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Lyon native details life 'Between-the-Rivers'

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

When Celesta Wilson began to write about her childhood, she thought it might become a paperback, or possibly a printout from her home computer.

Now, the 81-year-old Lyon County native can hold a 365-page, hardback book that tells her life story in her hands.

"I wanted to leave information about my early life for my grandchildren," Wilson said. "I had no intentions of it becoming this."

Wilson, who has lived in Paducah since 1949, said her son and daughter-in-law, Keith and Rona Branson, saw that she was working on the project and encouraged her to keep at it. Wilson took their advice and three years later her book, "Between-the-Rivers and Beyond," was published.

Wilson spent the first 17 years of her life in the area between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, which would officially be called Land Between the Lakes in the 1960s. In Wilson's youth, it was known as Between the Rivers, and hers was one of hundreds of families that called it home.

"It was a poor area, but it wasn't like Appalachia. Nobody went to bed hungry and we all had clothes to wear and food to eat," Wilson said.

Wilson said one of her main goals in writing to book was to show how people lived in a simpler era. In her youth, Wilson spent hours listening to her grandmother, Nancy Watkins, and her mother, Ida Watkins Peal, describe life during the Great Depression.

She took notes on their experiences and added some of her own.

Although her household didn't have electricity until Wilson was a sophomore at Lyon County High School, she said she never felt particularly deprived. Doing her schoolwork by the light of a kerosene lamp and walking two miles to school or to the grocery store was just part of life.

"We didn't know any different. It was a way of life, and I didn't know what went on in the city," she said.

As Between the Rivers was rural, Wilson decided to relocate to Paducah to find work after high school. Wilson's mother - widowed in 1941 - remained on the family's farmland until the government's creation of Land Between the Lakes forced her to relocate to Grand Rivers.

LBL, an inland peninsula, was formed when the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were impounded in the 1940s and 1960s, respectively. The impoundments, which resulted in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, left portions of the area underwater. Wilson said the subsequent creation of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in 1963 led to more relocations.

"My mother was heartbroken," Wilson said. "There were actually people that lived up there that moved three times. None of them (was) happy about it. They did not want to be relocated."

But in conversation, Wilson doesn't dwell much on the development of LBL. Her book is a personal chronicle rather than a historical text, delving into her two marriages, her experiences with motherhood, and her more than three decades of employment at Southern Bell, later known as BellSouth Telecommunications. Wilson has dubbed the book, which contains more than 800 photos, a pictorial autobiography.

"There's not anything about this book that's secret," she said, laughing.

"Between-the-Rivers and Beyond" is not available for purchase, but Wilson has donated copies to the McCracken County Public Library, the library at West Kentucky Community & Technical College, and the United Methodist Women's Library at Fountain Avenue United Methodist Church, of which she is a member.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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