Appalachia: 1914


Constant exposure and inadequate clothing produced the “rheumatiz”; the “milk-sick” (which carried off Abraham Lincoln’s mother) was a common ailment; and a steady diet of pork fat, corn pone and doughy biscuits, green beans, and pot liquor resulted inevitably in dyspepsia. The most primitive remedies were employed for injuries—wounds were staunched with dusty cobwebs and bound up with old rags—and seldom was any sympathy shown for an injured person, or much emotion for the dead. Suspicious of even the most rudimentary medical treatment, few mountain people would accept an anesthetic, even for major operations. And when dentistry was necessary, teeth were sometimes removed by a method known as “tooth-jumping,” in which a hand-made nail was set against the tooth at a certain angle and hit a sharp blow with a hammer.

Their homes were log cabins that customarily had one large room with a stone chimney at one end and a single window sash at the other, a plank door, and a lean-to at the rear for a kitchen. Few of these structures were effectively chinked, and since they were usually made of green timbers, the house warped and sagged, the roof leaked, and the flooring shrank. On the walls of the main room, above the beds or pallets, the family wardrobe hung from pegs, along with herbs, apples, and gourds that were drying there. Most houses had a bright lithograph or two on the wall or a family photograph taken by an itinerant photographer like Barnhill. The Bible, an almanac, and a kerosene lamp were standard fixtures, and more often than not there was a spinning wheel or hand loom in evidence.

Outside the cabin was a variety of equipment for the necessities of life: a tub-mill for grinding corn; an ash hopper for running lye to make soap; a cider press; a spring box for water and for cold storage in summer; an immense iron kettle for boiling clothes, making soap, scalding pigs, and other uses; and a “battlin’ block” on which the family wash was hammered. Somewhere in or near the clearing, chickens ran wild; beyond, in the undergrowth, was a litter of razorback hogs, the mountain family’s mainstay; and off in the primeval forest roamed a herd of scraggly mountain cattle. What trade there was was by barter, and every man had to be his own gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, and blacksmith.

It was a patriarchal society in which all men were equal and women were second-class citizens. With everyone in the same Rx of poverty and deprivation, life was not so bad, and the mountain people, born and bred to self-denial, had a real scorn for luxury. The word of the head of the household was law. “The woman,” as every wife was called, was both household drudge and ReId hand; before “store clothes” became cheap and easy to obtain, she produced the dresses and homespun jeans and linsey-woolsey her family wore, and the quilts under which they slept; she helped with the plowing and planting, hoed the corn, gathered the crops, chopped Rrcwood; and at mealtime she stood and waited table, serving her man first. Site commonly bore between seven and ten children, but the mortality of the infants was appallingly high.

The manners and morals of these folk were those of their distant forebears—so vividly described by Fielding and Pepys—and their language was a direct tic to Rftecnth-century England. Words that had been obsolete in the old country for years still persisted in the southern Appalachians: dauncy , meaning fastidious, or overnice, dated back at least to 1460; doney or doneygal , meaning a sweetheart, came from the Spanish dona , and had been brought back to English ports centuries earlier by British sailors; people spoke of backing letters, which came from the days before envelopes, when the address was written on the back of the letter. Almost all the place names of their world were descriptive—Black Rock, Standing Stone, Burnt Cabin Branch, Bear Wallow, Pretty Hollow, Brier Knob—reflecting the constant proximity of the people to nature. Their talk was full of terms that meant little to an outsider but were of the essence to a highlander: bald , meaning a treeless mountain top; bench a level area on the side of a mountain; drain (pronounced dreen ), a small spring on a mountain side; butt , the abrupt end of a mountain ridge; scald , a bare hillside; and so on.

Some of the rumors about the mountain people that reached the outer world were true, or had their basis in fact—the dark tales of blood feuds and incestuous family relationships, the jokes about moonshiners and “rcvenoocrs.” Segregated from outsiders, the mountain folk were indeed a distinct species, unmixed ethnically, with strong tics of kinship not unlike the old Scottish clan loyalty. Harsh physical circumstance was responsible for the inbreeding and genetic mistakes that resulted; it was equally responsible for confused land titles that led often to murderous feuds; and it forced the proximity that led to many of the drunken rows and card disputes. In the mountain code of conduct, burglary was unheard of, but a man would kill his neighbor over ownership of a pig. Hospitality was a sacred obligation, but it was also expected that a stranger approaching a mountain cabin would halloo until someone came out to inspect him.