Appalachia: The Well-Spoken Problem

While the subject of the Clay County feuds is often seen nowadays as something akin to old west nostalgia, as per the Hollywood treatment of the Hatfield/McCoy variety, or even a History Channel presentation a few years ago of Clay County’s “Hundred Year War’ it is to many local people a subject of the untwist seriousness since memories are long, and old hurts sting to this day.” — Charles House, “Message of the President,” in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Clay County Ancestral News Magazine

In 2009 I visited Berea College, which is just a stones throw from Clay County in Kentucky, and home to one of the various special collections on the Bakers.

I was drawn there because of the New York Times newspaper archives related to the Clay County War that they had assembled throughout the years. I request copies so that I could read through the accounts as I researched So Far Appalachia.

Here are a few interesting New York Times headlines:

  • July 23, 1899: “Kentucky Clans Gathering. More Trouble Is Feared in Clay County–Whites and Howards Armed to the Teeth.”
  • October 26, 1899: “Indict Kentucky Murderers. The Regular Judge, However, Fails to Appear in Court–Armed Feudists Await Further Development.”
  • December 3, 1899: “Cause of Kentucky Feuds: Isolation, Ignorance, and Whiskey Said to be Responsible. Railroads Much Needed.”

I bring this up for two reasons.

  1. I’m fascinated by the media portrayal of Clay County, Appalachia, and mountain people. Without question or thought, the default position is that of caricature. (How many very liberal people, the ones who bristle as word choices, have said to me how interesting it is to have someone with my accent talk about technology.)
  2. This perception issue is the main subject of this issue of the Clay County Ancestral News Magazine, which is published out of Clay County and draws upon the massive archival collection of the region’s history to explore the kinds of themes in my book.

(If you’re interested in Appalachian History, I highly recommend joining this organization. For $18 per year, you get some amazing magazine-sized stories.)

There are very real economic and social issues to be addressed in Appalachia if the region has any hope for repair, but one the main hurdles to starting the process is overcoming the default thinking people engage in when they consider that part of the country.