The Cornbread Mafia by James Higdon

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The stories I wrote as a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper from small-town Kentucky were often features about quiet and friendly places and the young people who outgrew them, finding success on television shows like America’s Next Top Model and America’s Got Talent. In his book The Cornbread Mafia, James Higdon describes a different rural Kentucky scene, one that bred a long line of close-lipped, close-knit and tough-skinned outlaws.

I spent eight years in Kentucky, but I was never a Kentuckian. Higdon is. I may recognize the well-known names and headline-grabbing stories he cites, but I wouldn’t think to place them in time by mentioning the name of that year’s Kentucky Derby winner or the star of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Higdon did. Kentuckians have much to be proud of—and even more to lament. They rank high in everything you shouldn’t: obesity, toothlessness, poverty, prescription drug abuse, meth production. And yet there is a beauty to their self-destructiveness, an independent spirit that Higdon highlights in this tale about Marion County, Kentucky and the biggest marijuana bust in American history. In doing so he tells the story not just of a marijuana bust, but also of a people and place most outsiders never get to see.

The Cornbread Mafia describes the road that led to pot farming becoming a successful business model in Marion County in the 70s, 80s and 90s and the clash with federal law enforcement that brought it down earlier this century. The man at the center of the story is Johnny Boone, who along with his associates became known as the “Cornbread Mafia” for their marijuana growing and harvesting proficiency.

When you think of modern crime syndicates, big cities often come to mind: New York, South Central Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Not Marion County, Kentucky, but that is where this true tale takes place. It may come as a surprise that the largest home-grown marijuana syndicate in American history was not in Mendocino County, California or somewhere else on the coast, but in the heart of the heartland, hidden amongst tobacco fields and Friday-night fish fries. But if you understand the history of this region, a history Higdon chronicles in great detail, it makes perfect sense.

James Higdon

James Higdon

Marion County has a habit of doing things its own way, a habit that neither began nor ended with Prohibition-era bootleggers. Higdon traces the stories of the county’s more dashing and daring lawbreakers and the populace that in many ways supported them. There are entertaining little vignettes about nuns who end up with thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen air conditioners, wild truck drivers crashing into buildings and kids finding cash stashed in a barn. Higdon’s journalism background lends itself to mini profiles and entertaining scenes that stand alone and yet together help make up a whole. Much of what he chronicles would be funny if death and violence were not often the result. There are some Robin Hood-like hoodlums in the tale, but also some hardcore crazy killers. They tend to get mixed up together.

Higdon colors the historical details with first-person accounts from surprisingly candid individuals, like a small town reporter who admits to taking marijuana from a police haul while on assignment. He chronicles not just the business and social side of the marijuana growing business in Marion County, but also the growing basics. An enterprising reader can learn a lot about different varieties, growing techniques and evasion. The focus, though, remains on the people, their outsider status and the rules they live and die by. Higdon is able to describe them so well because he is one of them. He grew up in Marion County and although he left, he came back. He writes about what he understood as a child and how that changed when he returned as an adult and a journalist. It is impossible for him not to get involved and he takes a sort of pride in being pulled in by becoming the first journalist subpoenaed under the Obama administration due to his relationship with a federal fugitive, Johnny Boone. For him the story is personal. The Cornbread Mafia is title given to a group of Kentuckians who lived outside our laws and labels.

Katya Cengel has written for New York Times Magazine and Washington Post among other publications and teaches journalism at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is the author of From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union (Potomac, 2019); Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac, 2018); and Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012). Cengel has been awarded grants from the International Reporting Project, International Women’s Media Foundation and International Center for Journalists. More from this author →