Family Stories

A Mining Family – Mary Jane Bracken and Grafton Olson Willoughby

Mary Jane Willoughby, September 15, 1866 – April 25, 1946.  Married Grafton Willoughby in 1887.  Brother, James H. Bracken, died on the Titanic, 1912.  Crescent Hill (Old Company) Cemetery, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

Ritchey and I visited Crescent Hill (Old Company) Cemetery in October of 2017.  The cemetery was small and overgrown, but still quite lovely.  It is located in the eastern portion of Muhlenberg County, in the Bevier neighborhood.  If you take US431 south from Central City, just past Western Kentucky Parkway, turn left onto Drakes School Road.  There are two cemeteries very close, and they may come together at some point.  The gravestone pictured above caught my interest immediately.  Her husband is listed and a brother, but neither are buried in this cemetery.  There was a story to tell.

Mary Jane Willoughby was the daughter of William Bracken and Sarah Morris (as listed on her death certificate).  William was born in Tennessee, Sarah in Kentucky.  In the 1880 census of Ohio County, in the western portion of Kentucky, William is 39, Sarah 27.  Children listed are Mary J., 12; Amanda F., 7; Leonora, 5; and Joseph F., 1.  In 1900 the family lived in neighboring Muhlenberg County.  Two more children were born in those twenty years – James Herman, 15; and Bertha, 10.  Daughter Amanda married a Mr. Neafue, but at the age of 27 is widowed.  She and her two children, Lee D., 7; and Annie M., 5; live with her parents.

As per her gravestone Mary Jane Bracken married Grafton Olson Willoughby in 1887.  Grafton was the son of Isaac Willoughby, born in Tennessee, and Sally.  In 1870 they lived in Butler County, which adjoins both Ohio and Muhlenberg counties.  In the census Isaac is 40, Sally, 37.  Their children are Sylvia, 20; Elizabeth, 18; James, 12; Squire, 10; Grafton, 6; and Colorado, 2 (male).  By 1880 three more children were born – Malcise, 9 (male); Tela E., 6 (female); and Peoin, 1 (male).

As Mary Jane Bracken and Grafton Willoughby were married in 1887, they appeared in the 1900 census of Muhlenberg.  Grafton was a coal miner, he was 35; Mary was 31; she had given birth to 5 children and 4 were living.  The children were William, 9; Nellie B., 7; James Clarence, 5; and Emma, 11/12.  By 1910 two more children were added to the family – Jessie, 7 (male); and Alta, 3.  Son William, who was 19, was a coal miner like his father.

In 1912 Mary Jane lost her brother James Herman Bracken to the icy waters of the North Atlantic when the Titanic hit an ice burg and sank.  His body was not recovered, and I think it a great tribute to have this information on her gravestone – he will not be forgotten.

By 1920 the family had moved to Pike County – the easternmost county in Kentucky.  Oddly enough Grafton was a carpenter.  Perhaps he could no longer work in the dusty coal mines.  Son Jessie, at 16, was a coal miner.  And one additional child, Edward, was 9.

Grafton Willoughby died December 30, 1926, in Floyd County.  His death certificate gives kidney failure as cause of death, with asthma as a contributing factor.  I feel the last was due to his years working in coal mines.  His parents are listed as Bill and Sally Ann Dockery on his death certificate – however from census records we know that to be incorrect.  Perhaps that was the maiden name of Sally since I could find no other reference.  After much search I found Grafton buried in Estill Cemetery, in Floyd County.

In the 1930 census for Floyd County we find Mary Jane, 63; son Edward, 19; Alta Sykes, 23, her daughter who was a widow; and four Willoughby grandchildren – Gladys, 16; Beatrice, 14; Mary J., 10; and Richard, 5.

1931 was a hard year for the family.  21-year-old Jessie Willoughby, still a coal miner, was ‘crushed through his body by falling slate in the coal mine’.  This is from his death certificate.  He was married to Frankie Arwood and was buried in Estill Cemetery with his father.

The Owensboro Messenger, Daviess County, Kentucky

Saturday, April 27, 1946.

When Mary Jane Bracken Willoughby died April 25, 1946, of tuberculosis, she lived in McLean County.  At some point between 1930 and 1946 she moved back across the state from Floyd County to her home area (McLean adjoins Ohio and Muhlenberg).  Her death certificate was signed by son James Clarence, who listed his address as Knoxville, Tennessee.  For over eighty years she took care of her family until the end.  As per her obituary she was survived by three daughters, Nellie Thegley, who lived in Owensboro; Emma Bennett, who lived in Rockport, Indiana; and Alta O’Berry (she must have married again after being widowed so young) of Jacksonville, Florida; and two sons, James Clarence of Knoxville, Tennessee; and William of Livermore in McLean County.  There were 22 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.  What a wonderful number of descendants!


Every time I write about Muhlenberg County, I think of the song written by John Prine – “Paradise”.  This song was written for John’s father and was recorded on his 1971 debut album.  It’s about the devastating impact of strip mining for coal, where the top layers of soil are blasted off with dynamite or dug away with steam shovels to reach the coal seam below.  It tells the story of the devastation in the area around the Green River in Kentucky because of strip mining.  The Green River is the county boundary for Ohio County on the eastern side and Muhlenberg and McLean counties on the west side of the river.  The small area called Paradise was about midway of that river boundary in Muhlenberg County.  Miners started taking coal from the county as early as the 1880’s.  Otto A. Rothert’s A History of Muhlenberg County, he states that fatalities occurred in all the coal-mining districts of the county.  Three disasters were particularly tragic.  In the Moody Mines on February 10, 1908, in the South Carrollton district, ten men were killed.  In the Browder Mine, 34 were killed February 1, 1910.  And 5 were killed on January 17, 1912, in the Central Coal and Iron Company Mine.  This did not include various accidents when one or two were killed.  Did this have a bearing on the Willoughby family moving to eastern Kentucky?

Paradise – Take me back to Muhlenberg County

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away


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