The Coopers of Twin Creek

24 February 1926
By Wilmer G. Mason
Editorial Note

This feature-length article by Wilmer G. Mason originally ran in the Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer on the 24th of February, 1926. Its author, like many journalists in the decades to come, brought with him a camera as he drove into the hill country of southern Ohio.

At the Scioto County Courthouse, Mason sought out local officials for interviews. He spoke with Emory Smith, the county’s Assistant Prosecutor, and Virgil Fowler, who, according to Mason, “knows these Scioto County hill people probably more thoroughly than any man who has seen them with an outsider’s eyes.”

He asked the officials about the various Coopers and others from Twin Creek who had recently been in the news for feuding over their competing moonshine operations. It’s unclear whether Mason learned the various nicknames for Upper Twin from these officials, but there is good cause to suspect he first heard use of the term “Forbidden Twin,” when speaking with local law enforcement.

Mason would drive out the old “River Road” — modern-day US Highway 52 — to Upper Twin Creek road, some seventeen miles from Portsmouth. There he would follow to creek along its left side until the ford at Slate Point and the large creek bottom at the foot of Dodd’s Hollow.  From there, as the road was impassible in his vehicle, Mason went by foot, caring his camera and reporter’s notebook.  He was headed to what had been Clay Cooper’s homestead, then occupied by his son, Fred Cooper. It was from Fred and his wife that Mason learned details about the burial of Clay Cooper high above, on the ridge top, overlooking the family homestead.

Along the way, up and down Upper Twin, Mason interviewed various residents, snapping photographs of Cooper family members, often standing or sitting at their doorsteps, striking familiar poses that would become the stock-in-trade of many later photographers who came to the region looking to document shoeless, impoverished “hill people.” Mason spoke with Jonas Cooper and his wife, captioning his photograph, “the King of the Younger Coopers, and part of his family.” He interviewed Kenny Cooper, Fred Cooper, Ed Cooper’s wife, and an unnamed Holsinger.

Mason’s photography, as much as his writing, worked to distance the Coopers and “hill people,” in general, from the residents of Cincinnati and Portsmouth, placing them, in his words, “20 miles and 100 years from Portsmouth.” Today, Portsmouth, and not so much the residents of the surrounding countryside, has become the focus of outsider journalists in search of images of Appalachian poverty and stories of illegalities and their associated violence. The media coverage of the prohibition era gun violence on Twin Creek clearly illustrates how regional journalism and documentary photography helped perpetuate the myth of obsolescence, which has rhetorically placed Appalachia and its people in the past, as a violent and dysfunctional “relic culture” rather than acknowledging their response to the specific material realities, financial pressures, and market forces of the day.

“The Coopers of Twin Creek”

The Story of a Hill Feud in Ohio in 1929.

A Page Plucked out of History

20 miles and 100 years from Portsmouth

Below, held in a prescient hush, lay what had been a lonely and lovely valley, its rim now spilling somber shadows across the mottled green slopes down toward the winding creek. As far as human eye could reach from the “point” near the head of the notch, hills marched away with the hours and the ages onto eternity. There was an uneasy rustle only there upon that summit, where men, women and children lolled under the scrub trees or sat in the clearing on the very top, where there was a little mound of dirt and rock.

In the pine box beside that mound lay Clay, King of the Cooper Clan, and beside him within it was his “squirrel rifle.” Clay Cooper had been a “right good sort” as Twin Creek folk go, so others were there besides his own family: the Blevins clan, the Holsingers, the McGraws, and the Lewis’s — the other families that had ruled this little section of Scioto and Adams Counties Ohio for generations.

After a brief interval, a “banjo-picker and fiddler,” as requested by the head of the Cooper clan when he “took down with his last complaint,” set up an old hill tune, “Well, Boys, the Fun’s All Over.”

Then there was the sound of rocks and soil going back into the hole that had been blasted out of granite because Clay Cooper wished to lie there. A woman was crying. The Cooper boys eyed each other, and their glances strayed unconsciously down the hill to the homestead, and back into the woods rather than to the little cleared field that surrounded the house. It was theirs, now — theirs and the “old woman’s.” It was she who was crying.

One drew out a bottle of clear, white whisky and took a long pull at it.

“Well, the old man’s planted,” he said.

“Yeah, right well,” another agreed, after he, too, had taken a drink.

The “RIG” — as stills are known there — from which their moonshine came was back in the hills a bit. Just a sporting proposition, a “rig” was, back in those days.

A couple of them headed in that direction as the gathering broke up and left Clay in the place where he had wished to lie.

From that occasion dates the modern phase of the “Cooper feud” that recently has put two brothers — sons of Clay Cooper — in Ohio Penitentiary on charges of shooting to kill each other. It has put, also, three Coopers underground with cold lead for ballast.

Up and down Twin Creek Valley — for it is the famous Twin Creek where this has taken place — smolders, flares and rages the hatred of brother for brother, and as there is no other love like brother for brother, neither is there elsewhere such hatred.

Just now there is a truce, it is said optimistically and doubted privately, with two of the four surviving brothers in prison. But the other two are there to maintain the lines of cleavage that divided the family, and on one side are the Lewises, on the other the Holsingers. Cousins and in-laws, these allies.

And in the homes of the feudists are the next generation of the Cooper clans — for the family is two clans now.

All this entered its current phase when Clay Cooper went back into the hills to stay. But it has been going on for much, much longer than that.

Clay Cooper resided during all his life in the Southern Ohio hills, as a child, young man in Adams County, just a few miles from where he died, and for the last 35 years until October 29, 1913, far up toward the head of Twin Creek — Upper Twin — to be exact, since there are two of the “Twins.” But when one says “Twin Creek” around Portsmouth the speaker means Upper Twin. Lower Twin is just part of Southern Ohio, Upper Twin a community all by itself.

The Coopers, the Holsingers, the Lewises, Blevinses, McGraws — the families that resided there ruled their domain in their own peculiar way. They did not bother an outsider — neither, it was known, was an outsider to bother them.

Then, 30 odd years ago, Frank Brown, who had married had married a Cooper girl, was killed by a Cooper. That was on a Saturday night, and the Cooper tradition runs, ambushed Brown. The body lay out in the sunshine the next day until the Coroner was called, for the Twin Creekers are sticklers for such formalities. It’s the Law.

That was the precedent for the family feud that has been up, but the modern phase has nothing to do with that case. It is cited only as evidence that the Twin Creekers settle their own difficulties in their own peculiar way.

The ‘old woman’ continued to reside at the Cooper homestead and the sons at their own shacks on that property.  Rough, one room affairs, these shacks — rough as the Southern Ohio hill country; no better word has been said about that district than by one of its natives: “Hits a right hard country; hit’s got a right hard name * * *”

The mystery of a great distance of time surrounds the first shooting in the immediate family, for that took place all of 14 years ago. Kenny Cooper, who was 17 years old then and next to the youngest of the sons who now survive, was accused of the deed by Fred Cooper, the victim and the eldest of the group. Fred “warn’t shot bad — not bad enough, or he wouldn’t have been up to so much meanness since then.” The words are those of his youngest surviving brother, Jonas, the new King of Twin Creek. But Fred “never held it against Kenny none,” the family says, and apparently nothing came directly of that incident.

Kenny Cooper’s mugshot (c. 1929), most likely obtained by Wilmer G. Mason from the Scioto County Prosecutor’s Office and published as an illustration in the Cincinnati Enquirer. At the time of Mason’s visit to Portsmouth and Upper Twin in February of 1929, Kenny was serving time in the Ohio Penitentiary for the attempted murder of his brother Ed.

Subsequently, Grant Cooper, another cousin, was killed by a Holsinger. That too, appears from this distance of time to have been just a personal difference.

The first all-Cooper killing in this generation took place seven years ago, at a country dance out beyond the opening of Twin Creek Valley into the wider reaches and friendlier course of the Ohio.

Lawrence was one of Clay Cooper’s son and Lawrence went out in approved feud fashion, shot by Robert Cooper, “a fifth cousin or so, I reckon,” as his brothers compute it. Robert shot his pistol through his pocket. He was only 16 or 17 years old, and “went up” for 1 year. At last report, he was working in a steel mill.

That year wasn’t the only penalty, however — Fred Cooper, now the head of one of the Cooper Clans, shot him through the leg as he ran.

One by one the brothers married and new generations of Coopers began to arrive on the scene, still grouped around the old homestead.

Then came Prohibition and a ‘rig’ ceased to be a sporting proposition and became a business. And brother who didn’t like brother found new reasons for the line between them across which none stepped.

Kenny insists the older two brothers — Fred and Edward — didn’t like him “cuz I took care of mother,” and it is true enough that the “old woman” had much to do with the genesis of the case. She was, according to Coroner Virgil Fowler, who knows these Scioto County hill people probably more thoroughly than any man who has seen them with an outsiders eyes, the most remarkable personality and character — in any of the Clans — a higher type, a woman who kept herself neatly and tried to rear her children to be “gentlemen.”

Kenny and Jonas clung to their mother and saw to her wants after Clay Cooper’s death. And, with perhaps the same quaint conception of the law that would leave a body where it fell till the Coroner came, they did not wish moonshine stills on their mother’s property.

Now, all the four — Fred, Ed, Kenny, and Jonas — have been “up” on liquor charges, and fined, Scioto County officials say. But whom the “rigs” belonged to, it is not necessary or even, perhaps, possible to establish since such things are “all in the family.”  Twin Creek is all one family, with cousins and in-laws inextricably tangled and factional boundaries running sharply across the lines of genealogy.

So the wish to keep stills off their mother’s property was not born of squeamishness.

As a matter of plain fact, Emory Smith, Assistant Prosecutor of Scioto County, says the Cooper boys were being arrested for each other’s liquor offenses and one faction had to “come clean” to eliminate that difficulty.

There was talk that a still on the Cooper place had been smashed and its equipment destroyed — just talk of the sort that is no more than the shadow of a buzzard’s wing, for written reports of such matters are not sent to the Sheriff except when, rarely, one of the clan decided to “got to the law about it.”

Fred and Ed Cooper had become heads of one faction — A Cooper Clan, but backed by certain of their numerous cousins.  Kenny and Jonas led the other clan, backed by the majority of the Lewises, whereas the elder two “had doin’s” more with the Holsingers.

Between these clans bad blood developed. The “rig” destroyed must have been, obviously, the property of some one identified with the elder Cooper clan, for its members accused the younger group and were bitter — and exactly whom it belonged to didn’t make much difference, though Twin Creek knew, of course.

This was the situation when, in 1927, state prohibition agents and Sheriff’s deputies closed in on a “rig” up in the head of Twin Creek.  There was a gun battle, in the course of which Tom Cooper, son of Fred, was killed.

A new Cooper grave was dug and a fourth Cooper went to stay in the hills where Clay had gone peacefully, and where Lawrence and Grant Cooper had gone as was more likely, everything considered.

And a blood feud was on between the clans, for Fred and Ed swore that Kenny and Jonas had “tipped off” the “law” and led the officers into their seclusion on their expedition that ended with the death of Fred’s son.

This feud was not long in coming to a head.

September 28, 1927, Kenny Cooper was shot in the breast, shotguns being used. He was wearing heavy underwear, a heavy woolen shirt and over these, the “bib” of his overalls.  These broke the force of the charges.

Kenny’s story is that he was going through the woods on his way to his home after a trip to see his mother when he heard a noise and looked up to see his brother Ed and Boyd Evans, who had married one of Fred Cooper’s daughters. At that moment, he told officers they fired, and he went rolling down hill, “yellin’ for his ma,” as the elder Cooper clan, seemingly having inside information on the circumstances, derisively related afterward.

“I knew they were a’goin’ to shoot Kenny,” Jonas relates, “and when I heard shootin’, I went up and found him and brought him out.”

They had to haul Kenny out to the highway in a jolt wagon, and when on the way out they were passed by Fred Cooper who, it was testified, peered into the wagon and saw the bleeding victim.

“Hooray,” Fred yelled — it was sworn — “Hooray!”

Ed Cooper’s mugshot (c. 1929), most likely obtained by Wilmer G. Mason from the Scioto County Prosecutor’s Office and published as an illustration in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Ed Cooper was sentenced to three-to-twenty years for the attempted murder of his younger brother, Kenny Cooper.  Ed and Fred Cooper, the two older brothers, blamed Kenny for revealing to law enforcement the location of the elder Coopers’ rig in Upper Twin. The resulting raid in 1927 ended in the death of Fred’s son, Tom Cooper, who was shot by federal agents in a gun battle.

Kenny had pneumonia in his injured lungs, and to this day one can hear the shot crunch in his chest as he breathes, so his two-to-twenty-year stretch in the “big house” at Columbus isn’t going to do him any good.

Ed Cooper and Boyd Evans were indicted, and Ed brought to trial and convicted. He did not “go up,” however, until recently, appeals to the higher Courts having left him free under bond.

Boyd Evans never was apprehended. Sheriff’s deputies have sighted him and taken a shot at him a couple of times, and once, the account up Twin Creek goes, they “burned” him slightly with a bullet. But the Sheriff is not optimistic of bringing him in. Twin Creek is a hard country, and is given to the uses of its somewhat hard citizenry.

Ed Cooper’s term was fixed at three to twenty years, and “it broke his heart cuz he had to go up before Kenny went,” the family relates.

Kenny recovered and went back into the Twin Creek hills. The feud smoldered. The Clansmen amused themselves nocturnally by firing shots into each other’s homes. It was only a question of time.

Their mother died.

She had been forced out of her native hills by advancing age and the fact that she no longer could care for a place of her own — and there is little room in Twin Creek one or two-room homes for an added mouth and body, what with new generations of Coopers coming along. So she had gone into Portsmouth to reside with her daughter, Lillie May McGraw, whose husband also was a Twin Creeker. When Lillie and her husband had domestic difficulties, according to Twin Creek’s account of it, “the old woman” went back home to die, May 26, 1928.

Mrs. Cooper does not lie beside her husband. The Cooper Clans met for her funeral, rifles in hand and pistols in belt, and whatever grief they felt was not as great as the anger that sight of each other aroused within them. So “the old woman” was laid away in a little cemetery out at the mouth of Twin Creek and the Cooper Clans left her there to go back into the hills.

August 29, 1928, Kenny was starting home from the grocery that is in the highway, out where Twin Creek flows into the Ohio bottoms. Ed Cooper, driving a wagon, passed and recognized him and yelled that he was “goin’ to finish that job from last fall,” according to testimony at Kenny’s preliminary hearing.

A pitched gun battle at the distance of a few yards resulted, until Ed’s horses settled matters by running away. Ed dropped his pistol, which Kenny later presented to officers, and failed to wound Kenny, although himself receiving wounds in his side and arms.

Honors were given for the Cooper Clans.

Kenny and Jonas are “a right good sort,” they say at the courthouse, and the Sheriff merely telephoned down for Kenny to “come in.” The next morning that feudist marched in, carrying a riffle, shotgun and pistol, identified them for officers, and was released on bond. It was in this case that he was sentenced to serve from 2 to 20 years.

In one way and another, Kenny’s case was dragged along while Ed’s was going through the courts, with both continuing at liberty under bond.

Everett Lewis and Jonas Cooper were arrested in conjunction with the episode, but were freed by the jury.  Kenny taking sole responsibility “with intent thereby to deceive,” if one may believe the other Clan, which insists Kenny’s scheme was to tell the Court he had to kill Ed to protect his own life, and thereby wipe the case from the books cheaply. If that was the plan, it went exactly two-to-twenty years wrong.

Subsequently, Kenny and Jonas relate, one of the elder Cooper clan made a practice of  shouting down the hillside at night:

“I’m a’ gonna crack a half a bushel of hickory nuts on the old gray-haired woman’s head,” such an act — cracking nuts on their mother’s tombstone — being considered the last word in affronts. A shot into the roof would emphasize the taunt.

Finally, Ed’s case was passed upon by the Supreme Court, and it became apparent that within a few days, he would have to go to prison. It was at about that time, in May, this year, that Kenny filed charges against Ed and Fred Cooper and Troy Holsinger.

“There warn’t nothin’ to it,” the Fred and Ed Coopers contend. “He jes’ said he was shot at.”

But Kenny took officers to the scene and showed them bushes cut off by the shots, several of the lead pellets being found imbedded in larger branches or picked up where they had spent their force.

And there the feud of the Coopers of Twin Creek, rests until Ed and Kenny shall come out of the penitentiary or until others of the clan take up their differences to carry on to a conclusion.

Fred Cooper, age 47, and his son Jack, photographed by Wilmer G. Mason for the Cincinnati Enquirer (February 1929). Two years earlier, Fred’s son, Tom Cooper, was shot and killed by federal agents during a raid on their still on Upper Twin. Whether for good reason or not, Fred and Ed believed that their younger brothers, Kenny and Jonas, had tipped off authorities as to the location of their moonshine operation.

Twin Creek lies 20 miles an hundred years from Portsmouth; and Portsmouth, a thriving, bustling town such as one might find ‘most anywhere in the industrial East and Midwest, does not know much except by reputation of the manner in which Twin Creek carries on.

It is “Forbidden Twin” and the thousands who reside outside its mysterious limits are separated from the 100 or 200 who live in that valley by a barrier greater than time or space — the difference between a stern tradition lifted bodily out of the past, and the prosaic humdrumness of the everyday present.

There is a United States highway leading westward from Portsmouth — the River Road — and this is a paved way that, 17 miles from the city, crosses by an old covered bridge over a stream that slips silently down out of the hills on the traveler’s right. No sign — for this awaits the construction of a more modern bridge — says that this is Twin Creek, and the thousands who pass there rarely know that this is the place where hill history still lives and breathes and hates.

“20 Miles and 100 Years From Portsmouth,” locates Upper Twin Creek in place and time, employing a discourse of anachronism that transforms elements of rurality and social class into a failure of adaptation to modernity.

The grocery that is the landmark from which feud incidents are located is just across the stream, back a few feet toward the hills. A fairly well kept road follows the left bank of the creek. Across it, reached by driving through a ford, is the home of Jonas Cooper, king of the young Coopers. Twin Creekers fear Jonas, and it is worthy of note, that although he has been arrested on various charges and so must be involved in family’s affairs the wrath of the elder Coopers has been vented on Kenny rather than on Jonas.

“Hit’s a real good road for ‘bout a mile, up to Slate Point,” Twin Creek says, and so it is — barring a couple of gullies left across it to permit drainage down from the hillside.

“And right good for another mile and after that, well, you can drive through.”

But none but the most utilitarian of automobiles goes all the way up the creek, and few makes can be taken beyond that first mile. After that the road is rough rock, and after the second mile from the main highway it is nothing but creek bed, an old course of the stream that winds back and forth across where the water now flows. At any time except low water nothing but a horse or mule can get out, and Twin Creekers usually prefer to walk across the “ridge” into Turkey Creek to reach a better outlet on such occasions.

There are 11 crossings of that creek without a bridge between the point where most automobiles must be left and where Fred Cooper’s home hangs on the hillside. There is an occasional clearing, and the rare traveler will pass several shacks on his way up to that center of Twin Creek affairs. But few persons go there — “Forbidden Twin” is a “righ-hand country; hit’s got a right hard name.”

A native, coming out of the hills with a load of railroad ties, is asked the way to Fred Cooper’s home. His answer is civil and intelligent; hardy friendly.

Fred, too, is civil; his answers to questions intelligent, but hardly voluble.

His father is buried “on the p’int, yonder.” The “old woman” went to stay with Lillie May when she “got a complaint,” but came back “when Lillie and him (her husband, McGraw), had a fuss.”

“Likker? The law’s right hard, nowadays.

“I’m 47 — Ed’s 43, Kenny 31 and Jonas he’d be 29 now.

“I bought out the old man’s place — well, you might call it bein’ a peacemaker, clearin’ ‘em all out. Sary — that’s Lawrence’s widow — was a’ livin’ on the place.  Hit’s j’inin’ [adjoining] this.”

To another question Fred replied:

“I couldn’t hit y’u (answer you) on that.”

“What started the doin’s? Well, I couldn’t say.”

Mrs. Ed Cooper is more voluble.

“I don’t know what they’re goin’ to do with us, sendin’ Ed away, that way,” she says. She refers to herself and four children left to “shift” for themselves because Ed “got mixed up with the Law.” Yes, the children attend the same school as Jonas’s and Kenny’s, “but they don’t have no doin’s with ‘em.” But one of the boys was in the creek, quite in his birthday clothes, with a couple of Fred’s children, just at the moment.

“Mrs. Ed Cooper and two of her children standing in the doorway of their cabin,” photographed by Wilmer G. Mason for the Cincinnati Enquirer (February 1929). At the time of this photograph, Mrs. Cooper was struggling to run her household now that her husband, Ed Cooper, was serving time for the attempted murder of his brother, Kenny Cooper.

“They get along all right with Fred’s,” Mrs. Ed Cooper explains. “But you know how it is when your folks don’t get along with somebody, though.”

Fred has five children at home; Kenny, five, and Jonas, three.

Jonas, Scioto County officials say, is the smartest of the family.

“Why, sure, I can tell you that,” Mrs. Jonas laughed in response to a question, but “What d’y’u want to know that for? Jonas inquired.

So, after an explanation of the inquiry had been given:

“Now, Mrs. Jonas, you said you could me * * *”

“Well, I don’t rightly remember,” she tittered. It is not for nothing that Jonas is known as the smartest of the lot.

Jonas Cooper, age 29, his wife, and two of his children, photographed by Wilmer G. Mason for the Cincinnati Enquirer (February 1929). In the 1920s, Jonas and Kenny Cooper led one of the Cooper factions, while their older brothers Fred and Ed, led another faction, each with their own moonshine operations. Within two years of this photograph, in December 1930, Jonas would be shot dead at his rig in Vastine Hollow on Lower Twin Creek by a state forest ranger. George Rivers, the forester who shot Cooper, would face charges of murder, when eye-witness accounts and evidence suggested that he may have shot Cooper without legal justification.

They are long miles, those measurements of distance up Twin Creek, especially when a motor car has been left behind.

“How far is it back down to the Point?” a native, chopping scrub brush out of his front yard, is asked.

“‘Bout half a mile.”

By one’s watch half or three-quarters of a mile is traversed, and another native encountered.

“Howdy. How far back down to the Point?”

“‘Bout half a mile.”

The stranger laughs and expostulates:

“Why, that’s what one of your neighbors told me, a half mile or so back up the creek.”

“Well, you don’t want to go all the way back to the Point — that’s your car up this side of there, ain’t it?”

Twin Creek knows its strangers!

The visitor walks with the silence of unseen things, sensing dimly that he himself is under observation.

By the time the car is reached, the native of the load of ties is encountered again, returning, his wagon light.

“Aire you one of the deppities? he inquires.

He was “right-puzzled,” as a Twin Creeker would say, since deputies carry riffles, not cameras, when traveling that road.

So it was easy for him to accept the explanation that the stranger in the valley was a newspaper man.

“Well, how aire y’u?” he inquired, and his manner was almost hearty.

But this is feud country, for all that, and the next guide is not so fortunate a choice. The question was, “Which way to Jonas Cooper’s,” and the person addressed proved to be a Holsinger.

And the Holsingers, as all Twin Creek knows, “don’t have no doin’s with Jonas.”

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