The story of Appalachia is one of the oldest and event-filled narratives of American history. It is often easy to overlook the important role this region has played in the development of our nation.
The purpose of Appalachian Chronicles (set for release in June 2021) is to chart the great historical drama, tracing the influence and inspiration of the pioneers and evidence of their settlements to the latest challenges facing mountaineers in the 21st century.
These individual episodes are designed to lift the fog and sharpen our understanding of this rugged, hilly region, revealing Appalachia in all its complexity, grandeur, tragedy, and resilience.
As the story of this mountainous province unfolds, Appalachian people, places, language patterns and customs will vividly come to life, allowing readers to follow events in the past as well as present-day Southern West Virginia, often considered a small-scale version—really the heart and soul—of this diverse geographic and cultural range, one that is surrounded by mountains, rivers, and thoroughfares in their deep historical context.
We hope that the insightful cultural experiences, gathered from scores of interviews during the last quarter of the 20th century, will help dispel myths and correct potential misgivings about one of the most historic stretches of our nation. Our intention is to provide a complete and in-depth picture of the Southern mountains—one often lost when glossing over newspaper and magazine articles or viewing news events on television.
In your mind’s eye, you can witness a cultural sphere of activity, the properties, backdrops, and scenes of a bygone era, as you dream of the emerald hills and board-and-batten shelters scattered along unpaved country lanes.
You can hear the pleasing succession of musical tones, old-fashioned hymns, and gospel harmonies, ringing from rafters of clapboard country churches. You can taste the forlorn sweetness of salvation on your tongue after a spring rain.
A fresh hope is alive on the wind as fruit trees and wildflowers flourish on the landscape, framing the people who have adapted themselves to the hills. A seemingly infinite part of the Appalachian spirit is encompassed by several unique factors: the uses mountain folk have found for woodland resources and seasonal harvests; the graces they have created through crafts and other artistic skills; and the remarkable musical talents and tapping dance rhythms evident during their leisure hours spent in accord with their communal upbringing.
In contrast, the region’s typecast of uncultured hill-land disciples, their ramshackle abodes, their reticent customs, their intellectual confines, their social strictures and constraints, and their backwoods manners—all have largely ill-defined these enduring folks for many years. They still restrict the thinking of too many outsiders who joyfully embrace such unreal images of the hard-working, productive, and rustic rural clans, those who chose to make their homes in the Southern hills and beyond.
Truthfully, however, the mountain people have changed in recent decades (some would say mostly for the better), adapting their lives to the expanding world. Now it is only the outsiders, with their insistence on “strangeness” and “peculiarity,” who have maintained their inert collective concepts.
Such portraits are so grotesque as to be merely amusing and comical. Inhabitants of the hills do not perceive themselves in such a context. They are not the backwoods hillbillies wearing felt hats and baggy trousers supported by rope belts and single over-the-shoulder strap fastened across a shirtless torso.
On her front porch near Odd in Raleigh County, during the apple picking season of early fall, Mabel Roberts, an elderly woman in these parts, puts finishing touches on a multicolored quilt that she hand-stitched as a wedding present for her granddaughter, Elsa May.
Nearby, her husband Pauley polishes a curly maple stock for the Kentucky-style rifle he purchased when he was just a boy. To earn the necessary cash, he toiled at cutting hay for his uncle William on a small family farm near the Mercer county line.
Both share the common characteristics of a hardy and self-reliant breed that settled these hills nearly two centuries ago. The elderly couple feels the same strong affinity for the land that has sustained and nurtured them for a lifetime of love and kindness and marital harmony.
Like their lineages before them, the Roberts pair believes in the immensely esteemed and valued virtue of the mountains and the remarkable men and women who call these highlands their home.
Once upon a time, the region’s quick-witted and enterprising moonshiners kept their copper stills concealed in thickets near their houses framed with thin poplar weatherboarding replete with spruce door and window facings.
Other resourceful and responsible fathers and brothers and uncles, meanwhile, plied their manly talents and capacities in the coalfields, digging the dark fossil mineral for their livelihood, another way of helping to feed their families during the rough and trying years of the Great Depression.
“All the while, this common, salt-of-the-earth folk exhibited a kind of patient and submissive nature to those that knew them,” once noted the late Don West, Appalachian poet, and historian, from Pipestem in Mercer County. “They had out-and-out faith that when their time was up on earth, they would ascend through a hole in the sky to reach their heavenly home. And when you get right down to it, I guess you couldn’t ask for anything more than that from anyone.”