Appalachia: Dispelling the myth
"...So many lies have been written about us, the mountain people, that folks from other states have formed an image of a gun-totin', tabaccer -spittin , whiskey drinkin', barefooted, foolish hillbilly who never existed except in the minds of people who have written such things as The Beverly Hillbillies...No matter what we do, we can't make folks believe we are any different...we have been disgraced in the e yes of the outside world." , from What My Heart Wants To Tell by Verna Mae Slone, Lexington, Kentucky 1978.
The Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in the U.S. state of Alabama. The cultural region of Appalachia typically refers only to the central and southern portions of the range. As of 2005, the region was home to approximately 23 million people. Along with Scotch-Irish immigrants, early European populations of Germans and English settlers trickled into Western Pennsylvania, Northwestern Virginia, and Western Maryland.
With the discovery of the Cumberland Gap in 1750 and the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, settlers moved deeper into the mountains of upper Eastern Tennessee, Northwestern North Carolina, Upstate South Carolina, and Central Kentucky. Between 1790 and 1840, a series of treaties with the Cherokee and other Native American tribes opened up lands in North Georgia, Northeast Alabama, the Tennessee Valley, the Cumberland Plateau regions, and the highlands along what is now the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
A typical depiction of an Appalachian pioneer involves a hunter wearing a coonskin cap and buckskin clothing, and sporting a long rifle and shoulder-strapped powder horn. Perhaps no single figure symbolizes the Appalachian pioneer more than Daniel Boone (1734-1820). Like Boone, Appalachian pioneers moved into areas largely separated from "civilization" by high mountain ridges, and had to fend for themselves against the elements. As many of these early settlers were living illegally on Native American lands, attacks from Native American tribes were a continuous threat until the 1800s.
As early as the 18th century, Appalachia, then known as the "back country", began to distinguish itself from its wealthier lowland and coastal neighbors to the east. Frontiersmen often bickered with lowland and tidewater "elites" over taxes, sometimes to the point of armed revolts. Taxation was a threat to the abundant Moon shining that went on in the area. Small-scale whiskey production was part of the Appalachian culture and predates the federal taxation of alcoholic beverages. For farmers in remote parts of the country, it was a way to turn their corn into cash when grain prices were down. The imposition of a tax on whiskey was considered an unwanted federal intervention and Appalachian farmers ignored the tax and finally refused to pay it, leading to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The Department of the Treasury sent special agents, referred to as "revenuers" up into the mountains to prosecute unlawful distilling.
life in the holler
The Appalachian people have always been a rugged, hard-working and self-sufficient people able to adjust to the unforgiving life in the mountains. They have managed to build an abundant farming community, utilizing local plants and herbs to create unique and delicious dishes and folk medicines. Early Appalachian farmers grew both crops introduced from their native Europe, such as sweet potatoes, as well as crops native to North America such as corn and squash.
Tobacco was long an important cash crop in Southern Appalachia, especially since the land is ill-suited for cash crops such as cotton. Apples have been grown in the region since the late 18th-century, their cultivation being aided by the presence of thermal belts in the region's mountain valleys. Hogs, which could free range in the region's abundant forests, were the most popular livestock among early Appalachian farmers.
The early settlers brought cattle and sheep to the region, which would typically graze in highland meadows known as balds during the growing season when bottom lands were needed for crops. Cattle, mainly the Hereford, Angus, and Charolais breeds, are now the region's chief livestock. They have taken advantage of the abundant anthracite and timber in the area by becoming skilled coal miners and lumberers. And they have engaged in a variety of successful manufacturing and tourism enterprises. This is a group of intelligent, creative and resourceful people who, despite their obvious abilities have not been able to keep up with the rest of the nation, and have been plagued with unfair criticism and ridicule.
Simply put, "moonshine" is untaxed liquor. Americans have always had an infatuation with this untaxed backwoods brewed corn concoction.
After fighting a war to free themselves from British oppressive taxes, Americans weren't pleased when they were told they would have to pay an excise tax on whiskey and spirits. Scots-Irish immigrants, armed with the knowledge of making whiskey, were among the first to move into the remote areas of the East Tennessee mountains to produce their product by the light of the moon.
At that time, the people living in the Appalachian mountain territory of East Tennessee, as well as Southern Kentucky and Western North Carolina, had acquired something of a national reputation for persistently defying internal revenue laws. When prohibition was instated in 1920, it was the best thing to happen to moonshiners. Suddenly, "legal alcohol" was not to be found. The demand for moonshine rose so fast that producers began making it from sugar, as well as other cheap ingredients to increase their production and profit. During prohibition, blockade runners became legendary by outrunning lawmen with faster, more modern automobiles.
This ultimately led to the southern creation of stock car racing, which eventually would spawn the internationally watched NASCAR Racing. Robert Mitchum and others help secure the legend of “running” moonshine in the 1958 movie Thunder Road. A young Jeff Bridges tore up the stock car circuit as The Last American Hero in 1973. Bridges’ character, an impressive/aggressive race car driver “learned about cars running whiskey in the Carolina hills.”
The adrenaline of transporting mass amounts of illegal alcohol was later captured in Smokey and the Bandit and the list continues. And more recently in the movie Life, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence portray two New York City men caught up in a brutal murder while picking up a truckload of moonshine in Mississippi.
Lumbering, Coal mining, and Education
In the late 19th century, the post-Civil War Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the nation's railroads brought a soaring demand for coal, and mining operations expanded rapidly across Appalachia. Hundreds of thousands of workers poured into the region from across the United States and from overseas, essentially overhauling the cultural makeup of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania.
Both lumbering and coal mining industries flourished during this time, bringing with them jobs, decent wages, and amenities, which lured Appalachian workers. But, by the 1960s, it was evident that they had not taken advantage of the long term benefits that both industries brought.
Despite abundant natural resources and an inexhaustible supply of timber and anthracite, the area continued to lag behind the rest of the country in terms of prosperity. Poor roads, lack of railroads, and inaccessibility prevented large scale logging. Eventually logging companies were forced to move elsewhere.
Coal mining afforded a good living for most of the residents; although the industry can be blamed for the many injuries, deaths, and health problems of the workers. After World War II, innovation in mechanization and competition for oil and natural gas led to a decline in mining operations. Coal mining continues to be important in some regions of the mountains. Mining corporations gained considerable influence in state and municipal governments, especially as they often owned the entire towns in which the miners lived.
Education, in Appalachia, has also lagged behind the rest of the country, mostly due to funding problems. But, traditionally, most residents have engaged in farming and have not seen the necessity for formal education. In fact, when families were planting or harvesting, children, who did go to school, were kept home to help with the farm work. However; after mandatory education laws went into effect, more school were established and more children attended them.
The making of a myth
Since its recognition as a distinctive region in the late 19th century, Appalachia has been a source of enduring myths and distortions regarding the isolation, temperament, and behavior of its inhabitants. Early 20th-century writers focused on sensationalistic aspects of the region's culture, such as moon shining and clan feuding, and often portrayed the region's inhabitants as uneducated and prone to impulsive acts of violence. Sociological studies in the 1960s and 1970s helped to deconstruct these stereotypes, although popular media continued to perpetuate the image of Appalachia as a culturally backward region into the 21st century.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw the development of various regional stereotypes. Attempts by President Rutherford B. Hayes to enforce the whiskey tax in the late 1870s led to an explosion in violence between Appalachian "moonshiners" and federal "revenuers" that lasted through the Prohibition period in the 1920s. The breakdown of authority and law enforcement during the Civil War may have contributed to an increase in clan feuding, which by the 1880s was reported to be a problem across most of Kentucky's Cumberland region as well as Carter County in Tennessee, Carroll County in Virginia, and Mingo and Logan counties in West Virginia.
Regional writers from this period such as Mary Noailles Murfree and Horace Kephart liked to focus on such sensational aspects of mountain culture, leading readers outside the region to believe they were more widespread than in reality. In an 1899 article in Atlantic , Berea president William G. Frost attempted to redefine the inhabitants of Appalachia as "noble mountaineers"— relics of the nation's pioneer period whose isolation had left them unaffected by modern times.
The 1990s saw the continued stereotyping Appalachia and its people. Declining living standards, and global economic restructuring produced anxiety, insecurity and anger resulting in the projection of these emotions on to innocent people. Mountain people seem to have become acceptable targets for hostility, projection, disparagement, scape-goating, and contempt. "These mountain people are different", says the mayor of North Carolina, "You get up there in those mountains...you find people who don't believe in law and order....you get up there and cause trouble and they'll kill you. They're just a different grade of people"
Unfortunately, they could not seem to escape these stereotypes. A Rock and Ice writer recently related his rock climbing experiences up in the mountains. "We drove by clumps of locals who eyed us with smoldering hostility." Referring to them as "the cast of Deliverance" and "...the sorriest looking dudes I've ever seen...", he expressed fear over not being able to see his buddy's truck in the rear view mirror.
The New York Times magazine published an article recently that stated that red neck jokes, that target racist and bad reactionaries, have become very popular on chat rooms and on line forums. In addition an icon of an outhouse was published in a software program as representing the state of West Virginia. These people have no way of fighting back, as most of them don't have computers.
Performances continue to be held as part of summer festivals re-enacting the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and many Ma and Pa restaurants, motels and businesses display hillbilly and redneck signs and icons to attract attention. Hillbilly Days, a 3-day yearly event, brings more than 100,000 visitors to a small Appalachian town where they dress up and act like comic book characters of mountaineers. Mass media is any better when it comes to reinforcing the stereotype. TV is still repeating the Beverly Hillbillies and the Dukes of Hazzard. All of this, of course, is to make money. But there is definitely a target audience that gets a kick out of attending these events and watching these programs on a regular basis. Hollywood is equally guilty by producing a bevy of such films, 400 silent movies, exploiting Appalachian feuds and Moonshine making.
Academia has portrayed the stereotype in every way possible. David Hacket Fischer focused on one particular group, from Northern Britain universalizing their characteristics unfairly. There been a one-sided look at this population by many scholars, which is generally degrading
Even in the Art world we can see examples of degrading images portrayed as typical of the population in Appalachia. Shelby Lee Adams has published portraits of a retired coal miner missing an eye, an adult midget wearing diapers, a hog killing, a shirtless man with several gunshot wounds.
Urban Appalachians are people from Appalachia who are living in metropolitan areas outside the Appalachian region. Mechanization of coal mining during the 1950s and 1960s was the major source of unemployment in central Appalachia. Many migration streams covered relatively short distances, with West Virginians moving to Cleveland and other cities in eastern and central Ohio, and eastern Kentuckians moving to Cincinnati and southwest Ohio in search of jobs. More distant cities like Detroit and Chicago attracted migrants from many states. Enclaves of Appalachian culture can still be found in some of these communities.
Time for a change
Finally, after years of negative critiques and depictions, many writers and others have ceased their incessant targeting of this interesting, but maligned population. Roger Cunningham, in his attempt to dispel this notion of "hillybillyism"offered the explanation that scholars have merely been busy deconstructing the Appalachian myth by taking an incisive look at part of the American culture.
Today, there have been many improvement in the region and many of the areas are flourishing. Highways now link the mountain towns to the rest of the country and have reduced day long trips to a matter of hours. One room schoolhouses have been replaced by modern buildings with modern equipment, helping to bring national achievement rankings. The myth has not been completely dispelled, but the disparaging depictions and references have subsided. However, roughly 40% of the population in the hills and hollows is still stuck in poverty.
However, much of the criticism, misunderstanding, and maligning still exists. Even modern day media persons like Bill O Reilly can be heard on TV supporting the old myths about this courageous and hard working population. His recent contemptible rant against Appalachian Americans is only the latest example of the widespread and multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes. Quite simply, O’Reilly reminded the world once again that people of the Appalachian Mountains are still the only cultural group in America that many people have the audacity to ridicule publicly as being of low intelligence, and worse.
Can you imagine what would happen if O'Reilly had made the same despicable statements about other "different" groups of Americans? How can we as a people ever overcome this pervasive hillbilly stereotype? "Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend we don't care and that we will survive regardless of the outside world? Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don't believe that we are surviving very well or will survive in the future as a culture with a shred of honor and dignity if we do not rise up, en masse, and protest at every opportunity this kind of insensitive abuse".
"We continue to loll about in our insular Snuffy Smith, Lil Abner, Mammy Yokum, Jed Clampett, grits-and-possum stereotype as if the opinion of the rest of the world does not matter, even while we are being brutalized every time someone laughs at our dialect or accent, or asks WHERE are you from, or rejects us for a job, or does not publish our writing because how could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say". (Betty Cloer Wallace)