Rebuilding Uncle Pen’s Cabin

ROSINE — High on the hill above the town, as the song says, James Monroe is rebuilding his great-uncle James Pendleton Vandiver’s cabin.

Sometime next month, he hopes to have the cabin on 2.5 acres atop Tuttle Hill above Rosine open for bluegrass fans to visit.

“This was the last place my father (Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass music”) lived in Kentucky,” Monroe said. “I think bluegrass fans will want to see it.”

James Monroe had the original cabin dismantled in 1991 and used some of the planed logs to build a memorial cabin in Beanblossom, Ind., as part of his plans to turn the Monroe family’s 55-acre park near Nashville, Ind., into a tourist attraction and country music venue.

That ruffled some feathers in Ohio County.

But Monroe said there wasn’t enough tourism in Rosine at the time to rebuild the cabin there.

That was before the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Festival in Rosine was drawing 18,000 people a year and the ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival in Owensboro was drawing 21,000.

Many of those fans seek out other Monroe sites in the area, including his boyhood home, which is on the site of the Jerusalem Ridge festival.

Bill Monroe’s grave in Rosine Cemetery, which is topped by 20-foot obelisk made of 14 tons of white North Carolina granite, continues to draw fans from around the world nearly 16 years after his death on Sept. 9, 1996.

Tuesday, Jerry and Betty Boyd, bluegrass fans from Tomball, Texas, stopped at the cemetery to visit Monroe’s grave.

“I remember listening to Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry when I was a kid,” Jerry Boyd said. “We were in Alabama for a family reunion and then came up to Nashville to visit my sister. I said, ‘As long as we’re this close, why don’t we go to see Bill Monroe’s boyhood home.’ “

If Uncle Pen’s cabin had been open, the Boyds said they would have visited it too.

“It’s on the original site, but it will be mostly new logs,” Monroe said of the two-room cabin.

Joe Johnson, co-owner of Johnson & Johnson Construction of Dundee, which is building the 24- by 20-foot cabin, said four or five logs from the original cabin will be used around the fireplace and to

make a shelf in the kitchen.

The cabin is made of 5-by-12 logs, planed smooth rather than rounded.

There is no view from the cabin. There are too many trees around it.

But an old wagon road from the days when Vandiver lived here is still visible through the trees.

Johnson said he’s trying to locate the farm’s old well to get it in use again.

“We’ll have old pictures of my uncle and fiddles and information about him,” Monroe said.

James Monroe joined his father’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963, when he was 22.

He recorded with his father on 35 sessions through the years.

Then, the younger Monroe struck out on his own, forming his own band, The Midnight Ramblers, in 1971.

 He bought the Vandiver property in the 1970s and gave it to his father as a birthday present, he said.

“It had been neglected for years and we had been on the road and didn’t have time to keep it up,” Monroe said of the original cabin. “Most of the wood was rotten by the time I tried to save it.”

He said three or four people will be hired to oversee the cabin in the 200 block of Uncle Pen Lane, keep up the grounds and conduct tours.

“I think it’s a wonderful tie-in with everything that’s going on in the area,” Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, said of the project.

“I’ve been there and you can envision why Bill Monroe thought it was so special,” she said. “I was blown away by how beautiful it is. People will come from far away, to quote the song, to see it. It is truly a magical place.”

Vandiver, who died in 1932 at age 63, was the brother of Bill Monroe’s mother, Malissa Vandiver Monroe.

She died when her youngest son was 10.

Monroe’s father, James Buchanan “Buck” Monroe, died when he was 16.

After his father’s death, Monroe lived for brief periods with his Uncle William Monroe and, then, his Uncle Jack Monroe. When Jack’s house was placed under a measles quarantine, Vandiver invited Monroe to “batch it” at his cabin, according to music historian Ralph Rinzler.

Vandiver was crippled and on crutches, having been thrown from a young mule spooked by a passing train. But he was a well-known fiddle player and played for dances all over Ohio County, often accompanied by his young nephew on mandolin and sometimes guitar.

“He was one of Kentucky’s finest old-time fiddlers,” Monroe wrote on the cover of his 1972 album, “Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen,” a compilation of Monroe’s renditions of Vandiver’s tunes. “And he had the best shuffle with the bow I’d ever seen.”

“He done the cooking for the two of us,” Monroe wrote once. “We had fat back, sorghum molasses, and hot cakes for breakfast followed by blackeyed peas with fat back and corn bread and sorghum for dinner and supper.”

 Biographer Richard D. Smith quotes Monroe further: “A man that old, and crippled, that would cook for you and see that you had a bed and a place to stay and something for breakfast and dinner and supper, and you know it come hard for him to get …”

Monroe continued to keep his horses in his Uncle Jack’s barn near the Rosine train depot while he lived with Vandiver. At the end of the day, as he put the horses away, Monroe could hear his Uncle Pen playing outside his cabin on Tuttle Hill.

Years later, he would immortalize Vandiver in a bluegrass classic, “Uncle Pen” — “Late in the evenin’ about sundown/High on the hill and above the town/Uncle Pen played the fiddle/Lord, how it’d ring/You could hear it talk/You could hear it sing.”

In 1929, when Monroe turned 18, he took the train north to Hammond, Ind., where he worked with his brothers, Charlie and Birch, at a Sinclair Oil refinery.

Vandiver died three years later.

On September 13, 1973, Bill Monroe unveiled a monument to Vandiver in Rosine Cemetery with the words to “Uncle Pen” engraved on it it .

It has attracted bluegrass fans from around the world for 39 years.

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