Middlesboro, KY connects two topics that this website tries to investigate. Harrison Mayes and his road sign ministry and serpent handling in Appalachia. I was hoping to see Harrison Mayes mentioned in the book “The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith” by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, which portrays the well-known Coots family from Middlesboro, KY, and I was not disappointed. Interestingly, the author misheard Mayes’ name as Hayes. Furthermore, Mayes was known under the nickname “High Weed”, according to the author.
Named for its counterpart in the coalfields of northern England, Middlesboro was founded by Alexander Alan Arthur in 1889. Arthur established the American Association Ltd. of London for the distinct purpose of coal mining. Within a few years, the little town mushroomed from a few families to more than five thousand people. Industries flocked to this “Magic City of the South.” Tent cities, banks, iron forges, tanneries, churches, and saloons were erected. In the town’s earliest days, a portion of the revenues generated from deep-mining operations went to the Queen’s treasury in England, since Arthur’s company was partially owned by Her Majesty.
Today, Middlesboro is home to scores of Fundamentalist churches based on hard-shell religious philosophies. The town has given rise to Pentecostal evangelists like the late Harrison Hayes, God’s own messenger. A former Kentucky coal miner whose nickname was “High Weed,” Hayes was a holy-rolling man who rambled the landscape, pausing just long enough to leave behind his gigantic calling cards—large cement crosses and red-and-white signs that read, “Prepare to Meet God,” “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” and “Get Right with God.” A man whose tank of religious energy was always full, Hayes would dig a hole, then, using a pulley system rigged on his pickup truck, lower the cross or sign, fill up the hole, and go on to another site. From 1940 until he died in 1986 at the age of eighty-eight, he erected crosses and signs in forty-four states.
Many such crosses, some erected by Hayes himself, can still be seen along Highway 25E on the last leg of the road from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Middlesboro. In late summer, velvety green fields with yellow patches of ripening tobacco and neat, cylindrical rolls of harvested hay border the highway. In the distance, so beautiful that they seem like an artificial backdrop, are the Cumberland Mountains, a part of the western Appalachians extending from southwestern Virginia to northern Alabama. It was through these mountains that Daniel Boone helped open the Wilderness Road, across which came settlers primarily of English, German, and Irish ancestry.Brown, Fred, and Jeanne McDonald. The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith. Blair, 2000. (p. 129)