The Many Faces Of Appalachia 


By Mr. Gayle C. Compton - 2000

My home in Jonancy (Pike County), Kentucky, sits in an east-west valley. The sun rises in my bedroom window, in the loud June apple aviary of bluejay and robin. It sets just off my front porch; a slow fire in the twin yard maples.

Watching the mists rise from two mountains, I feel a primitive spirituality and a kinship with Henry David Thoreau. Writing from the Maine woods, Thoreau described these primordial vapors as a "damp and intricate wilderness, the fresh and natural surface of the planet."

Knott County author, James Still, refers to Appalachia as "that somewhat mythical region with no known borders." Indeed, experts have had trouble identifying the rugged, labyrinthine landscape of the northern, central and southern Appalachians. A greater challenge has been trying to understand the region's vastly more complex inhabitants.

Central Appalachia, consisting of Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Tennessee, and Western Virginia, is more than a geographical enigma. It is a land of contradictions; a dichotomy of poverty and wealth, lost innocence, and pristine beauty; a portrait of contrasts.

Appalachia is hard times: picket shacks in the snow, the welfare line in December, and a child with no Christmas. It is also good times: happy children running to meet a coal mining dad, black as a chimney sweep with dinner pail and broad smile. It is the full hopper, the full table, the music of the fiddle, and cloggers on the town square.

Appalachia is a spirit. It is the heroic pioneer spirit of Daniel Boone; the survivalist spirit of Jenny Wiley. It is the unheroic clan spirit of the Hatfields and McCoys, and the industrial spirit of John C. C. Mayo.

Appalachia is a political spirit, more often iniquitous than patriotic. We have elected good men with bad whiskey and bad men with good whiskey. It is a fighting spirit that has produced the best soldiers in nearly every major war, only to be defeated on the home front against the powers that be.

That's the way things have always been, and change is as slow as the glaciers that formed our valleys.

Appalachia is living with stereotypes. In 1873 "Lippincott's Magazine" published an article about Eastern Kentucky entitled "A Strange Land and a Peculiar People." Today we are still considered peculiar by those who live beyond our borders.

In 1930 several well-known writers, among them Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Heywood Broun, came to report the violence and bloodshed in the mining camps of Harlan. Their stories were more sensational than the dime novel and provided an almost comic relief for a nation enduring the Great Depression.

In 1960 during a campaign stop in West Virginia, candidate John F. Kennedy was appalled by the poverty he saw in the mountains.

It was the spring of 1964 when Lyndon Johnson took up the cause of an assassinated president, declaring an unconditional "War on Poverty."

Journalists and photographers from every corner of the globe descended on Eastern Kentucky like a plague of locusts. Articles from "Life," "Look," "Time," and other magazines, graphically portrayed mountain families in settings of poverty and squalor.

Ironically, it was a native son, Whitesburg lawyer Harry Caudill, who turned Appalachia into a cause celeber with the publication of "Night Comes to the Cumberlands." The book was responsible for bringing both philanthropists and curiosity seekers into the mountains.

Caudill has been credited with inspiring the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal agency to assist 13 states in the Appalachian region.

Ten years after his death in 1990, he is probably best remembered for his "bad gene theory," which proposes that Appalachians descended from pirates and "wretched outcasts" of British prisons.

Because poverty and violence have more market value than peace and prosperity, the national media can be relied on to report the story when Appalachia's ribs are showing.

We rightfully took umbrage when CBS visited a single backroad in Floyd County and made Eastern Kentuckians look like Dogpatch characters. We were insulted when The Global Exchange of San Francisco billed Appalachia as "the third world within the United States."

I believe we deserve an apology when a Californian, like Robert Schenkkan ("Kentucky Cycle"), spends a single weekend in Hazard, Kentucky, and bags a Pulitzer for depicting Eastern Kentuckians as clones of the Beverly Hillbillies. At the same time, I am sickened by those who watched ten minutes of Roary Kennedy's "American Hollow" and were found prostrate on their shag carpet, moaning, "Oh, my God, we've been stereotyped again!"

Let's face it. We have earned, bought, and paid for a good many of the stereotypes for which we are criticized.

In Pike County we sacrifice our beautiful mountains and spend untold millions to build a four-lane highway. One week after the ribbon cutting the same road is paved with soft drink cans, pizza cartons, soiled Pampers, and dead dogs.
Our "$500 Fine For Littering" signs are targets for beer bottles and Pepsi cans thrown from Z-28s and Eldorados.

We pay $300 apiece for underweight roosters, equip them with $50 spurs, bet on them until they kill or get killed, and throw the carcasses in the creek. Our congressmen condone such barbarism. Many of them engage in it themselves and call it a royal sport.

We have shown the world who our heroes are by naming a stretch of road from Ashland to the Virginia line "Country Music Highway." We have overlooked the pioneers, doctors, writers, teachers, coal miners; exemplars of honor and dignity; and deified those whose greatest contribution to our culture is "I'm Drinking Double" and "Aiky, Breaky Heart."

The mining counties of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are a stark incongruity of ravaged land and breathtaking natural splendor. The carnage of four decades of strip mining stands in bold relief to the magnificent arches of Red River Gorge and the Breaks of the Big Sandy.

Fields that once rang with the song of the plowman and the music of harness and cowbell are now junkyards, trailer parks, and squatting grounds for flea markets.

Appalachia is a voice crying in the wilderness; the voice of the poor in a wilderness of illiteracy. Some would call it ignorance, but the term does not always apply. It was not ignorance, but a certain genius, that helped our ancestors survive an austere, hostile environment to raise crops by predicting the weather; to bear and raise children without doctors or hospitals. It was such stubborn determination, the will to overcome, that sustained our forbearers during war and depression.

We can only hope that we have inherited some of those "bad genes" of our ancestors. Who knows how soon our own resources and stamina will be tested?
My friend, Charlie, has a high school diploma signed by his principal and the superintendent of schools. Charlie has an amazing memory, is a walking telephone directory, but cannot give you change for a dollar. He doesn't know his multiplication table or his ABCs. His hero is Adolph Hitler, "inventor of the Volkswagen."

I asked Charlie one day if he knew his own IQ. "Darn right," he replied. "I got a 20-20 IQ. I can hit a possum in the eye at 20 yards with my Smith & Wesson."
I know another young man who, through no fault of his own, has been awarded a degree in English from one of Kentucky's most reputable universities. He can neither write nor punctuate a compound sentence, has read two novels, and thinks "The Catcher in the Rye" is a book on baseball.

According to the Department of Education in Frankfort, 37.5 percent of Kentucky adults over age 25 are illiterate, which means over 900,000 people cannot read and write. Sadder still, these figures do not take into consideration those victims of social promotion, who have been given high school diplomas, but are still hung-up on "See Spot Run."

Not surprisingly, a survey by Kentucky Youth Advocates found a lack of education to be the greatest adversary of Kentucky's poor. Nancy Gall-Clayton, author of "Not Poor in Spirit," found that most of the 91 families she visited "managed...without malice," because they believed in a better future.

That was 12 years ago, and the future in Central Appalachia is still uncertain. Coal business is suffering. West Virginia's already poor economy is further threatened by dwindling coal prices, oversupply, and an environmental regulation that could mean the end to a way of life.

One of Eastern Kentucky's largest surface mine operations has filed for bankruptcy and was forced to cut 230 employees from its payroll.
Coal Mac, Inc., one of Eastern Kentucky's largest employers, has moved to troubled West Virginia.

Perhaps, the worst news is that a New York insurance company, underwriter for $112-million for mining reclamation in Pike County, is in financial trouble.
It was no soothsayer, but the Kentucky Geological Survey has predicted that the region's present coal supply will last only another ten years.

We are victims of a method of mining that can move a mountain in a month, one given to quick profits for the operator and short-term employment for the common laborer, a business that is largely to blame for its own undoing.
Meanwhile, Sykes Enterprises, Inc., an information technology outsourcing service, has located in Hazard, Kentucky, improviding the region with 1,000 jobs. Although a welcome relief, they do not offer the high wages with which the coal industry has spoiled us.

Diversification is essential. We must find other sources of revenue. Our real hope in Appalachia lies in the education of our people at every age. With the GED and other adult education programs, along with the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), there is reason for optimism.

Perhaps, the Appalachian wilderness is only as vast and impenetrable as we allow it to be.

Rich, poor, rugged, beautiful, and "somewhat mythical" Appalachia is a feeling. It is the warmth and security of families gathered on a front porch, the smell of honeysuckle in the fence rows, the whippoorwill's call in the thicket.

It is the camaraderie of miners squatting round the firebarrel with open dinner pails. It is the sound of a loaded Mack struggling uphill with 40 tons of "black diamond." It is the mellow voices of hounds on the mountain.

It is the exhilaration of "My Old Kentucky Home" sung loud and off-key. It is the church in the wildwood, footwashings, baptisms in the creek, and a congregation shouting "hallelujah."

Appalachia, older than the Rockies and as young as our children, is a land shaped by the people and a people shaped by the land. More good than evil, it has been called "God's Country." It is where we raise our families. It is where our dreams are. 


Gayle C. Compton, P. O. Box 68, Jonancy, KY 41538, shares this story with our readers. He contributes to the Kentucky Explorer from time to time.