Let us set the mountain people as they are related to the civilization of which they are a part

Posted by | September 8, 2009

We need to be less aware of the picturesque, amusing or distressing differences, and more keenly conscious of the kinship of the mountain people with their kind elsewhere and everywhere. Otherwise we shall bring to noble effort in the mountains a certain disabling attitude that is fatal to success.

And so over against the types we find in the pages of Craddock, Fox, Kephart, and the rest, let us set the mountain people as they are related to the civilization of which they are a part. I therefore urge upon your attention the fact that they are not more poverty-stricken, nor more lawless and violent, nor more unorganizable than the democratic mass in rural North Carolina.

In the first place and quite contrary to popular notions, our mountains are not a region of widespread poverty. In per capita rural wealth Alleghany is the richest county in North Carolina. Among our 100 counties, five highland countines, Alleghany, Buncombe, Ashe, Henderson and Watauga, rank 1st, 5th, 6th, 13th and 14th in the order named, in the per capita farm wealth of country populations; and two more, Yancey and Transylvania, are just below the state average in this particular. The people of these counties are not poor, as country wealth is reckoned in North Carolina. They dwell in a land of vegetables and fruits, grain crops, hay and forage, flocks and herds. It is a land of overflowing abundance.

West Jefferson NC circa 1920A view of West Jefferson, NC circa 1920.

It is not easy for such people to feel that they are fit subjects for missionary school enterprises. As a matter of fact, they need our money far less than they need appreciative understanding and homebred leadership. Their wealth is greater than their willingness to convert it into social advantages. They need to be shown how to realize the possibilities of their own soils and souls. Mountain civilization, like every other, will rise to higher levels when the people themselves tug at their own bootstraps; and there is no other way.

It is true that three of the poorest counties in the state in per capita country wealth are Graham, Cherokee, and Swain—counties set against the steeps of the Great Smokies. They rank in this particular 92nd, 94th, and 96th respectively; but their poverty is duplicated by that of Moore, Brunswick, Carteret and Dare—four counties in our coastal plain. The rank of these eastern counties is 93rd, 95th, 97th, and 98th in the order named. The two poorest counties in North Carolina in per capita farm wealth are in the tidewater region, not in the mountains.

Approaching the poverty of our mountain people from another angle, let us consider indoor pauperism in 11 mountain counties that maintain county homes or poor houses. The 1910 census discloses an average rate for the United States of 190 almshouse paupers per 100,000 inhabitants. In North Carolina the rate was 96; in these 11 highland counties it was only 79. Six of the mountain counties make a far better showing than the state at large. Buncombe with a rate of 125 and Watauga with a rate of 139, the two highest rates in the region, make a better showing than all the North Atlantic and New England states, where indoor pauper rates range from 153 in New Jersey to 447 in Massachusetts.

But we may make still another and better approach to the subject of poverty in our mountains by examining the outside pauper rates; better, because outside help is less repugnant to the feelings than residence in the poor house. In 1914 the state rate for outside pauperism was 234 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 12 highland counties the average rate was 205. Seven of the counties have rates far smaller than the state average, ranging from 35 in Mitchell to 184 in Cherokee; three are just below state average; and only two, Buncombe and Clay, are near the bottom.

It ought to be clear that poverty in the mountains of North Carolina is actually and relatively less than elsewhere in the state. Here both indoor and outside paupers in 12 counties in 1914 numbered only 559 in a population of 209,000 souls.

—excerpt from “Our Carolina Highlanders,” by E.C. Branson, professor of Rural Economics and Sociology, University of North Carolina, in the July 1916 UNC Extension Bureau Circular No. 2

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