James Valentine Fannin

The Ramey Home

Photograph of James Valentine Fannin as a child.James Valentine Fannin - click on photo for larger image.

"Who was there to tell when things went bad?" James asked.  "I had no one. Nobody hugged me or kissed me. In counseling, I was taught to shake hands because the only touching I had ever had was a whipping with a belt, or for a sex act."

"The only way I could deal with my loneliness and sadness was to remove my thoughts to the hills. I ran these hills, I wasn't supposed to, but I did. I got a whipping every day for it. I don't know why, but I did."

Boyd County school records indicate James attended 8 grades of school at Iron Hill and Lost Creek.  August, 1965  to1973.

Suicide attempt: Cabell Huntington Hospital   Dr. Denning
October 11, 1984 to December 9, 1984    James was age 26.  2nd and 3rd degree burns over lower extremities and trunk. 45% of his body burned.

James' Story

James limped across the parking lot in the pouring rain. Through the  misted windshield I saw gray streaks in his bushy grown out beard. His hair, also graying was long and straggly.

He drew close. He pulled himself up into my vehicle and swiveled in his seat, his clothes were soaked. His plaid shirt and denim trousers were well worn, and could use a good wash.

Still holding on the door handle, he smiled through closed lips. But he managed to beam at me.  I knew I liked James Fannin right away.


"Hello, James. I’m your cousin, Lydia."

 We drove out.  He said,

"If I had the money, I’d buy it.” He nodded. "I'd buy the Ramey home. We children grew up there; we have some ownership in the place. It was our home for so many years. It's all I remember, those hills.”  He pointed.

"Those hills and that spot by the creek and that big rock. That’s where I really grew up.  I want to show you my favorite spot on that big rock. I hope it's still there. It ought to be. There is a cemetery on the big hill too. I used to go up by myself."

Out 13th street to US 60, we turned on the next road after Rose Hill cemetery. It meandered just as it had when it served the Poor Farm; a dirt pike then. The sign read: McCullough drive, for one of the founders of the Ramey Home. Next, a large round sign with bright green and white colors depicting a giant oak tree welcomed us. But, James pointed, with both hands, not to the sign, or the red brick mansion high on the hill, but to our left; to the creek alongside the road. "There, wait.”    He scrambled out before I stopped; circled the car, and lurched across the road.  White foam on muddy water curled onto a large flat rock and splashed against a yellow sandstone overhang.  His voice echoed into a high pitched childlike wail.

"I used to sit here, see that rock? This was my favorite place. When I was sad, or I wanted to be by myself, I played here a lot, all by myself. Sometimes, I brought my paper and pencil down here to draw." His voice tapered off. Later, I learned James is a skilled carver, and graphic artist.

Photograph of James Valentine Fannin as an adult.
James Valentine Fannin - click on photo to view larger image.

The rain stopped. The wet, shiny leaves dripped their sheen into the muddy crystal water bubbles of the stream. I nodded and smiled at James.

"It looks the same. I think I was 4 years old. That big rock!” He interrupted himself. "That big rock ledge was what I liked best where the water pours over. See? And I was told that water runs all the way to Mexico."

The Gertrude Ramey home is a red brick two story building built in 1910. It served as the Boyd County Poor Farm.  In mid 1950s, Gertrude Ramey's home in Ashland overflowed with children.  Boyd County commissioners leased this old mansion to her for $1 a year. That arrangement was about to unravel. Gertrude Ramey had died in 1991.  In November 2003 the last children to live at GR were transferred to the new Ramey-Estep facility 20 miles away. The Home, still elegant, was reclaimed by Boyd County. Its future role now was uncertain.

"I hope they don't tear it down."   I eased my car up the hill to the parking area.  James was out of the car again. He pointed to a towering sycamore tree at the corner of the back entrance. "I planted that tree. I got mad at Gertrude Ramey, and I planted that tree," he shouted.  I grabbed my camera. 

"Step over there by your tree, James.” His eyes twinkled.  He wanted to smile, but James had lost all his teeth; the reason for his indistinct speech and his tight lipped smiles.

Dave Kozee, a tall, marine type young man with a curt: "Yes mam," and a burr haircut, unlocked the back door for our tour of the only child home James Fannin had ever known.

James darted ahead through the downstairs.  Describing as he went, how it once looked, and where he slept. He painted a picture of a lively, happy house with children everywhere. He was excited. He did not notice the gray walls and odd pieces of old chairs. Old bedsteads and soiled mattresses shifted out of their places. It looked bleak with peeling gray paint, dismal worn carpet. I reminded myself, children had lived here only last month.

"I have slept in nearly every room," he said. "I was switched around." He bounded through a wide doorway into the kitchen. "There was a big green cabinet here. And this long table is where we all sat to eat." The table was still in place with mismatched chairs lining its sides. Initials carved in the wood.  James pointed to the old fireplace. “We never had a fire here. It was always bricked in." I snapped photos as we went. On the second floor, James described large chests, and other pieces of furniture that held the children's clothing, no longer there; and rooms full of beds for the little boys. He pointed to a narrow crooked stairway leading to third floor.  "Up there is where they locked us up one time, for three days.  My sister Mary Lou, too, locked in this room for three whole days. We had nothing to eat or drink."


"I don't really know, but I think it was because our parents came to see us. They brought us bicycles and came to see us; that's what it was." James stood in a tiny gray room. “ We couldn't go to the bathroom either." Mr. Kozee looked down at his feet. "Have you been back here since you left, at age 16?" 

"Oh, yes, I used to come back and see Miss Ramey a lot when she was alive. It was my home. I grew up here," James nodded.  "Once, I came back and asked if I could stay, because I was so depressed. I was getting counseling at Pathways. Miss Ramey said no."

Colorful memories  of his friends and games they played tumbled out,

In his excitement, his lips sputtered and saliva sprayed in all directions. Two small square windows allowed light, and air into the room.          "They forgot about us, I think. That is what happened. They forgot we were up here."

"Who forgot, James?" I pressed.

"Why the worker people did, I guess. Somebody forgot.”

His ordeal so long ago was still with him, but he stepped to one of the small dingy windows.  He peered out.  As a small bewildered boy, he went to the hills to find his joy. I felt a pang.

  "See these hills? I used to run everywhere up there. I wasn't allowed to, and I got whipped every day, but I loved to run around on the hills.  Minnie would hit me with a belt or anything else she had, she whipped me every day. And James Stambaugh whipped me too."

"Why, did they whip you?"  Mr. Kozee stood stiff as a poker, his hands jammed into the pockets of his sweater.

"I don't know. I think it was because I ran over the hills. But they whipped me, and Mike every day. I am talking about Mike Enyart, my friend."

"I just lived with it. I thought it was for things I got away with; that was the only way I could live with the hurt. I thought I must have done something bad, but I didn't know what it was. That was the way I handled it." James looked down. “It wasn't so bad when Miss Ramey came out to check on us; but when she got sick, Minnie Suttles and James Stambaugh took over.

At Christmas, we got all these presents and toys. I guess everybody in the country sent toys to us.  We opened our presents, and played with the toys, but then after Christmas, the toys would just be gone. They disappeared.” James breathed deeply. "One Christmas, Minnie broke every toy we got for Christmas. Then she told Miss Ramey we did it."

“Did you ever go to Miss Ramey? Did you tell her about Minnie hitting you?"   "Nope, there was nobody to tell," James shook his head. "Who was there to tell when things went bad?"

"Did Miss Ramey pay attention to you, while you were growing up?" I asked. "Did you get to know Miss Ramey?"

"No," he lowered his eyes. "Nobody hugged me, or paid any attention to me. I played with the other kids, and I slept with the other boys in the cabins; but, there was no kind of hugs, if that is what you mean.” He looked at me sideways.

"When I went to counseling at Pathways, I told them at the sessions that anytime anyone touched me, I thought they were going to hit me, or for a sex act. So the counselor had us all learn to shake hands, just for me to learn how to be friendly, to be friendly."

We walked on through the other rooms. The gray walls and gray carpeting and dingy windows were dismal.  The rooms James described that once held rowdy friends and thrilling games, were empty.

"I hope they don't tear it down," James said again. "It was my home; and home for all my friends. I wonder if they know it's changing."

I felt sadness. Perhaps of the small children who lived in the rooms, including James, and the loneliness of the old people who died here before that? The rooms were small, barely room enough for two beds. Except for one large room at the end, which in its original state, may have served as a gathering place.  For so many children to live here though, the house was small.

We exited through the front door of the old mansion; over our heads on the porch, a modern brass chandelier, swung in the breeze. Donated, most likely as all the furnishings and equipment were. We passed between wide-set white round columns that flanked the grand stately entrance. On the floor, the paint was peeling over cracked concrete.

We followed James along the sidewalk that circled the once grand home.  He gestured toward giant trees near the entrance, and shrubs that lined the flight of steps leading from the lower road. "Those trees were little when I lived here. I got off the school bus down there and walked up these steps every day.” He pointed to the road below. “I helped plant those poplars; and see that fire escape? I helped to paint that fire escape a hundred times. One year, we painted it red, white and blue for the 4th of July."

We thanked Mr. Kozee for his time, but he said, "I will stay with you until you are finished."

James pointed down the hill towards a stand of skeletal tall trees. The ground was carpeted with golden brown fall leaves. "See that cemetery? That is the graveyard for the old people who died here at the Poor Farm. We used to play down there.” A low rusted wire fence represented its boundaries.

Perched on the rim of the lawn, with a porch and railing that extended its length, a long complex of brilliant white, green framed narrow rooms were set in a half moon. "This is where the bigger boys lived. They stayed out here to sleep, and came in to the main house for meals." James explained the system. "We couldn't play with the girls. I stayed out here when I got older."

"What about your sisters, Mary Lou, and Martha and Hallie Ann? Did you see them?"

"Yes, I saw them sometimes."

He pointed to a white framed cottage nearby, with green shutters,

"That cottage is where Dr. French stayed."

"Was Dr. French the doctor for the Ramey home?"

"Nope.  Dr. French cut the grass, and visited. He stayed in that little white house, when he came."

"The only doctor I remember was in Ashland. One time, I had an earache, and Minnie took me to the doctor. While we were waiting for the doctor to come in, Minnie took a long Q tip and pushed it into my ear. My ear bled. When the doctor came in, Minnie said: "James is always picking at his ear."

"James, are you injured? I noticed you are limping?"

"Yes. It’s my right leg. I hurt my legs when I tried to commit suicide"   "Suicide on your legs?" to release my tension.

Before I could apologize, he said,

"Yep, I poured paint thinner on my legs and set them afire."

He spoke as if his legs were not part of his body.

"How did you live, and how did you escape?"

"Neighbors saw me; they called the ambulance."

James touched his disabled leg.  "I was down. I had been counseling at Pathways in Greenup. They gave me some medication. My wife and I had separated, and I missed my sons."

"They say I was in a coma at Cabell for four weeks.” I touched his shoulder. "I am better now," he reassured me.  "I have learned to think different thoughts. But, I have been down, with no place to go. Way down. I have slept under bridges. Now, I am staying with my son, and his family."

"Do you work?" I asked, "Do you have a job?"

"Nope, I am disabled. I can't read or write, and I get SSI."   "Well, James, it is not too late to learn to read and write; if you want to.  Literacy is not a medical disability.”

"I have seizures. I have temporal epileptic seizures," he enunciated.

"Do you take medication for your seizures?" 

"Yes, I do, since 1983, I have been taking medication."

"I used to work. I was in 9th grade at Boyd County High, when I left the Ramey home, and went to live with Aunt Lilly and Uncle Fred Kincaid. I was 16, and still going to school. Then, one day, when we were taking a test, the teacher said, “James, if you will watch the other students, and tell me who cheats, I will give you an A."  

“At first, I thought it was because he couldn't get around; he was in a wheelchair; I knew something was wrong though. I felt bad.  I quit school."

"When I left the Ramey Home, Minnie tried to get me to sign a paper to say I had no claim on anything here. It had something to do with money in the bank. I didn’t sign. I wonder whether I had some savings."

“I went  to join the Army. I took their test. The recruiter took me in a room. He said I hadn't read the forms very well. That day I found out I could not read, and about all I could write was my name. I had gone to school for nine years, but I couldn't really read or write," He looked at me with his bright blue eyes, "Nobody told me.”

“I went to a Work program Vocational school to learn upholstery down at Thelma, Kentucky. I enjoyed that work. I am good at it. I apprenticed for three years, and worked on my own, for five years after that.”  I snapped photos of his warm face with its myriad of expressions. Even with his uneven energy, I liked James, his buoyant outlook, and his way of distracting himself away from bad memories.

Mr. Kozee left us, but before we concluded our tour, James and I walked back down to the special rock that he loves, to watch the churning water cascade over the edge on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

We sat while he remembered episodes at his Ramey Home. He explained how he was dressed up for company on Sunday at the Ramey Home. "I think when people came, Miss Ramey received gifts. So, I always tried to be nice to company.   People used to give us money, but when the people left, Minnie made us give it up to her."

I asked James if I might show him where some of his people, including my family lived around on Rachel Branch. He smiled his toothless grin, and this time he did not clench his lips.

We drove farther west on US 60 past Kilgore onto Rachel Branch, where I grew up. I stopped at a cut between two steep hills. I nosed the car into a narrow opening, "This is the entrance to the Wheeler Hollow. It's changed some, since your mother lived here, but the configuration is the same." I kept my voice low. "I would like to show you the cave that is referred to in the news article of December, 1961. It says you all were living in a cave when America Holbrook and welfare authorities came for you."   “I could hardly believe it when they told me we were living in a cave. It made me feel bad, and the other kids made fun of me, and I didn't know why. You say there was a picture in the paper?"

"Yes, a picture and a story. I have a copy for you. We can talk about it.  This road was a dirt road when your Mother lived here. It was muddy and filled with ruts, and barely passable when it rained."

It's a pretty place as you can see, and the new owners are developing for a resort area.” The high, picturesque, cliffs jutted out through the trees. Some, displayed dark streaks of coal veins. "See, those near-bald hills with the black streaks?

"Here, your mother and her sisters, Alberta and Lily dug coal," I repeated. “Your granddad, Charley Wheeler sold it. It was hard work. Your mother had a hard life. In a way, for a lot of reasons, she married your father, Felty to get away." I stopped my car where we could see a cliff overhang and pointed, "I think that is the 'cave' they referred to in the news article. It's not a cave, but a rock overhang. Would you like to walk over there?"

James did offer to get out, instead his voice seemed to growl, "That is the place where we lived?"

"Yes, but you lived in a house, James, not a cave as the article said. That was wrong. There was a house next to the cliff overhang where your Mother grew up. It's gone now, of course. It was burned."

"I called the reporter who wrote the news article for the Independent. She told me she never came here at all herself. She interviewed law enforcement officers who did come, and she spoke with Miss Ramey. It was Miss Ramey who told her they found you children in a cave." I paused to find ways to bolster the image, “You were told to run and hide, so you hid under the rock, where you played during the day."

We looked at the magnificent cliff, but when James did not get out, we rolled back onto US 60, and drove slowly up Rachel Branch.

"See, James, I grew up nearby, at least part of my life. My dad was your dad's Uncle Chead." I repeated, "Your dad always brought you kids to our house. He drove a small truck, with an open cattle rack; it was made of pieces of wood and fence posts and anything else he could pick up, and when he drove into our place, arms and legs and kids were hanging out all over.  Our Mother would take one look, and start cooking. Your dad always brought you kids over when food was scarce, and sometimes, he had a new baby to show my mother. He named Velva Ann, one of your sisters, for our mother, Velva.  We passed Georgia Conley's store.

"Your mother and her brothers used to come here to buy groceries and also to Mae Haney’s. They walked everywhere they needed to go.”

On Star Hill, I turned right onto the old Midland Trail, once dirt trail, and renamed US 60 after it was paved.  But in 1960, it too was abandoned in favor of the new, shorter US60 that cut the top off Star Hill. 

“That little white frame house on your left was your Aunt Sarah's house. She always helped your father. She was the baby of the family. All of your Granny's grown children were clustered around her on Star Hill.”

The roadbed remnants of the old Midland Trail were still smooth. The road hooked sharply to the right; above the curve, high on a shallow shelf on the bank, were the remains of a gray shack. I eased to a stop, and we leaned forward to see:

“Your Uncle Jim lived with his family. He was a coal miner too. I understand he died just a few months ago at Linda's house somewhere over in Hancock, Ohio. Your aunt Anna, one of the younger children lives in Ashland.”

I crept around the horseshoe curve, and inched up the steep grade to the end of the old cracked pavement.

"This was a pretty place to live, but construction for a shorter US60 carved off the side of the hill;

"See that giant oak tree? The tree grew next to your Granny's house. The pavement was built level with her front porch. Your folks used to come here to live with your Granny, when things weren't going well for your dad. She  gave up her social security check. She went to live with one of her daughters, Mary, Jessie or Sarah or Anna. Some of you children were born next to that oak tree.

Elbert, your older brother suffered a burn here when a draft came down the chimney He was standing too close. It caught his clothing. He was 4. Granny put it out." I paused, "Your Aunt Jessie and her family lived up there on that bank above the road. Later, they built a larger house down lower. I pointed to a modest red brick house below the old road.

It wasn't easy. Your mother Imogene was often contentious.  The story is soon after her first set of twins Charles and Hallie Ann was born, she got into a fist fight with a neighbor. She miscarried with a second set of twins, about four months along. That was a long time ago, and I wanted to show you just where you fit into your family and who you are.  Our family members were pioneers. It was a rough life here in these hollows. They worked in the iron mines, and then in the coal mines."

"After your Granny died in June, 1961, your folks moved to Greenup at Naples, then on over to Wayne, West Virginia. I understand that it was near Wayne your baby sister, Susan died. They tell she was bitten by a snake in her bed?"

James said, "They say it was the evil eye of a copperhead; that the snake looked her in the eye, and charmed her. Then it bit her. My mother says she saw the bite marks. She didn't see the snake bite Susan, but she saw the bite marks," James repeated. "Our dad killed the snake."

"After Susan died, your folks moved back over to Norton Branch, but on the day the welfare came to get you children in October 1961, you were here at your Aunt Jessie’s house.” James was silent.

"Well, I know a great place to eat. May I treat you to dinner at Rosie's at Kilgore?"  His effusive smile returned.

On US 60 near a hairpin curve, I slowed down, rolled down the window and pointed to my left: "Our people all lived here on Rachel Branch. In this small hollow was the original home of your great grandfather, Valentine 'Felty' Justice.  Your father was his namesake."

"My father's name was Valentine?"  

"Yes. The nickname for Valentine is Felty. I guess it should be Velty, and it is mispronounced like nearly all the names were." James let the word roll off his tongue:  "Valentine."

We ate our fried chicken at Rosie's, ordered coconut cream pie and laughed about how messy it was.  James wanted to show me where he attended church at Rose Hill. "I always went. “Minnie told me, If you don't go to church, you don't eat.""

The streets in the old Tunnel Hill district in Ashland are narrow and rolling. James explained that the trains ran under the ground through tunnels, and that is how the region got its name. We looked for the old Lige Fields house that Felty and Imogene Fannin had built up in order to get the children back, but we were not certain we ever saw it.

"Lige Fields wanted his land back, so he is the one who reported our folks to the authorities. That is what I was told," James asserted. "If you drive us over to Mike's house, I will ask about Minnie Suttles."

 Mike Enyart lives in a neat, white cottage perched on the side of the road near Tunnel Hill. A tall, blonde, good looking man slapped James on the back as they laughed together.

"Tell her, Mike that we got whipped every day..."

"Yep, we did."   "How does that make you feel?" I stammered.

"It still bothers me, along with a lot of other things, but I deal with it.”

“May I ask how you came to live at the Ramey home; are your parents dead?"

"Nope, my mother is alive, and I have never known my father,"

"My mother is Maxine.  She worked for Gertrude Ramey because our dad had run off, when we were little.  There were four of us. Miss Ramey told us to pretend she was not our mother. I was little. We lived with the other children, just like they lived. It had something to do with benefits. It was the only way Maxine kept us together.   I didn't know for a long time, until I was nearly grown, that the woman who sat at the other end of the eating table each day was really my mother. I still call my mother, Maxine."

I blinked at the layered complexity of his life. Then Mike said, "I don’t know whatever has happened to Minnie Suttles. I hope she’s dead."

Additional Photos of James Valentine Fannin