Like many urban elites, I have little or no understanding of the people of central Appalachia, a rural mountainous region that spans southwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and western Virginia. News media accounts (especially during election season which seems to be the only time we pay attention to that region), passing through the occasional town on the way to somewhere else, and seeing films like Deliverance can give a highly misleading picture of the people there as not only poverty-stricken and poorly educated, but even willfully obtuse in acting against their own interests, and being easily seduced by Donald Trump’s bogus promises to bring back coal jobs and rejuvenate the region.
The first change in my thinking came when I read the novel Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake. This tells a moving story through one family’s eyes of the deep love that the people of Appalachian West Virginia feel for their land and their despair at the collusion of coal companies and government to destroy the beautiful mountains with massive tree-cutting, strip mining, and mountain top blasting that pollutes their waters, damages their homes, and threatens their lives. It captures the atmosphere of the place and the dignity of the people who live there. The writing is superb and provides a deeper understanding of a community and people who are frequently looked down upon as ignorant, with epithets like rednecks, hillbillies, and white trash used to describe them
But that book was fiction. I just came across this long review by Alec MacGillis in ProPublica of a book by Steven Stoll called Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia that looks at the history of the region and how it got to be what it is now. It substantiates what Pancake was describing fictionally.
Stoll begins by reminding us that West Virginia was one of only six states that Jimmy Carter won in his landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980, belying the idea that the state has always been a right-wing, reactionary stronghold. That the people of Appalachia live in difficult circumstances is well known, with the dying coal industry being seen as the prime cause of their impoverishment. The books says that rather than the death of the coal industry being responsible for Appalachia’s plight, it was the arrival of that industry, working in tandem with the government, that set it on a downward slide from which it never recovered.
[Stoll] has set out to tell the story of how the people of a sprawling region of our country — one of its most physically captivating and ecologically bountiful — went from enjoying a modest but self-sufficient existence as small-scale agrarians for much of the 18th and 19th centuries to a dreary dependency on the indulgence of coal barons or the alms of the government.
Stoll refuses to accept that there is something intrinsically lacking in Appalachians — people who, after all, managed to carve out a life on such challenging, mountainous terrain. Something was done to them, and he is going to figure out who did it.
The missing history is above all a story about land and dispossession. For roughly a century, starting before the country’s founding, the settlers of central Appalachia — defined by Stoll as the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania and most of West Virginia — managed a makeshift life as smallholders. The terms of that “holding” were murky, to say the least: Property claims in the region were a tangled patchwork of grants awarded to French and Indian or Revolutionary War generals and other notables, which were commonly diced and sliced among speculators, and the de facto claims made by those actually inhabiting the land. In some cases, those settlers managed to get official deeds by the legal doctrine of “adverse possession”; in many others, they were simply allowed to keep working the land by distant landlords who had never laid eyes on it.
Before the arrival of the coal companies following the Civil War, life was not easy but it was sustainable.
They practiced “swidden” agriculture — burning out one clearing for cultivation, then letting it regenerate while rotating to another area — likely introduced by Scandinavians mixed in with the predominant Scots-Irish. Survival depended on shared use of the boundless forest beyond one’s own hollow or ridge — the “commons” — for hunting game, raising livestock, small-scale logging and foraging bounties such as uganost (wild greens), toothworth, corn salad and ramps. “People with control over a robust landscape work hard, but they don’t go hungry,” remarks Stoll.
But the discovery of coal and other minerals in the region following the Civil War turned the eyes of the coal barons towards the region.
In swarmed said capitalists, often in cahoots with local power brokers from Charleston and Wheeling.
The confused legal property claims offered the aspiring coal barons a window: They could approach longtime inhabitants and say, essentially, “Look, we all know you don’t have full title to this land, but if you sell us the mineral rights, we’ll let you stay.” With population growth starting to crimp the wide-ranging agrarian existence, some extra cash in hand was hard to reject. Not that it was very much: One farmer turned over his 740 acres for a mere $3.58 per acre — around $80 today.
This led to the large-scale felling of trees and strip mining with devastating consequences for the region.
The steam skidder crews would cut everything they could, “leaving the slopes barren but for the stumps, branches, and bark that burned whenever a spark from a railroad wheel or glowing ash from a tinderbox fell on the detritus.”
The harvest was staggering: “Of the 10 million acres that had never been cut in 1870, only 1.5 million stood in 1910.” Stoll quotes one witness from the time: “One sees these beautiful hills and valleys stripped of nature’s adornment; the hills denuded of their forests, the valleys lighted by the flames of coke-ovens and smelting furnaces; their vegetation seared and blackened … and one could wish that such an Arcadia might have been spared such ravishment. But the needs of the race are insatiable and unceasing.” Indeed, they were. As one northern lumberman put it: “All we want here is to get the most we can out of this country, as quick as we can, and then get out.”
Such rapaciousness did not leave much of the commons that had sustained the makeshift agrarian existence. Of course, there was a new life to replace it: mining coal or logging trees. By 1929, 100,000 men, out of a total state population of only 1.7 million, worked in 830 mines across West Virginia alone. But it is in that very shift that Stoll identifies the region’s turn toward immiseration. With the land spoiled and few non-coal jobs available, workers were at the mercy of whichever coal company dominated their corner of the region. They lived in camps and were paid in scrip usable only at the company store; even the small gardens they were allowed in the camps were geared less toward self-reliance than toward cutting the company’s costs to feed them.
Stoll quotes a professor at Berea College in eastern Kentucky who captured the new reality in a 1924 book: The miner “had not realized that he would have to buy all his food. … He has to pay even for water to drink.” Having moved their families to a shanty in the camp, miners owed rent even when the mine closed in the industry’s cyclical downturns, which served to “bind them as tenants by compulsion … under leases by which they can be turned out with their wives and children on the mountainside in midwinter if they strike.” As Stoll sums it up, “Their dependency on company housing and company money spent for food in company-owned stores amounted to a constant threat of eviction and starvation.”
Tennessee Ernie Ford captured the indentured servitude nature that the people were now living in in his song Sixteen Tons. Here is a version sung by Johnny Cash.
So why did the people of Appalachia still identify with the coal industry, given that it is the root cause of their plight? MacGillis says that in his travels in the region, he spoke with former coal miners.
The region has been dominated by mining for so long that coal has become deeply interwoven with its whole sense of self. Just last month, I was speaking with a couple of retired union miners in Fairmont, West Virginia, who are highly critical of both coal companies and Trump, and suffer the typical physical ailments from decades spent underground. Yet both said without hesitation that they missed the work for the camaraderie and sense of purpose it provided. Their ancestors identified as agrarians; they identified as miners.
So the people of Appalachia are trapped in a no-win situation. The coal industry destroyed their land and their previous livelihood and led to their impoverishment. But now they feel that it is all they have.