The Real People of Appalachia
Culture of the Appalachian Mountains
My first impressions of Appalachia were formed as a child. I grew up in the sixties, and I remember seeing news bits and commercials about ending poverty in Appalachia. In retrospect, I assume it was part of the “war on poverty.” To me, Appalachia was some remote, isolated area of the country where all the people were starving, ignorant, and impoverished. People dressed in rags, and shoes were a rarity. The population of the Appalachians was violent and bloodthirsty, and the members were always fighting and feuding with each other. I was also sure that these folks were extremely suspicious of strangers, and they probably sat on their front porches with shotguns across their laps, just waiting for some nosy outsider to trespass on their land.
It’s easy to understand how impressionable a child’s mind can be. As I grew up and became a little more knowledgeable, it dawned on me that I had visited Appalachia many times, on vacations with my family to the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians. Appalachia wasn’t some far-away location – it was in my own state. But try as I might, I couldn’t recall seeing any of the types of people that had been depicted on TV. As I learned later, that was because we had only visited tourist centers in the Appalachian Mountains. We hadn’t come in contact with the “real people” of Appalachia. I wouldn’t have that unique experience until I was eighteen years old.
Appalachia and the Appalachian Mountains
The region of the United States known as Appalachia basically follows the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians run from Labrador south to Alabama, about 2,100 miles, in all. The term “Appalachia,” however, is more of a socio-economic term than it is one of geography. Geography does play an important role, though. I think it’s because of the Appalachian Mountains that their inhabitants are the way they are. Before highways were built, these people were largely cut off from the rest of the world. Out of necessity, they had to learn to be independent from outsiders. By the time good roads were built through the Appalachians, the people were already entrenched in their age-old customs, traditions, and way of life, deciding they didn’t want or need the outside world.
Many people now living in the Appalachian Mountains are descendents of Scot-Irish who immigrated to America in the 1700s. Many left Europe in order to seek a better life and to escape religious persecution. As the colonies began to get more populated, settlers began to push farther west. The Appalachians were hard to navigate, but when the Cumberland Gap was discovered, traveling in the Appalachians was a little easier. The Scot-Irish carved out small farms and homesteads in the remote hollows and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. For the most part, they were and still are small farmers, loggers, or coal miners. And yes, some were and are moonshiners.
Where is Appalachia?
In 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission identified 420 counties as being part of Appalachia. As I’ve already mentioned, Appalachia generally follows the Appalachian Mountains. Below is a list of states and their number of counties considered to be part of Appalachia:
Alabama – 37 counties
Georgia – 37 counties
Kentucky – 54 counties
Maryland – 3 counties
Mississippi – 24 counties
New York – 14 counties
North Carolina – 29 counties
Ohio – 32 counties
Pennsylvania – 52 counties
South Carolina – 6 counties
Tennessee – 52 counties
Virginia – 25 counties
West Virginia – entire state
NOTE: I'm not trying to say that all the people living in the Appalachian Mountains or in the counties considered as Appalachia are all the same. For example, I was shocked to see some of the Georgia counties that are on the list, some of which have a large percentage of professionals, white-collar workers, and excellent schools. This article is more about the true "diehards" of Appalachia - the ones who fit the traditional mold and who prefer to remain apart from mainstream America. These people are fascinating!
A simple life in the Appalachian Mountains:
Appalachian Mountains version of the English language:
The English language of Appalachia
If you’ve read many of my hubs, you know that I’m fascinated with English language and its different dialects. If you’ve ever heard authentic Appalachian speech, you know that it’s definitely different than the English language with which you’re familiar. When I was in college, one of my English language professors told me that the English spoken in the Appalachian Mountains is more similar to Middle English than modern English is. Since my college days, I’ve done some research on this, and I’ve discovered that some linguists agree with my old college professor, but some don’t. In the Appalachian dialect, “R”s are usually pronounced with more emphasis, similar to Old Scottish. Linguists do agree that of all the English language dialects spoken in the United States, the dialect spoken in southern Appalachia has the strongest Scottish influence.
Parts of Appalachia, especially in the southern section of the Appalachians, have their own unique vocabulary words and sayings. When I first met my present husband, I noticed that he spoke a little differently and used words with which I wasn’t familiar. Johnny’s from North Carolina, and while he’s not from one of the counties considered to be a part of Appalachia, his family is. Some of Appalachia rubbed off on him, I guess. Below are some of the words he uses:
“gommed up” – messed up
“poke” – sack or bag
“mar up” – to sink in soft mud
“hose pipe” – garden hose
“dibbies” – baby chickens
“cattywonkers” – sideways or askew
“tile” – towel
“tar” – tire
“shire” – shower
“war” - wire
My first experience with the real Appalachia
I got married the first time when I was eighteen. My husband at the time worked for an agricultural chemical company, and occasionally, he would have to deliver large amounts of fertilizer to other states. I’d usually accompany him on these trips. We were both young and adventurous, so the out-of-state deliveries were almost like a vacation for us. We’d eat fast food, listen to the radio, talk on the CB, and smoke cigarettes as we barreled down America’s highways. At night, we’d sleep in the big sleeper cab of the tractor-trailer.
He had to take a large load to the northwest corner of South Carolina, and when he asked me if I wanted to join him, I was ready. As it turned out, the journey was a real eye-opener for me. I got to experience the real Appalachia – firsthand.
In case you’re thinking that South Carolina isn’t part of Appalachia, it is. The part of the state we visited was mountainous, and where we went was extremely remote. A big farmer and landowner had ordered a truckfull of products, and we were to deliver them to his chief tenant farmer, a guy named Ralph. Ralph and some of the other tenants were to meet us and unload the truck. We had detailed directions, so we snaked our way through winding country roads that were steadily climbing, until we reached a point where the truck simply gave up. We had to call the farmer and explain the situation. He made arrangements for us to park the truck nearby, and he sent his hands in their pickups to receive the merchandise.
They arrived in a convoy of old banged-up vehicles, a couple of which didn’t have doors. The appearance of the men startled me, even though I was used to seeing farmer types on a daily basis. For the most part, they wore faded overalls that had patches on patches, and I’m not sure there was a full set of teeth among them. They were dirty and disheveled, but that was to be expected. These men worked the land. One of the guys had a long beard, and I was convinced that his weathered face had never met a razor. What struck me most about this group, however, was their demeanor. They were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.
Ralph invited us to his house for supper. It was late on a Friday evening, and there’s no way we wanted to navigate those roads again in the dark. We accepted Ralph’s invitation and joined him in his pickup.
I thought the roads we had already traveled were tough, but they didn’t compare to the trek we took with Ralph. We climbed even more as we crept up a mountain and maneuvered hairpin turns. Finally, we reached Ralph’s place, which sat on top of a summit in South Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. The view was breathtaking. As I looked westward, I saw rows and rows of green ridges bathed in the light of the setting sun.
Ralph’s house was a simple affair, an old wooden farmhouse that had never seen a coat of paint. They had electricity and running water, but there was no modern plumbing. I was directed to the outhouse to relieve myself, and Sook, Ralph’s wife, handed me a roll of toilet paper as sort of an afterthought. Well, I thought, at least I wouldn’t have to use corncobs.
The couple’s kids were grown and out of the house, so it was just the four of us for dinner. And what an amazing meal it was! It was like sitting down to enjoy a meal like my Grandmother used to make. This was in the summer, so we all kinds of fresh vegetables that had been produced on the farm. We also had some of the best fried chicken I’d ever tasted, and when I remarked on it, I learned that Sook had raised the bird, too. We had homemade biscuits and cornbread, and for dessert, we had peach pie made from – you guessed it – Sook’s peaches.
After we waited for a respectable amount of time after eating, we announced that we needed to get back to the truck. Sook and Ralph looked at each other, both crestfallen.
“Well, we thought you folks might hang around a bit. It’s Friday night, and we always play music on Friday and Satdy nights. We got people comin’ over,” Ralph explained.
We agreed to stay awhile, and I’m glad we did. Ralph explained that everyone met at his house on the weekends because it was the nicest. The other men didn’t have electricity, nor did they have running water. As Ralph said, “Hits hard to play the banjer without no lectric lights to see by.”
Soon, some of the men we’d met earlier, along with some neighbors and Ralph’s son, began to arrive, with wives, kids, and musical instruments in tow. They had guitars, a mandolin, a bass, and two fiddles to accompany Ralph’s banjo. The gathering place was Ralph’s sprawling front porch, and the music was amazing. I’d always enjoyed Bluegrass, and all these guys were masters at plucking and fingering their instruments. I knew a few of the songs, and they encouraged me to sing along. Every so often, the “band” would stop for a break and pass around a jug of ‘shine. I didn’t partake. For the women and kids, there was cold, sweet lemonade.
Ralph and Sook convinced us to spend the whole weekend with them. Even though they offered us a bed, we chose to sleep in the truck. Ralph drove us to our sleeper that night, and the next morning, he came to pick us up for a huge farm breakfast prepared by Sook. After the meal, Ralph and my husband left to do some farm chores, and I spent the day at the house. Sook was canning vegetables for part of the time, and I tried to help, but she wouldn’t have it. I had brought my sketch pad and pastel pencils with me, so I set out to try to capture the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains that surrounded me.
Around noon, I saw the men return, so I moseyed back to the house. I was still full from breakfast, so I was glad to discover that we were having a “light” lunch of sandwiches – big slabs of cured ham stuck in biscuits. As we ate, Ralph explained that they usually “knocked off” at dinnertime (noon) on Saturdays, and they often had a barbecue with the family and neighbors. They had some pork chops from a pig Ralph had killed, but Sook decided we’d need a few chickens, too. She went out in the yard, caught two chickens, and adeptly wrung their necks. She hung them upside down on a nail to bleed, then she dipped them in hot water and plucked them.
The same crew that had joined us the night before returned to Ralph’s, along with others we hadn’t met. As the meat cooked on the huge grill made from a metal drum, everyone visited. All the women had brought side dishes to go with the barbecued chicken and chops, and I don’t think I had ever seen such an array of vittles! It was like being at a restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet. There was slaw, potato salad, cornbread salad, mustard greens, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, stewed squash, green beans, fresh tomatoes, fried zucchini, new potatoes, corn on the cob, fried corn, baked beans, and all kinds of desserts.
Ralph and some of the other men had built a big fire away from the house. When everyone was stuffed, the musical instruments were taken out, and we sat on bales of hay around the flames and enjoyed another Bluegrass concert. After a few hours, the party began to break up. We said our goodbyes to everyone, and Ralph took us to the tractor-trailer. We left early the next morning, without returning to Ralph’s and Sook’s.
Spending time with the real Appalachians was an unforgettable experience for me. I learned a lot about their lives, and I formed a deep appreciation for their plight. These people weren’t stupid, although they were uneducated. Few of the older ones I met had gone past the sixth or seventh grade, and few of the younger ones had completed high school. They had very little trust in “gubmint,” and relied on each other instead. They were fiercely independent, and they were almost completely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, they hunted, they fished, and they cut their own firewood. They had root cellars for storing fruits, vegetables, and potatoes. They also made their own entertainment – I don’t think any of the ones we met owned a television. They rarely saw a doctor, and they never went to a dentist. They had a deep respect and love for the land, and they depended on it for their survival.
It was hard for me to grasp that there are still people like this in modern-day America. How do they live without the things that most of us take for granted – indoor plumbing, electricity, television, computers, microwaves, shopping malls, health care professionals, and higher education? When I posed a similar question to Sook, her answer was simple: “We don’t need ‘em. We’re better off without ‘em.”
Of course, this point can be debated for years. I admit, these people seemed very happy. They didn’t seem to miss all the trappings of the modern world. They had all they needed from their strong faith in God, from the land, and from each other. They were some of the most gracious, kind, and generous people I’ve ever met. They weren’t violent or clannish, as the stereotype would imply. They love life, and they love people. They don’t care, for the most part, about having wealth, power, or position. Who am I to say that my way of life is better?
Watch this video!!
Some comic relief!
When I was researching the Appalachians, the people living in the Appalachian Mountains, and the cultural aspects of Appalachia, I ran across a funny video. I'm not making fun of hillbillies - I'm married to one! I just thought we needed some comic relief after such a serious topic.
My favorite Bluegrass song:
Read more about the Appalachians:
- Appalachian Mountains and the Appalachian Trail
Information about the Appalachian Mountains and the Appalachian Trail. Photos and videos are included!