Frank Slake (right) and Ray Stratton gathered holly and mistletoe in the hills near Lerose, KY for Christmas 1907 when they worked for the K. & P. Lumber Company established there. Full caption at Owsley County Historical & Genealogy Society.
The following post ran on the blog of composer, pianist, and educator Nate May. It is reprinted here with permission.
This morning I made a list of a dozen books I need to read before I start having answers. I’m probably going to have to beat myself over the head with these books, and I trust I’ll be seeing stars before I start seeing constellations. Right now it’s just questions and hypotheses – little openings that I want to crawl into and look around inside.
My overarching project, the way it’s formed itself in my mind right now, is an aesthetics of contemporary Appalachia. Aesthetics in its messiest sense – the mythologies, politics, identities, values, fixations, aspirations, and perceptions that can be harvested and steam-sealed into an art-product (as in, anything that people look to for artistic value, however perfunctory) that for whatever reason smacks of Appalachian-ness. I want to identify it so I can participate in it, and help those who are helping to move it in the direction of conscious, dignified work that has a place in the American and international artistic conversation.
Here’s one hypothesis, one cave-mouth that’s begging to be spelunked: that the aesthetic that we allow to define us is frozen, coated in amber. That those of us who embrace a positive history of the Appalachian people feel we have only one resource to mine that is in demand by the rest of the nation. I’m speaking here of the mountain folkways – the banjoes and dulcimers, the quilts and clogs, the tall tales and moonshine. I want to be clear that this is an incredibly valuable resource, that we are in fact one of the few regions in the country that has a folk heritage as well-known and rich as this. It’s even doing a lot of good for the liberation of an oppressed people. But on the other hand, we seem more concerned with preserving it as it was than engaging with it as it is today. We cling to an image of our idyllic mountain past because it’s the only thing that shields us from the barrage of cultural assaults that face us.
Bluegrass may have been the last major innovation in the Appalachian arts, and people are even surprised that it’s as young as it is (younger than some of the folks who listen to it). Its strength and staying-power lies in a fact that leads me to my second hypothesis. Bluegrass, just like pretty much every important musical style in North America, has origins in African as well as European styles. The banjo itself is an African instrument (I just discovered this site, which documents its storied pan-Atlantic life). Yet black Americans are not a part of the picture that we draw upon as Appalachian heritage. In fact, the most easily accessible picture nationally is that we are purely white and predominately racist. I will never quite forgive Jon Stewart for a segment he did in the 2008 primaries, which showed multiple back-to-back interviews with racist West Virginians, followed by Stewart’s commentary, which involved him putting on a straw hat and drinking moonshine to the delight of the studio audience.
So here’s my second hypothesis: that we undervalue our diversity here. We white-out a significant portion of our history, much to our own detriment. It’s not just blacks who get this treatment, but anyone who diverges from that image of the pioneer white mountain family with its clear gender roles, simple ideas, and little political ambition. We miss out on the reinforcing effect that an embraced multifarious heritage can have on a culture – the same effect that biodiversity (which we can boast as among the best in the world here) has on an ecosystem and that economic diversity (the lack of which has plagued us for centuries) has on an economy.
So what’s the endgame for all of this? Why is this important? It’s important because Appalachia is an oppressed region, and whatever forces – economic, environmental, cultural, political – oppress us from the outside are reinforced by our own self-oppression, our own fatalism. It’s the same colonized mind that Steve Biko recognized among the oppressed people of the apartheid regime – a mind that says, “The current is strong so I may as well swim with it,” or, in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie:
This dusty ol’ dust is a-gettin’ my home
And I’ve got to be driftin’ along.
Aesthetics are vital for survival, for vitality itself. They are as important for the development of a region as roads and bridges, because they are why we travel on the roads and bridges. A people assured of its own strength and dignity can define, demand, and implement its own progress.
I’ll save more of the soapbox material for after I’ve immersed myself in more of its constituent ideas and realities. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has ideas to share about this.
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At 10:20 a.m., December 6, 1907, explosions occurred at the No. 6 and No. 8 mines at Monongah, West Virginia. The explosions ripped through the mines at 10:28 a.m., causing the earth to shake as far as eight miles away, shattering buildings and pavement, hurling people and horses violently to the ground, and knocking streetcars off their rails. Three-hundred and sixty-two men and boys died. It remains the worst mine disaster in the history of the United States.
The Monongah Mines Nos. 6 and 8 were located on the West Fork of the Monongahela River, about six miles south of the town of Fairmont, West Virginia. The mines were connected underground and were considered model mines, the most up-to-date in the mining industry. Electricity was used for coal cutting machinery, locomotives were used to haul coal, and the largest areas of each mine were ventilated by mechanical fans.
Soon after the explosion, four miners emerged through an outcrop opening, dazed and bleeding but otherwise unharmed. The stunned survivors could tell nothing of the fate of the others still underground.
With the hundreds of shrieking, half-crazed women and crying children came every man left in the town. Volunteers were willing and anxious to help with the rescue work.
Frantically, they cleared away the wreckage at the entrance and tried to force their way into the mine. They soon began to succumb to the toxic mine air and had to be rescued themselves.
The explosion filled the mine with “black damp”, an atmosphere in which no human being could live. It blocked the main heading with wrecked cars and timbers, and demolished one of the fans, which greatly restricted ventilation.
Choking coal dust, rubble, and wrecked equipment impeded the progress of volunteer rescue teams. The No. 8 mine’s huge ventilation fan had been destroyed, and a smaller fan was used to ventilate both mines. Brick stoppings, the partitions used to direct air through the mines, had been blown out. As rescue parties slowly advanced, they used canvas curtains to restore ventilation, dilute gas, and disperse dust.
At the bottom of No. 6 slope, debris from a wrecked trip was found scattered for 250 feet along the headings. Cars were smashed and piled on top of each other nearly blocking the entry. The trip had been pulled up the slope and stopped at the knuckle a short time before the explosion causing the coupling pin on the first car to break. The entire trip consisting of eighteen loaded two-ton cars went down the incline. The explosion occurred before the cars had gone into the pit mouth and before the trip had reached the bottom of the slope.
At 4:00 p.m., moaning was heard near a crop hole, and a rescuer was lowered through the hole on a rope. About 100 feet below, he found miner Peter Urban sitting on the shattered body of his brother, Stanislaus, staring glassy-eyed into space as he sobbed uncontrollably. He was the last survivor of the Monongah disaster.
Exhausted volunteers found conditions in the mines almost unbearable, heat was intense, and afterdamp caused headaches and nausea. In some headings, ventilation materials and bodies had to be hauled 3,000 feet over massive roof falls and wrecked machinery, mine cars, timbers, and electrical wiring. The stench of death was barely tolerable, and became overpowering as the search dragged on.
Searchers never lost sight of the fact that there might possibly be some men in the mine alive. They continued to explore all parts of the workings with all possible speed, leaving unnecessary work for another time.
Embalmers worked around the clock in shifts. Caskets lined both sides of the main street. The bank served as a morgue. Churches conducted funeral services several times a day as dozens of men dug long rows of graves on nearby hillsides. Disputes flared over identification of victims, and more than once, a body was claimed by two families.
By December 10, the number of people killed was over 175. It was obvious to most rescue workers, but not to relatives of missing men, that Peter Urban would be the last man to be brought out alive. By Thursday, December 12, all workings had been ventilated and searched and 337 bodies recovered. Twenty-five more victims were found during cleanup operations.
A special graveyard, soon filled, was laid out on a bleak hillside. Company houses flanked the burial ground. Rows of open graves were dug in the sodden, half-frozen, rain-drenched and snow-flecked West Virginia soil.
The 362 casualties of Monongah’s coal mine disaster left more than 1,000 widows and children.
The Marion County Coroner’s Jury, after hearing from numerous witnesses, concluded the victims of the disaster died from an explosion caused by either a blown-out shot or by ignition and explosion of blasting powder in Mine No. 8.
“Mining Disasters – An Exhibition,” Mine Safety and Health Administration; online at www.msha.gov/DISASTER/MONONGAH/MONON3B.asp
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Not every place has the distinction of being named after a Christmas treat. Tradition holds that Pudding Ridge, NC, in western Davie County, got its name one rainy day in February 1781 during a Revolutionary War engagement. British General Cornwallis was driving his troops through the soggy hillsides in hard pursuit of American General Nathanael Greene, before finally battling his rival near the current day site of Guilford College in Greensboro. The crossing at Dutchman Creek, until the early 1900s the main crossing toward Yadkin County, was so boggy and thick with mud that it reminded the British of pudding (by which they meant “Christmas pudding.”)
The name stuck with the colonists, who would have been as familiar with Christmas pudding as their rivals and understood the reference immediately. Fortunately most Appalachian traditions associated with this classic seasonal treat have a much more positive connotation than that of being chased by enemies through the mud.
In many of the region’s households, part of the fun of eating Christmas pudding is finding a trinket that predicts your fortune for the coming year. For instance, finding a coin means you will become wealthy. Find a button, you’ll remain a bachelor, find a thimble, you’ll stay a spinster, but find a ring —ah!— find a ring, and you’ll be married soon enough. The idea of hiding something in the pudding comes from the tradition in the Middle Ages of hiding a bean in a cake that was served on Twelfth Night. Whoever found the bean became “king” for the rest of the night.
There are more symbols tucked into that luscious black dessert. A traditional Christmas pudding contains 13 ingredients representing Christ and his disciples. When you light the brandy that is poured over the pudding (or in the case of Carolina Christmas pudding, the whiskey) the flame represents Christ’s passion, while the garnish of holly is a reminder of His Crown of Thorns. A proper Christmas pudding is always stirred from East to West in honor of the three Wise Men. Puddings are traditionally prepared five weeks before Christmas, most frequently on the Sunday of the week before the start of Advent.
www.burttravels.com/pdf/biltmore.pdf “Christmas at Biltmore Estate/Asheville NC”
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His public service was legendary. In 1821, South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett had founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Charleston. In 1838, when he was the Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren, he had a northeast county of Arkansas named after him by that state’s governor. At that point in his career, he’d served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as America’s first diplomatic minister to Mexico.
In fact, the decorative Christmas plant that takes its name from him is such a footnote to his illustrious life that it is mentioned only ONCE in the entire length of “The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett,” an 1888 biography.
Poinsett was an avid amateur botanist who’d built hothouses on his White House Plantation near Georgetown, SC. He first came across the plant that he would have been introduced to as cuetlaxochiti sometime after 1822, when he began his diplomatic posting to Veracruz.
The plant is native to the Taxco de Alarcón region in southern Mexico. From its bracts (the petals are actually bracts surrounding clusters of tiny yellow flowers) the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. They used the milky white sap, today called latex, to make a fever treatment.
In 1825 Poinsett sent the first clippings of the plant back to South Carolina for study, and from there had samples sent to trusted friends.
Initially Americans called Poinsett’s new plant “painted leaf” and “Mexican fire plant.” In 1833, German botanist and director of the Berlin botanical gardens, Karl Ludwig Wilenow, assigned it the scientific name, euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning ‘very beautiful euphorbia.’
This 1833 letter from Poinsett to JB Campbell of Charleston gives a sense of how active and extensive Poinsett’s ongoing network of plant tradings was:
I wish you would make a collection of cuttings and send them up [to Poinsett’s plantation] by the John Stoney, the Schooner in our employ, which must be leaving town now. Lewis and Robertson will inform you all about where abouts and probable times of sailing.
Cuttings of all manner of Roses, Pittisporum [sic], Myrtles, Etc. Etc. Seeds of the wild orange, a peck at least. At Belevedere the Doctr. [Dr. Joseph Johnson] can give you a great variety of cuttings for all which we shall be thankful. Think nothing too common, we have literally nothing here. Even a Multiflora will be acceptable.
Lots of daily roses, cuttings will do and we will strive to make them grow. Seeds of Arbor vitae etc. etc. Cuttings of Cape Jessamine, the Japanese honey suckle, and above all a few roots of Ivy to be had at the Grove at Mr. Wagner’s who can give you other things and at Noisettes in profusion. Send lots of cuttings of the Tamarisk it grows at Judge Richard’s cottage.
(SC Historical & Geneaological Magazine, the Poinsett-Campbell Correspondence; April 1941, Vol XLII, No 2]
Among the recipients of Poinsett’s plant trading was John Bartram, Jr. of Philadelphia, whose father had established one of the first plant nurseries in America. Poinsett sent him a clipping of euphorbia pulcherrima.
Bartram in turn gave the plant to another friend, Robert Buist, also a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its new botanical name.
But the ‘poinsettia’ wasn’t being called that, yet.
Back in Mexico, Poinsett’s collection of the euphorbia pulcherrima was not at all atypical during his time there: he traveled widely throughout that country looking for interesting specimens, and ended up bringing home samples of the red and yellow mimosa, the Mexican rose, and the Confederate rose—a hibiscus that turns from white to pink in a day. While in Mexico he learned how to propagate olive trees, of which he sent samples back to SC.
Poinsett’s botanical transplantings operated in both directions: he is credited with introducing thе American Elm іntο Mexico.
“There are plenty of trees [here in Mexico]; poplar, ash, and elm; and one flourishing specimen of the latter species, which we see from the windows in front of the house, was brought here by Mr. Poinsett,” says one Frances Calderon De La Barca, whose letters from Mexico were published in ‘Life In Mexico,’ by William Hickling Prescott in 1843.
In 1836 a Special Diplomatic Mission from Spain had arrived in Washington, DC headed by Don Angel Calderon de la Barca, husband of Frances.
William Hickling Prescott was at the time at work on his ‘History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella,’ which was of great interest to De la Barca.
The Spanish diplomatic couple soon established literary relations with Prescott by way of Joel Poinsett, a mutual friend. De la Barca, Spain’s first diplomat to independent Mexico, knew Poinsett through diplomatic circles; Prescott had cultivated Poinsett as a resource for Mexican contacts with historical knowledge. (Poinsett would go on to provide Prescott the names of Lucas Alaman, Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, and a Count Cortina for Prescott’s 1843 ‘History of the Conquest of Mexico.’)
De la Barca asked Prescott, a horticulturist as well as a historian, if he might be able to come up with a more pleasing, non-scientific name for euphorbia pulcherrima, as it was becoming more popular with the public. Perhaps a catchier name was needed for plant sellers? Or perhaps this search for a new name simply reflected the 19th century convention of naming things after their ‘discoverers’?
Whatever the case, a name based on their respected friend Poinsett, who introduced the plant to North American audiences, seemed only natural.
There’s just one open question about the final name.
The now-famous plant was not the only thing named after Joel Poinsett. Poinsett Bridge, a stone-arch bridge in Greenville County, was built in 1820 as part of the main highway leading from Charleston to North Carolina; in 1924 the Poinsett Hotel arose in downtown Greenville, SC.
So why wasn’t the lovely red plant named ‘the poinsett’?
William Prescott’s Ties with Mexico, by C. Harvey Gardiner, ‘Journal of Inter-American Studies,’ Vol 1, No. 1 (Jan 1959)