Indoor privies for country people at Cumberland Homesteads

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 19, 2017

Today, it’s Tennessee’s largest historic district, at approximately 11,400 acres. During the Great Depression, the Cumberland Homesteads community came into being as part of a nationwide New Deal agrarian movement to create subsistence farm communities to aid out-of-work, rural residents. President Franklin Roosevelt assigned the homesteads project to Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. Ickes, in turn, established within his department the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH).

Cumberland Homesteads was one the first of 33 communities built by DSH between 1934 and 1938, and eventually consisted of 250 homes, a school, a park area, as well as a stone water tower and governmental building.

The DSH advisory committee identified three types of clientele and three types of proposed communities: Homestead colonies established for industrial workers and located in the out-skirts of cities or large towns; rural settlements in which small industries or branches of large industries can be established; and agricultural settlements.

The Cumberland Homesteaders, in the main, had not been subsistence farmers but were “displaced” and “stranded” workers—they were initially coal miners and only later textile mill workers and farmers. Coal operators of the time had drastically curtailed mining operations throughout the bituminous coal fields of Appalachia—production levels demanded by World War I had long since dropped—as the surplus of American coal continued to glut national and international markets.

DSH regulations denied participation in the homesteads to persons on relief rolls. The application for a subsistence homestead required that the successful applicant be an American citizen; living or normally living in an industrial center; over twenty-one years old; have an income sufficient to meet homestead payments; and not have an income sufficient to secure a loan for a home using orthodox financial instruments.

Eleanor Roosevelt addresses Cumberland Homestead residentsCaption reads: Mrs. Roosevelt addressing group at Cumberland Homesteads. Crossville, Tennessee, Oct-Nov 1935

Plans for Cumberland Homesteads intended to create 351 farms on lots ranging in size from 10 to 160 acres; the average homestead consisted of 16 acres. Areas determined unsuitable for farming remained timberland. Originally 8,903 acres were farm tracts; 1,245 acres were common land (grazing, woodland, cooperative enterprises); 11,200 acres were set aside for further development; and the cooperative association owned 5,505 acres.

Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia condemned the costly absurdities of electricity, refrigerators, and indoor privies for country people. Likewise, Senator Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee complained that the Resettlement Administration was constructing stone mansions and voiced his resentment that relief workers lived in houses better than he did. No matter; the houses wound up with indoor plumbing at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a special interest in these projects.

“After the Resettlement Administration began massive resettlement, the DSH projects seemed to be nonproductive, and the residents seemed to be beneficiaries of government largesse.

“Most of the homesteaders led lives indistinguishable from their contemporaries; furthermore, the government had provided the homesteaders with modern conveniences, tools, and equipment that their contemporaries had to purchase.

“It seemed to full-time farmers that the homesteaders “piddled” around in their gardens, while the resettled farmers actually had to do farm work.”

Clarence E. Pickett,
executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee
Monthly Labor Review (September 1933): 1327-328.

Although each family received a section of land, the community was designed to function as a cooperative, including both agriculture and some industrial production. Eventually the cooperative ventures failed, plagued by rampant politicking both locally and at the Federal management level. Many families, confined by small lots, soil too poor to raise crops, and serious erosion problems, simply moved away.


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  • Mary says:

    Only the government would think that the best solution to farms being too small to support a family would be to increase the number of small farms.

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There’s a ghost in this little banjo

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 18, 2017

Although she never gained the national recognition or recording status that other banjo-playing women in Kentucky achieved, Dora Mae Wagers (1927-1998), was—as the title to her self-produced cassette proclaimed—“A Legend in Her Own Time.” For forty years she played banjo on the stage of the Renfro Valley Barndance, and was often billed as one of the Coon Creek Girls.

We first met Dora Mae at her home south of Berea, KY, which could only be described as a private banjo museum. Instruments hung from the walls of her living room as thick as fleas on a stray dog’s back. One belonged to her grandmother. Another was bartered off of Grandpappy Callahan, a Renfro Valley performer. The oldest instrument in her collection was rescued from the wrecking ball and found in a dumpster after an old house in Lexington was torn down.

Banjo player Dora Mae Wagers

Dora Mae at her Livingston, Kentucky, home, in October 1997.

Dora Mae Wagers was born in 1927 in Oller’s Branch, KY, near the Red River Gorge. When she was a young girl her grandmother, Sally Smith Young, taught her how to play frailing style. Dora Mae credits her grandmother with being “one of the finest banjo players that ever picked,” and even though she didn’t read music, she taught her all her tunes in the key of C.

“[W]hen she was teaching me to play she’d sing ‘Sheeps in the cornfield, cows in the clover. Tell them pretty girls I’m a comin’ over.’ When she was teaching me to do clawhammer she’d brush the strings that ways, she would. She played with two fingers and I couldn’t use my thumb. She’d say, ‘Now honey, let your strings sound out for you. ’Shake that little hand, honey’. ”

From her grandmother Dora Mae learned Appalachian ballads like “Pretty Polly,” “Young Edward,” “Shady Grove,” and “Little Birdie.”

Dora Mae grew up around Appalachian music, with songs, square dances, barn raisings, and corn shuckings always being accompanied by the sound of the fiddle and banjo. She remembered musical gatherings in her grandparent’s home, with her grandmother playing banjo when neighbors would visit each other “and they’d move all their furniture out. They didn’t have no rugs on the floor. Just plain boards. Just move everything out . . .and leave the chairs. Everyone danced until they dropped.”

When she was a teenager, Dora Mae formed a band called “The Happy Holler Boys & Girls,” the Appalachian equivalent of a “garage band,” or more appropriately “barn band.” They played on a local radio station in Corbin, KY in the early 1940s, and sometimes “they’d bring Molly O’ Day to London [Kentucky] and they’d bring us in like a side band to rest ‘em between shows. . . .They’d had them at the courthouse.”

From there it was on to Renfro Valley, where Dora Mae played with Lily May and her sister Rosie during their last four years as the Coon Creek Girls. She claimed that “ John Lair told you what to do” and that since his death “I do what I want to do.”

During our visit with Dora Mae she did just that, playing (although she would not sing, due to throat surgery) all of the old ballads her grandmother had taught her. After playing her version of “Poor Ellen Smith” she exclaimed that “Everybody’s grandfather murdered Poor Ellen Smith and got away with it!”

In addition to her grandmother, Dora Mae reluctantly admitted that her other banjo muse came to her in the form of her “haunted banjo.” When pressed to explain why she thought it was haunted, she replied as follows: “Why I’ve got up in the middle of the night. It’ll play . . .old tunes. One time that thing communicated with me and I could just close my eyes and just see as far as I could see; like a stacked-rock fence, you know.

It belonged to a black man, and that was his only possession that he had. When they cleaned out one of those houses in Lexington . . .they threw it in the trashcan. . .It had an old hide head. It was old, it was.”

Questioned further about how she knew the banjo belonged to a black man she replied: “It’d get me up at 1 o’clock in the morning’ and I’d have to get up and sit up sometimes till 3, just ever when it’d turn me loose. Let me go lay back. Oh, I suffered from loss of sleep till I’d get up and sit with that thing! It just played tunes that I never heard before in my ears.

“And then I was sitting one day playing and it just crossed my mind, ‘I think I’ll play Golden Slippers. I was sittin’ around here and I said ‘Well, I’ll tune and play it in a few minutes, and it [the haunted banjo] said ‘you can play it in this tune and this tune.’ So I’d start in a playin’ it. I used to just cry like a baby , that thing affecting me so much when I’d try to talk to you about it. ‘Cause I was afraid somebody didn’t believe and they’d think I was crazy or something. There’s a ghost in this little banjer.”

From “Banjo Women in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky,” by Susan A. Eacker, Marshall University Scholar in residence (1997), Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia

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Ginseng, the curious rootstock

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 15, 2017

It’s the heart of ginseng harvesting season. The berry clusters have ripened. The leaves are yellowing. The roots are ready. But stay awhile. The best hunting is still to come, after the first hard frost.

Ginseng rootBut don’t wait too long. Because of wild ginseng’s endangered status, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service has mandated that states allowing its export have protective regulations in place. Consequently, most states have adopted a late-summer through early-fall ginseng hunting season.

“I remember digging ginseng when I was six years old. I’ve always seen it as a big equalizer for people from Appalachia,” says Fred Hays of Elkview, WV, spokesman for the West Virginia Ginseng Growers Association, noting that the harvest surges when unemployment is high or the region’s coal miners are on strike and ginseng becomes an alternative income for many. Drought has taken a toll this year, deer have eaten the leaves, turkeys eat the seeds, and rodents go after the root itself. But the harvest makes it worthwhile. Full article here.

Notice the link above takes you not to the Charleston Gazette or the Dominion Post in Morgantown, but to Reuters UK! The British typify a widespread attitude beyond America’s borders, which is that, while ginseng can be found in many parts of the continent besides Appalachia—Panax quinquefolius‘ range includes the eastern half of North America, from Quebec to Minnesota and south to Georgia and Oklahoma—ginseng and Appalachia are seen to simply go hand in hand.

Ginseng’s hold on our consciousness has been strong for a long long time. Alice Lounsberry’s comments from “Southern Wildflowers and Trees,” published in 1901, capture the gist of it well: “Its true value lies, as we know, in its curious rootstock, long famed as being a cure for almost every sort of ill, and an antidote for every poison. Even the word panacea is believed by many to have been derived from its generic name. In China, where it has been largely cultivated and also exported from that country in immense quantities, it is still regarded as being possessed of properties more powerfully stimulating to the human system than those of any other drug.”

So if it’s such a wonder drug, and the Chinese are cultivating it, why hasn’t it simply taken its place in our country as a Big Agriculture cash crop, next to soybeans or tobacco?

“You can cultivate that stuff,” says Lake Stiles in Foxfire 3, “and it won’t bring you half as much as wild ginseng. If it’s cultivated, it makes a great big root. If it’s wild, it’s just a small root. But you can’t get by with cultivated sang with a [ginseng dealer] who knows what he’s doing.”

Wild ginseng favors mature hardwood stands where the terrain is sloping to the north and east. Panax quinquefolium loves a moist but well-drained and thick litter layer with more than just a tad of undergrowth. You will find yourself looking at a lot of other species of plants for the prize. A young hickory or Virginia creeper will confuse the beginner.

So: it’s highly sought, it’s an endangered species, its hunting season is fairly narrow, it’s easily confused with other plants, and you have to look in very particular areas on a mountain or in a holler. Should be enough to keep British reporters intrigued for years to come.


Foxfire 3 (Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1973) p. 254

Ginseng West+Virginia+Ginseng+Growers+Association Panax+quinquefolius appalachia +appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+mountains+history

One Response

  • J Floyd says:

    WV native pride. Cherokee/Powhatan. Beware of the barking squirrel, a bear is NIGH. The loud bird that talks too much may show you the way, but be ready to climb and watch every step, the snakes will be plenty. —Message from 5th G Grandson of famous long hunter James John Floyd. Who, if he would of been on Pompay that day on Bullet Lick, would of lived. May all my 10th grandfather Chief Powhatan’s ginseng stay protected, not stolen. Abide the laws and stay safe; we’re still here and always watching.

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They slapped handcuffs on his wrists. "I guess you’ve got me"

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 14, 2017

New York Times.
September 15, 1912, Sunda

CATCH SIDNA ALLEN BY TRAILING GIRL; Wesley Edwards Also Captured at Des Moines — His Sweetheart Gives Clue.

DES MOINES, Iowa, Sept. 14. — With arms and feet pinioned in heavy irons and watched over by an armed guard, Sidna Allen and Wesley Edwards, members of the outlaw gang who murdered Judge Massie and others at Hillsville Court House, Va., in April last, and who were arrested here to-day, are now en route to Virginia in the custody of detectives.

Allen was arrested by Detectives W.G. Baldwin, H.H. Lucas, and William Munday of Roanoke, VA, at the Cameron boarding house at noon. Edwards, it was learned, was working with a grading gang in the western part of the city. As soon as Allen was in custody search was made for Edwards. The latter avoided discovery until this evening, when he was found on an Ingersoll Avenue car coming into the city. He dropped to his knees and tried to crawl out unnoticed, but was recognized as he reached the car door and was taken to the police station.
Wesley Edwards of the Hillsville VA courthouse massacre
Maude Iroler, fiance to Wesley Edwards of the Hillsville VA courthouse massacreAllen and Edwards will not fight extradition, but express willingness to return to Virginia and face trial.
Wesley Edwards’ sweetheart, Maude Iroler of Mount Airy, NC, was the innocent cause of the arrest of the last of the clan for whom a country-wide search has been conducted. This eighteen-year old girl came all the way from her home in North Carolina with the secret of Wesley Edwards’ whereabouts. She loved him and determined to wed him despite the stain attached to his name since he fled from the courtroom in Hillsville.

Edwards lived here under the name of Joe Jackson, and Allen went under the name of Tom Sayres. The latter worked as a carpenter here, while Edwards was employed by the city with a paving gang. Not a hint of their identity was given to the members of the Cameron family.

The girl left her home last Monday, little thinking that dogging her trail were four detectives, led by W.G. Baldwin of the Baldwin Agency of Roanoke, VA. The men went on the same train that brought the girl to Des Moines. They followed her closely. She made her way where she expected to find her hunted fiancé.

She entered, telling Maude Cameron, who opened the door for her, that she had come to see Joe Jackson. A tall and powerfully built man entered the yard. A short distance off were three other men. The man who advanced to the door was Detective H.H. Lucas.

“I want to get a room,” he said to Miss Cameron.

“Set inside,” she said.

Lucas entered, and just as he reached the foot of the stairs Sidna Allen came to the top of the stairs. Allen evidently did not recognize Lucas, who started to ascend. When within a few feet of Allen the detective suddenly produced two revolvers.

“Hold up your hands,” Lucas ordered sternly.

Sidna Allen of the Hillsville VA courthouse massacreEven with the odds against him Allen snarled angrily, but he knew that Lucas’ eye meant business. His hands went slowly up. Allen was looking for a chance to escape, but Lucas was joined a moment later by Detectives Baldwin and Munday, another member of the department. The trio closed in on Allen. One produced a pair of handcuffs. They were slapped over his wrists.

“I guess you’ve got me,” said Allen quietly as he sat down in a near-by chair.

“Where is the other man?” demanded Baldwin of the members of the frightened family, who were hovering near.
The detective was told that Edwards was at work on Thirty-eighth Street. Leaving Munday and Lucas to guard Allen, Baldwin notified the police. Chief Jenney, with Detective Badgley, responded.

Baldwin and Charles Cameron, a member of the Cameron family, leaped into an automobile and sped away for the place where Edwards was supposed to be working. They did not find him then, but captured him later on a street car.

Sidna Allen, in his cell tonight, talked freely of the events of the last few months, but declined to say anything of his movements immediately after the Court House tragedy. He and Edwards remained in the mountain country of Virginia and North Carolina for about a month, and then got over into Kentucky, going to Louisville, where they spent several days.

Their next stop was St. Louis, where they remained for a week. They had sufficient money for their needs, and traveled first class.

“I don’t know why we came to Des Moines,” said Allen, “unless it was that I thought we would be safer here. Several years ago I was in the Klondike, and I figured that the officers would think I had gone back there. So we came to Des Moines, and I got work as a carpenter, and expected to remain here until it was safe back home.

“I would have given myself up long ago if I had thought we could get a square deal, but see what they’ve done to Floyd my brother, and Claude.”

full article online at

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His great grandfather crossed into these hills from an Eastern State that did not please him

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 13, 2017

“THE autumn in the Hills is but the afternoon of summer. The hour of the new guest is not yet. Still the heat lies on the earth and runs bubbling in the water. The little maid trots barefoot and the urchin goes a swimming in the elm hole by the corner of the meadow.

Still the tender grass grows at the roots of the dead crop and the little purple flowers dimple naked in the brown pasture. Still that Pied Piper of Hamelin, the everlasting Pan, flutes in the deep hollows squatted down in the broom sedge. And still the world is a land of unending summer, of unfading flowers, of undying youthfulness.

Only for an hour or so far in the deep night does the distant breath of the Frost King come to haunt the land, and then when the sun flings away his white samite coverlid it is summer again with the earth shining and the water warm.”

—from ‘Dwellers in the Hills,’ (1901), by Melville Davisson Post

Melville Davisson Post’s third book ‘Dwellers in the Hills’ (1901) is a romance of the old West Virginia cattle country in which his youth was passed.  Based on his experiences as a child, the novel tells the story of three young West Virginians who take on a contract to drive a herd of cattle across the state in a limited amount of time.

Mr. Post felt that the curious distinctive life of this Southern border ought somehow to be preserved. It was the oldest cattle land in America and differed wholly from the Western life so common in fiction. It was full of ancient customs and incrusted with a folk lore and traditions all its own.

It was in fact a civilization apart. His great grandfather had crossed the Alleghanies into these beautiful hills from an Eastern State that did not please him. He came like some feudal baron with retainers armed with the heavy hunting rifle and carrying silver loaded on a pack horse. With this silver he bought from the pioneer great tracts of the fertile grass land lying along the Buckhannon River and established a cattle business. The herds were driven across the mountains to Baltimore and from this beginning a big robust richly colored civilization grew that has no counterpart anywhere in America.

Here was an ancient civilization of which no writer had ever heard. The story moves swiftly. It covers merely three days of stress. But in spite of this movement the style of the story is a perpetual pleasure. There is caught in this style as by some witchery the dreamy alluring atmosphere of the green sod, the bright rivers and the haze of the hills.

There is in it too the big virile emotions of that land, the old weird tales, the fairy things that inhabit and the dread things that haunt. The style is pictorial, the visualization striking. It is a piece of sound artistic work.

The book had its greatest success in England, where vigorous moving out of door life is more appreciated than with us. But when one appreciates the fact that outside the material aspect of a land there is always lying an immaterial aspect, and that this immaterial aspect may be weird, poetic, sterile or rich with dreams, one sees how a style woven to catch this illusive atmosphere may seem a garment too rich or too delicate for the natural incidents which it must necessarily cover.

Library of Southern Literature: Biography, by Edwin Anderson Alderman, Joel Chandler Harris, Charles William Kent, The Martin & Hoyt Company, 1909

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