It’s always nice to get to go back home.
Many people make yearly pilgrimages to see their old hang outs and reminisce about the old days, but When Jimmy Couch wants to relive his youth, he doesn’t have to go far.
Couch grew up in the Leatherwood coal camp in Perry County. He remembers going to the commissary theater, the Texaco gas station, and his favorite, the Y Restaurant. The coal camp was home to hundreds of people before it closed in 1964.
After years of sitting empty and crumbling due to thieves taking metal and other items from the building, the old Leatherwood commissary is in pieces thrown across the place that used to be the center of town. The theater building is one of the few that remains, though far from intact. The curtains flanking the old screen are the only indication of what the building once was.
Most of the other buildings of the commissary were torn down starting in the early 1990s. The owners of the property sold off much of the items in the buildings. Couch said that he had asked to be told when the sale was to happen since he was hoping to buy a piece of his home, though he said no one called him until after the sale.
When he showed up they informed him that just about everything had been sold, except for the restaurant. It was an opportunity to purchase a bit of his youth that he would not pass up.
“I wound up buying the contents of the Y,” Couch recently said during an interview with the Herald.
All of the items, from clocks, booths, decorations and signage were still there, and he had been able to purchase it all for an incredibly low price. He decided since he had all of the original pieces he would recreate the restaurant.
“I went up and videotaped it and measured it, and I came back and got a contractor to build the building,” said Couch. “Then hauled everything up here restored, cleaned, repaired, and moved it back in just like it was.”
He was able to move his teenage hangout spot into his own backyard at his home in Louisville. It took him two years to get every piece just right, but he was able to build it back just the way he remembered. “It is just unbelievable,” he said. “I have had so many people that have never heard of anybody that had their original hang out in their back yard.”
The restaurant is in 100 percent working condition, but he doesn’t run it as a business, just as a place for he and his friends to meet on Friday nights. Couch opens up the restaurant every Friday and cooks with a group of people.
“I will be open about 3:30, and I have a lot of friends that drop by every Friday evening and we do a little cooking and whatever,” he said.
Since rebuilding the restaurant, he has had many of the former residents of the camp come to visit it since nearly all of their old home is gone. He has even hosted groups of up to 60 that in a sort of Leatherwood reunion.
After he completed rebuilding the restaurant, he turned his sights on recreating another one of his old Leatherwood hang outs, the Leatherwood Garage. “I also have everything I could get out of the old Texaco station,” said Couch. “I have recreated it. I have all of the signs on the outside that say ‘the Leatherwood Garage.’”
Along with the two buildings, he has been able to save much of the lost history of the coal camp by acquiring items like engineering tools, stationary, and even some lights from the theater. He said he never set out to rebuild his old hometown, but he has always had an appreciation for history, especially his personal history.
“I should have been born probably 100 years ago,” he said. “I have just loved old cars and antiques of any kind. I have just always had an appreciation for old things.”
He even still has his first car that he bought as a junior at Leatherwood High School and recently had it restored and drove it back to Perry County for a family reunion.
After collecting much of the historical items from the coal camp, he found that others were just as interested in it as he. He says he shows people the buildings frequently and has even written a book, The Blue Diamond Story, about the coal camp and the company.
He said he loves seeing the reaction of people that grew up in the camp when they come see his recreated buildings. “This one guy came in and he stopped right in his tracks, and he just started slowly turning his head. Then he pointed at one of the wooden booths. He said, ‘Jimmy I had my first date with my wife in that corner booth.’ I have had lots of stories like that.”
Couch said he loves showing the restaurant and gas station to people and would be glad to have anyone come see them at his home in Louisville. He said he is also still selling copies of The Blue Diamond Story. Anyone interested in his book or seeing his recreated gas station and restaurant can call him at (502) 552-4975.
He hopes that even after he is gone these buildings can still preserve and show the history of the Leatherwood Coal Camp, and has been in talks with administrators of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Harlan County.