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Appalachia: 1914

June 2024
12min read

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.

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.

In a perverse and curious way, the subject of whiskey is part and parcel of the story of the highlanders. Whiskey meant a great deal to them: in a region where it might take a doctor three days to reach a dangerously sick or injured person, it served as palliative and anesthetic. It was, in the real sense of the phrase, a pain killer. It was easy for the farmer to produce and it was usually his only cash crop. The mountain roads were so abominable that no quantities of farm produce could be hauled out to the civilized world, so “corn juice” became, from earliest times, the product that was traded for cash or goods.

The Scotch-Irish who came to America in the eighteenth century soon discovered that all the good land on the eastern seaboard was taken, so they fanned out in the direction of the Appalachians. Driving out the Indians, they settled the Alleghenies; from there, when the game was gone, the more ambitious or restless headed west again. But some stayed behind: they were the men who fought as riflemen in the Revolution and carried the day at Saratoga and at Kings Mountain, who went back to the hills after that war to take up life in the old way (which was to say, under their own set of standards or laws). Unknowingly, they had helped remake the outside world, and in 1791, when the new federal government passed a law imposing a tax on whiskey of nine to eleven cents per proof gallon, the mountain people rose in opposition to governmental authority and its power to tax them. One thing the Scotch-Irish had brought with them to America was an abiding hatred of the British government and its excise laws, plus a tradition of resistance to all who attempted to enforce those laws; the new government in Philadelphia did not find them any more tractable than had George III.

Albert Gallatin, a western Pennsylvania farmer who was to become Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, defended the frontiersmen as the Whiskey Rebellion erupted. “We have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or in meal,” he argued. “We are therefore distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight.” It was difficult for the mountain farmer to understand why he should pay a tax on what he made: when he harvested and shucked and ground his corn to be baked into bread by his woman, he paid no tax on that. Why should the government collect an excise on another product made from the same corn?

The financial cost of George Washington’s expedition against the Whiskey Boys was more than one third of the total expenditures of the government of the United States that year. The government proved its point—that it could enforce the law of the land and preserve domestic tranquillity—but the result in the mountains was an enduring hatred of federal authority that had political as well as social repercussions. Rather than submit, some of the stubbornest Pennsylvania malcontents picked up their belongings and their stills and moved to western Virginia and the Carolinas, where it was unlikely that any serious government effort could be made to collect the odious excise. The moonshiner called himself a blockader and his product blockade liquor; he regarded himself as a blockade-runner dealing in contraband. Back in the mountains he and his descendants remained, obstinate and self-reliant, as independent—in their phrase—”as a hawg on ice,” their life a hard, cruel war against the elemental forces of nature. As the years passed they stayed on lor a variety of reasons. Isolation from the outside world kept them ignorant of the opportunities it afforded, and their poverty was such that they would have had no money with which to migrate, in any case. Passionately attached to their homes, their kinfolk, and the old-fashioned ways, they were without ambition because nothing in their environment inspired it. While other Americans grew in wealth and education and culture, the mountain people stood still or retrogressed.

Despite their earlier resistance to the government, during the Civil War the mountain residents of eastern Tennessee were loyal to a man; West Virginia became a separate state when its people “seceded from secession,” as someone put it; and in Jackson County, Kentucky, Lincoln’s call for troops depleted the county of every able-bodied male under sixty and over fifteen. Although the region’s loyalty astonished both North and South, at least two factors were apparently at work: the national feelings dating back to the Revolution had never vanished—the ideal of a nation was one to which the mountain folk clung with fierce pride; and their belief in freedom and in the principle that one man was the equal of all others put them squarely on the side of Abraham Lincoln. It was all right for a person to hold property, they reasoned, but not to own another man.

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.

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