So Far Appalachia (Book)

From The Dickey Diaries: On Class, Fortunes, and Feuds in Appalachia

The Reverend John Jay Dickey was a traveling minister who spent a good deal of time both chronicling his journeys through the mountains of early America and his attempts to set up churches in schools in towns. The Dickey Diaries paint an amazingly clear picture of the daily life (and frustrations) he observed.

Each time I visit Manchester, I spend some time going through the diaries, transcribing interesting tidbits, and immersing myself in his world. On this last visit, I tried to focus on two elements: his work establishing a local school system throughout Laurel, Clay, and Owsley counties, and his changing perception of the people of Clay County. What follows are excerpts that focus on the latter.

First Impressions

“Some came, especially those who located along the Wilderness Road, to make money keeping public house, so great was the travel, as John Jackson, Wm. McKee, and John Freeman and Richard Pittman, in Laurel County. I believe that the principals in all the feudal wars can be traced to honorable ancestry.” — December 21, 1895, London, KY (p. 1595)

Dickey struggled with his perception and understanding of the people in the tri-county region. On one hand, he recognized that many of these folks came from the upper and middle classes; on the other, he couldn’t understand how such people could engage in violent behavior.

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“The idea of someone else doing for you will destroy you from the inside.”

“I arrive at the age of fifteen, at this period I had learned only in a moderate degree to read write and cipher having like most children neglected to improve the opportunities afforded me at the common schools. And not being able to appreciate the great advantages derived from education and an improved mind, however humble the capacity and having formed a very humble opinion of my own was without hope than an education united with my natural gifts would enable me to succeed respectfully in any professions and being proud of spirit could not break the idea…” Abner Baker, Sr.’s Life Book

One of the themes I’ll be exploring in So Far Appalachia is how the Bakers (and to a larger extent Appalachians) viewed education as it pertained to the settling of the country. This is important because education is one of those variables within American life that is so ubiquitious that we forget about the mechanics of it. Education is, by and large, a public expectation, and yet very few people who aren’t involved in the business of educating children could tell you how it works.

(In fact, I consistently hear from people who tell me that “you can’t teach somebody to be a teacher,” which I find to be a very strange comment considering I spent 4 years learning the science of teaching. But I digress.)

This theme naturally emerged from the Baker’s story because for many generations, the Bakers were classically educated and as such they kept meticulous notes and journals about their activities, which has made this book easy to research. And countless generations have stories of both the men and the women getting educated, and then returning to the family homestead, where they were then expected to become part of the local community.

One very notable exception is Abner Baker, Sr., who would become the first Clerk of Clay County at its inception. He turned down the opportunity to get educated (his four brothers before him took up their father’s offer), and he spent the better part of his life trying to compensate for that. He consistently wrote that his lack of formal education placed him outside of conversations and situations. Even though his “natural” abilities (you can read that as: what he taught himself) got him quite far, he found the lack of formal education made his life much more difficult.

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The Narrative Lineage

There are two major problems with telling this story.

  1. Every generation of Bakers has multiple sons, and those sons all name their sons the same names; and
  2. Trying to find the narrative lines that tell the story I want to tell.

The first problem is actually the most complex. While we have copious amounts of historical notes, there are moments when even the historians are lost as to which Baker is actually involved in an endeavor. Plus, there are moments when the historians throw up their collective hands and speculate as to why there are gaps in the historical record.

This is particularly troublesome when groups of brothers travel together with their families, leading to two generations (and sometimes three) of Samuels, Andrews, Calebs, Johns, and Abners.

The second is a bit less troublesome since I have a clear idea of the story I want to tell (and this isn’t the complete and exhaustive history of the Bakers).

Still, this means I must first work out the lineage patters and then dig through the archives to find the specific stories I need to find.

This week, I begin that process in the Clay County Geneological & Historical Society. The main focus on my task: trace the lineage of education and government distrust within my family, each of which are tied to the larger narrative of poverty.

Less than two weeks after I return, I will spend a week in Lancaster, Pennsylvania while I dig through archives and interview people about early American gun smithing for which my family is well known.

A fun side note:

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Of Gun Making, Friends, and Time-Traveling Collisions

This is part of my So Far Appalachia Kickstart project. We’re just 62 hours away from finishing. It’s now or never! Even though we’ve reached our first goal, we’re still hoping to reach $12,000. If you are so inclined, please donate!

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In Pennsylvania, the earliest gunsmiths that can be documented are Robert Baker and Martin Meylin. Robert Baker formed a partnership with his son, Caleb and on August 15, 1719 erected a gun boring mill on Peques Creek. — “Long Rifle” wikipedia entry

In 1996, I met a very lovely woman while I was working at a coffee shop in Covington, Kentucky. We immediately hit it off, and quickly fell into an intense friendship. Every conversation was steeped in emotion, every action mattered cosmically. We moved slowly, engulfed by the enormity of emotions around us.

We dabbled ever-so-briefly with dating before realizing that we were better off as friends. As sometimes happens, we fell away from each other for some time, and yet we managed to keep tabs on each other even in the pre-Facebook era.

Leap forward to Jan. 1, 2013, and my wife and I hired my friend — now married and running her own organic catering service in Indiana — to cater our big day.

When I tell this story, I am oftentimes met with a furrowed brow and a little head shake. This is not exactly how you begin a marriage, the looks say.

Of course, my wife and I disagree with that sentiment, but there is little you can do to explain this away.

So how, you might ask, does this relate to So Far Appalachia? And why tell us this story about your wedding.

To answer, you must first indulge me for a minute.

Story 1:

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The Start of the Beginning

While we’ve reached our Kickstarter goal, we still have 7 days left to hit our stretch goal of $12,000. That money will be used to hire the types of professionals needed to make sure our independently-produced book is not an amateurish production.

The wonderful aspect of this process is that I get to determine with whom I work. The fate of So Far Appalachia is in my hands thanks to all of you.

Sometime in mid-June, I expect to have a production timeline in place. To reach that goal, I’ve started the first movement to assemble the So Far Appalachia team, which will include:

  • A development editor: This is the person who will make sure my story makes sense, and makes sure I’ve included the proper narrative components. 
  • A copy editor: This is the person who will make sure all the errors you seen on this site aren’t replicated in the book.
  • A designer: This is the person who will create the final layout for the print book, and develop the visual style for the project.
  • A PR firm: This is the group that will help take this project from my home office out into the world.

In the coming months, I’ll share the names of the people who have come on board to make sure this project is a success, and I’ll keep you all involved in the writing process (at least the non-boring parts of it).

For now, please help me continue to spread the word about this project.

We did it, but…

Thanks to our friends, family, and supporters, we crossed the threshold for funding this project on Monday, April 22. I can’t express how thankful I am for everyone’s support, but I’m trying.

My dad, though, taught me not to quit until the game is over. We still have a few days left, and we’re into the stretch goals now. Our Kickstarter stretch target is $12,000.

My promise with this project was to write a book worthy of the region, and to get that in the hands of as many folks as possible. To do that, I’ll need the help of some hand-picked talent:

  • Development Editor: This editor will work with me at the beginning and end of the writing process, ensuring that I have written the story and not my story.
  • PR Firm: I’ll contract with a small boutique firm to get review copies into the hands of the people who are influential in getting the word out.

That’s a steep hill in a short time, but that’s why we’re here.

Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

Currently Planning a Weeklong Trip Here…

Tucked just behind the Daniel Boone National Forrest in southern Kentucky, Clay County is the ancestral home to my family, the Bakers.

Tucked just behind the Daniel Boone National Forrest in southern Kentucky, Clay County is the ancestral home to my family, the Bakers.

So that I can go visit my family’s Clay County home…

The Bakers lived on Crane Creek since they settled in the area in 1807.

The Bakers lived on Crane Creek since they settled in the area in 1807.

Where I will spend quite a bit of time hiking around…

Boston Gap, the final resting place for several generations of Clay County Bakers.

Boston Gap, the final resting place for several generations of Clay County Bakers.

So Far Appalachia: The Kickstarter Math

We’re heading to Northern Kentucky University tonight to celebrate the opening of a friend’s film, which was also funded (in part) through Kickstarter. I’m excited to see Revelation Trail because I came to know the film first through early drafts of the script.

John and I talked several times about the plot, the backstories, and the characters.

As we head out, I am left with the math of my own Kickstarter.

  • We have $5128 left to raise
  • We have12 days.

We need to raise $427 per day, or roughly 12 $50 donors per day until May 2.

If we don’t reach that goal, we don’t receive any of the funds so you can imagine the stress levels are a bit high around the house.

My wife, ever the optimist, continues to believe and she has remained a source of good cheer. As have the 77 people who have contributed, and the hundreds who have visited the site and sent me kind emails. (I’ve talked to several folks who are appreciative of the project.)

I have been overwhelmed by the warm wishes offered by people who think this type of project is worthwhile.

Here’s the last 12 days!

The Bakers, Appalachia, and (More of What) Gladwell Missed

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

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I spent the past weekend buried in a draft of Chapter 1, an early outline of how the story of So Far Appalachia will be framed. While it’s a memoir, the story isn’t about me. As one of my student’s told me: “The most interesting parts of the chapter aren’t about you at all.”

Chapter 1 ends with my trip to our family’s grave site in Clay County, and with me standing over George “Baldie” Baker. From here, the story begins to move backwards in time, telling the story of the Bakers throughout the yeasr.

The reason: I want to begin with the Appalachian stereotype (which I wrote about here), and walk that backwards while using those images to illustrate how the past resonates through modern America.

As you’ll read, my family — which Malcolm Gladwell used as representative of people who pass down a culture of violence — wasn’t as described in his book Outliers. In fact, the Baker family came to the New World as British loyalists (for a little while).

As I prepare the outline for the next few chapters, I wanted to share a bit of the family history + mythology, which is where the book is headed. This is from a series of emails posted on a website that traces the Baker family lineage back to England.

“The first known ancestor of the Bakers of Hancock County, Tennessee was Robert I of England, who was the King’s personal Knight. The King gave him his daughter as his wife and a castle and many riches and bestowed him with a Coat of Arms (that) consisted of the castle with three roses in the yard.

The earliest known American ancestor was Andrew Baker, b. 1604 at Buckinghamshire, England who came to Boston, Massachusetts in 1624. His son John Baker was b. 1624 in Massachusetts and immigrated (sic) to Pennsylvania. His son Robert 2nd b. 1655 in Virginia d. 1728 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. he was granted land and a gun boring mill for the manufacturing of firearms, the Pennsylvania rifle, by the King of England.

Robert Baker being the first man in recorded history to design and manufacture the Pennsylvania Rifle. At his death, his son Caleb kept up the tradition and later used to great effect in the American Revolution. The rifle was later known as the Hog Rifle and the Kentucky Rifle in Daniel Boone’s Day.”

One thing to note: Caleb Baker is the grand-father of Abner Baker, Sr., the first clerk of Clay County, Kentucky (and the father of Abner, Jr., who many attribute to starting the Clay County War):

When CNN Visited Manchester, Kentucky

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

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In 2006, CNN visited Clay County. This portrait paints an accurate picture of the county’s relationship with outside politics.

“The only way it’s ever going to change for us is if a poor person is elected president, and that isn’t going to happen.”

In Rebuttal to Malcolm Gladwell

“The borderlands — as this region was known — were remote and lawless territories that had been fought over for hundreds of years…

And when they immigrated to North America, they moved into the American interior, to remote, lawless, rocky, and marginally fertile places like Harlan that allowed them to reproduce in the New World the culture of honor they had created in the Old World.” — “Harlan, Kentucky,” Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.

At the moment, this story seems to be about an alcoholic and his redemption. That is just a momentary issue. This is really a story that millions of people who live in the Appalachian region have lived. It’s a story that you can’t quite tell in one direct narrative because there isn’t a beginning, middle, and end in the way that you think of them.

My journey would lead me down a rabbit hole and into my family’s past, one that weaves through the early history of America. This is the story of my family, the Bakers, who came to America in 1604 from northern England. They provided guns to the colonists during the Revolutionary War. They foraged and trapped with Daniel Boone. They mined the salt mines of southern Kentucky. They battled the Rebels in the Civil War. They even battled the National Guard, sent to bring order to the near 80-year feud between the Bakers and the Whites.

Eventually, my family escaped to Indiana before scattering across the country. In its wake, they left a city, a county, and a region in the direst of straits. Manchester and much of southern Kentucky continue to have some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

What people want to discuss, though, is the feuds. They are drawn to the caricatures of long-bearded men with shotguns engaged in Main Street shootouts while fighting over triple-x marked bottles of moonshine. When people look back upon the region, the long shadow of the infamous feuds stretch across the landscape, inviting strangers to give a significance to these brief moments in time while ignoring the more complex relationships between the ever-expanding American economy as it weaved together with the sustainable local economies.

And so with my family, I saw its same complex history washed away in the bright lights of feud stories. This isn’t resigned to the past. The most recent example came by way of The New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, which used my family’s history as an example of how a culture passes down violent tendencies.

Washed away was the acknowledgement that the families who feuded in Manchester were well-to-do, elite families fighting over an increasingly small economic pie brought on by the collapse of the salt mining prices, a crumbling transportation infrastructure, and national competition for goods. Gone was the discussion of lawlessness that came about when the Courts, near bankrupted, lost the ability to function in a timely manner. Erased was mention of speculators from outside the area pushing the sustainable agriculture economy to the side while gobbling up farmland for salt and timber.

Instead, Gladwell, as have so many others, paints a picture of ignorant, angry, uneducated mountain folks who are divorced from the rest of America. As I read about my once proud family, I saw in them a portrait of myself. As my family’s story came into view, I began to view the Appalachian story. I felt connected the people who came before, and I came to understand what it means to live with the unspoken weight of history pressing against you.

This is the story of the long, slow pressure that settled across the Appalachian region and squeezes out your breath without you knowing that you’re suffocating. This is the story of growing up Appalachian without realizing what that means.

My story is a memoir in the loosest sense of the word. This is my Appalachian story, not the Appalachian story. Like so many other stories from this region, though, this is the story of how Appalachia ripples through modern America.

I’d been swirling towards the bottom of the drain, sucked inevitably down towards a bottom I couldn’t see and yet knew was there. I was trapped, held down by an idea I couldn’t quite place. Every movement I made to hold back the tidal forces was inevitably met with a greater force pulling me into the abyss.

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