The Blue Fugates Of Troublesome Creek

As the days grow shorter and inky night falls long before you get to close your laptop and leave the office for the day, it’s easy to feel a little blue. Call it the winter doldrums, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, or just a case of the blahs, we are officially moving into the bluest months of the year.

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The good news is, one day it will be Spring and like Picasso suddenly remembering there are other colors, we will move on from our collective Blue Period.

And for that, consider yourself lucky. For more than 100 years in eastern Kentucky, there were people that couldn’t quite get past those blues.

They were called the Blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek and NO, it’s TOO LATE, you CAN’T HAVE IT, I already claim that as a band name.

In the 1820s, Martin Fugate arrived from France, hoping to claim some of that fertile Kentucky land. He settled in an area called Troublesome Creek and married a woman named Elizabeth.

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History has long forgotten most of what Martin and Elizabeth had in common — maybe they both liked to whittle, or sing show tunes, or gossip about the neighbors. But they definitely shared one trait, and unfortunately, it was recessive.

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The pair likely suffered from methemoglobinemia, a rare hereditary blood condition that creates excess levels of methemoglobin in the blood. Methemoglobin is blue, unlike the red hemoglobin that carries oxygen.

Martin and Elizabeth had seven children. Four of them were as blue as smurfs. Their skin was bright blue, their lips were purple, their fingernails were indigo. Elizabeth had been a redhead, so some of these kids looked a bit Willy Wonka-esque.

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And nothing flourishes in the hollers of eastern Kentucky quite like a recessive genetic condition. Largely separated from the outside world by geography and topography, the Fugate clan began to procreate with those most convenient. Over time, the gene pool got smaller and smaller and the number of Blue Fugates spread across the region.

The Fugates and their many blue descendants lived in relative isolation for many generations. But in the 1950s, thanks to the growth of the highway system, modernity — and outsiders — began to arrive in Troublesome Creek. Perhaps for the first time, the Blue Fugates began to feel ashamed of their unique color.

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At the same time, a young hematologist from the University of Kentucky grew interested in figuring out just what was going on with the blue people of eastern Kentucky he’d heard so much about. He spent a few months running all over the region, trying to find them and create a family tree.

Madison Cawein heard all kinds of theories about why the Fugates were blue — a heart condition, lung disease, or maybe their blood just ran a little closer to the surface.

When he finally managed to test a wide swath of the Blue Fugates, Cawein could confirm what he suspected. It was methemoglobinemia, a disease that had also been found in isolated Alaskan communities.

Luckily for the Bluegates of Troublesome Creek, methemoglobinemia is easily treated — ironically, by taking methylene blue, a type of blue dye that counteracts the discoloring. Within minutes, the Blue Fugates were turning back into just your normal, old-fashioned eastern Kentucky white folks.

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Though the treatment is simple, the genes are still out there. In 1975, Benji Stacy was born as blue as a blueberry. The doctors were terrified, but his family just rolled their eyes… and, I imagine, later cautioned him not to swipe right on any blue-tinged local ladies.

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