“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.
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.
* * *
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.
A few days ago, my former boss and friend posted on Facebook that he considered the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric around the Second Amendment to be primarily driven by race.
As you might imagine, this set off quite a debate on Facebook. I don’t want to recount the entire affair so let me summarize a few key points of background before we get started.
- In general, I agree that the language is couched with racial undertones, but I don’t agree that is the primary motivator.
- The discussion on Facebook was quite intellectual, and moderated well. Trolls there (as here) weren’t welcome.
My contribution to the discussion was this:
I appreciate you stopping by the home of my little project, So Far Appalachia: An American Mythology.
Throughout the next few years, I’ll be building creating a multi-media, interactive book about my family, The Bakers of Manchester, Kentucky. We have a long, colorful history and I hope you enjoy reading about it.
I’m also conducting research about how we read, and how we read in interactive environments. I’ll be writing a bit about that as well (although I do much of that informal writing at The Brad King).
For now, I’d invite you to peruse the site, leave feedback, or just let me know who you are. And don’t forget to join the Facebook page 🙂
In June 1935, Bobby Baker got in his car in Hamilton, Ohio and headed south towards the Central Appalachian town of Manchester, Kentucky, the place his family helped found in early 1800s.
Bobby was an enigma. A man bound by generations of family honor and duty, he still managed to spend a great deal of time away from the homestead. He would bounce between the bar he owned in Cincinnati, in which he ran card games and sold Kentucky moonshine, and Manchester, where the family had lived for more than 100 years until they’d escaped a few years back.
When he walked out the door he was always well dressed, he always had a new car, and nobody in the family was quite sure when he’d be coming home. What business he meant to conduct and who he conducted that with depends very much upon which member of my family tells the story. He definitely ran moonshine. He may have moved stolen cars. He almost certainly had a girlfriend in Kentucky who was helping him out.
Whatever his business, he attracted attention. The police would routinely visit the family farm in Indiana looking for the still and liquor his family kept buried on the property. As Bobby headed towards Manchester, he did so knowing that word had gone out that “bad” Bakers weren’t welcome in town anymore. Just a few weeks before, Bobby’s cousin Frank had been gunned down in the streets of Manchester, and his body lay untouched for hours.
Since Clay County’s founding in 1807, the Bakers (and the Gerrards) had run up against the powerful White and Howard clans. While many of the clashes centered on economic and political influences in the years, by the mid-850s the feud had turned bloody. By the turn of the 20th century, the blood feud had turned against the Bakers. After a series of particularly violent clashes at the turn of the century, Bobby, his wife, and their 9 children fled to Ohio.
Still, Bobby wasn’t going to be run out of town. He drove right into downtown with his two friends, Lloyd Baker and Ed Manning. As he came down through downtown somebody fired a shot through his car’s windshield, killing him instantly. The car slammed against a curb before coming to a stop. As with Frank’s murder, nobody immediately came for the body and nobody was arrested.
Although nobody knew at the time, Bobby Baker’s death marked the end of the Clay County War, a bloody and relentless feud that stretched from the early 1800s until the middle of the Depression.
The making of a narrative
In many ways, the Clay County War was just a longer, bloodier version of types of feuds that have become legend throughout the Appalachian region. As the mythologies of these fights seeped into the consciousness of American history, they have taken on a much larger cultural significance than they should. They’ve become so ingrained in our collective conscious that the mythology has become truth.
You can hardly avoid the “feuding mountain man” stereotype of the region on television, in magazines, or in books.With all of these images surrounding us, it’s hard not to see the image of rural mountain folks largely cut off from urban society.
Through the story of my family, the Bakers, we begin to see a more complex and compelling story about Appalachia and the people who settled the region. Bobby Baker’s death marked a transition for the Baker family, which had arrived on the shores of Boston in 1624 after emigrating from Buckinghamshire, England at the behest of the Crown in order to manufacture guns for the New World.
This once proud family — which had helped shape the American gun industry, ventured deep in Appalachia to settle parts of North Carolina and Kentucky, and sought to set up educational structures — was crushed between the push of the American national expansion and the pull of the natural resources in the Appalachian region that promised intrepid men the opportunity to strike it rich, and leave a mark on the world.
What was left for the Bakers, as it was for many who found themselves in similar positions, was poverty, a skill set in trades that were no longer valued, and a crumbling infrastructure that ensured a bleak future in the place they’d once called home.
A real story of America
While So Far Appalachia traces the Baker family history, this isn’t a family memoir. Instead Baker story is a launching point to explore what it means to be American. Through my family’s story, I’ll explore why guns are so important to families, why public education faces so much scepticism, why poverty exists in Appalachia, and why Americans celebrate civic engagement while denigrating the government.
So Far Appalachia is the story of America, but maybe not the America we’re used to discussing in public spaces. This isn’t a story about feuding hillbillies anymore than it’s a story about the rugged self-made man, neither of which has much basis in reality.
This is the other story about America.
What I said on Kickstarter
Brad King is an assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University. He earned his Master’s from the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2000, and went to work for Condé Nast’s Wired magazine before moving to its sister website Wired News, where he covered the convergence of technology and culture. In 2002 he co-authored Dungeons and Dreamers, a book on the history of computer games, virtual worlds and their effects on American culture for McGraw-Hill. In 2004, he was hired as the senior editor and the online producer for MIT’s Technology Review. He’s currently on the advisory boards for South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press. On a more personal note: he’s from a small town in northern Appalachia, just outside of Cincinnati.
The Rest of the Crew
While I’ve eschewed the traditional publishing house model for this book, I’ve never wavered that I wanted this to be a professional endeavor. As such, I’ve been slowly assembling the team that will help me transform my idea into a well-written, well-designed, and (hopefully) well-received book. In the coming months, I’ll be adding people to the team, and announcing them as it makes sense. Recommendations are always helpful.
- Alex Heard is currently the editorial director of Outside magazine. However, I first met him when I worked for him at Wired magazine, where he was the executive editor. He’s written and edited at The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate. Add to that, he’s the author of Apocalypse Pretty Soon, and The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South.
- Katelin Carter is currently a graphic designer at One Vessel in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Ball State University’s Department of Journalism, where I was lucky enough to snag her for two of my big projects: Transmedia Indiana and The Invictus Writers. In the latter, she not only wrote a long-form essay for the book project, but also designed the print and digital editions.
- Jane Friedman is currently the web editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, based at the University of Virginia, where she also teaches digital publishing and online writing. I had the fortune of meeting Jane at South by Southwest Interactive a few years ago, and she’s been a sounding board for me as I work through this whole digital publishing world. Before joining VQR, Jane was the publisher of Writer’s Digest, a $10-million multimedia brand where she was responsible for the business strategy and financial performance of a team of twenty, which covered editorial, design, advertising, and online media operations.
Positions to fill:
- copy editor
- public relations/marketing manager
- distribution manager
Out there in the spotlight/You’re a million miles away
Every ounce of energy/You try to give away
As the sweat pours out your body/Like the music that you play
Later in the evening/As you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers/Ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette,/Rememberin’ what she said
I should start by telling you the lead up to my travels is filled with massive anxiety despite my king-hell organizational abilities with travel. I have logged more miles than most, although certainly fewer that professionals. Conservatively speaking, I would suspect I’ve spent at least 20 percent of the last ten years traveling the America and Europe.
Still, there is an unsettled-ness that comes with unrooting myself. This manifests itself in my thoughts so I suspect this won’t be much of a story.
I spent the last few days at Berea College, digging through the Appalachian Feuds special collections. There was some good information there. It’s mostly filler material, the backdrop information for the story. But I have 200 pages of material coming to me.
The drive down was spectacular. While some folks complain about the flatlands of Indiana, I am enthralled by the spaciousness. I could easily find myself on a patch of land, along a state route, away from civilization. It’s breathtaking.
Clearly I have watched too many Hunter S. Thompson documentaries.
I’ve been in the special collections section of the Berea College archives. Until recently, this school had a large number of files associated with my family and the 100-year feud in Southern Kentucky. Apparently those files are now in Manchester, the County Seat.
Still, I found some interesting tidbits in the New York Times:
From April 18, 1898. The Bakers, who refuse to be arrested without their guns, stage a bloody retaliation against the White faction.
From June 11, 1898. The Howards take downtown Manchester with 50 men, while the Bakers assemble their own crew.
I’m currently working on a book, a memoir really, about my family.
It’s one of several projects I have going at the moment, and I’m not entirely sure how I am going to pull all these off. But I’m never quite sure how I’m going to pull anything off. I just keep putting on foot in front of the next, don’t burden myself with pesky deadlines and figure that I’ll get finished when I get finished.
The next 3 months, though, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to writing every day. To push forward not only on the blog, but also on the projects.
I can’t really blog much about the specifics of the story because if I do that, I won’t actually write the book. Once the story is told, I have a hard time re-telling the same story. If you’re interested in the overview, though, you can check out the audio here.
This is the last “introduction” I’ll do for the project. After all, origin stories, like memoirs, are painfully dull. But we’ll try to do something about that.
I love history. Particularly American history. I have scores of books dedicated to the Civil Rights movement, science and technology, the American Revolution. I devour the stories of the people who changed the way we live, who influenced the direction of the country.