,000.
With this sale, the coveted forest would avoid the axe one final time when the Commonwealth of Kentucky became its new owner in 1969. In an agreement between the family and state, the property deed stipulated that the land was to be permanently preserved “as a living museum, valuable for its virgin timber, botanical, biological, and zoological life.” The deed went on to say that Cornett’s descendants could live on the property for the remainder of their lives. A further layer of protection came when Kentucky River Coal Company and Virginia Iron, Coal, and Coke Company (VICCO) ceded their surface mining rights to the state in all property that bordered the newly named Lilley Cornett Woods.
Even though the land deal protected the trees in perpetuity, Lilley Cornett Woods faced a new challenge. After all, Kentucky’s Division of Forestry was and is in the business of logging forests, so the state was left in a quandary about what to do with its new acquisition. In 1972, the commonwealth hired a land manager, Robert Watts, to oversee the woods. Due to deed restrictions, division could not operate the woods in its typical fashion of selective logging and understory suppression. After eight years of control, the commonwealth relinquished the forest to its current caretaker, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). Soon after taking the property, EKU developed its Division of Natural Areas and set to protecting the Lilley Cornett Woods for future generations.
Robert Watts stayed on as the property manager, retiring in 2019. He lived in a cabin on the property, led hikes, and, along with faculty, most notably biology professor Dr. William Martin at EKU, helped to develop Lilley Cornett Woods as an ecological research station for scholars and students. Each year researchers from around the country travel to Lilley Cornett. While here, they board in the bunkhouse, use the lab facilities, and, most important, investigate the forest. In addition to examining the impressive trees, researchers have used Lilley Cornett to study wide ranging ecological subjects, including amphibians and invertebrates, birds and mammals. They have also studied valuable medicinal plants, including black cohosh and ginseng. After the completion of over 50 biological studies, the woods that bear Cornett’s name have become a living laboratory, a place where forest ecology and human insight work in unison.
Curtis Cox is Lilley Cornett Woods’ property manager. A large man, Cox walks with the agility of a mountain bear, and anyone who wants to hike these woods is required to have him or his assistant guide them. Cox is an expert and knows this forest about as well as Lilley did. Not long after the big tree had fallen on the ridge above us, we reached one of Cox’s favorite trees, an ancient, and healthy eastern hemlock. The tree is well over 60 feet high, and its gnarled limbs speak in centuries, not years. Unlike the hemlocks of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which 20 years ago had been mostly brought low by the woolly adelgid, several of the hemlocks here are being treated by park managers with systemic insecticides. The results are striking. Before us stood a rare, thriving hemlock, a tree whose green needles are resplendent. This giant exemplifies what we have lost and what we stand to lose in our eastern forests. In the mid-1990s, while hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Forest, I came across a stand of dying hemlocks. Their bark had turned ashy, and their limbs were devoid of needles — a sad sight. I asked a park ranger what had killed the trees.
“It’s an insect, and there’s no stopping its march down the spine of the
Mountains,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“Down near the Smoky Mountains," I said.
“Oh, well,” she said. “I’m afraid that in four or five years those southern trees are going to suffer the same fate as these in the Shenandoah. It’s like the chestnut blight all over again.”
This anonymous ranger’s word proved prophetic. By early century, many mature hemlocks growing in the Great Smoky Mountains and on down into Georgia and Alabama, had been infected with the adelgid mite. While not always as terminal as the chestnut blight, the woolly adelgid has destroyed countless trees.
Here in Lilley Cornett Woods, the fight continues. Cox and his crew take their jobs seriously, and for now, treated hemlocks are fighting back against the infestation. Though pesticide is effective in controlling woolly adelgid, the treatment is not without its challenges. The most popular chemicals used, imidacloprid or dinotefuran, are neonicotinoids which render the trees poisonous to bees and other pollinating insects. For this reason, park managers adhere to a strict calendar schedule so that the dose is not delivered during the prime flowerings of spring and early summer. In addition, once chemical treatment has begun, it becomes an expensive battle to save individual trees, and due to the possibility of environmental contamination, wholesale chemical treatment of an entire forest is not feasible. Beyond treating hemlocks with chemicals, foresters throughout Appalachia have also experimented with predatory beetles in their war against the invasive adelgid. This solution, too, is problematic, given the expense of purchasing insects as well as the potential unintended consequences of unleashing non-native predators into the wild. For now, the battle remains focused on saving specimen hemlocks, one of the foundation species of Lilley Cornett Woods’s forest ecology.
As Cox and I followed the trail out of the watershed, we left the creekside hemlocks and entered a landscape filled with car-sized sandstone boulders surrounded by a grove of American beech trees. Two of the beeches bore the knife marks of long-dead travelers. Known to some as arborglyphs, these carvings are most often placed on beeches due to their skin-like bark. Although I am against marring trees, it is fascinating to read the record of earlier lives that remain preserved in these deep cuts. The first beech we saw was etched over with a variety of scarred markings. Two of the clearest letters were S and O, and they were carved directly under three arrowed stripes that looked like the chevron an army sergeant would wear on his sleeves. Directly under the stripes, worn dates of either 1859 or 1869 faded into the bark. On another beech, under the large initials of AC, the date 1897 loomed out. For well over 120 years these letters have greeted every walker who has ventured up this way. These beech trees are road signs for the seasons, enduring wind and rain, and the knife blade of years. The markings are evidence of just how wandered-over every part of these mountains are. Even in one of the most remote Appalachian forests, humans and trees have an intertwined history.
By the time we had reached the preserve’s crest, we had been walking for an hour, passing under boughs of numerous centuries-old canopy trees intermingled with other younger tree and shrub species. Lilley Cornett Woods possesses traits of what foresters term as mixed mesophytic old growth forest. Mixed mesophytic forest types are characterized by their rich plant diversity, unevenly aged trees, and minimally disturbed soils. Due to the steepness of dry ridge slopes, however, the old trees here do not typically develop as girthy as hardwoods growing in the Smoky Mountains. At first viewing, this lack of obvious hugeness might drive one to conclude that Lilley Cornett’s trees are not as ancient as those giants growing farther south. That assumption would be dead wrong. Crosscuts from fallen logs along with coring samples taken over the decades have aged numerous trees to well over 300 hundred years. Here, never-cut pignut hickory, red oak, black cherry, white ash, and black walnut groves reach toward the sky. These coveted hardwoods are ones that timber companies searched and hungered for throughout the Appalachian Mountains during the early years of the 20th century. Given this rapaciousness for commercial lumber, it still amazes that this winning aboral lottery ticket was never scratched.
The highest point in Lilley Cornett also marks roughly a halfway point in the 2.5-mile loop trail. Although eastern Kentucky is often referred to as mountainous, the term is a misnomer. Instead, this region is true hill country. Those lofty peaks of the blue ridge which can reach past 6,000 feet stand 100 miles south, but the highest knoll in Lilley Cornett Woods rises to a little over 2,100 feet. However, what this area concedes in height, it makes up for in ruggedness. We might even muse and conclude that this landscape has a true grit or character, not unlike the people who still live in this region.
A sandstone rock house caps the top of Lilley Cornett Wood’s high hill. From here, in early spring before trees leaf out, hikers are afforded beautiful views south toward Pine Mountain and the hundreds of anonymous hills that break across the horizon. As Cox and I rested under the stone roof, he named the chestnut oaks that grew all around the secluded spot.
“That one’s Henry,” he said, referring to an individual that twisted its thick trunk out between a cleft in the sandstone. Knowing that it had been there for hundreds of years in that quiet, protected space made me smile. And knowing that it would continue to grow until natural processes brought it down made me smile more broadly. Before Cox and I began our mile-and-a-half trek down from the hill, he pointed out one more forest detail. Smashed down into the mud mere feet away from where we had been sitting, there was the unmistakable paw print of a large black bear.
“She is leaving her calling card, letting us know that we are just visitors,” Cox said with satisfaction.
And then all around, as if it had heard those words, the wind picked up, suggesting that the forest could not agree more with that thought.
Even though Lilley Cornett Woods is over 130 miles away from Eastern Kentucky University’s main campus, the forest encompasses the best values of that institution. EKU’s mission statement names a stewardship of place as one of its guiding principles. This notion of responsibility is reflected in the university’s ongoing protection of and dedication to one of the commonwealth’s last ancient forests. Lilley Cornett Woods is certainly a place for students and researchers to study a mature forest’s ecology, but it is also a place for the citizens of the state and country to come and experience what much of the eastern United States must have looked, sounded, and even smelled like over 200 years ago. Lilley Cornett Woods is a place for trees to grow, age, and even die in their own time. The forest holds an irreplaceable value for researchers, a vestige of Kentucky’s pre-European past.
Scott Honeycutt holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Georgia State University. He is an associate professor of English at East Tennessee State University, where his primary research interests include 19th century nature writing, walking literature, poetry, and young adult literature.
A version of this essay will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book: Campus Groves: Rambles in College Forests in the Eastern U.S., by Kevin O'Donnell and Scott Honeycutt, forthcoming from University of Georgia Press.
Barnes, Thomas G. Kentucky’s Last Best Places. University Press of Kentucky,
Caudill, Anne. Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Prather. 17 April 1962. Personal
Collection of Eastern Kentucky University, Division of Natural Areas.
Caudill, Harry. “A Visit to the White House. “The Mountain, the Miner, and the
Lord: and Other Tales from a Country Law Office. The University Press of
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Foster David, editor. Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge. Yale University Press,
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