Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gentrification of Appalachia

Appalachia is changing. Has been for some time.  I know there is no one stereotype of Appalachain people. But lately I've noticed this dogged undercurrent of a big getting away from any mention of the old ways especially about outhouses and the way we lived and referring to it as being so substandard. People, especially those new to Appalachia, wanting to see our history distanced from a past that frankly was just the way it was before they brought money here and a demand for good plumbing.  A tweaking of this ideal life for what Appalachia is or isn't for folks.  It just depends on who you talk to.
The Appalachia my family knew was just different. We were not rich people, we were salt of the earth people. We used an outhouse because there was no septic system or city sewer system. Many places the ground was so rocky with so much clay they couldn't have put a septic system in even if you wanted to.

Just within the last ten years I have hooked the old 150 year old house to a public water system. We finally disconnected the old well. This was not just a matter of rich or poor but more of what was available. But in my lifetime I've been in some fancy houses that had lousy plumbing in Appalachia.

I can remember carrying good water in jugs from a spring when I was younger in the early 1970s. The house we lived in, though it had a well and a bathroom, it was IRON water. Turned all your clothes orange!!  And the bathroom froze up in the winter despite Dad's best efforts. He put in an outhouse for emergencies.  It was not a bad way of living just different and we coped with it. Some folks had sulfur water that smelled like rotten eggs and would clog up pipes for the same results. But an outhouse built character is what my grandmother said. Some homes didn't have well water they had gravity flow water off a hill and went into a cistern. It was not only the monetary resources of the people but the geography of the mountains that produced the stereotypes of living conditions.

But I went to a meeting the other day and it was among people who are trying to save the heritage of our Appalachia and create a tourism market in Appalachia.  What struck me the most is here were people talking of the mountain music, arts, crafts, history and wanting to celebrate that by speaking of wanting to change the stereotype of Appalachia such as everyone lived in a house with an outhouse in the old days. They wanted to change the perception of Appalachia from the barefoot children going to school and the backwoods downtrodden folks to one of gentility instead. I kept thinking every community I have researched family history in had barefoot children pictures in school. So now we don't want to show "that part" of Appalachia, even though they existed and it was real. OK.....mmmmm   And it's because we are trying to "sell" the Appalachian experience. Ok.... what the heck is that?

Well see now there are artisans now taking up the Appalachian crafts, (I applaud those folks for that) and are creating a semi quasi mythical way of life, creating art studios and art trails. But the wonder of it is very few of these folks I have talked to are people actually from Appalachia.  Many have Ph.ds and just want this simple way of life that they think Appalachia of the past represented. Yet they have changed Appalachia by coming into the mountains. Mainly because they are not content with doing without modern amenities. So they moved on a mountain top and then brought money to demand decent plumbing and trash pick up and roads. It's been amusing to watch.

But what I really find questionable is many want to make this extraordinary living at the old Appalachian "arts" or even small farming while changing the view of Appalachian actual history. It's not a bad thing to have this diverse economic growth. We have goat people, and alpaca's, and ostriches with sheep and wineries. Very odd to walk through the mountains and run up on an ostrich! 

But I recently saw a "chair" artist. He made split oak chairs much like my great grandfather did. Wants a pretty penny for them too, $300 and up each. Is it worth it, probably if you don't want to have the pride to make it yourself, but looking at his work and remembering the old chairs around the family, I don't think he took the care that Grand dad did with making his chairs.

And wineries, there were many in the mountains who made there own brews. Just wasn't as commercial though we had a quite few small business commercial operations.  There was actually a small winery in Bland County ran by the Justus family. But we mostly made our own. I ought to pull out my aunt's dandelion wine recipe. (I once made a batch collecting dandelions off the municipal courthouse lawn in Radford VA. Prettiest crop of dandelions you ever saw that year.)

This is the difference, these new chairs, these new wines, are for money on an economic level that just never existed here in the mountains much. I had an uncle who ran a mill and for grinding the corn he would take a percentage of the corn not coin and then would sell it sending it by train or wagon east and south. It was more of a barter system that I am aware of. And of the chairs,  Grand Daddy made his chairs because he was too poor to purchase Grand Maw store bought ones. He would "trade" making a chair if he found something to trade for. We made do using the resources we had...and in the process, was artful in how we made do. The myth and simple life they want, the newcomers are destroying because they don't understand it came with an outhouse and bad plumbing. It came from a more barter system of community. It came out of necessity.

We provided for ourselves something useful like a quilt out of the best part of a rag, something beautiful like a hand carved box out of left over wood, or created music that sounded sweet or sad or made you want to dance. That's what made it different, that's what makes Appalachia special. It was born out of hard times, not good times. Out of real life, not easy street or the rich parlors of the coal or railroad barrons, but on the side of a mountain in a house that could be called a shack today. I wonder what picture they would rather have on the wall with a quilt in a museum exhibit. A ranch style brick?

Now, our children are buying in to the modern life. What will they learn of their own history? Will the story be we never had to make what we needed and we all lived in real fancy homes and only made chairs for art sake. It's second nature. We have indoor plumbing and water now. The cross cut saw is hanging in the shed, rusted. We go to Walmart and Lowes and no longer have to travel a long distance to get a stove. They won't know that we ordered from Sears and Roebuck the fancy things and pick them up off the train. Our children don't know about going into town only on Saturday. By the way, those that lived in town, yes, they might have had indoor plumbing in some of the houses but right next door you had an outhouse that could be visited by a tanker truck in the late 1970s to pump it out!


Appalachia has changed and is changing and now to tell our story they want to get away from the reality of the circumstances that existed for many of our Appalachian people that created the real art of Appalachia, the flavor of Appalachia, the one they sort of want to mimic for big bucks.

At that meeting there was a comment that people from the mountains are "ashamed" to say how they lived so we need to steer clear of any exhibit that puts Appalachian people in a stereotypical light such as with an outhouse.  That statement made me feel hurt and ashamed that we have to change what I know of my own family history just to please...... who? and I wanted to scream OH FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, HOW STUPID CAN YOU GET!!!  I think we ought to embrace every bit of our history and all the things that made us different even the darn plumbing!!! If you are going to tell the story and get the "flavor" of Appalachia that is a BIG part of it.

This Picture is of Grand Dad sitting in a homemade split oak chair, in a house with gravity flow water and an outhouse, in June 1961, just on the outskirts of Bluefield WV.   THAT'S REAL APPALACHIAN HISTORY FOR ME!!!