- Historic Sites
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
The first summer William A. Barnhill packed up his 5-by-y-inth view camera and glass plates and headed for the mountains of North Carolina, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, Henry Ford’s Model T was rolling off the Highland Park assembly line in ever-increasing numbers, and Congress had just passed the income-tax amendment to the Constitution. The twentieth century was well into its second decade and America had become a modern nation.
Barnhill’s destination, which was nearly equidistant from Detroit and Washington, was as far removed from modern times as it was possible to be in the United States. Western North Carolina lay in the heart of the southern Appalachians—an immense, homogeneous region that sprawled over eight states. It was a territory larger than New England, peopled by some three million Americans of colonial ancestry and predominantly British stock, but of this area the average citizen knew about as much as he did of Zanzibar or Zara.
For two hundred years the forbidding heights of the Blue Ridge, the Cumberlands, and the Unakas had turned back the press of civilization—to such an extent that the people of the Southern Highlands could truly be said, in 1914, to be living as they had in the eighteenth century. Isolated from the mainstream of progress and events for five and six generations, they were very much closer in habit and manner and speech to Daniel Boone than they were to William Barnhill. The radius of the average highlander’s environment extended only a few miles from his one-room log cabin: many of them had never seen even a fair-sized town, some had never seen a railroad, others did not know of the existence of Negroes. The mountains within which they lived were so nearly impassable that the inhabitants of one side of a ridge knew as little about those on the other as they did about the residents of another country. Going up these mountainsides, it was said, “you can stand up straight and bite the ground; go in’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” And there was the story about a farmer who fell out of his cornfield and broke his neck. One observer, seeing Daniel Boone’s famous Wilderness Road for the first time, said, “Despite all that has been done to civilize it since Boone traced its course [in 1775], this honored historic thoroughfare remains as it was in the beginning, with all its sloughs and sands, its mud and holes, and jutting ledges of rocks and loose boulders, and twists and turns, and general total depravity.”
William Barnhill made the first of many hiking trips in the North Carolina mountains a year after the publication of Horace Kephart’s classic work on the people of the region, Our Southern Highlanders . Where Barnhill hiked up and down the miserable roads and mountain trails of the area photographing the scenery and the people, Kephart had done the same with notebook in hand. Both men became residents of the region for a time; between them, a vivid portrait of everyday life in this forgotten pocket of America was preserved.
The endless mountains they saw (comprising nine tenths of the western portion of North Carolina), were old before the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas, or the Rockies were formed, and were covered almost continuously with a dreamy blue haze that softened their outlines, making them inexpressibly lonesome and mysterious. Their slopes were covered with gigantic oaks five and six feet in diameter, chestnuts one hundred feet tall (the blight had not yet killed off these majestic trees), sycamore, elm, gum, willow, and a dozen other species. The undergrowth below was of an almost tropical luxury, and the gorges were choked with laurel and rhododendron. What land was cleared had been made so by the ancient method of girdling the trunks of the great trees so they would gradually die and fall. The fields were plowed with a “bulltongue,” an implement that was little more than a sharpened stick with a metal rim, and once the corn was up it was cultivated with hoes by the entire family. When the thin soil wore out, the mountain people went on to another piece of land. “When 1 move,” one man told Kephart, “all I have to do is put out the fire and call the dog.” On the average, the highlander was inquisitive, shrewd, and lean—rarely did Kephart see a fat one. Like Indians, the men had been trained to hide their emotions, and many wore a habitual scowl, greeting strangers with hard, searching eyes. (Edgar Allan Poe, writing in 1845, had thought the mountains “tenanted by fierce and uncouth races of men.”) The women were pretty when young, but they aged cruelly fast; generally by the time she was in her thirties a mountain woman was painfully bent and old from continuous hard work, early marriage, and frequent childbearing. Despite their poor diet and frequent illnesses, however, many of the mountain folk had great physical energy and were capable of enduring extraordinary hardship. Men who had forded icy mountain streams all day would return home at sunset to dry out before a log fire in a drafty log cabin; herdsmen who stayed with their animals in mountain pastures rarely carried a blanket with them, but slept uncovered in every kind of weather; few mountaineers wore rain gear or even a coat, and adults and children sometimes went barefoot through much of the winter, often tramping without shoes through ankle-deep snow. One woman Kephart met—“Long Goody” she was called, for her six-foot, three-inch height—customarily walked eighteen miles to market across a five-thousand-foot summit and returned the following day carrying a fifty-pound sack of (lour and other groceries.