Where the Hillbilly Highway ends

Posted by | August 16, 2011

If you’re an Ohio briar you might be familiar with Dayton’s Mountain Days Festival, a local celebration of the culture and heritage of Appalachian people. It has usually taken place annually since 1986 at Eastwood Metropark, though has been postponed for lack of funding in 2010 & 2011. Those not familiar with the connection between Dayton and the geographic center of Appalachia might find it puzzling to encounter an Appalachian celebration in that city, and therein hangs the tale of the Appalachian Diaspora.

Briars, first off, are what (some) Ohioans call workers transplanted from Appalachia. In the mid-twentieth century, Dayton was the port of entry for many Appalachians migrating from KY, TN, and VA looking for jobs as the coal mines were dwindling. After World War II, when factories such as General Motors were heavily recruiting, 7 million migrated north. The whites tended to settle in Ohio and Pittsburgh, while the blacks tended to settle in Detroit and Baltimore.

“It has been said that all mountain regions must import capital or export people,” says John Alexander Williams in his thoughtful Appalachia: A History. “During most of the twentieth century, Appalachia did both.

Sparkplug assembly line in Akron Ohio 1930
Photo: Women workers making sparkplugs at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, Akron, Ohio, ca. 1930.

“With only their labor to invest and in numbers that exceeded the region’s capacity to support its population through agriculture, forestry, and mining, most Appalachian migrants had little choice but to go wherever work could be found. Local leaders never willingly embraced a solution that deprived mountain localities of workers and voters.

“Nevertheless, migration remained a fact of Appalachian life throughout the 20th century. The Appalachian core sustained a net population loss through migration as early as 1910, but such losses were disguised, up until the 1950 census, by a relatively high birthrate and by the seemingly temporary nature of war-related migration during the two world wars.”

The moves were traumatic for many as they were separated from their families and forced to adapt to more urban environments. Appalachians also faced a lot of discrimination, characterized as stupid because of their accents and preconceptions about hillbillies, and such challenges have extended into the present day. The next generation children who are born and raised in cities such as Dayton often lack a sense of belonging, for they do not have a strongly felt connection to the south, but they do not completely fit in where they are either, due to the stereotypes and discrimination they face.

“The impact of out-migration was particularly pronounced in West Virginia, which sent generation after generation of young adults to other states,” Paul Salstrom tells us in Appalachia’s Path to Dependency. “One study, a 1941 survey of Lewis County, West Virginia, noted that ‘the principal export product of this area appears to be children.'”

And Mary Hufford observes in From Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley: “Between 1935 and 1955, the introduction of mechanical loaders revolutionized deep mining. Nationwide, in the 1950s, some 250,000 miners (60 percent of the workforce) lost their jobs, overwhelming their pension fund.

“In addition, small operators unable to afford the industry-wide standard were driven out of business. Fifteen mines on Coal River (WV) shut down, and between 1951 and 1961 coal production declined dramatically. The roads leading out of Coal River to the factory towns in the north received a new name: Hillbilly Highways. ‘You had to learn the three r’s,’ said Shorty Bongalis, ‘Reading, Writing, and Route 21. And if you couldn’t swim, you better have help crossing the Ohio River.'”

Dayton, Detroit, Columbus, Ashtabula. One thing they all have in common: they’re at the end of the Hillbilly Highway.

Paul Salstrom, Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History, 1730-1940 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), p. 117.

Mary Hufford, From Landscape and History at the Headwaters of the Big Coal River Valley /An Overview at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/tending/essay5.pdf

John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History (UNC Press, 2002)

Dayton+OH Mountain+Days+Festival briars Appalachian+diaspora hillbilly+highway appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history appalachia+history history+of+appalachia

12 Responses

  • Anne says:

    I thought it was Route 23,not 21? The one that winds through North Carolina, TN,KY, OH, and MI? Popularized in Dwight Yoakam’s song, “Readin’, Writin,’ and Route 23.”

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Route 21 is in fact the one I meant. Here’s a recent reference to it from Ohio’s Marietta Times:

  • Joan says:

    Always enjoy reading about this area and time of our history. Many of my kin originated in Appalachia, but tended to leave quite early, so I dinna have many stories of the area. So greatly appreciate yours.

  • Anne says:


  • Lisa says:

    I’m one of those kids who was born in Ohio and never felt like I belonged here. We ate soup beans and cornbread while my friends had kielbasa and pierogis. I’ve been married 20 years and still live in Ohio but my heart and extended family is in the south. Every time I go down to visit, I feel like I’m home, and every time we drive back, I cry a little. Someday we’ll be retired and then I’m dragging him with me faster than a coon on a possum.

  • chris elkins says:


    The first thing the new northerners bought as soon as they became available was a big, gas guzzling car with wide white wall tires, and the first weekend, they went back home to the mountains to show the homefolks that the promised land really did exist and that it existed for them. Gasoline was twenty-nine cents a gallon.

    That came with a free check of oil and tires, cleaning the windshield and sometimes sweeping out of the car floor … and a friendly ’thank you, come again’. Most filling stations offered car repair and even caught on to the practicality of adding clean rest rooms to their enterprise.

    Previously, finding appropriate facilities had been a real issue for travelers, but slowly, gas stations became user friendly. There was always a coin operated, chest type, red Coke machine setting just outside the door offering frosty Orange Crush pop and Double Cola as well as Coke. Moon pies and other snacks were also available.

    Owning a car was evidence they ‘had arrived’ and it gave them a freedom and a power they had never experienced. Going back home for a visit was the highlight of every displaced Appalachian’s life and they took advantage of every opportunity. Holidays, any holiday, were a special time for the trip, but Decoration Day was holy and no self respecting Appalachian would be caught dead north of the Ohio River on May 30th.

    Holidays that fell toward the weekend became three and four days long and some workers even left their jobs early to meet up with the family, who was packed and ready to go. Cars clogged the highway bumper to bumper from Michigan to northern Kentucky.

    It took hours on the two lane roads, no air conditioning, windows rolled down, blistering wind turning the hair into a tangled mess and skin into leather, and bored kids asking “Are we there yet?”. Just getting through Cincinnati with all its turns and detours was quite an accomplishment.

    Once they crossed the Ohio River, though, they breathed a sigh of relief as cars started going in different direction, east or west depending on their destination, and speed picked up.

  • Donnamarie Flanagan says:

    Only yesterday did I run into the phrase, “hillbilly diaspora.” How have I lived 75 years without it? I always knew I was born and raised in exile–Cleveland, in my case.

    Chris Elkins tells of a homesickness that never ends.

    No Kentuckian I ever knew would be caught dead buried north of the Ohio River. If you couldn’t make it big and move back home before you died, there was a plot waiting.

    My mother dreamed of high water as long as I can remember. “Well, Donnamarie, I dreamed of high water again last night. What do you think that’s all about?” We didn’t know.

    When her body was taken home by train from Cleveland to Kentucky, the Ohio had flooded Cincinnati. No better ‘amen’ to her life.

  • Russell says:

    I can close my eyes and still smell the mountain smells, especially in the fall. No matter how far away you are, you can just close your eyes and you are instantly, Home

  • Rocky says:

    I am a Home sick West Virginian, and every night I lay myself to sleep I always smile when I think about the Day I can go home to the hills for Good.

  • […] AppalachianHistory.net: Where the Hillbilly Highway Ends […]

  • Jeff Brodbeck says:

    I grew up near Route 23 near the Scioto and we used it often to visit family and a cabin we had in rural southeastern Ohio. My mom used to refer to the “Three Rs” of Readin’, Ritin’, and Route 23″. It took us to many of my favorite places. It’s beautiful.

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