Dad celebrated his 90th birthday at the beginning of June, so family gathered at our hometown in East Tennessee to mark the occasion. Imagine my surprise when my sister Debbie drove us to a neat little ranch-style house in town and announced that Dad had purchased it just a few days earlier. For years, we’ve been trying to convince him to move out of “the homeplace,” a drafty two-story farm house where he lived most of his life, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Dad’s arthritis made his nightly ascent to the second-floor bedroom an ordeal. Conceding the decision had been difficult, he said his new house was “better than a nursing home,” but he still spends his days at “the homeplace.”
The homestead of Earl Hamner, Jr. (whose stories inspired the TV series, “The Waltons”) reminds me a lot of Dad’s house. These plain white clapboard houses popped up on Appalachian hills in the 1910s and 1920s as plentiful as mushrooms after an April rain. Most of them are still standing, and many of them still inhabited–a tribute to the close bond between mountain people and their homes, no matter the state of repair.
I suppose we natives of Appalachia will carry the image of our “homeplaces” in memory as long as we live. Places of comfort, security, and love, they remind us of a way of life we will always cherish.
Storytellers come to Jonesborough, TN, every October for the International Storytelling Festival. This little town in northeast Tennessee has many claims to fame: It’s the oldest continuously inhabited town west of the Allegheny Mountains, capital of the short-lived State of Franklin, and now (thanks to the festival promoters) the Storytelling Capital of the World.
Far be it from me to dispute that claim. My first job was as a cub reporter for the Jonesborough Herald & Tribune, and the town’s native story-tellers were some of my best sources. The city treasurer let me leaf through his book of ordinances to find outdated laws that were literally “still on the books.” At that time (the late 1960s) it was still illegal to drive a flock of geese down Main Street.
Jonesborough’s chief storyteller was Paul M. Fink, the county historian, whose office was a cramped cellar room beneath the courthouse. Mr. Fink was my official source on more than one occasion, and he didn’t mind being named. He could embellish the facts as well as any other denizen of the courthouse, but he always took care to raise a finger, draw my eye to his, and intone that this part of his account was “off the record.” (I’ll never know how much of his “off the record” stories were factual and how much imaginary.)
Then there was Gerald A. Squibb, sometime columnist for the Herald & Tribune, a rural mail carrier and irascible political pundit. Gerald understood human foibles very well (having plenty of them himself) and his quirky sense of humor punctured many an inflated ego. I recently discovered that he self-published a book entitled A Day Late and a Dollar Short; sounds like it could have been his autobiography.
You won’t hear Paul or Gerald at this year’s Storytelling Festival; they both passed from the scene more than 30 years ago. But I’m glad to know their tradition lives on.
The mayor of Boone, NC, was asked to make a speech when the East Tennessee & Westnern North Carolina Railroad reached his town in 1919. In the course of his declamation, he said, “I remember when the only way you could get to Boone was to be born in Boone!” That wasn’t much of an exaggeration, either. Primitive roads into the mountains of western North Carolina were so prone to rock slides and washouts that travelers usually preferred to ride on horseback. The narrow-gauge railroad became Boone’s vital lifeline to the outside world for the next twenty years.
The same was true of many mountain communities. If not for a logging road, a horse-drawn coach, or a narrow-gauge rail line, they were completely isolated. When a newcomer appeared, locals were less likely to ask, “Where you from?” than the squint-eyed query, “How’d you get here?”
Progress came slowly, but it did come. Logging and mining companies found it cheaper to haul cargo by truck than by train, so roads to Boone were widened and paved. When a hurricane dumped torrential rain on the town in August 1940, washing out its little railroad, the owners didn’t rebuild.
Boone, NC, is now a thriving community, easy to reach by car. You don’t have to be born there to see its gem shops, pottery kilns, and hand-operated looms. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt, though.
The porch has long been a vital gathering place for Southern folk. In the heat of the day, neighbors took refuge in the cool shade of someone’s porch to talk for hours at a time. The most hospitable greeting that a mountain homesteader could give to the passing stranger was, “Come, set a spell.” An invitation to the porch was like an invitation to the family table.
Even the most humble home had a porch of some kind–not just a stoop or an awning. One measure of its importance was the fact that most homes had porches long before they had indoor plumbing.
Any place of business that wanted to attract the public would extend a welcome with a spacious porch, so mercantiles and feed stores had them. Courthouses didn’t, of course, because magistrates wanted no one loitering there! Popular “tourist traps” of the South follow that tradition even today with wide, shady porches and several rocking chairs. (Ever been to an outlet of the “Cracker Barrel” chain?) The photo here is from the back porch of the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, NC, not quite as glitzy as other tourist destinations. And they’ve not forgotten the spirit of Southern hospitality!
Less than a century ago, Americans faced diseases that crippled them or brought sudden death, especially in remote areas such as the Appalachians. Many of these ailments are unknown today, while others can now be treated with over-the-counter remedies. Here’s a summary of the first chapter of the Handbook of Medical Treatment, edited by John C. DeCosta (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1920).
Milk sickness? Polio? We seldom hear of them today, but they were serious threats back then. (This textbook was published just a year before Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio on a family outing in New England, leaving him dependent on crutches and metal leg braces for the rest of his life.)
How might the world be different if FDR hadn’t gotten polio in his 40s? Or if Rudolph Valentino hadn’t died in his prime of peritonitis?
Fatalists like to say that you’ll die when your time has come, but in the 1920s and 1930s your “time” might come suddenly and doctors could do little to help you. More so in the hill country, where doctors were hard to find and folk remedies might make your illness worse!
The Great Depression of the 1930s forced mountain people to “make do” with what they had or create substitutes for what they didn’t have. Store tokens were good examples. Cash was scarce because so many banks had failed, so people hoarded whatever money came into their hands. To stay in business, local stores made their own money in the form of paper scrip or metal tokens.
Here’s an aluminum token issued by Hampton & Perkins of Linville, NC. (a store established by a distant cousin of mine). When a farmer sold his produce to the store, he got paid in store money like this, which he could then use to buy other merchandise. The Linville community was so tightly knit that their make-do monetary system worked quite well. In some mountain villages, this commerce in homemade money continued until World War II. These tokens are now collectors’ items.
Hampton & Perkins still operates at 77 Ruffin Street in Linville as the Old Hampton Store, a tourist attraction that sells some of the best barbeque sandwiches you’ll find anywhere. And you can buy them with regular US greenbacks.
Reading bouquet cards beside my mother’s casket, I was reminded again of how resourceful she had been. One basket of flowers from The Posy Shop honored “Our Former Employee’; so did one from a retirement center. After my parents divorced more than forty years ago, Mom worked a variety of part-time jobs to support herself and my two sisters who were still at home. She was a maid at the local Holiday Inn; she cleaned passenger cabins of planes at the airport; she loaded thread on looms at a textile mill. She did whatever she could in order to survive.
Eventually, Mom remarried and became “just” a homemaker again, but that fierce determination would reemerge whenever she felt threatened.
It’s a familiar trait of mountain people, especially women, who are portrayed in Southern literature. A recent example is Jennifer Niven’s heroine, Velva Jean. Without family, without home, and without prospects for marriage, feisty Velva Jean makes a life for herself in the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. Her indomitable faith is rooted in the Appalachian folk religion of tent revival meetings with evangelists “on the take.” Often naive but always resilient, Velva Jean learns to drive her own life, as well as sporty cars and supercharged pick-up trucks.
Mom was just as tenacious and confident of her ability to learn whatever she needed to bounce back when life threw her down. She cracked jokes even when she was crying, an art that all four of us children have learned. Alzheimer’s disease finally took control of her body, but not her spirit.
Yes, Mom was resourceful. Mountain women usually are.