Helen Crocker’s The Green River of Kentucky exists, in a sense, as two books. On one level, it is a careful and researched presentation of the subject, and how it has been alternately respected, exploited, and preserved from the 18th century to the 1970s. On another, the work is a dedication to the beauty and integrity of a natural landscape, reminiscent of Marjorie Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass. To her credit, the author then manages to infuse what would otherwise by a dry history with emotional meaning and relevance. Crocker’s book is then both highly informative and reliant upon the author’s obvious commitment to the river and valley so meaningful to her.
Following an historical timeline, Crocker begins by relating what is known of the earliest American settler experience with the Green River and Valley. She refers to records indicating that the local Natives named the river based on the coloring produced by the silt, as the first Kentucky settlers clearly took advantage of it as a means of transportation and a power supply. At the same time, the 1780s were marked by violent conflicts between the Shawnee and Cherokee tribes and the new arrivals (Crocker 1-3). Nonetheless, the Natives were driven away and, as Kentucky gained statehood in 1792, there was a mass populating of the region. Crocker notes as well that the river was both difficult to navigate and a source of extensive wildlife, and there was a growing concern over “outlaws” settling there to comfortably exploit the valley (Crocker 7). Then, and as so often happens with American natural resources, the river and the valley became centers of commercial, social, and political conflict. Crocker documents that, following the Civil War, Kentucky’s offering of the resources to private businessmen initiated the decades-long era of the Green River “monarchs.”
What followed was a reaction remarkably reflective of modern conservationist movements. Competing river businesses saw the success of those controlling the rivers in the valley as monopolistic, and because those “monarchs” were enjoying immense profits. This led to a grassroots movement from local Kentuckians urging for federal authority over the lands and rivers, which brought other issues into play. The Kentucky people were, by and large, extremely resentful of a government that had destroyed their slavery system, just as they felt further degraded by how the government was enabling freed slaves to find work elsewhere, through free transportation passes (Crocker 28-29). Throughout all these years, the Green River was both an indispensable asset in multiple ways and one subject to controversy over rights to it.
The author then goes on to document the long usage of the river for passenger steamboats, commercial transport of goods, and as well as for showboats providing one of the few forms of entertainment available in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Then, a combination of new technologies and the Great Depression severely limited the river’s contributions, leading to industrial neglect (Crocker 65). However, governmental response to the Depression enabled processes which would, over time, generate new ways of employing the river’s power commercially and preserving the landscape’s integrity. Congress funded new locks to promote mining but, in the 1930s and ongoing since, local residents have consistently worked to protect this natural ecosystem of river and valley (Crocker 72). In more recent years, there has in fact been an increased commitment to safeguard the region’s environment, which so relies upon the river as its natural foundation: “Humans continue to exploit the River…but the balance between agricultural production and natural resource production and conservation is perhaps more balanced than ever” (GRL). This is precisely the balance Crocker argues for throughout her book, if sometimes indirectly. Essentially, Crocker’s underlying and consistent admiration for the river and valley beauty, as well as the importance of understanding it as essential for the area’s well-being, is apparently shared by others, who have in turn influenced the legislation necessary to safeguarding it.
Crocker’s love for the Green River is also evident in her life story. Born in Ohio, she moved on to become a professor of history at Western Kentucky University (WKU). In the two decades she held this position, Crocker, nee Bartter, wrote her book and narrated videos on the region’s history. She died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 88, and Crocker’s family was large; she was survived by her six sons, their spouses, fourteen grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren (BGDN). Moreover, Crocker’s entire life was marked by a range of interests and pursuits. She and her husband traveled whenever possible, she studied music and, upon retiring, devoted herself to painting watercolors. Her death generated widespread sorrow in Bowling Green, her adopted home (BGDN). Beyond anything, it appears that Helen Crocker’s life and career were centered on the Green River Valley she would explore and so esteem.
It is reasonable to criticize Crocker’s book as too specific in subject matter to be of general interest. In plain terms, the long story of this river and area is likely not compelling to many, just as the research relates detail not particularly relevant to the public at large. Nonetheless, both research and detail are greatly enhanced by the underlying and consistent sense of the author’s deep commitment to the value of the Green River and the valley. In the final analysis, Helen Crocker’s The Green River of Kentucky is a book highly informative and reflective of the author’s authentic commitment to the river and valley so meaningful to her.
- Bowling Green Daily News (BGDN). “Helen Crocker.” 28 Aug. 2017. Web. 20 Feb. 2018.
- Crocker, Helen B. The Green River of Kentucky. University of Kentucky Press, 2015.
- Green River of Life (GRL). “Our Sense of Place- A Brief Historical Perspective.” 2018. Web. 20 Feb. 2018.