Jackson, Ky. — In some ways, life in Jackson, Ky., is as constant as the mountains that surround it. Wayne Sheffel still has trouble getting from his house to the highway when it rains on his dirt road. Well-to-do Treva Howell thinks people here are as friendly as they always were. And on this particular day, Buck Maggard is trying to find shoes for a man who lives in a nearby ''holler'' (hollow), where poverty seems to have reigned since the county was settled more than a century ago.
But around the bedrock layers of Appalachian society, there are profound changes occurring here in Breathitt County.
Talk to anyone in this county of 17,000 people, and the conversation inevitably turns to coal. Its presence is inescapable: Huge 10- and 18-wheel coal trucks rumble continuously down State Highway 15. People say large chunks of coal have fallen off the trucks and broken windshields. Mud spatters cars that follow the trucks too closely.
For the past 10 years, Jackson has ridden high on a coal boom that has brought undreamed of prosperity. Grocery prices have shot up. Fast-food restaurants have moved in. The population has grown. At one point, two developers were racing each other to build shopping malls on different sides of town.
The question in many minds is whether prosperity is here to stay.
So far, the county's largest employer - the Falcon Coal Company - has flourished.
While the coal industry has slumped severely in the past two years, Falcon chalked up a record year in 1982 and will probably come close to doing so again this year, analysts say. Lucrative long-term contracts - with the Tennessee Valley Authority (3.6 million tons a year) and Detroit Edison (1.15 million tons) - have kept the company active while many mines in the area have been shut down.
Residents here, though, question whether the Falcon company will be around once those contracts run out - in 1989 for the TVA and 1994 for Detroit Edison.
Up to now, Falcon has been surface mining the easily recoverable coal - a resource that will be virtually exhausted by the mid-1990s, says Robert E. Garbesi, the new president of Diamond Shamrock Coal Company, which owns Falcon. Falcon will have to begin mining underground, he says, which will be more expensive and require heavy investments in new types of equipment.
Mr. Garbesi, for one, is confident that Falcon will stay around to mine its considerable underground reserves. This year the company plans to evaluate those reserves, he says, although a final decision will depend heavily on whether the coal business picks up. (In December the National Coal Association estimated a modest upturn in demand for 1984.)
But others are not so sure.
''We're all sitting on the edge of our seats,'' says Don Ison, part owner of a local home-furnishings store. ''The future looks pretty dim.''
If Falcon leaves the county, says Jim Maggard, the area's state representative, ''we would be in a desperate situation. . . . We've got to recruit additional industry in the mountains. It's our only hope.''
For years the mountain man has survived while outside concerns - first logging and now mining - came in to exploit the region's riches. Now, ever so slowly, observers say, a new breed of Appalachian is coming to the fore, better educated and more demanding.
Representative Maggard, for example, is the only politician in 50 years to win an election in the county despite opposition from the powerful Turner family.
Beginning in the 1920s Marie R. Turner and her late husband ruled the county with a firm hand, observers say. Only now, does the family's power appear to be diminishing.
Mrs. Turner's daughter, Treva Howell, says her mother is not as active as before and few of the younger Turners appear to want to take up the mantle.
''You don't really need the political clout like you used to,'' she says. ''People are becoming leaders on their own.''
Even Mr. Sheffel, the volunteer director of the Grass Roots Economic Development Corporation who has had a hard time getting rural people to raise such things as chickens and hogs for food, acknowledges a slow change.
''You're getting a lot more rural input than even 10 years ago,'' he says. ''In 10 years how are we going to do? The answer will have to (come) from the people themselves.''