On a grassy knoll at the far back corner of Fess Halcomb’s land sets a small, white, wooden building. On the side hangs a sign with the words “The Church that Love Built” painted in red.
“I was married to Zelphia for 63 years, 7 months and 5 days,” says Fess, who is almost always dressed in black or in denim overalls. He is witty and full of life, always carrying with him a bit of mischievous wonder and, at 87, is more robust than most men 20 years his junior. His eyes sparkle and he smiles often, especially when talking about life with Zelphia, whom he married in 1945.
Although both grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky—Zelphia on Beehive Mountain, Fess in Leatherwood—their paths rarely crossed. In their early 20s, the pair finally connected and, after 14 months of dating, Fess playfully recalls, “I fully convinced Zelphia that she would be getting the best thing going by marrying me.”
There was no elaborate wedding day—no fancy dress or lavish reception—and the newlyweds did not jet off to an exotic locale for their honeymoon. Instead, Fess skipped a day of work at the coal mine and paid a friend $25 to drive him and Zelphia in the back of a Dodge pickup truck to Virginia, where they could have their blood work done, marriage license issued and vows exchanged in one day. Fess handed the last $10 he had to the preacher to perform the ceremony that would bond this couple for more decades than many have the good fortune to live.
As the years passed, Fess and Zelphia had a daughter and three sons. Fess worked tirelessly at Blue Diamond Coal Company, where he was employed for 44 years, while Zelphia worked even harder raising the children and creating a home in their mountain community. They purchased land, built a home, planted large gardens each spring and canned hundreds of Mason jars of food for winter. They took family vacations to Ruby Falls, Tenn.; served in community, government and church roles; and often welcomed family and friends for meals. Fess humbly admits to his foolish ways as a young husband and praises Zelphia for staying by his side. Marriage is a journey, filled with mountains and valleys, smooth terrain and rough patches. This couple persevered through it all.
As time passed, the Halcomb’s Perry County home eventually became quiet. Fess leans forward in his chair when asked how life changed for him and Zelphia after the children left. “Let me share with you what’s going to happen,” he says to me, with pointed precision. “A spouse is all that you’ll come home to when the children are gone. What you are left with is a companion.”
Sometime after Zelphia’s passing in 2009, Fess awoke from his sleep with a vision of a white chapel next to her resting place. It would be a quiet spot where he could sit and look out along the winding road of the holler that he and Zelphia for years walked along together. Decades of raising children, planting gardens, celebrating births, mourning deaths, hanging Christmas wreaths, setting the Thanksgiving table and welcoming family for reunions.
Over the course of three months, in the harsh elements of a mountain winter, Fess built. He drafted plans, just as he had for the house he built for the family years prior. He measured, cut, carried and nailed. Family members pitched in to help bring his vision to life. The finished chapel, complete with a tall steeple, is large enough to hold two small church pews and a wooden stand. Zelphia’s Bible sits on the stand, inviting family members and friends to stay and read.
While Fess and I talk, he pulls shriveled petals from the rose bush climbing the white picket fence nearby. Embarrassed, he says he’s usually never behind on such tasks. “As long as I live, this chapel will be in pristine condition.” Back inside, sunshine pours in through the stained glass window, warming the little room as he sweeps the floor and sits down for a rest. He’s been known to lie down for a long afternoon nap on one of the church pews with his loyal dog sleeping nearby.
Seated at Fess’ kitchen table, we look through old photos and talk. His hands, strong and steady, pick up each one. When he comes to an 8-by-10 of a young Zelphia, he stops. The hands that helped his new bride into the back of the pickup truck on their wedding day, the hands that brought home a weekly paycheck from the mines, the hands that held their four newborn babies, the hands that planted in the garden rows of mustard greens and peas, and the hands that helped care for his wife as she aged, now stroke the photo slowly.
The moment is not a sad one. Nor have any moments in the day been. In fact, there is an enormous sense of peacefulness, contentment and gratitude. Fess Halcomb knows he is a blessed man. He spent six decades with a love of a lifetime.