Appalachia describes a place once rich with old-growth woodlands—American chestnuts ten feet in diameter, tulip poplars more than 200 feet tall, deer and wild turkey abundant beyond imagining—whose landscape has been systematically devastated by cutting and mining, stripped of its wealth and natural resources, robbed of its youth and spirit by lost hopes and dreams unfulfilled.
The Appalachian people, though, the hearty and proud and resilient folk of the hills, refuse to forsake the land they love—refuse to forsake their heritage, because of their die-hard defiance bestowed to them by their ancestors, the proud pioneers who came to settle the hills and hollows only to discover a hard-scrabble way of life.
Yet, there are many stereotypes to contend with, stereotypes dealing with those seemingly irrepressible mountain people—their homes, customs, families, and limitations—typecasts and limits shaped more than 200 years ago and labels that still restrict the thinking of too many outsiders to this day. And though mountaineers have changed many of their old ways and adapted their lives to an expanding world until only the outsiders, with their insistence on “quaintness” and “strangeness,” still waste away in their frozen concepts of the so-called hillbilly culture.
Most mountaineers are wryly amused when they find that visitors from the outside world are unable to break away from stereotypes, they entertain about Appalachian folk—believing they are lazy, talk with a backwoods drawl (merely a caricature of Elizabethan English), engage in feuds over trivial matters, and stash moonshine stills up every hollow and ravine. These are only a few of the grotesque pictures that have plagued hill people for generations.
On the contrary, residents of the hills do not see themselves in such a surreal and peculiar framework. They can only feel sorry for the writers and cartoonists who betray their ignorance in judging honest folk who are simply different in matters of contextual experience and upbringing.
When some compare the past and present, they discover that lands of this region, once known as a great forest, now offer promise of ecological recovery. Others, however, see only gloom and doom for those defiant inhabitants, those who for generations have labored in the loamy hill-land soil to produce a meager sustenance.
This book explores mountain life and its many contrasts, explores the depths of human poverty in a so-called land of plenty, amid a fortuitous wealth of natural resources and reserves.
Lyrically personal, Appalachian Chronicles reveals a powerful message: the need to preserve nature for the benefit of all living creatures in this great wilderness—including its faithful, committed people, even despite early accounts of their conflicting Appalachian archetypes: clans, feuds, moonshine, hostility to strangers, and a rough code of honor.
No offense intended, none taken.
It would appear from studying local evidence that more than a few of the early venture capitalists arriving in this barely accessible terrain sought to make vast fortunes from the region’s abnormally abundant coal and timber reserves.
But true personas non grata generally did not take the time to notice the intelligence, kindness, and loyalty of the native population. And for one reason or another, speculators seemed naturally predisposed to see mountaineers as needing the services of civilization, advancement, and progress—whether they wanted it or not.
All classes of developers came and went, according to their notions, while mountaineers, for the most part, lived a simple, mostly solitary, life—seemingly unmindful of the money and investments moving into and out of the Mountain State’s southern provinces.
Let us not forget, however, that back in the day, moonshine was the bartering means of choice. A half-pint bottle would get one’s cornfield hoed out before sundown.
Still, getting around in this neck of the woods presented challenges for visitors and would-be developers alike.
The chief drawbacks to travel were not the roughness of the roads nor the character of the people, but the quality of bed and board available to travelers while the lush vegetation and lavish landscapes were being developed by investors.
Many of the village inns were grubby and foul, and their tabletops and sitting rooms sent a shudder up the spine of the average hungry pilgrim from urban hubs—though accommodations, overall, in these remote quarters, cost less than half the going rate for rooms in the emerging valley towns on the banks of the Big Sandy, Tug Fork, New, Kanawha and Ohio rivers.
Some of the time even the hot water worked. The beds were not too shabby—that is, if you could do with a thin mattress and wobbling, vacillating and quaking springs. The lighting was probably quirky, too. In short, there were few flourishes.
For this reason, appalling food and lodgings were the matching complaints of travelers since the 18th and 19th centuries. Some recent rovers still wonder, no doubt, that this historical province’s reputation has added any improvements.
Breakfast remains the best meal, with puffy, cathead biscuits and a soup-bowl of sawmill-style gravy (with chopped up marble-size bits of pork sausage) and a liberal mug of steaming, dark coffee.
But the old days are gone now, and gone with them are the grace, kindness and sensitivity that personified the friendly folk of our state’s southern region seemingly for generations.
The old log cabins, split-rail fences, gristmills, country churches, mom and pop bistros, hardware stores and other evidence of this fading bit of historic American fashion generally have fallen by the wayside—now only partially preserved in seasonal outdoor dramas and public parks.
Still, not to be ignored are the mountain people themselves, those descendants of Scotts-Irish or English clans who long ago found in these unsettled hills the fulfillment of their longing for complete freedom—true isolation.
Appalachian Chronicles reflects an intensive love for the hills, particularly those of Southern West Virginia, which is often considered a microcosm, focal point, or small-scale version of the entire Appalachian region. The manuscript is a simple chronicle of life in the resplendent sphere of tradition with a frequent look back into the past.
In many ways, it represents a largely rural lifestyle that is not much different from the way life was in our grandparents’ day—when hopes and dreams centered on family, home and land-living. Life in these hills is often humorous, sometimes sad, but hardly ever dull.
Top o’ the morning!