So Far Appalachia (Book)

Hollow the Film, an Interactive Appalachia Project

Hollow is a hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary where content is created “for the community, by the community.” The project combines personal documentary video portraits, user-generated content, photography, soundscapes, interactive data and grassroots mapping on an HTML5 website designed to discuss the many stereotypes associated with the area, population loss and potential for the future.

Members of the community will take part in the filmmaking process by creating 20 of the 50 short documentaries in efforts to build engagement and social trust and empower the community to work together for a better future.


A few months back, my friend Monte told me I needed to watch Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy, which looks at the Skatopia park in Rutland, Ohio. Now I could write a little pithy history of the place, but really it’s better if you just go read about it yourself. Here is how it begins:

50,000,000 BCE :: The first swamp troggs emerge out of the ocean

5,000 BCE :: Egyptian Punks perform the first Acid Drop off the Pyramids

While I haven’t watched the film yet (I’ll be doing that this weekend), I suspect the movie’s theme is summed up in the last lines from the trailer: “It’s the American Dream. No government. No police. Skatopia.”

You can also check out the park’s blog, which contains much of the same information as the main site.

PBS: The Appalachians

Since we no longer have our Blu-Ray/DVD player, PBS hasn’t given me any way to watch The Appalachians or Appalachia, two mini-series documentaries on the people and the region.

As such, I’m stuck watching part one of The Appalachians (thanks to YouTube).

If you happen to know where I might purchase digital versions of these shows, please let me know. I couldn’t find them in iTunes, Amazon Prime, or Netflix.

Appalachia 2050, and the Education of Appalachia

I came across this student website, which is a compilation of interviews that explore why Appalachia lags behind the rest of the country.

You can see the entire series here at Ralph B. Davis’ website.

Educating Appalachia

One of the big themes in the book is education, which means I’ll be spending a good deal of time considering the ways in which that terms was used and applied by my family (and others in the region).

This is more complex that you might consider, and I’ve discussed in the Education of Appalachia podcast.

In modern times, much of that historical legacy has been wiped out and replaced with centralized schools systems, which by and large have failed (although not always because of the centralized system). Bill Clinton’s Teach for America initiative was meant to counter-act some of those failings.

Teach for America came to Central Appalachia three years ago, aiming to help school districts in the region find qualified applicants for hard-to-fill positions, and the organization is continuing to achieve this goal by helping two local school districts this year.

Certainly getting qualified teachers into the region is important, but so is making sure students can afford schooling. In areas where poverty runs rampant, the idea of college is quickly becoming an unobtainable goal.

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio (FAO) is excited to announce the 65 recipients of scholarship awards for the 2013 – 2014 academic year. Students across Appalachian Ohio will receive $107,950 to support their post-secondary pursuits.

Other Links

The Monkey Do Project

MonkeyDoProjectFaceUSPovertyShockFreeQuotesStatsEach Wednesday, I spend time sifting through various social media streams so that I can find interesting people and projects who may not appear in the news.

Yesterday, I came across The Monkey Do Project, which seeks to partner with groups working in Appalachia.

As I read about the project, I was reminded of what I used to tell my colleagues and friends on the East and West Coasts: If you travel through Appalachia, you will experience life that you only expect to see in the Third World.

This doesn’t mean the entire region is a depressed wasteland. However, there are large swaths that have been cut off from the highway system, the national economy, and the technological revolution, and this has created a profound Third World-ness to the region.

The area needs more than just public-private partnerships; it also needs boots on the ground. Hence the Monkey Do Project:

The Monkey Do Project is a registered non-profit that focuses on the most distressed areas of the Appalachia. The government defines those areas as the poorest regions in our entire country.

We work as an outreach to partner up with groups, churches, organizations and other non-profits to provide for different needs–physical, emotional and spiritual–of people in those areas.

Economic Development in Appalachia: It’s Not Always about the Roads

Poverty is one of the big themes in So Far Appalachia, particularly how the relationship between local, state, and national governing bodies impacts the region.

In The Road to Poverty, researchers found that as rural areas were pulled into the national economy, the long-term effects (at least in Clay County) undermined the local economy. One issue faced in that area: the cost of building, maintaining, and using transportation systems.

I bring this up because I’m both keenly interested in poverty in Appalachia, and wholly informed as an expert. I spend a great deal of time reading about these issues, but I don’t live them on a daily basis.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, a government group tasked with overseeing development in the region, recently released a report, “Strategies for Economic Improvement in Appalachia’s Distressed Rural Counties,” which is worth a read for anyone trying to get a sense of the acute problems in the region.

In that report, they address some of the underlying reasons for poverty and the propose a series of touch points for local regions to focus. As I read, though, I was reminded that while I sometimes get hung up on the idea of transportation and national economic structures, the reasons for poverty in Appalachia are complex.

Location, not surprisingly, is a significant factor in determining economic status. Counties located closer to urban areas, major transportation corridors, or supplies of natural resources generally perform better than those in more rural areas with few resources. Yet, transportation improvement strategies appear to yield mixed results. While road enhancements can certainly improve local access and reduce isolation, they are far from being a panacea for economic distress and can often bring unintended consequences. — from the executive summary “Strategies for Economic Improvement in Appalachia’s Distressed Rural Counties” 

I have to remind myself not to fall into the lazy intellectual trap of repetition. Certainly location and transportation matter, but there is so much more at work.

Related Links

Been there, done that, via the Smoky Mountain News
Morgan County: an economic model?, via the Morgan County News

The Map That Answered This Question

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my friend, Lali, with whom I shared a very intense friendship twenty years ago. We had one of those inexplicable connections that tethered us together for years.

As I was traveling to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I wondered if maybe her family was from here since this is Mennonite country and her family is the same. Yes, she said, the Hess family lived in the Lancaster area for some time.

I tell you all this because yesterday I found a map of the Baker homestead in Martic Township, which would become Lancaster 12 years later. In the middle of the picture, you will see a large tract of land owned by John French. That land was purchased by Samuel Baker and willed to his son Caleb. Just southwest of that, there are two tracts of land owned by Robert Baker. Those three tracts made up the Baker homestead.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Just north of the Baker land and along the Susquehanna River, you will see two other tracts of land owned by John and David Hess.


At the moment, I haven’t connected all the dots. Lancaster County was home to a number of German and Swiss families, and this Hess family might not be Lali’s Hess family.

No matter, though. Mythologies spring from near truths and for our story that is enough for today.

(Unverified) Fun Facts about Colonial Pennsylvania

The most common question I ask myself while researching: Why?

This seems like an easy question, but it’s precisely the easiness of it that causes you to continually return to it. If you can answer a series of repeated whys (along with a few whens) you can construct a meaningful timeline of not just what happened but also the cultural incidents surrounding the happening. Without the why, there is no there there in your story.

The questions I kept asking myself was why did the Bakers end up in Pennsylvania, and why did they go to Lancaster, and why did they make guns. Here is what I learned from Jim Lewars at the Landis Valley Museum:

Why Was Pennsylvania So Important

When William Penn purchased the land in 1681, he made a decision that he would oversee the settlement of Pennsylvania. As such, the state slowly expanded west and there were limitations on what settlers could do. For instance: you couldn’t expand your settlement into the unsettled territories without Penn’s permission so there was a great migration of tradesmen into the southern colonies.

This controlled settlement meant that Philadelphia was one of the densest cities in the English empire. (I was told its 25,000 people made it the second largest city in the empire behind London.)

This controlled growth along with its dense population brought together a vast, multi-cultural group of people, which included the English, the Scots-Irish, and the Rhine Valley Germans.

Penn specifically declared his state would have no official religion, which made it attractive to people from across the world.

Pennsylvania became known, and attractive, worldwide because all of these influences meant anyone with trade skills or farming skills could reasonably expect to find work when they arrived, and Penn’s systematic selling of land meant that you could even purchase land before you arrived.

Why Did Gunsmiths Come to Pennsylvania

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A Needle in a Haystack

“If you do it will be, in the writer’s opinion, almost a copy of the German jaeger rifle because these Bakers were making guns from 1717-1754 — the earliest gunsmiths I have found in this area of Pennsylvania.” — Sam Dyke, 1972. “The Baker Family of Gunsmiths in Lancaster, County 1717-1754

The problem with history is that it doesn’t always line up exactly how you’d like to tell a story.

For most of my life, I’ve heard little bits and pieces of stories about the Bakers of Clay County. I knew my family came from Kentucky, and I knew there had been some bad blood. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I found out exactly what that meant.

The more I dug into the Baker’s history, though, the further I got from the center of what my family knew. And the more we moved away from that center, the more the stories got less credible.

When I came to Lancaster, PA, I hoped to fill in some of those blanks. What I knew was that we were gunsmiths, and we had been instrumental in the early construction of what would become the Kentucky Long Rifle.

Unfortunately, the Bakers arrived here a decade before the county was even formed, and by the time the gunsmiths were going full blast, we were gone. It’s unclear what role we had in the development of the Rifle, although it’s clear we were here and working with the gunsmiths who have received credit for its “invention.”

What that meant was that our family’s history here was largely lost to time. Any major connections I hoped to make were gone.

But only mostly gone.

What we do know what recovered by Samuel Dyke, a writer and researcher who did work for the Kentucky Rifle Association. There is enough to establish that our family came through Lancaster, set up a gunsmith operation, and stayed until 1741, and all of those records are stored throughout the Lancaster History Society’s archives.

What I did find in the haystack:

  • I had the opportunity to hold Caleb Baker’s deed to 500 acres of land on Pequea Creek, about a mile north of the Susquehanna River.
  • His father Robert has purchased that land from Col. John French in 1717, and a bit later Robert’s brother Samuel bought two tracts of land just south of his, which gave the Bakers full run of Pequea Creek and the Susquehanna River.
  • I have a map of Martic Township, which would become part of Lancaster County in 1729, that designates the Baker land its gunsmith shop.
  • I have another map that locates the important gunsmith sections of Martic Township pre-Lancaster founding.
  • I have proof that the Bakers had the first recognized gunsmith shop in this area, and that the first iron forge was found on their land.
  • There is a great deal of historical speculation that our family sold guns to American Indians, and that we were involved in frontier trading, which makes sense considering the family’s move to North Carolina in the mid-1700s and its subsequent long hunting experiences.

So today my story took a turn. It moves from the grandiose tale that I’d hoped to find when I came here, and turned into something smaller and more intimate. Years ago this would have concerned me. Today, it means I am on the right track.

Another good sign: the historians I spoke with brought up — unprompted — the themes I’m going to explore in the book, i.e. guns, government, poverty, as defining elements of life here in the early 1700s.

Lancaster, PA

Camping with CowsI arrived in Lancaster just a little after noon today after surviving a drive that took me through the foggy Appalachia mountains, torrential rain down pours, and hours of driving time without mobile cell service.

As some severe weather is headed my way, I skipped some of the preliminary research today and instead got my tent set up at the Old Mill Stream Campground. I was also given instructions on what to do if the lightning starts getting bad this evening. “Don’t stay outside,” I was told.

As luck would have it, I am staying next door to the Amish and Mennonite history museum and historical society, so I am going to poke around on Thursday to see if I can’t find out a little about my friend’s family.

I did have a few minutes so I drove down to where my family’s gunsmith shop was supposedly set up on Pequea Creek, which is directly where the Pequea Creek Campground now sits. I snapped a few pictures, but I am hoping to learn something about the area tomorrow during my research.

I drove the LancasterHistory.Org site just before it closed today as well. I couldn’t get into the library without paying the research cover, $7, and it was only open for another . I decided to hold off until I had more time on Tuesday.

Now I’m hanging out in the Price St. Cafe, which has the kind of WiFi I’ve come to expect in this part of the world. Assuming the storms find their way past my campground tonight, though, major research operations begin tomorrow.

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.

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