Appalachia: 1914

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After Appomattox, as after Yorktown, they returned to their mountain fastness, and once more the world oassed them bv until a few curious outsiders made their way up the steep ravines to observe and record a society and a way of life that had existed nowhere else for two centuries. At the time Kephart and Barnhill visited Appalachia, they found a great landlocked area that was more English than England, more American by blood than any other section of the country, and less less affected by modern ideas or progress than any part of the English-speaking world. And so, for several decades more, it remained. But the way of life of the mountain people, inaccessible as it was, could not resist indefinitely a rapacious outside world. With each passing year there were fewer truly isolated settlements; electricity, then radio and television, became available; more and more highways penetrated the wilderness; the tourist demanded motels, restaurants, and shops filled with the old handicrafts.

Progress, as it is called, has improved the harsh conditions of life but little, as demographic statistics suggest. the last census revealed, foer example, that the median income in the mountainous western counties of North Carolina was still well below the state level and less than half the national figure. Educationally, the area was not much better off: the rural counties’ level of schooling was two to three years below the national average; overcrowding, teacher shortages, and inadequate facilities were prevalent, and the incidence of dropouts was high. Although there has been some improvement in the availability of medical care, doctors and dentists are still in short supply, and the health of the people remains noticeably poor, with high rates of tuberculosis and infant mortality. Unemployment was appreciably higher than the national mean in 1960, and unfortunately, the activity that accounts for nearly half of what employment there is in the mountain counties—small farming—is a marginal operation, with less and less chance of survival.

The 1960 census reveals that the mountain regions are still inhabited largely by the old white stock. Yet while the ethnic complexion has remained unchanged, the effect of continuing poverty and hardship has been to drive people out. During the decade between 1950 and 1960 the fifteen counties of North Carolina’s western tier suffered a population loss of 3.7 per cent, while the major city in the area, Asheville, showed only a slight gain—4.6 per sent. These figures, which are in marked contrast to the national population increase of 18.5 per cent during the same period, indicate a substantial migration of people from the area. In fact, five of the mountain counties lost more than ten per cent of their population between 1950 and 1960, and it has been estimated that as much as one fourth of the entire population may have left the area between the end of World War II and 1965.

Unfortunately, those who left were often the young and ambitious, those with higher than average intelligence and initiative. Many of them moved to nearby urban centers—Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlotte, or Columbia, South Carolina—where factory jobs beckoned. Others went father—to Cincinnati and Chicago, two cities that were cited in 1960 as having “hillbilly slums.” Tragically, many of those seeking opportunity in the cities found none, for there was already unemployment there, and thier skills were often woefully inadequate. In the long term—months, years, possibly a generation—the experience of other migrants would suggest that these regional moves will eventually produce produce some, if not all, of the results the people sought when they left their traditional homes; but on the basis of their prior two-hundred-year history, it would be rash to predict that the people of the southern mountains will adjust easily ofr readily to life in the outside world.