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We open today’s show with a dark chapter from Virginia history. For much of the 20th century, the social movement known as Eugenics—the belief that information about heredity can be used to improve the human race—dictated medical ‘treatment’ of society’s undesirables. Between 1927 and 1979, the state sterilized 8,300 residents thought unfit for general society, including blacks, Native Americans, the feeble-minded, the promiscuous and the poor.
If you’ve ever been through Dalton, GA you’ve probably noticed it bills itself as the bedspread capital of the world. In the early part of the 20th century vacationing families headed towards Florida on US Highway 41 found the roadsides in and around Dalton—‘Peacock Alley’—clustered thick with family stands hawking chenille bedspreads and quilts of all sorts. Big business came rolling in by the late 1930s. Dalton’s B. J. Bandy was reputedly the first man to make $1 million in the bedspread business.
Next, take a ride with us on the longest running narrow gauge railroad in Ohio. The Bellaire, Zanesville, and Cincinnati Railway served a vital role in Monroe County life, but was constantly defaulting on its construction bonds and entering into receiverships. Its 300 trestles and bridges were expensive to maintain, and frequent landslides amidst the steep terrain didn’t help one bit.
And you thought your work week dragged on? Lucille Thornburgh went to work at age 16 in a Knoxville cotton mill that demanded 10-12 hour work days, 6 days a week. Thornburgh and seven of her coworkers weren’t willing to accept that treatment, and they drew up a union charter. In this oral history excerpt, Thornburgh tells you how Cherokee Mills workers joined textile workers across the South in a general strike known as the Uprising of 1934.
Jean Thomas called him the “first primitive, unlettered Kentucky mountain minstrel to cross the sea to fiddle and sing his own and Elizabethan ballads in the Royal Albert Hall in London.” She presented to the American public a man she said spent his life in the mountains, never to come into contact with the modern world, still retaining vestiges of his English ancestry. Folks in Ashland, KY had a different view of the situation: they knew J.W. Day as an itinerant town beggar who made money not by performing ancient ballads, but by playing a mix of topical songs of his own composition. Pull up a chair; this story just gets more convoluted from there.
We’ll wrap things up with a look at the get-rich sales pitches of the Wilson Chemical Company. By 1937, two generations of Wilsons had perfected the art of what was then a most unusual sales technique. The company recruited young children nationwide via advertisements in comic books and newspapers to sell their White Cloverline Brand Salve door-to-door, stating in the ads that the salesperson could keep a certain amount of the profit or collect premiums listed in a catalog. An attractive offer to rural children in Appalachia during the Depression, when money was scarce.
And, thanks to the good folks at the Digital Library of Appalachia we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Pap’s Jug Band in a live 1940s recording of “Old Indians Never Die.”
So, call your old blue-tick hound up on the porch, fire up your corn-cob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian History.