As I walked up the railroad tracks, sharp little Lisa asked me, "What are you doing a story on, what's wrong up here now?" I explained my intention was to find out what was right instead of what was wrong. She looked at me with the insight of an eight-year-old and said, "Well, you better go on home now 'cause I'm 'bout the only thing that's right up here."
Lisa lives in Kayford, West Virginia, part of a 30-mile stretch called Cabin Creek Hollow some 90 miles southeast of Charleston. This is Appalachia, and Lisa's attitude is common for the people who live here. The atmosphere of this rugged old section of America is permeated with a sense of "Nothin's happening."
We chose the Cabin Creek area as a microcosm of the mountain country. Armed with our conceptions of fiddlers and chaw-chewers, we went to seek out the people themselves. Appalachia is America's original frontier: the families who live there now have been there, for the most part, since the first explorers found this rolling green Daniel Boone country. Those who remain are wedded to the old mountains and have little desire to leave. If the small farmer is the backbone of America, then the Appalachian people are her marrow, and a look into their lives may help us to know better the underlying consciousness of our country. The original frontier values are still typified in their lives: most basically, pride in the land and an independent, nonregulatory spirit surrounding its use. Even though the strip miners came in the '40's. the Appalachians have done little to regulate their wasteful activities due to a long held reverence for property - in spite of the fact that the strip miners have snipped the people of their traditional jobs in the mines and have upset the whole ecology of their country. The people of Cabin Creek Hollow present a living portrait of a close-to-forgotten life style, so much in contrast to the usual urban American scene.
James Sommerville is a relative newcomer to Cabin Creek. He moved up from the South with his family in the early Sixties - an unusual switch for someone to migrate to the Hollow. He came as a Presbyterian preacher who wanted to dedicate himself to helping the poor people of Appalachia. He doesn't preach anymore and his work comes from a political rather than religious perspective. To truly serve the people here, he feels it necessary to take on their life style completely, to come to know the basic needs and problems for himself.
Sommerville described the traditional reformist attitude to Appalachia:
"The first people who ever settled these mountains were people seeking freedom: freedom from the state and the church, freedom from the kings, freedom from the large landholders. The strong sense of individual rights and anti-regulatory feeling prevails today as it did with the original settlers."
Sommerville feels that the people of the mountain country have a strength that comes from their bond with the land, and with that comes "a respect and reverence for life and a patience much needed in the capitalist, western, 'civilized' world." He feels it is shallow and not truly helpful for middle class liberals to use places like Cabin Creek as a chance to come in and 'do good': to organize a few protests, to pass a few pieces of legislation, to reclaim some acres of stripped hills. It appears these acts result more in soothing the ego and conscience than in actually solving any of the Appalachians troubles.
"You can't be poor backwards folks like the Beverly Hillbillies; you must be a people. You have to be able to say 'Hillbilly' with pride instead of with a pause."
But the Appalachians are a demoralized people. Still proud of their heritage and wooded mountains, the courage and active exploring nature of their - our - ancestors is somehow gone. In its place is "day after day on the front porch" with silences that rival only the hills around them. This boredom has not been eliminated in the least by the intrusion of helpful 'mainstream' America.
The folks who live in Cabin Creek Hollow never actually realized they were so depresssed and out of it until they were so informed. However, this invasion by the 'mainstream' is not without reason, as the living situation throughout Appalachia has worsened remarkably over the last 30 years - specifically since the advent of strip mining.
The mountains have always been the basic element of the Appalachian way of life. And from them has come the mountain folks' main means of support: mining. As many a resident will tell you, some of the most exciting times in the last 50 years were when the mine workers were organizing back in the '20's. Since that time the situation of the miner has improved considerably, with a likelihood of earning upwards to $12,000 a year nowadays. But nowadays there are very few mines. Since the early '90's more and more of the mining has been done by stripping the hills for coal from above rather than tunneling into
them. For the people of Cabin Creek, this has spelled economic disaster. Most of the old mines folded and the new labor for the strippers came from outside. In nearby Mingo County 21,000 people out of 38,000 live on below-poverty incomes.
"When for generations your family carved its future out of the hills that are now being stripped of life, where does it leave you?"
The old mining life rapidly disintegrated when the coal companies-switched to stripping. Towns in the Hollow such as Kayford shrank from a lively population of about 3,000 to a few hundred. Many of the families, stripped of livelihood, took the dire step of migrating to the cities. Large portions of the populations of cities such as Columbus, Cleveland and Indianapolis are made up of these displaced hill people. The whole of the coal country is a ghost of its former self.
All of the life is steadily flowing out of Appalachia: the opportunities for employment, the young and more ambitious people, even the money earned from the wealth of the hills.
Will Smith, however, still works down in the mines. One day he talked with us about the days when the strippers came into the area of the Hollow.
"I'd say we had over 400 houses here at one time back in the early '40's. Now there ain't but about 14 and just a handful of people. The coal companies tore them down, burned them down, got rid of them any way they could. The way the coal companies work is that they lease the land from a land company and we rent our houses from them. And so when there's a house standing in the way of progress, they just tear it down."
Strip mining has not only destroyed the economy of the Hollow but the land as well. By ridding the land of its topsoil and trees, the threat of floods is greatly increased. James Sommerville, who is seeking to regulate the strip miners, told us. "The uncovered areas oxidize and produce sulfuric acid which seeps into the water course. Land is very precious here and it is largely owned by outside corporate interests. The effects of strip mining are so close to home that slides sweep down into the hollows, and then keep moving for a mile or two."
As Will Smith noted, "We haven't been able to use the streams around here for 30 or 40 years, they've been so polluted." Not only have the streams and lakes been spoiled, but so have many of the underground wells. In the town of Cabin Creek, the water must be brought in bottles as they haven't even a water line to a nearby city.
There is one paved road trailing down the length of Cabin Creek Hollow. From the old mines to the abandoned railway tunnel, a string of small towns duster beside the road: Sommerville, Miami, Eskdale, Drybranch, Cabin Creek, Leewood, Layford, Acme, and Cheylan. One woman pointed out the empty hou s, "Those folks over there left for Indiana, those just picked up and left for Ohio…but I'm not goin' to leave for anything. I'm goin' to stick it out: I was born and raised in Cabin Creek. And I'm goin' to die here. There's nowhere else to go."
The houses are well kept and they all have porches, the living room of the hill country. If it weren't for the television sets (many color), the furnishings and appliances would well keep a secret of which decade you are visiting. The cars are few but new. Remember that those who do work don't do badly on a miner's pay. Two general stores remain in the Hollow, but most of the shopping is done on weekends when folks can make it into Charleston. Every few days a bus loaded up with fresh produce takes a run up and down the Hollow since the food companies won't bring supplies up anymore.
Many of these towns were first laid out by the coal companies. People were just assigned to houses. In a large part due to this, there has been an unconscious policy of integration in the Hollow for many years. Black and white are united through the common circumstances of neighborhood and income. The relationship over the years has been friendly and understood: separate but equal. One reason for the lack of tension may be, as David Bausman noted. "The blacks are moving into the cities. I would say in another five years there aren't going to be any blacks left in the hollows because the black culture in the U.S. is so city-oriented."
The only remaining social gatherings seem to be at baseball games and at church. When a game is held, families come from 40 miles away to attend. This is only rivalled by the basketball games in the winter. Churches dot the hollows, mostly Protestant, some simply with banners hanging outside stating "Jesus Saves." Although no one talks much about religion around this area, evangelists ride the circuit.
The rest of the time, the Hollow seems caught in a warp of time. People will spend all day sitting on the porch with hardly a word spoken. We even found our conversations with people, hard won to begin with, swallowed by the pervading, empty-eyed silence.
"There's nothing to do around here so we just do what we're doing now: set on the porch. We used to get together and have some times, but not no more…everybody just quit, gave up. The only thing that you can do around here is go to a beer joint."
Most of the conversation details the past: the old days of trains and mines and the 1916 flood. Every citizen's memory stretches back to that fateful event, as if through a collective unconscious. Even the children can relate stories of people who were killed and who saved themselves by floating down the hollow on the tops of their houses. To hazard bringing the flow of conversation back to the present is to hazard a spacious silence. The present is nothing, nowhere. The future is out of their hands, but in the past there is plenty of room for color and elaboration. That was living - at least now it is.
"We used to have grocery stores and dress shops and public transportation and everything else you'd find in the cities nowadays. But no more. They tore it all down and there ain't nothin' left no more, nothin'."
What do you do?
Sit on the front porch.
What do you see for the future?
Sitting on the front porch and dying.
The old mountain life, the old American life of Appalachia, has almost come to a halt. There's nowhere else to go, and practically all that's left are a few people and the land. But both are being eaten away. How did the American dream of life, love and the pursuit of happiness come to end with a sunset over these bulldozed ancient mountains? When the frontiersmen sought freedom, they left the Old World and this was their first home; now that the Manifest Destiny has brought us from sea to shining sea, and to the sea floor and to the moon, where will we find the next New World?
Like characters in an existential novel, the people of the Hollow wait. No one knows what for. No one talks about it.
They look at the mountains and experience the peace of their steadiness and rolling consistency. The mountains were there when the first Americans came and for the last Americans they remain, as if to indicate some purpose for their lives.
Going through Cabin Creek Hollow is like going bank thirty years in history. The woman displaying the quilt above is a member of the Cabin Creek Quilt Cooperative, formed to help lower income people market their quilted goods. The co-op, which is sponsored by VISTA, sells the quilts in various cities throughout the country. The women earn between eighty and ninety rents an hour for their work, with an average quilt taking between a hundred-fifty and two hundred hours to produce.
The ancestors of the people of Cabin Creek Hollow were among the early pioneers who ventured across America. The Appalachian range was the first place that they explored; many of them settled there and planted the seeds for a colorful mountain culture. The concern for freedom and the pride that they held for their heritage remains today. Albert Holbrook pictured above, called his home, "Almost Heaven, West Virginia," which is a feeling many of the residents of Cabin Creek have. Unfortunately the seeds that their ancestors planted are rapidly being uprooted by the lack of jobs, which has caused a mass exodus to the cities.