Year of Publication

2020

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Document Type

Master's Thesis

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

History

First Advisor

Dr. David Hamilton

Abstract

From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Turner family of Breathitt County held a political and economic monopoly over their rural county in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. They were emblematic of the patronage, clientele, and kinship politics that characterized twentieth century eastern Kentucky. The family rewarded their supporters with jobs and other economic benefits in exchange for continued political support. Ervine Turner served as a state senator during the Great Depression and was later appointed circuit judge over a three-county district, his wife Marie served 38 years as superintendent of Breathitt County schools, and their children later emerged as prominent political leaders in the region. The Turners were loyal Democrats who embraced New Deal liberalism and its commitment to government-sponsored economic development. They cultivated political connections with prominent Democrats that extended as far upward as the White House. Throughout their time in power, the family gained loyal followers but also attracted vocal critics for alleged acts of fraud and corruption. By the 1960s, the family’s influence had grown so strong that some observers referred to them as the “Turner machine.” Political machines have traditionally been perceived as corrupt, wasteful, and inefficient. This thesis uses the Turner family as a case study for reexamining the traditional roles of political machines by highlighting the benefits that patronage politics can deliver in historically isolated places like eastern Kentucky. It argues that the Turner family served as mediators between their constituents and the government. Through their political connections, the Turners generated jobs and infrastructure for the people of Breathitt County. But this economic growth did not generate long-term development and came at the expense of reinforcing conditions of dependence, processes that ultimately perpetuated poverty in Breathitt County and eastern Kentucky.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.13023/etd.2020.399

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