VIPER, Ky. – Jean Ritchie may be Viper’s (and Perry County’s) most famous name, but other names such as Brashear, Hall, Farler and Cornett are just a few of those that while not unique to the community of Viper are certainly abundant there, and have been since not long after the community was settled in the days of Daniel Boone.
Viper is actually made up of a large swath of Perry County, mostly the Maces Creek area, which itself is divided into three sections – the right, middle and left forks. Maces Creek (or Mason’s Creek) is said to have been named for Mason Combs, who was one of eight brothers to follow the pioneer Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap. Additionally, Viper also includes a large section of Route 7 stretching roughly from Cornettsville to Jeff.
The community’s first post office carried the name Hallsville, but it would not remain the community’s post office for long, according to a history on Viper written by Grazia K. Combs and published in the 1950s by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“As the population increased and shifted, the need arose for a more conveniently located post office and Hallsville was abandoned,” Combs wrote.
A local pioneer and merchant named Enoch Campbell eventually worked to establish a new post office near the mouth of Maces Creek, but it would also need a new name.
One day, Combs wrote, Campbell came upon a group of boys “admiring a large spotted viper which they had just killed.” One of the boys was named Phillip Fields, and according to legend suggested to Campbell that the new post office be named Viper, which it eventually was and Campbell served as its first postmaster.
Robert Brashear is one of many Brashears raised in Viper, and continues to make his home on the Left Fork of Maces Creek. A former educator, Brashear noted that the community has undergone many changes even in his lifetime, from improved infrastructure to the consolidation of the area’s schools and the coming and going of local businesses.
Since the railroad brought the first coal train to Perry County many decades ago, coal has also played a large role in the area’s workforce, and Viper was no exception.
“If it wasn’t for coal, half the people in the community would have been out of work,” Brashear noted.
But in the early days before coal became a major industry in Perry County, timber was a mainstay commodity.
“There was a lot of people that lived on this creek years ago that’s gone,” explained Keith Brashear, Robert’s brother. “They came in here to work in the timber woods. My grandfather came in here from Wolfe County.”
Another of Brashear’s kin played a major role in the development of Maces Creek. P. W. Hall, their great grandfather, owned thousands of acres of land on the Left Fork where the Brashears live today. He gave hundreds of acres of that land to his children.
Early settlers on the Middle Fork included a man named John Cornett and Wollery Campbell, while some of the settlers on the Right Fork included three Farler brothers: John, Farris and Alex.
At one time, Viper was an economic and shipping hub for the area, serving as an important point of business, according to Keith Brashear.
“Viper used to be a pretty good place for business,” he said. “They had a wholesale house and all kinds of things there. They would haul goods from Viper into Leslie County.”
Grazia Combs described Viper as “one of the most important shipping points for staves in Eastern Kentucky,” and it was during these years that the community grew and included local physicians, a hotel and other businesses.
Robert Brashear noted that at one time there were several country stores in the area which have since closed. He said while some of that business centralized in the county seat of Hazard, a lot of change in the community came about as some of the people simply moved elsewhere.
“I think that actually the changes occurred because of work,” he said. “A lot of people left and went north and got jobs. The stores and things changed because the big stores in Hazard took all of the business.”
Another big change in Viper that Robert Brashear has witnessed is the change in education. During his childhood, one or two-room schools were the norm. He attended a two-room school at Rogers Branch, though only a few miles away was another school called Logwood, and then a school on the Middle Fork called Chestnut Point.
But those have long since consolidated. Now only Viper Elementary, operated by the Perry County School District, remains.
“That’s the biggest change that I would see,” he said. “There were all these small schools, and they all consolidated, and that changed the community.”
But along with consolidation also came progress in infrastructure. Brashear remembers when he was nine years old and power lines were first installed on Maces Creek. Prior to that, coal oil lamps provided illumination in the dark.
And then, in 1968, the roads running along and above the creek were paved.
“Before 1968 the road was gravel at best, and before that it was just a mud hole with ruts and so on,” he said. “When I learned to drive and earned my license, you had to ride the ridges to get out of here.”
But one thing that has remained steady in Viper is a sense of community and faith, added Keith Brashear, who is a deacon at Lone Pine Baptist Church on the Left Fork. He said it has been the community’s churches that have helped shape Viper as a good and decent community.
“I think the churches have done a great deal in forming this community,” he said. “This is a good community to raise a family in. Churches have a good influence wherever they are, and we don’t have any shortage of churches.”