So Far Appalachia (Book)

Clay County: The Last Baker

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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(Left) Robert Lee Baker, Sr, the last Baker killed in the Clay County War. B: 2-18-1885; D: 6-22-35

(Left) Robert Lee Baker, Sr, the last Baker killed in the Clay County War. B: 2-18-1885; D: 6-22-35

Robert Lee Baker, Sr, my great-grandfather, was the last man killed in the Clay County War.

There are two stories I’ve been told about the nature of his killing, one related to a marital affair and another related to retribution.

Both stories, though, place the War as the motivating factor.

The Revenge Killing

Robert Lee had moved his family from Clay County to southern Indiana, although he maintained several businesses in Cincinnati and kept ties in Manchester.

However, the Bakers were warned by the Whites not to return to Kentucky because the first one to step foot in town would be killed. The reason: Robert Lee’s brother, Tom, had allegedly killed a man, although nobody served any jail time.

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A Brief Portrait: The Youngest Baker Boy

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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The days after the Clay County War were difficult on my branch of the Baker family. Robert Baker moved his family — his wife and 9 children — to southern Indiana, where he purchased a small family farm.

A few years later, he would be killed when he returned to Clay County, reportedly the last person killed in the Clay County War. Some say he was ambushed when he came back to finalize his affairs, and others say the Whites were upset that he’d been having affair with one of the White daughters.

What we do know is Robert Baker, the son of “Bad” Tom Baker, was shot and killed as he drove his car into Manchester.

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Why You Should Help Fund This Book: Discovery’s New TV Program, Backyard Oil

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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I’ve been a passionate advocate for Appalachia for most of my professional life, even though my writing has taken me far away from my home.

Yet at times I’ve wondered if I was just a lone voice screaming in the wind. I’d like to think people have been entertained (and educated) about the place I call home, but I know that my little stories won’t make much of an impact.

I hoped that my book would be part of a larger discussion about Appalachia and America.

Since I launched the project, I’ve been sick with worry that it won’t get funded. (I think that is natural.) My wife and I spend parts of every day reaching out to people we think might be interested in hopes of raising the $250-$300 per day we need to make this a reality.

The process is difficult, and it’s easy to get despondent.

And then this happens.

A friend of mine sent me a note today, and I knew what exactly what to expect when I saw the first line of the press release:

BACKYARD OIL follows the fortunes of the most boot-strappin’ oil men in all of Appalachia – mogul Jimmy Reliford and his sidekick Mad Dog; Coomer, who’s raking in $300-thousand a month thanks to an oil strike in his own backyard; a bearded hillbilly named Rascal; and the Page Boys, a father-son team who can’t help but bicker about everything…except finding that sweet, sweet crude.

If ever I needed a kick in the ass, this was it. This is exactly the reason why I decided to pursue Kickstarter and eschew the traditional publishing world.

The hillbilly minstrel show sells, but it doesn’t make us better. I think we all deserve something more than that.

Salts, Courts, and the Genesis of a Feud, Part I

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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“The lived in a place that wasn’t really made for farming.”

That’s how my family described Crane Creek, the Baker’s homestead. Nestled into the southern Kentucky, the soil was hard and the land hilly. The two trips I’d made to Boston Gap, a hillside just off Crane Creek Road, verified that. Every time I climbed up, I couldn’t help but think how terrible this trip would be on horseback.

Why, I found myself wondering, would a family of intelligent, well-read men chose the worst place to farm as its homestead.

The answer: money.

The truth is that Clay County wasn’t settled by farmers. It was settled by speculators, people hoping to capitalize on the wealth of the salt mines and the timber. The Bakers, the Whites, the Gerrards, the Bates, and the Philpots, along with a handful of the other elite families of the area came for the same reason the gold miners moved west.

And for the first 40 years, the salt and timber business proved relatively profitable. The state invested in transportation and roads to help factory owners move salt from Clay County to the Mississippi, and the local economy functioned using promissory notes and written debt.

The Breakdown

Two events brought the speculation days to a close: the depression that swept through the County in the 1840s and the increased hostilities between the Bakers and the Whites, which set off a chain of events that engulfed the area in a bloody feud.

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The Baker Boys, WWII, and Life After the Feud

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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The Bakers have a long, complicated history with this country, one in which I’ll explore through the chapters of the book.

Some of that history is colorful, a mix of mythology and fact. Other parts of it are grounded in history.

The one truism is this: No matter the discord, the Bakers never failed to serve when called reaching back to the Civil War (when they took up for the Union), the Spanish-American War, and eventually World War II, where 7 members of my family served.

In the same manner the Bakers would fight back against those who would oppose the family, so to would they fight back when the country was threatened.

In this picture, my great-great grandmother Flora (Ball) Baker received a special “Seven Star Pin” to represent each of her sons and grandsons in the war.

Flora Baker, mother to six sons who fought in World War II, received a special national commendation for her sacrifice.

Flora Baker, mother to six sons who fought in World War II, received a special national commendation for her sacrifice.

The sons of Robert Baker, the last man killed in the Clay County War, all served with distinction in World War II.

  1. Pvt. William Bryan Baker, 27
  2. Pfc. William E. Baker, 25
  3. Pfc. Herbert Baker, 24, who fought in the only US-based battle in the Aleutian Islands. He was listed as serving “somewhere in Alaska.”
  4. Corp. Hubert Baker
  5. Pvt. Clifton Baker, 19
  6. Robert Lee Baker, 17
  7. Grandson James M. Burke, 19, also served

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

Community.

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).

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