The Law of Poverty

This is part of the So Far Appalachia book project. If you enjoy what you read, please vist my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

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JA Williams core AppalachiaWhenever I sit down to write about Appalachia and my family’s home, I struggle.

As much as I want to stay away from the idea of poverty and all that it holds, the reality is that the Appalachian region is economically depressed. This is the landscape.

However, this wasn’t always the landscape. Appalachia was part of the national economy for some time in the 1800s.

In 2013, though, you can’t write about the state of Appalachia without writing, in some form, about poverty. What I hope, though, is to address the subject in ways other than through the traditional ideas of wealth.

We don’t talk of “poor” much in this country these days, at least not in specific terms. For some reason, we only speak of “wealth” and we have ascribed a certain morality to it. The discussion seems to break down into these two poles:

  • If you’re wealthy, you have worked hard, and you have earned that status; and
  • if you’re poor, you haven’t worked hard, and you have earned that status.

The story of So Far Appalachia is, in a basic respect, how a region like Kentucky is turned from a central hub of commerce into one of the most destitute areas of the country.

More than that, though, it’s about how the ideas of Appalachia have become central to who we are today.

It’s a rich and complicated story, but one that pales to the outcome of it. Away from the mythologies, and stories, and history, there is a very real problem in Appalachia.

Some considerations:

  • The national poverty rate is 15 percent.
  • The rates of poverty within Appalachia are generally much higher. In all but three cases, those rates are more than 100% of the national rate, and in those other three, the rates are between 86-97%.
  • Within Appalachian Kentucky, poverty rates are at its highest, 173% of the national average, at nearly 25%.

The impact beyond economics is one that very much drives the spirit of America. The more I get into the stories of my family, the more I see them push back against those central forces that caused the economic distress, and find ways to survive (although not thrive) without becoming dependent upon those central forces ever again.

When people ask me what it means to be Appalachian, I try to explain that idea to them.

In its simplest terms it means failed self-reliance is better, always, to successful dependence.

Returning Home: A Story in Pictures

This is part of the So Far Appalachia book project. If you enjoy what you read, please vist my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

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“There are volumes of unwritten history here that should never be written, of the sins of this country. Passion and appetites have largely controlled, even among the rich, the strong and influential, ‘whatevsoevrer a man soweth that shall he also reap.’ It is verified here.”
— Reverend John Jay Dickey, The John Jay Dickey Diary, page 2564

There’s much written about the early days of Clay County in particular the exhaustive reports written by the Reverend John Jay Dickey, a missionary Christian who settled briefly in the county, hoping to bring God to the hill people.

His diaries, now the stuff of history, recount in great detail much of what happened in the county as well as the chronicle of Dickey’s loss of hope in the area. While much history is wiped clean, one of the surviving elements is the Baker cemetery on Boston Gap.

My journey into the past started here in 2009.

"You can't really find Boston Gap on a map," I was told.

When I arrived at the historical society in Manchester, I was given directions to Boston Gap, the location of my family’s cemetery.

Like much of Appalachia, though, it wasn’t exactly on a map. Instead,  I was given verbal instructions and shown where the roads would be.

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The Lost Highway, Circa 1997

Long before I’d settled on writing this book, I found myself drawn to the Appalachian region. In 1997, I sent out to cover The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale for a little magazine in San Diego, the name of which I no longer remember.

I do remember that they paid next-to-nothing, maybe a few hundred dollars, and they almost never responded to any correspondance. This did not stop me from declaring the assignment a go.

I grabbed my friend Monte, a straight-laced looking guy who was just weird enough to get into a car with me to drive into the night. (Never, ever trust the straight-laced looking guy.)

We arrived in Gadsden, Alabama at the Warhorse Museum sometimes after sunset on a Friday night.

This was the perfect launching ground for my first experience on the route, and in the writing you can see the beginning of my attempt to both place and displace the mythologies of Appalachia long before I realized my family’s role in those mythologies.

Here is the original piece, penned in 1997 after our trip.

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The Lost Highway

The lucid tale of the future of pop culture, the longest unknown highway & the last unexplored vestige of Americana.

By Brad King
Photos by Monte McCarter

“Passions, prejudices, fears, neuroses, spring from ignorance, and take the form of myths and illusions.” –Sir Isaac Berlin

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what sells.” –Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

Friday, August 15, 1997.

Huddled in a corner table with five strangers in a small neighborhood bar called the Warhorse Museum & Lounge, thirteen hours of Budweiser and speed my only friendly companions since Monte, my photographer, staggered out to the rental car hours ago, I have lost any grip on the reality of this story.

The fifteen hours of darkness & 850 miles through the back roads & hinterlands of tiny Dixie towns we traveled to get here are long forgotten and part of a different existence now as the daylight creeps over the horizon. We stumbled across the end of the road. The edge of the earth.

We are in Gadsden, Alabama.

There is only fear.

There will be no covering “The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale,” like I promised my editors. We have already missed the first day anyway. What started out as a simple story involving a little street-side shopping along the 450-mile scenic route from Kentucky to Alabama…all that is gone now.

Monte is puking his guts out behind a dumpster while clutching a copy of The Watchtower, a piece of Armageddon literature given to him by the Jehovah’s Witness who startled him awake by banging on the passenger-side window of the Ford. When he opens the door the Warhorse, letting in the evil beams of light that remind us all that it is indeed nine in the morning, there is a general stir of unspoken disdain by my new found friends.

I am at a table with a large black man whom I cannot understand, a gravely-voiced woman sporadically sings lyrics to whatever song is playing on the juke box & the middle-aged woman whose chair keeps moving closer to mine as she announces over & over to her male friend, who just woke up from an hour-long nap, that this time she and her boyfriend are completely finished.

“Brad, we’ve got to get out of here. This sale is getting started.”

“Hell no. I’m not leaving. I’ve got a beer to finish and my friends and I are having a conversation. I can’t leave. This is my home. Screw the story. Screw the flea market. I’ve got drinks. I’ve got friends. I’m never leaving.”

My Marlboro burns. My beer and shot glass are full. Monte is afraid. Escape is now ridiculous and absurd. A foolish trifle to be reckoned with at a later day. All that is left is to bolt the doors, keep out the sunlight and go from there…

Jesus, we are at the end of a U.S. Route 127, a road that doesn’t exist on most large roadmaps and the last stop at the 11th annual sale.

“This shit makes more sense when I drink,” is what Monte said after his seventh 7&7, hours before he staggered out to the Ford and his ensuing paranoia set in. And he is right.

This is a place where 9-to-5 sensibilities, the ones that lean towards self-preservation and responsible action cannot be used to judge. This is a place of grand magnitude and spectacle. Where the physics of reality…what you & I believe…does not exist. Where that cancer-racked Marlboro man is more than just an advertisement.

I have seen the future of our culture…of the pop culture we cling to so dearly now…of the general culture we live in at large. Here, these people — the hillbillies…rednecks…white trash…mountain folk…and whatever other name you’ve heard them called in the movies and books — wander freely amongst themselves.

This is their world. We are only interlopers.

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That’s what my notes said anyway. At least the one that didn’t get left when I was so rudely awakened from my nap in the shower by the maid who implored Monte & I to leave immediately.

Now I am safely back in the comfort of my den, trying to piece together what exactly happened during our three-day trip.

It is a haze of private, after-hours clubs in the middle of nowhere, all night drinking binges, and stereotypes & clichés walking and talking to us. Strange creatures lining the roads with 8-track Elvis tapes, second hand clothes, romance novels & Smurf glasses.

In an age of high-tech communications and modern warfare, the fact that this event goes on and these people exist seems too surreal to actually exist.

Gadsden resembles the cousin who leaves the farm and heads out to a four-year university & never quite finds a way to fit into the ivory towers of higher learning yet never quite regains the old country bumpkin feel of the town they left. It is a town with an expanding downtown, a tiny riverfront, a rather large city point where adults & kids can hang out playing volleyball and such. But this is not the big city. Not even close.

That is why this town is the perfect last stop on the 450- mile journey which begins in Covington, KY and winds down through 89 counties, attracts 3100 vendors and brings nearly 100,000 people to this annual event which was originally designed to draw tourists off the major highways and into the hills of the rural south.

Trailers and cars are packed with personal belongs – many of which are ancient pop culture relics from the late 50s and 60s – which are put out to pasture one last time in hopes of bringing in a little money for the family before their wares are donated to their final resting place…the local Goodwill.

But it isn’t the relics that attract most of the potential buyers and sellers. It is more a sense of family and familiarity. A down-home, good time had by all where everyone is welcome.

You’ll never meet nicer people in the world than the folks like James, a large motorcycle-man who ran the Warhorse, who pulled me aside to offer some advice on parts of Alabama we might visit.

Or the grandma, sitting amongst her tables full of memories & memorabilia who offered an invitation to Monte and I even as we walked by her table with hardly a glance at her wares.

“Now, you all come back. We’ll be here again next year in the same place.”

Or the people, nearly an hour drive outside of Gadsden, who came up to Monte as he walked around with his camera inquiring if indeed we were the young fellows with the magazine in California.

Everywhere we went, there was a general buzz of excitement and pleasure.

That is the nature of country folk. It’s a simple life, with simple pleasures & simple rewards. They asked nothing other than an ear, a little conversation & genuine hospitality.

A place seemingly of beauty and love that the purveyors of the culture these folks were now selling never truly achieved.

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In a time when ABS Global Inc., is cloning cows up in Wisconsin and more than 20 million Americans are logging on to the Net, places like Gadsden depend on events like this sale to draw people to them, into their world, where interacting is just a little safer for them. It’s on their turf, by their rules, and without our judgment.

And if you think they are backwoods and uneducated, remember the pop culture we cling to today is a powerful tool used by the fine fellows of Madison Avenue to sell and shape our thinking.

Now imagine the power of the pop culture these folks are selling along the sides of the road.

With little traditional advertising and modern conveniences, consider what has been accomplished along this back road & in the age of the “Sell-Out,” consider how they have managed to stay true to their goals and not go after the next generation of MTV kids.

So while Dr. Kimberly Long claims nearly half of all net surfers are addicted to the logging on & have begun creating alternative personalities which to the average middle-class suburban cat is the first road to insanity, there is a certain normality to the procession of rural folks who come here to sell their wares.

If 10 million people can be addicted to a computer, surely 100,000 can be addicted to walking & talking with nice people.

There is a certain rightness that you can only see if you fight the fear & sit down and just chat about their rheumatic arthritis, the wonders of the dual- turbine engine & the domination of Hank, Sr. to any country singer out there today.

It doesn’t seem like such a hard thing to ask.

Photo: The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale

This is part of the So Far Appalachia book project. If you enjoy what you read, please vist my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

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In the coming days, I’ll be writing a little bit aboutThe World’s Longest Outdoor Sale. For now:

Just outside of Gadsden, Alabama during The World's Longest Outdoor Sale in 1997. Photo by Monte McCarter.

Just outside of Gadsden, Alabama during The World’s Longest Outdoor Sale in 1997. Photo by Monte McCarter.

The Roads Out of Appalachia

This is part of the So Far Appalachia book project. If you enjoy what you read, please vist my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

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Dawn over southern Appalachia in 1997. Photo by Monte McCarter.

Dawn over southern Appalachia in 1997. Photo by Monte McCarter.

Growing up, I always considered Appalachia as some mystical place forgotten in time. I say this full well admitting that I had no idea that the town I grew up in was considered part of northern Appalachia.

To me, the Appalachian region was populated by farmers, and men with long beards, and coal, and banjos, and guns.

What it wasn’t was my home.

In truth, my relationship with the area is more like an adopted son who found his birthparents well after he’d grown up. I feel both disconnected from its history and part of its heritage. I look at it and I see me, but it feels like a stranger to me.

But I have done what so many have done before. I have gone back, listened, and forged connections in the region in hopes that one day what has seemed strange will no longer feel that way.

I bring this up because as I have traveled back to the region, I have oftentimes asked myself where I internalized this idea of the Alien Appalachian (the one who lives so separately and differently than the rest of America).

The answer is important because Appalachia isn’t a different place. In fact, it was at one time part of the central hub of this country.

Appalachia Commerce

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, though, Appalachia was firmly entrenched in the soul of the country’s commerce.

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Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia


That’s a word with which I never associated as I grew up, left the Midwest, and headed into the world with delusions of writing grandeur. Life was short, and there was little time to consider what was happening around me if I wanted to succeed.

These days, I move a little slower and I try to pay a bit more attention. That is the struggle. The reward is that when I am able to slow myself and look around, I come across projects like this:

Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia

Certainly one part of me — the frightened side — wants to hide amazing projects like this. I’m trying to fund my own project, and this (it would seem) is competing for the same audience.

But that is the fear talking, the little nagging voice that tells all of us that for us to succeed everyone else around us my fail.

In the end, I’m a storyteller, and the point of that — if there is a point — is this: We don’t hide stories that may swallow ours. We sit in the sunshine with them and watch how everything grows.

The point of Kickstarter (and IndieGoGo and PubSlush and others) is to share in the experience of creating.

And that is the point of my life, I think. That is the point of community.

And so I hope you do share in that.

Watch the video, read about his project, and get lost in the images.

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If you like what you’ve read, and would like to support my project, So Far Appalachia, please visit my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

A Life in Longitude: The Myths of Appalachian Poverty

“In fact, the violence that brought turn-of-the-century Clay County national notoriety as a land of feudists was a conflict between two families of highly educated, wealthy elites and their supporters.” — The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia, by Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee

Apparently I live in the middle of longitudinal studies. This crossed my mind while I was reading about Clay County last night. The two touch points:

  1. I’m currently a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, which is home to the Middletown Studies and used the town at representative of “middle America.”
  2. Clay County (and in particular the feud) was the centerpiece of a longitudinal study that became the book The Road to Poverty. Clay County was chosen as it represents “middle Appalachia” and thus becomes an explanatory system to debunk many of the stereotypes of the region.

Much of the introduction in The Road deals with the idea of viewing Appalachia as an entity unto itself, as if it exists in America but can’t be understood through the lens of the capitalist system. (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re about to read a Marxist interpretation of the country!)

The study delves deeply into the politics and economics of the region, the state, and the country to explain how systemic forces began intertwined with local politics to create the perfect economic storm, one that has left Clay County (and several surrounding areas) as the most economically and educationally depressed.

It challenges the notion that the people who settled the region were somehow savages or uneducated, and instead examines Appalachia for what it is: a part of the American whole.

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If you like what you’ve read, and would like to support my project, please feel free to visit my Kickstarter page (and pass this along to any friends who you think might find this interesting).

Clay County: The Beginnings

“Money had value if there was a place to spend it. Salt was life.” — Charles House in Blame it on Salt.

Start your story where the action takes place. That’s how I tell stories, and so as I’ve told stories about Clay County throughout the years, they have oftentimes been about the infamous feud. Everyone, after all, enjoys a good feud story.

But stories never begin in the middle of the action. They begin somewhere else, in quiet spaces where nobody quiet expects action to take place. And so it was with the story of Clay County Kentucky, which begins on April 13, 1807 with two Bakers at the center.

The gathering for this event took place in the home of Robert Baker, then one of the landowners meant to lay official claim to this area, and the proceedings were taken by another Baker, Abner.

Looking back upon these events through the lens of history, it’s surprising that the Baker boys were held in such high regard. After all, they are sometimes the villains of The Clay County War and always feudists even when they are in the right. Working backwards through time, they would not be the people you might expect to be at the very beginning.

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On Plan B, Kickstarter, and a Writing Life

photo (5)Today is my birthday. I awoke at 6 am, and made my way across the hall and into my den. The stress of raising money for a project through Kickstarter has ruined any chance I have of sleeping, or relaxing, or enjoying.

So I retreat to my sanctuary where I’m surrounded. Books, files, and notes are scattered about the room, juxtaposed by bits of media technology crammed into nooks and crannies.

Twenty years ago, this is how I envisioned my life. I always imagined that I would be surrounded by words and stories. At first, I thought that life would remain only on the page, but through time I’ve come to realize that I care less about the medium of delivery and more about the stories I’m telling.

This is the result of a decision I made 20 years ago. There would be no Plan B in my life. I would pursue my dream of writing, and spend no time cultivating “What if?” scenarios.

For much of my early career, this panicked energy sustained me as I searched and clawed for jobs. But that energy has transformed. In the last few months, I’ve realized that I have been running on cruise control and my life has reached a crossroads of sorts.

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Kickstarter, Day 1

At 8:30 am this morning, I clicked the Launch button and watched my Kickstarter project aimed at funding the completion of So Far Appalachia go live.

The moment was both anticlimactic (no band started playing) and terrifying (the clock started ticking). Years of writing, researching, and editing suddenly became very real, and the fate of my project had a shelf life.

I wrote an email to my closest friends, included a link to my project, sent off the first batch of emails, and then went about my day. Fortunately, I spent the day teaching my students how to tell stories so I couldn’t obsessively check the Kickstarter page or read the notification emails filling my box.

It’s not an accident that I launched the project on a day I couldn’t sit in front of my computer. That’s a lesson I learned in 2003 when McGraw Hill releases Dungeons & Dreamers. I spent hours reloading the page so I could see our daily rank.

I have never felt less productive than that particular day, and I was in no hurry to reproduce it.

Instead, I tried to focus on the fact that I’d reached another milestone in this project, and now I’d find out just how interesting people found my pitch. And that’s all any writer really wants: an opportunity to tell his story.

Today begins the 30-day journey to find just how far my opportunity to tell this story will go.

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P.S. A big thank you to everyone who has already contributed. We had a stellar first day, raising nearly $1,300. There is still a long way to go until we can rest, but it’s a good start.

Tomorrow we get back to recording our Podcast series.

On One Year Later

BradMaxx3A little over a year ago, I convinced my then fiance that we needed a dog.

This made little sense on the surface for a number of reasons: we had been together less than 4 months, we still lived in 2 locations, we were trying to sell her house and figure out where we were going to live, and we both spend a good deal of time running around.

Still, my beautiful bride-to-be let me start looking. I did some preliminary research, which included taking a test to see what breed of dog was most suited for me. I wanted a runner with lots of energy, and all the tests came back with one result: a brittany.

Once we settled on the breed, I figured getting a dog would be easy. After all, there are thousands of animals that need a home. I contacted the National Brittany Rescue and Adoption Network (NBRAN) in hopes of getting a dog in the next day or so.

We found out quickly that’s not how it works. Because these dogs are so high energy, prospective owners go through a little background check, receive an in-home visit, and must meet some minimum qualifications.

We passed the initial tests, and we started looking for our new dog. As Rebecca and I sat in bed flipping through pictures, we both saw this little guy:

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