Appalachian Thursday – Reclaiming “Hillbilly”

view 7-4-18There’s been some talk lately about how hillbilly is a derogatory word that shouldn’t see the light of day. So I’m going on the record to say I not only don’t mind the word, but that I think we should reclaim it.

Consider the word’s origin (or etymology if you prefer): hill + Billy. So basically, taking a really common name for a person and linking it to hilly terrain. I know–I was hoping for something more highfalutin.

Here are two of the earliest known uses of the word in print:

“I would hate to see some old railroad man come here and take my job, and then, I don’t think it is right to hire some Hill Billy and give him the same right as I just because he was hired the same time I was.” – The Railroad Trainmen’s Journal, July 1892

“In short, Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him.” -New York Journal, April 23, 1900

That second one actually makes hillbilly-ness sound pretty appealing–or at least free-wheeling. But derogatory? Well, I guess that depends on who you are and how you mean it.

Pretty much any word can become derogatory–I’ve certainly heard folks use the word “Yankee” in a way that didn’t convey admiration. But if you visit Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, WV, I think they’d tell you that word–and it’s stereotypical connotations–have worked out just fine for them.

I don’t mind it a bit if someone suggests that being from a farm in West Virginia makes me a hillbilly (maybe I’m a hillbetty). I’m proud of the place I grew up and the people who shaped me. Sure, there are problems–just like everywhere else. But there are also plenty of amazing stories of people overcoming, sticking it out, and staying true to their heritage.

So I say let’s ignore those folks who think hillbilly is a dirty word and reclaim it. In my book a hillbilly is someone who loves the hills and hollers of Appalachia; someone who has some knowledge of living off the land; who holds family close; who will step up to help a neighbor in need; is a creative problem-solver (do a search for hillbilly air conditioner); who knows how to laugh and makes a habit of doing so often; who plays hard, eats hearty, and loves deeply.

In short–some of my very favorite people in this whole world.

#hillbillylife

 

Appalachian Thursday – Anvil Shooting

watermelonJust like everywhere else in the country, folks in Appalachia spent yesterday enjoying cookouts, eating watermelon, warning the kids not to burn themselves with sparklers, and maybe enjoying some patriotic music.

We grilled hot dogs and chilled our watermelon in the creek out back. (It takes up too much room in the refrigerator.)

But back in the day there was another way mountain folks celebrated Independence Day–back before they could buy fireworks at a stand in the Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s called anvil shooting.

The idea is to place one anvil upside down on the ground and fill the concave space in the bottom with black powder. Then, place a second anvil right-side-up on top of the powder-filled first. A fuse is stuck into the powder, lit, and the resulting explosion can send the 100+ pound top anvil up to 20 feet in the air.

This was done in place of fireworks for rural people who wanted something more spectacular than just firing off a hunting rifle. It allegedly sounds like cannon fire.

There are actually anvil shooting competitions now and an anvil shooting world champion from Missouri named Gay Wilkinson. He’s launched anvils as high as 200 feet. The good news is anvils generally fall close to the launching point. Even on a windy day.

I generally love all things Appalachian, but I think I’ll stick to sparklers for my celebrations!

Appalachian Thursday – 155 Candles for WV

wv-10-14-026.jpgYesterday was West Virginia Day. That would be the 155th birthday of my home state. Often, I celebrate the day by subjecting my readers to the history of how West Virginia became a state (and was almost called Kanawha, which I think would have been nice!), but this year I’m giving you a break. Instead of a history lesson, I thought I’d give you some fun facts about the incredibly unique southernmost northern state/northernmost southern state.

FUN FIRSTS – some more dubious than others . . .

  • On July 1, 1921, West Virginia was the first state to institute a sales tax.
  • Mother’s Day was first observed in Grafton, WV, in 1908. You can visit the Mother’s Day Shrine there today.
  • The first brick street in the world was laid in Charleston, WV, in 1870.
  • It was the first (and only) state created by presidential proclamation. Thanks Abraham Lincoln!
  • Jackson’s Mill is the site of the first 4-H camp in the United States. And I went to camp there!
  • The first US prison exclusively for women was opened in the state in 1926.
  • Minnie Buckingham Harper, a member of the House of Delegates by appointment in 1928, was the first African American woman to become a member of a legislative body in the United States.

FAMOUS WEST VIRGINIANS

  • Stonewall Jackson – Civil War general
  • Pearl Buck – author
  • Chuck Yeager – test pilot
  • Jerry West – basketball player and coach
  • Don Knotts – actor (Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith Show)
  • Brad Paisley – country singer
  • Jennifer Garner – actress

STATE SYMBOLS

  • Bird – Cardinal
  • Flower – Rhododendron
  • Tree – Sugar Maple
  • Animal – Black Bear
  • Fish – Brook Trout
  • Food – pepperoni roll

State Motto – Montani semper liberi – Mountaineers are always free!

So how about you? What fun facts do you know about your state?

Appalachian Thursday – Feuding

feud1I’m currently working on a story idea that involves a feud. One of my goals in writing stories set in my beloved Appalachians is taking some of the stereotypes and clichés and either debunking them or shedding new light on them.

So. Feuding. In the style of the Hatfields & McCoys.

Except theirs was not the only historic feud. A friend who is a Kentucky native lent me her copy of–brace yourself for this title–A history of the feud between the Hill and Evans parties of Garrard County, Ky. The most exciting tragedy ever enacted on the bloody grounds of Kentucky.

Well, count me in!

Written in 1854 by Lieut. J.J. Thompson, this book is priceless. Never mind the feud, the writing is captivating. In Chapter IV, he tells of false accusations spread about Dr. Evans by Mrs. Rus Hill. Here’s an excerpt:

“She took her child into her arms, and with the sincere affectation of an expert actress, set out from her lone cabin of rudeness, and made the welkin ring with lamentations for her miserable fate. The proud hills, disdaining to listen to such airy wailings, repulsed the empty sounds and with reproof echoed them from their rock-ribbed sides to the ear of their degenerate mistress . . .”

This continues as a spectacular run-on sentence, but you get the gist. Apparently even the landscape took a side in this feud. And I am determined to work “welkin” into my next novel. (It means the sky or the vault of heaven. Of course it does.)

I’m only five chapters in and no one has died yet, but they are certainly whaling on one another. The whole thing started one winter when Dr. Evans hired Dr. Hill’s “negro woman.” Then, in the spring, Dr. Hill decided he wanted use of her services and, “thought of no better way of securing them than by inducing her to run away.” He sent his niece to do the inducing and when Dr. Evans took issue much head whacking ensued. I mean that literally. Dr. Hill hit Dr. Evans in the back of the head with a “large hickory stick.”

Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. Then there’s a set-to at a BBQ, false accusations, doctors undermining one another’s diagnoses . . . good stuff. I’m not sure if anything will make it into my story but I’m having a grand time learning about this “most exciting tragedy.”

You just can’t beat real-life. But you CAN read this treasure for yourself. It’s on-line HERE.

Appalachian Thursday – Back on The Farm

We just returned from spending several days at The Farm in West Virginia. My niece is the eighth generation of my family to grow up on that land. The house we stay in is just a few months older than I am since my parents built it while Mom was pregnant with me. Everywhere I step there’s a memory underfoot.

Not only is it a beloved spot because of my growing up there, but I’d also argue it’s one of the prettiest places in the world. And now the nearby town of Buckhannon is getting downright hip with some good restaurants, music and art venues, and–yes–a brewery. Because a town can’t be hip without a brewery.

It’s come a long way from my high school days and I love it even better now. Come on, take a stroll with me . . .

Appalachian Thursday – Funerals

GE DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve attended several funerals lately and it got me thinking about how much a part of growing up in Appalachia funerals have always been. As a child I often went with my parents to funerals. Shoot, everyone went. It’s just what you did.

The two things I remember most were open caskets and all that food. It was rare to go to a funeral where the deceased wasn’t on display. Everyone passed by the casket. The family would be stationed at the head so friends could offer condolences and hugs. Someone would inevitably say, “Don’t she/he look natural.” (My grandmother put considerable thought into what she would wear for burial.) Then, after the funeral, everyone would go back to the family’s home where there would be a ridiculous amount of really good food supplied by the community.

And, of course, there were quite a few superstitions associated with death. I didn’t necessarily see these things, but I certainly heard about some of them. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

  • When someone died, you stopped the clocks to mark the time and prevent another death.
  • Deaths come in threes. If two people died reasonably close together, someone would always predict a third. I always found this a wee bit unnerving.
  • If you hear a screech owl at dusk, someone will die. I still feel a jolt when I’m hiking in the evening and hear an owl hoot.
  • It’s bad luck to walk across graves. We helped mow the church cemetery when I was growing up. This one worried me.
  • Pregnant women aren’t supposed to look at a corpse lest their child be “marked.”
  • Setting an empty rocking chair in motion signifies death. This one feels like a lovely metaphor more than a superstition.
  • And my favorite–bees carry the news of death.

All in all, these customs and traditions made death pretty approachable for me. And, as the people I care about get older (as do I!), I find myself grateful for growing up in a place where death was very much part and parcel of life.

 

 

Appalachian Thursday – Outhouses

Outhouse posterTomorrow is my wedding anniversary–twenty-two years! So what does that have to do with outhouses? Well, if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know that the church where we married was lacking indoor plumbing.

It still is twenty-two years later.

So, in honor of the outhouse at my wedding, I thought I’d share some interesting outhouse facts.

And no, I did NOT attempt to use the facilities in my wedding gown.

  1. Crescent moons. The crescent moon you often see cut in the door serves a couple of purposes. First, it lets in a bit of light. Second, it was a way to differentiate between ladies and gents. Women got the crescent moon while men had a star. Allegedly, the moon is more common because the ladies took better care of their facilities and so they lasted longer.
  2. Two-seaters. You may have seen an outhouse with two holes and wondered just how chummy folks were back in the day. Typically, the second hole wasn’t for simultaneous pottying. Often there was an adult-sized hole and then a smaller, child-sized hole.
  3. Garbage disposal. There are actually folks who go around digging where they think outhouses might once have been. This is because owners used to toss all kinds of stuff into the opening. And yesterday’s trash is sometimes today’s collectible.
  4. Toilet paper. Often, there wasn’t any. This is where the Sears catalog came in with its nice, soft pages. And if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “rough as a cob,” it originated in an outhouse where shucked corn cobs were sometimes re-purposed.
  5. WPA Outhouses – In the 1930s part of Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration (WPA) was improving rural sanitation through the construction of Red Cross designed outhouses (see image above). These were luxury models with cement floors, smooth seats, and vents. They were also meant to be fly and vermin proof, although I have my doubts.

All in all, having used an old-time outhouse and a modern port-o-john, I have to say the Appalachian outhouse is the nicer of the two experiences.