When the times are out of joint everywhere, we cannot hope to be normal in the mountain country; we can only do the best we can to meet the situation while at the same time we lay deeper foundations for the future.
Two aspects of the depression are, however, important to keep in mind. Whatever our feeling about the limitations of mountain life, a strong country slant is likely to continue for one generation at least. Many have already spoken of the numbers who have poured back into the highlands from industrial centers.
Some will return to industry when opportunity arises; others have suffered too much from the uncertainty of such employment and will prefer the security of the mountain farm, even if it brings less return financially. We have already spoken here about our changed feelings as to what living standards we should demand for the rural dweller. We are inclined to be a little less exacting than we were a few years ago.
But to what can we look forward? Here comes a young man of twenty-five, who is mountain born and reared but has adventured out into industry at the Ford plant or elsewhere. He has learned what it is to walk the streets hungry in search of work and appreciates what a roof in the highlands and a plot of ground and good neighbors may mean. He wants better things, however, and he comes and says, “What do you see for me on a mountain farm?”
Here is another young man, also mountain born and reared, who has spent many years of his life in a mill town. When the mills cut their production, he returned to put his strength into raising truck, for which, alas, he found no market. He asks the same question, “What do you see in this region for me?”
It is a solemn question to answer. Both of these are young fellows with energy; they want material things and they want them quickly before they themselves are old.
The question is not only a solemn one to answer, but it is sad as well, for I see no quick solution, no rapid growth which will bring wealth. In fact, I may say that I see only a slow process in which one cannot disentangle all the forces, economic, educational, and social, that make for growth.
The answer to the question, then? This must depend upon our philosophy of life, on how one feels about the old “plain living and high thinking.” We must lay less emphasis on the limitations of nature and more on the capacity of man in the development of life. Look what other peoples have done, the Swiss and the Danes, for example, in the way of overcoming obstacles and in building up a rural culture higher than ours.
When Miss Butler and I were searching for a place to put our school, we went over with the county agent a certain mountain county of Eastern Kentucky. I always remember what he said: “I can see how this country can be developed, but I cannot make the people see it.”
I am more deeply impressed all the time with exactly this limitation. We cannot pass on our vision of what may be to other people unless they are ready to see it, nor do we wish to persuade them against their will. How can we get other people to see what we see and stir their imagination so that they will put their energy to work? How can we get the Danish philosophy of “I sing behind the plough?”
The weakness in our work is that we began wrong end to. We looked down on what country people had to do to live and talked only in terms of the drudgery of country life and of the wider opportunity of the city. We did not really think very much about the economic possibilities of highland life.
What I am trying to say is this: we could have a better economic life in sections classed as marginal or sub-marginal if the people who lived there could catch the vision of what may be and would try to realize it.
Denmark first passed the necessary legislation and then, through her folk schools, gave the people desire and vision so that they found their way out of their economic predicament. We must try to give vision and desire, and at the same time get on foot some economic enterprise in our community—whatever kind of enterprise may be best suited to the section in which we live. The two must go hand in hand.
Or let us put it in another way. There must be no forcing or coercing, no “putting across” of a program. We must live our philosophy, work out our plan as far as possible with the people; and, if it is worthwhile, it will spread.
Some weeks ago Georg Bidstrup was talking to our young people about the development of rural Denmark. “It used to be,” he said, “that the farmer’s wife came to town with her butter and her eggs and peddled them from door to door in the village. The village dweller looked out and saw her coming up the steps and said, ‘It is only a farmer’s wife.’ Now the farmer’s wife no longer peddles, nor the farmer either. By scientific agriculture and cooperation they have made the farmer a different person in the eyes of the city dweller. Now, instead of saying, ‘It’s only a farmer,’ they say, ‘He is a farmer!’”
Until the highlander is out of the field of missions, he cannot command the respect which we all wish for him; he can never build up a high type of rural civilizations. May we not all look forward to the time when the city says, not “That is only a mountaineer” but “He is a highlander!”?
“From the Mountain Worker’s Point of View: Economic Conditions,” by Olive D. Campbell, in Mountain Life & Work vol. 09 no. 2 July, 1933
Olive Dame Campbell (1882-1954) co-founded, with Marguerite Butler, the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC in 1925.