BULAN, Ky. – There is one community in Perry County that over the years has been known by a few different names. Duane and Pistol City are two of the past monikers of what is officially Bulan, situated just a few miles northeast of Hazard in the northern section of the county.
Bulan rests in between the communities of Dwarf and Lotts Creek, and has had a close relationship with nearby Hardburly, which at one time was itself a thriving coal camp. Other smaller communities are also located at Bulan, such as Tribbey and Hiner.
Though much of the history of Bulan comes from word of mouth or old news stories, one thing that all can agree on is that at one time this was a thriving community, and it was mostly due to the impact on business from the local coal industry in nearby Hardburly and other surrounding communities.
Jimmy Mongiardo made his name as an entrepreneur in Bulan for 65 years. Born in Italy, he came to Eastern Kentucky in his youth, and began his career as a business owner at the age of 19 when he bought a grocery store, utilizing money he saved from working for the store’s previous owner, a loan from the bank, and also money from his father.
Mongiardo remained in business for more than six decades, only retiring from retail sales earlier this year. But even as a clerk he was at the forefront as Bulan thrived as a business center beginning in the 1940s, though there were hardships that local residents had to overcome.
“At that time gas was hard to come by,” he said in a recent interview with the Herald. “Everybody had a ration book to buy gas with, and groceries.”
Stores in the area also didn’t carry milk, Mongiardo continued, so they instead purchased milk from local farmers. It was during this time when a man named Howard Chapell, whose father founded Chapell’s Dairy, stopped by the store and asked Mongiardo to stock a single quart of milk in his cooler to see if it would sell.
“It sold right then,” he remembered.
From there a co-op was formed, and milk was being pasteurized and delivered to local stores for sale.
“Before that they (local residents) had to go to these local farmers to get their milk, and most of them had their own cow in Hardburly,” he added. “I delivered many bags of feed on my shoulder to Hardburly.”
For the most part, the mining industry is what made business in Bulan possible in those days. The coal camp at Hardburly was booming then, and on every other weekend the miners descended on Bulan to settle their bills at the grocery store.
“They’d pay you every 15 days, the 15th of every month and the 30th of every month, that’s when they got their pay,” Mongiardo explained. “And they’d come and pay their grocery bill. That’s how I made my living when I started.”
But Bulan also has a dark side to its history, and it was on the weekends that the community earned its nickname of Pistol City for numerous shootouts. Mongiardo noted that he was only 14 years old when he saw a man shot in front of him, and that wouldn’t be the last time he would bear witness to a killing.
“It was pretty rough,” he said, noting that at the time there were two roadhouses across the railroad tracks were people could go to drink.
Bulan, however, was mostly a business hub for the area, which included Smith’s shopping center, the post office and Mongiardo’s grocery store, though through the years Mongiardo would also play a bigger role in local commerce. He also owned a laundry mat, was later co-owner of the community’s first cable system, and owned a 75-seat theater.
“We made a lot of kids happy at that time,” Mongiardo said of his theater. “The ticket was 25 cents, and you could buy a pop for a nickel and bar of candy for a nickel.”
Though business was the community’s draw, it was a few years before Mongiardo began his career that Bulan’s name was included in headlines around the state for a very famous visitor back in 1940. Robert Wadlow, who at the time was the world’s tallest man at nearly nine feet tall, was touring the country as a promotion for the International Shoe Company. He reportedly wore a size 37 shoe.
According to a remembrance of that day written by Bulan resident Langley Owsley which appeared in Kentucky Explorer, 5,000 people were reported to have turned out to see Wadlow.
“For a 17-year-old this was the most amazing thing that had happened in our community,” Owsley wrote in the Explorer. “People came from miles around.”
Harold “Rocky” Hudson moved to Bulan 50 years ago and married Ruth Walters, whose family has a long history in the community. Hudson, who continues to make his home in Bulan today, also made note of the businesses in operation then, and how other communities benefitted as well.
“When I first came to Bulan, it was very busy,” Hudson said, adding that trains would stop in front of a wholesale business there to unload goods ranging from fertilizer to groceries, which would then be sold to numerous stores in outlying communities such as Pigeon Roost or Dice.
Thomas Smith’s store was another big business in the community, and was an all-propose store that sold a variety of items, noted Lloyd Engle, who served as the Bulan postmaster for a number of years.
“The first TV I ever seen in my life was over in that store,” Engle said. “They had a real business place there, two or three cash registers going at one time, delivery trucks going back and forth.”
But after a few decades, however, the business in Bulan began to drop off, likely because of a change in the main road that passed through the community. Engle, who noted that he still sometimes refers to Bulan as Duane (Duane Mountain is located at the edge of the Bulan community on Ky. 476), added that when Highway 15 was moved to its current route, that was really the first hit to businesses in Bulan. And then in the 1980s the new Highway 80 was opened for traffic.
Prior to the 1960s, Highways 15 and 80 joined on what is now Ky. 476, and ran from Hazard to Bulan, and then through Dwarf. A lot of traffic ran through the community at that time. For other communities such as Hardburly and parts of Lost Creek, Bulan had been what Engle described as an economic hub because of its location on a heavily traveled roadway.
“To get to Hazard from Knott County, you (previously) had to come through Bulan,” he said. “To get from Hazard to Lexington, you had to come through Bulan.”
But when the traffic died down, so, too, did the businesses. Others, meanwhile, came and went over the decades, or just changed. Joe’s Superette became Bulan Food Mart, the Napa auto parts store closed, and even Jimmy Mongiardo sold his stock and donated the building to the Jakes Branch Fire Department.
“At one time, if you parked on the other side of the road, it was hard to get across the road to the store and back,” Engle remembered. “That’s how busy it was.”
But despite the loss of business, one thing that had remained over the years was the coal industry’s presence.
“The whole time I’ve been here, you could always hear the trains,” Hudson said. “You didn’t have to have an alarm clock, because at about 5 o’ clock, you could always hear the train coming into the tipple to load up.”
But now, even that has subsided. The tipple at Ajax was long abandoned when it went up in flames only a few years ago. The camps at Hardburly are a distant memory, and even the tipple at Hiner has shut down.
But despite the drop off, there are a handful of businesses still in operation and many households throughout Bulan, and the community remains rich with family life. It’s a community that Hudson described as a good place to live.
“Bulan is a very, very peaceful community,” he said.