With the arrival of outsiders moving into the Appalachian region, some native inhabitants have started to worry about their culture, namely how it might fragment in the future.
Concerned about the outsider invasion, longtime mountain tenants recognize that the influx of newcomers, their contact with the public, and mountaineer’s own departing youth, threatens their “mountain lifestyle” and presages the probable passing of an era: what it means to grow up among the verdure and joie de vivre that still encompasses the region’s vibrancy and vitality.
The rich, forested fibers of the steep and sudden prominences perhaps, in one way or another, symbolizes the last vestiges of western European sway in the 21stcentury Appalachian provinces, the spiritual cradle of the Irish-American dream, the repository of Celtic hopes, and the incubator of our most dearly-loved linguistic labels from a once-prominent Elizabethan dialect.
As a result, the manner in which mountaineers see themselves—as well as the way they perceive newcomers—has risen to a common level requiring more than casual exchanges. And though they do not always voice their distress, some long-time inhabitants understand their cultural uniqueness and sphere of influence may be fading.
And though communal gatekeepers over the years generally have not openly debated the outsider issue—that is, the issue as context for putting the skids on future migrations of those wishing to relocate to the scenic reaches of the mountains—scholars and sages alike have been busy collecting shared data on the otherwise welcoming and hospitable highland folk.
The choice facets of mountain culture have been pondered for increasing spans of time: independence and stick-to-itiveness, self-reliance and geocentricism, traditionalism, and fundamentalism—all of which seemingly underscore the now rapidly disappearing elements of a culture once cherished for its warmth and kindness.
Just ask Aubrey Davis of Cyclone in Wyoming County. “I don’t mind people moving in here with their 4-wheelers and travel trailers, their dirt bikes and their mud slingers,” said the retired coal miner and former Sunday school teacher at the local church. “But what I don’t like is their destructive attitudes when it comes to tearing up the hillsides and scattering trash all over the woods and camping sites. It’s downright nasty.”
Others have well-defined the characteristic value traits of local working-class citizens, those who are lifelong residents of the region, an area near where they were born and raised, and where their kith and kin helped to preserve the natural environs alongside woodlands and streams for generations.
Many Appalachians grew to appreciate their seemingly unique lifestyle in more becoming terms than what they had seen on TV: individualism and pride, neighborliness and hospitality, family solidarity and personal identity, love of place and being one’s self, sense of beauty and sense of honor, and, of course, patriotism.
Appalachian homesteaders traditionally have concentrated their work and residences among enclaves of friends and family in an effort to preserve their cultural identity.
Chief employers now include agricultural firms, government agencies, and manufacturing works. In earlier times, the highland inhabitants were subsistence farmers, but as industrial development and factory jobs increased, hill-land farming was reduced to a secondary revenue.
Times are still tough in some rural settings in the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia, where work is often scarce and pay is not up to standard wages across the nation. But that doesn’t stop some strong-willed, spirited, and enterprising mountaineers from doing what comes naturally to those who still believe in their community, their neighbors, and their dreams.
“We’re just doing the best we can,” explained SampieTaylor of Huff Creek near Hanover. “My kids go to school here and my family and I belong here. We wouldn’t want to move someplace else, someplace where we might not know anybody. We are happy here and we’re going to make a go of it for as long as it takes us to do it.”
The mid-twentieth century introduced certain agricultural cash crops which are currently becoming de-emphasized overall, but are still produced by some families.
“We never went to the stores to buy our food,” explained Delbert Vance of Spanishburg in Mercer County. “We went up in the loft. Well, that’s how all of us lived. We put our food away. We canned and we dried. We dried outall kinds of vegetables and peaches. And we dried apples and every kind of fruit there is. See, we didn’t have many jars or things like that. We’d dry it and keep it for years.”
How people describe themselves is one aspect of their identity, according to behavioral scholars who have written on the topic in recent decades. The words most hill people select indicate their orientation to life in the hills.
While no one chose words such as “hillbilly” or “mountain man” except when masked with laughter, most eventually discussed a connection with the mountain region and personally identified with a simple way of life peppered with generosity and privacy—the polite description of a Southerner.
Identifying with the mountains, however, takes on numerous and diverse aspects: never wanting to leave, protectiveness of the environment, and a desire to preserve their cultural values. Most mountain residents strongly believe that Appalachia is a good place to live and raise a family, despite an acknowledged poor economy.
Repeatedly, Southern West Virginia descendants often have expressed an innate connection to their steep and hilly setting, both with its land and with its people.
My late grandmother, the former Rosa Ellen Lockhart of Wyoming County once told me that she couldn’t leave the Appalachian province because “this is where I belong, where my roots are deep, and where my ancestors planted crops and tilled the land and where they grew up and raised their families. And besides, I was never interested in anyplace else. It just didn’t interest me.”
Even teenagers attending college chose schools situated in the mountains because they felt comfortable there.
In describing themselves to others, they often chose words and phrases such as plain Jane, plain and simple, redneck, hillbilly, proud, backward country boy, honest, dependable, slow to anger, country hick, helpful, laidback, creative, and accommodating.
“We wouldn’t want to get caught in a blizzard without food,” explained Noah W. Richmond of Pluto in Raleigh County.
“We are proud of our heritage. We are glad to participate in our programs of song and spirit; we are part of the home-grown, domestic scene.”
Taking a chew from his Red Man pouch of tobacco, the farmer and father of six added: “It bothers us, however, that our children have little connection with the mountain way of life anymore, and this sorely disturbs many of the parents and grandparents who still reside here.
“Our kids seem to dissociate themselves from our native beliefs, and that’s why most adults in practically any clan are interested in all safeguarding efforts.”
Most rural mountain folk, for the meantime, view these traits as being different from those in other parts of the country.
Generosity is especially important to many of the mountain folk who remain in Southern West Virginia, according to Wanda Lucas, 47, of Cool Ridge. “There’s always a benefit for someone who’s been burnt out (whose home has burned down),” the woman explained.
The Lucas family members believe outsiders still hold on to their stereotypes about people from the hills, particularly the folk who remain in Southern West Virginia, often using a common response to describe some local citizens with labels such as “hillbilly” and “hick.”
When probed for specific meanings of their typically vague and stereotypical jargon, outsiders often bring up images and descriptions of mostly poor, uneducated, toothless, and shoeless people.
And when asked about television portrayals of people from the mountains, most visitors from other states identified the TV reruns of “The Beverly Hillbillies” as an example.
The vast majority of respondents enjoy watching the comedic spectacle and think that it’s funny. “It wasn’t truthful and people soon realized that” said Ruth Baker, 64, of Odd near Flat Top.
Baker’s neighbor Martha Settles agreed, adding her own comment, “Don’t you think everyone in the series is put down, one way or another? Like even the banker and the secretary?”
Homer Tolliver of Shady Spring disliked the show because of its relentless stereotyping. “Real hillbillies had to be smart to survive in this region back in the day,” offered the retired truck driver. “Not book smart necessarily, but keen enough to save a cow, grow a garden, and fix a tractor.”
Tolliver considers such mass media stereotypes as disparaging the cultural experiences of mountain people. “It’s downright insulting,” he said.
Young adults and teenagers, meantime, openly discuss problems of teasing/harassment which they have experienced.
Thirty-four-year-old Priscilla Faye Cline, who attended Independence High School for two years, noted that she was often teased at fast food restaurants (where she worked part-time after school) for her “slang talk” and was often referred to as a “mountain girl.”
“Especially at cookouts and get-togethers,” Cline added, “people asked me if I sat on the porch playing the banjo and singing, or if I owned more than one pair of shoes.”
Cline’s younger brother, John, said he also experienced similar prejudices among visiting Boy Scouts of America. At scout camp, for instance, he met Scouts and Scout leaders who would ask questions stemming from typecasts on TV and misconceptions about the lack of indoor plumbing in the state. “These degrading inquiries and condescending attitudes upset me the most,” he said.
The middle ground, of course, is humor. Humorously putting one down is quite common. It acts to deflect the condescension and derision, according to Maxine Jessup of Rhodell near Mullens, who commented, “You might call us rednecks because we have a sofa on the front porch. But so, what if we do, other folks around the country are noted for their front porch idiosyncrasies, too.I hear that folks in Cleveland, Ohio, are worse than we are.”
As a result, a home-grown identity among the section’s youth often develops mainly as a reaction to how mountain folk believe others might perceive them.
A self-professed “backward country boy,” Peter Douglas Lester of Odd prefers to “play against the stereotype.”
Lester summed up his feelings this way: “A flatlander thinks all mountain people’s family trees have just one branch. That’s just plain ignorant.”
One day, Lester visited the office of a school counselor, who was a native of Columbus, Ohio. Apparently, she had a knack for teasing local students about their so-called hillbilly ways, particularly their lack of refinement.
“Is there a problem?” she asked when Lester entered her office with a sour look on his face.
“I’m feeling awful,” the boy politely answered in his most exaggerated backwoods accent. “My whole family is terribly het-up.”
The counselor probed deeper. Finally, Lester told her that one of his cousins “has married outside the family and brought in this new blood line, and everyone in the clan got into a huge uproar.”
Lester’s joke created the dual effect of playing a prank as well as subtly telling the educator to re-examine her assumptions.
“Playing into the stereotype” is not acceptable to everyone, however, according to Lester. His Uncle Harrison, now deceased, went to the Blue Ridge Parkway each summer pretending to be a 101-year-old mountain man.
After growing a foot-long beard and dressing in old clothes, Harrison told “hillbilly stories” to tourists. Telling “lies” about himself greatly upset Lester’s mother and others.
As the Lester’s family matriarch, Martha put it: “Don’t you think if someone does this and secretly gets a snicker from the crowd of bystanders, but without the outsiders knowing that it’s a ruse, don’t you think that that feeds into the hillbilly stereotype all the more?”
On the other hand, area citizens accept this kind of teasing behavior when it comes from their own clans and in-group circles.
For example, while a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman gave his doomed-from-the-start sales pitch in Sophia, he made several disparaging remarks about indigenous residents such as, “I’m from Tennessee and wearing shoes today.”
Rustic family members laughed at these remarks, seeing them largely as an acceptable form of humor.
This kind of behavior may illustrate attempts to distance themselves from what outsiders label as highland people.
And though some regional families recognize that outsiders’ stereotypes are not true, they believe that these characteristics do exist among “other” mountain clans, particularly among certain tribes back in the hills and hollows of the southern counties of the state.
At the same time, many locals say they dislike people moving in from the outside because it has altered their native ideals and principles. Having new populations move in “creates a situation where you no longer know anyone” in an area where long-time tenants pride themselves in knowing practically everyone.
“Outsiders build large houses on small lots, thereby increasing the land prices and tax values,” explained Johnny W. Walker who owns a small farm near the Summers/Greenbrier county line.
“As more outsiders migrate to Appalachia, the working-class citizens cannot continue paying the increasing costs of farms and bottom land, and gradually resort to selling out, thereby allowing even more outsiders to purchase property around here,” he said.
The Walker family believes that outsiders behave differently and in such a manner that locals feel uncomfortable being around them.
“Communication in general is difficult,” says Ruth Snyder, a local Sunday school teacher.
“Whenever I talk to newcomers, we each understand the other’s words but we really don’t understand each other. And the more you talk and know about the person, the more you dislike them.”
Certain communication styles such as swearing and cursing are especially disturbing to the native population, particularly those who claim Northerners swear more frequently and harsher than do regional inhabitants. This and other behaviors discourage the natives from wanting to become more acquainted with newcomers. According to Snyder, “We are, for the most part anyway, a religion-based culture. We don’t hold up to improper verbal conduct.”
Top o’ the morning!