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The Lost Provinces

Posted by | August 30, 2016

North Carolinians for many decades thought of them as the Lost Provinces. Prior to the early 20th century, Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga counties were hemmed in and separated from the rest of the state by the Eastern Continental Divide— average elevation 2,500 to 3,000 feet— which forms their eastern and southern borders.

Lowlanders joked that the only way to get there was to be born there. Commerce and society were forced to circulate between these three counties and Grayson and Smyth Counties, VA to the north, and Johnson and Carter Counties, TN to the west.

Archibald Murphey. Portrait in the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Archibald Murphey. Portrait in the North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Archibald D. Murphey (1777-1832), a lawyer and judge remembered for his vision of how the state’s internal affairs could be improved, was far ahead of his generation in his comments about the region’s transport: “The roads have been badly laid out; they are badly made, and the population in many parts is too weak to keep the roads in even tolerable repair. All these roads should be made at the public’s expense.”

The idea of getting state aid in building roads finally took hold in 1887. Up to then citizens worked on the roads on a rotating basis. A road out of Ashe County to meet the Wilkes road system was impractical at that time because of the sheer difficulty and cost of such a road. Instead county officials decided to build, with the help of state convicts, a road from Jefferson, past Healing Springs, to the nearest railway terminal, in Marion, VA.

The upper New River Valley continued to remain extremely isolated into the early part of the 20th century. In 1911 the Blowing Rock Turnpike began construction. It effectively connected the High Country with Lenoir and its prosperous network of farmers’ markets and railroad depots. The Blowing Rock Turnpike not only served cars but horsedrawn wagons and could be used, free of charge, for Watauga County residents bringing their goods to market.

The High Country’s first railroad appeared in 1914. It connected Ashe County with Abingdon, VA, to facilitate the region’s short timber boom. The first narrow gauge railroad line rolled through in 1918, and followed the pattern: it came not east from the Piedmont but rather from Tennessee to the west.

First train in West Jefferson, NCPhoto caption reads: First train in West Jefferson, NC. January 2, 1917

Beginning about 1920 Ashe County undertook a local road building program, during which approximately $1,500,000 in bonds were issued. The expected number of resulting county roads never materialized, however, due to the high prices at which contracts were let for the construction of these roads, and the fact that most of the county projects were later taken over by the state.

North Carolina’s 1921 General Assembly finally established the state highway system. Early on there was official recognition of the need to “rescue the hillbillies.” Frank Linney, D.D. Dougherty, and Mary Martin Sloop were prominent High Country influences in the political scramble to develop roads. The Assembly approved a $50 million road bond, paid for by a one-cent tax on gasoline, and the brand new Highway 16 finally connected the central piedmont with Ashe County.

Robert Doughton, of Alleghany County, U.S. Representative from 1910 to 1953, was a key player in creating road access into the region. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1933 to 1953, he was the major force in promoting the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which further opened the former Lost Provinces to jobs and tourists.
The Papers of Archibald Murphey, Vol. 2, William Henry Hoyt, Editor (1914)


Oh brother I am dying now

Posted by | August 29, 2016

Listen to Buell Kazee play “The Dying Soldier”


Oh brother Green, oh come to me,
For I am shot and bleeding,
Now I must die, no more to see,
My wife and my dear children.
The southern () has layed me low,
On this cold ground to suffer,
Stay brother stay and lay me away,
And write my wife a letter.
Tell her that I’m prepared to die,
And want to meet her in heaven,
Since I believed in Jesus Christ,
My sins are all forgiven.
My little ones, I love them well,
Oh could I once more see them,
That I might bid them a long farewell,
But we will meet in heaven.
Oh brother I am dying now,
Oh see I die so easy,
Oh surely death has lost it’s sting,
Because I love my Jesus.
Go tell my wife she must not grieve,
Oh kiss my dear little children,
For they will call for me in vain,
When I am gone to heaven.

Recorded on January 18, 1928 in New York City

Buell Kazee was a master of the high, “lonesome” singing style of the Appalachian balladeer. His banjo style was a unique variation on the traditional frailing style, and he played in as many as eleven different tunings. Because most of his life was taken up with preaching and his duties to his Baptist congregation, he had a limited time for music.

In 1926, W. S. Carter, the proprietor of Carter’s Phonograph Shop in Ashland, KY (who was also a representative of Brunswick-Balke-Collender Recording Company) heard Buell sing. As a result, Kazee the following year was asked to record for Brunswick in New York. The producers of the sessions asked Kazee if he could sing with more of a southern accent—he was a bit perturbed by this, having worked relentlessly to hone his voice to a point he considered worthy of recording.

Buell KazeeOver the next two years, he recorded 52 songs backed by New York musicians. Many were religious, but others ranged from traditional to popular ballads, including “Lady Gay,” “The Sporting Bachelors,” and “The Orphan Girl.” His biggest hit was a version of “On Top of Old Smoky” called “Little Mohee,” which sold over 15,000 copies on 78 rpm recordings.

Buell Kazee’s career as a professional musician came to end in 1929, despite offers of tour support for county fairs across the country and membership in the radio cast of WLS’ National Barn Dance in Chicago. His priorities were spiritual, not musical. “I couldn’t go that way,” he said (he heard the call to preach at 17). “My life was cast in a different direction and there wasn’t any reason to consider it. I was going to preach all my life.”

Kazee was born on August 29, 1900, at the head of Burton Fork in Magoffin County in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.





‘My name is Mike Fink!’ was the curt reply

Posted by | August 26, 2016

He was the most famous of the keelboatmen, who plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for two decades until they and their watercraft were displaced by steamboats.

Mike Fink, by William Gropper (1897-1977), from the series ‘American Folk Heroes.’

Born near Pittsburgh, PA (at the headwaters of the Ohio River), around 1770, Mike Fink —‘Miche Phinck,’ as he learned to spell it from his French Canadian parents—gained notoriety as a marksman and an Indian scout in the Ohio River Valley before settling into keelboating.

He took up boating around 1785 and rose in the trade. Fink mastered the difficult business of keelboating—poling, rowing, sailing, and cordelling (pulling via a rope winch) keelboats upstream for hundreds of miles against strong river currents.

By the early 1800s, he owned and captained two boats headquartered at Wheeling, WV. Working his way west, Fink’s career paralleled that of American expansion into the Mississippi Valley.

Fink’s trickster exploits captured the American imagination, and provided plenty of fodder for tall tales that took on a colorful life of their own.  A typical example is “Mike Fink and the Sheep,” penned in 1852 (roughly 29 years after Fink’s death) by Ben Casseday, a Louisville, KY journalist and newspaper editor:

“His practical jokes, for so he and his associates called their predations on the inhabitants of the shores along which they passed, were always characterized by a boldness of design and a sagacity of execution that showed no mean talent on Mike’s part. One of the most ingenious of these tricks, and one which affords a fair idea of the spirit of them all, is told as follows:

“-Passing slowly down the river, Mike observed a very large and beautiful flock of sheep grazing on the shore, and being in want of fresh provisions, but scorning to buy them, Mike hit upon the following expedient. He noticed that there was an eddy near to the shore, and, as it was about dusk, he landed his boat in the eddy and tied her fast. In his cargo there were sonic bladders of scotch-snuff.

“Mike opened one of these and taking out a handful of the contents, he went ashore and, catching five or six of the sheep, rubbed their faces very thoroughly with the snuff. He then returned to his boat and sent one of his men in a great hurry to the sheep-owner’s house to tell him that he ‘had better come down and see what was the matter with his sheep.’

“Upon coming down hastily in answer to Mike’s summons the gentleman saw a portion of his flock very singularly affected; leaping, bleating, rubbing their noses against the ground and against each other, and performing all manner of undignified and unsheeplike antics. The gentleman was sorely puzzled and demanded of Mike ‘if he knew what was the matter with the sheep.’

“YOU don’t know?” answered Mike very gravely.

“I do not,” replied the gentleman.

“Did you ever hear of the black murrain?” asked Mike in a confidential whisper.

“Yes,” said the sheep owner in a terrified reply.

“Well, that’s it” said Mike. “All the sheep upriver’s got it dreadful. Dyin’ like rotten dogs- hundreds a day.”

“You don’t say so,” answered the victim, “and is there no cure for it?”

“Only one as I knows on,” was the reply. “You see the murrain’s dreadful catchin’, and ef you don’t git them away as is got it, they’ll kill the whole flock. Better shoot ‘em right-off; they’ve got to die anyway.”

“But no man could single out the infected sheep and shoot them from among the flock,” said the gentleman.

“My name’s Mike Fink!” was the curt reply. And it was answer enough. The gentleman begged Mike to shoot the infected sheep and throw them into the river. This was exactly what Mike wanted, but he pretended to resist.

“It mought be a mistake,” he said; “they’ll may be git well. He didn’t like to shoot manny’s sheep on his own say so. He’d better go an’ ask some of the neighbors ef it was the murrain sure ‘nuf.”

“The gentleman insisted, and Mike modestly resisted, until finally he was promised a couple of gallons of old Peach Brandy if be would comply. His scruples thus finally overcome, Mike shot the sheep, threw them into the eddy and got the brandy. After dark, the men jumped into the water, hauled the sheep aboard, and by daylight had them neatly packed away and were gliding merrily down the stream.”



Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot

Posted by | August 25, 2016

“Bullets and ballots are not companions;” said Lizzie French in a famous 1912 speech to the Tenneesee Bar Association, “but ballots in the hands of people are supposed to be a substitute for bullets in the hands of hired agents…Thanks be to God that in giving women the crown of motherhood he made her the giver not the taker of life. Woman has no greater claim to the rights of the ballot than she is a producer not a destroyer of life.”

Elizabeth Crozier French, born this date in 1851, was at the time the recently elected president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association, Inc. When the first woman in Tennessee history to address the organization took the podium, she delivered what many scholars believe today was one of her greatest messages stating her position on the state’s law forbidding women from voting. French was never one to sit still, and knew her best strategy as president of the state’s suffrage organization would be to take her message straight to the Tennessee Bar Association.

Elizabeth Crozier FrenchAs the daughter of an attorney and an out-spoken leader in the women’s movement, French wasn’t at all intimidated by the men seated in front of her. Her speech was put into the record of the Tennessee Bar Association as an “Address on Women’s Rights” and became a much quoted theme in the South’s growing number of suffrage groups. French continued her work in Knoxville founding and serving as president of the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Society and becoming a leading member of the National Women’s Party.

From this speech forward, French began her all-out fight to see that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment – now more than 30 years old and regarded as a dead piece of legislation in Congress – was added to the United States Constitution.

The bill and the labors of women like Lizzie Crozier French were having some impact on women’s rights in America. Some states had begun giving women greater control over their property, a few had made divorce easier for those in abusive relationships, and women were slowly gaining access to the courts in their ability to sue for damages.

Finally on August 25, 1919, Tennessee certified the ratification becoming the 36th state and making the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution the law of the land giving women the right to vote.

Lizzie C. French and the Suffragists across America cheered passage of the 19th Amendment, and French joined women across Tennessee in casting their first votes that following November. In addition, French went on to help found the Knoxville chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Lizzie C. French remained an active member of the Knoxville community and made a bid for City Council in 1923, but was defeated. Three years later the 75-year-old Lizzie C. French traveled to Washington, D.C. to help the National Women’s Party furnish a room in honor of the Tennessee suffragists and also secure introduction of a bill in Congress to benefit working women in America. On May 14, 1926, while still in Washington, D.C., the Tennessean quietly passed away.

Her body was returned to her hometown in Knoxville where she was laid to rest in the City’s Old Gray Cemetery – leaving behind a legacy that is still felt to this day.


Lizzie+French Tennessee+Equal+Suffrage+Association Knoxville+TN suffragists appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history


The Red Neck Army marches to Blair Mountain

Posted by | August 24, 2016

The Battle of Blair Mountain marked a turning point in the national movement to better the conditions of working people by demanding the legalization of unions. It was the largest armed labor confrontation in U.S. history, and it began on August 24, 1921.

The highway historical marker erected last April by the state of West Virginia in front of the United Mine Workers headquarters in downtown Charleston honoring him claims organizer Bill Blizzard had mobilized 7,000 striking miners; other estimates place the figure as high as 13,000.

West Virginia coal operators did all they could to oppose unionism. The main problem was that mine workers were forced to sign legally binding “yellow-dog” contracts (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) under which miners pledged not to join a union or risked forfeiting their jobs as well as the right to live in company housing. In exchange they were paid next to nothing, had no freedom of speech or assembly, and were killed with impunity by mine guards and local politicos in an atmosphere akin to a third-world dictatorship.

By the summer of 1921 the “Red Neck Army” was outraged over the years of brutality and lawless exploitation. And so the miners picked up their Winchesters and gathered at Marmet (near Charleston) that summer morning, and from there began marching on Logan and Mingo counties — the last two non-union counties in West Virginia.

State Police and Mine Guards in the Trenches on Blair MountainBlair Mountain, a 1,600-acre ridge located to the southwest, stood between the Armed March and their destination. About three hundred deputies and mine guards, under Sheriff Don Chafin, waited for the marchers in fortified positions in a fifteen-mile-long battle line along the crest, commanding the high passes. The coal companies paid Chafin some $32,000 per year to keep the UMW out of Logan County.

Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17, met with Governor John J. Cornwell and General J. H. Bandholtz, and Federal troops were promised to the region. Keeney set out on the road to try and head off this violent confrontation.

“I’ve told you men God knows how many times that any time you want to do battle against Don Chafin and his thugs I’ll be right there in the front lines with you. I’ve been there before and you know it. But this time you’ve got more than Don Chafin against you. You’ve got more than the governor of West Virginia against you [boos]. You’ve got the government of the United States against you!

“Now I’m telling you for your own good and for the good of the cause, you’ve got to do it. Break up this march. Go home. Get back to your jobs. You’ve got Uncle Sam on your side now, and he won’t let you down. You can fight the government of West Virginia, but by God you can’t fight the government of the United States.”

The appeal worked. The men grumbled but began to head home. Trains began arriving to take the miners home. It looked like a showdown wouldn’t happen after all.

Then a rumor spread among the miners: They are shooting women and children at Sharples!

What had happened was that heedless of the truce between General Bandholtz and the governor, Chapin and his men had crept down from Blair Mountain intent on arresting the ringleaders of the miners. A shootout erupted and several miners were killed before Chapin and his men were driven off.

The miners returned to their march and the battle was on.

The following day the miners made a major push on the front line.

“Logan County deputies were driven down the hillside in a skirmish with an armed force from the other side of Spruce Fork Ridge, Captain I. G. Hollingsworth reported at 7 o’clock. Heavy fighting continued on two other sectors of the line during the afternoon and evening.

“‘We intend to hold our lines with all the power at our command,’ Colonel W. E. Eubanks [commanding officer of the militia] said. ‘We have 1,200 men in the line and fighting is continuing in the Blair sector and along Crooked Creek.'”

The battle raged for nearly a week. Chafin called in reinforcements from other counties, and even offered prisoners freedom if they fought for the non-union defenders.

By August 30 the defenders had massed themselves at Craddock Fork of Hewett Creek and felt they were about to break through. At that point Chafin began contracting private airplane pilots at $100 a day to fly over the miners and drop homemade bombs on them.

The bombing was largely ineffective, but it made the event interesting enough that newspapers from around the country began sending war correspondents.

Several times the miners nearly broke through the defenses, but were driven back each time. Eventually President Harding intervened with a declaration of martial law, and sent 2,000 U.S. Army troops armed with poison gas. He also sent a fleet of bombers commanded by General Billy Mitchell, but they were never used except to drop a couple bombs in a demonstration of military potential.

The federal troops met with Bill Blizzard and gave the presidential order to desist. Blizzard spread the word and then high-tailed it out of there. The rest of the miners hid their guns on the side of the mountain and headed for home. It was no longer an army, just a bunch of tired and dirty men trying to get home. The undeclared civil war was over.

The union had suffered a crushing defeat. Between 20 and 50 people had been killed in the battle on both sides. An unknown number had been wounded, probably in the hundreds.

Blizzard and some of his colleagues were indicted for treason, but later acquitted during a trial in a Harper’s Ferry courtroom. UMW organizing efforts in southern WV were halted until 1933.

Sources: The Battle of Blair Mountain, by Robert Shogan, Westview Press, 2004

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