We post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. Check us out on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:
We open today’s show with a Christmas fable from Old Appalachia that explains why horses eat all the time, why donkeys can’t have offspring, and why cows chew their cud. This version of the tale comes to us from storyteller Chuck Larkin (1932-2003), a charter member of the Southern Order of Storytellers who for many years could be found spinning his yarns annually at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN.
We’ll pause in between things to catch up on a Calendar of Events in the region this week, with special attention paid to events that emphasize heritage and local color.
Belsnickling was a grand old Christmas tradition throughout Virginia’s Blue Ridge up until the second World War. If a Shenandoah Valley family was a member of the Lutheran or Reformed Church, the children could expect a Christmas Eve visit from the Belsnickle. The Belsnickle was not Santa Claus! He was ugly and he frightened the children. He typically wore a costume made from stockings and burlap or paper bags, and traveled from house to house brandishing his switches in the air.
This is a time of year when hunters, from the earliest settlers on, have entered the forest seeking wild game to supplement the winter larder. The custom of mincemeat pies during the holidays is partially a holdover from putting up wild game in the days before freezers. The mincemeat mixture was a method of preservation, as the combination of the acids from the fruits and the heat from baking inhibited the growth of bacteria in the meat.
The whimmy diddle (sometimes called a Hooey Stick or Gee-Haw) is an Appalachian folk toy that has been around for centuries. It’s fashioned from two sticks of laurel or rhododendron into a rubbing stick and a slightly thicker notched stick. The whimmy diddle makes a characteristic sound when the one stick is rubbed back and forth across deep notches in the other.
Next, we’ll hear an 1881 poem titled The Ashland Tragedy written in response to a shocking news report. Three Kentucky teenagers of that city were sexually molested, then beaten to death in their home, and the killers set the house afire to hide the crime. An enraged mob lynched one of the killers, and very nearly lynched the other two. This provoked a ferocious gun battle as 200 state guards tried to hold back the attacking crowd.
We’ll wrap things up with an oral history from Marshall, NC native Jerry Plemmons (b. 1938). “We did not have electricity until I was about eight or nine years old,” says Plemmons. “That was when we moved to Walnut Creek. That was basically [just] the lights. A little later on we were able to buy a refrigerator, and that was a marvelous thing to come into the house. The first thing we got rid of were the oil lamps; that was an event and a nice step up, but it wasn’t like we had televisions and all the conveniences that we have now.”
And, thanks to the good folks at the Digital Library of Appalachia, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music by Isham Monday in a 1959 recording of Christmas Eve.
So, call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corn-cob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian History.