The legacy of a famed mountain photographer

Published 6:28 pm Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series recalling the life of a Bell County native and distinguished American photographer.

After leaving the A&P stores as a manager in the 1940s, Earl Palmer moved from Middlesboro to Cambria, Virginia, next door to Christiansburg. There, he opened a small food market for the community and continued to gain recognition for his photography.

Through the years, he demonstrated not only a great ability at both photography and [writing but also a lasting love for the Cumberland Gap area. In personal correspondence, he said, “Middlesboro and its people have long occupied a secure niche in my being … for once in the long ago I lived there … knew the joys and hopes and fortunes of the wonderful band of people …”

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He was friends with many of these people in Bell, Claiborne, Harlan and Lee counties. His photographs of some are included in a very impressive book, The Appalachian Photographs of Earl Palmer, published in 1990 by the University Press of Kentucky. The author, Dr. Jean Haskell Speer, provided a lengthy introduction to the book detailing the photographer’s life as the Blue Ridge Mountain’s Roaming Camera Man.

Speer, a distinguished professor and folklorist, had worked closely with Palmer to ensure the preservation of his work.

Included in the book are two interesting photographs of “Preacher” Winton Bolton, one at the Preacher’s shop in Cumberland Gap and one with a gathering at Fern Creek for a Sunday baptizing. There are pictures of Jim Howard in front of his cabin in Ewing, a church at Cumberland Gap, and Tom Cupp’s cabin north of Chadwell’s Gap near Ewing.

Each of these was dated during years when Palmer was with A&P stores (1936-1941).

As the years went by and Palmer’s work became more widely known, his photographs and narratives appeared in numerous publications. “His photographs are a gift to the future,” said his long-time friend Jesse Stuart, the Lincoln Memorial University graduate and well-known novelist, poet, and teacher. Stuart used many of Palmer’s photographs on the dust covers of his books and elsewhere in his publications.

Standard Oil, publisher of the magazine Scenic South, commissioned Palmer to write a story and provide photographs of Stuart when he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. The original prints were given to Dr. Robert L. Kincaid at LMU who had been a friend of Palmer’s for thirty years.

Another example of this native son’s memory of his years here and of his love for the region is a story and pictures he provided a publication, Plymouth Traveler, in the early 1960s. The caption is “Kentucky Had Pioneer Golf.” Pictures of the Middlesboro Golf Course included a stunning vista showing Canada mountain to the north of the number one fairway and one of four golfers from “…the wonderful band of people” he remembered.

William H. Baker, a Claiborne County, Tennessee, native and former resident of Middlesboro, may be contacted at