Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 3, 2014

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 guest author C. Richard Dean. “While I was an active professor in communication disorders at Ohio University,” he says, “I learned of the book The Life and Times of Ephraim Cutler. I soon became aware how much more Ephraim had done for SE Ohio, Ohio University and the State of Ohio than his father, Manasseh, the man credited for the establishment of Ohio University.” Dr. Dean has portrayed Ephraim Cutler as a history presenter for over 15 years now.

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.

“They would meet there every day and sit on an antique church bench behind the checkout counter. I can recall numerous times being in Dillion’s Superette while my grandfather and his friends told stories of their youth,” says William Jones, a member of the John Henry Historical Society. “When Dillion’s Superette was still open, it was the focal point of the annual John Henry Days festival here in Talcott, WV. It featured the Talcott Area Memorabilia Room, as well as a vast collection of railroad memorabilia.” The John Henry Historical Society is currently refurbishing the Dillion’s Superette building to house a brand new John Henry Museum.

We’ll wrap things up with guest author Adam MacPharlain of the Kentucky Historical Society. “In the early 20th century, one company in the small town of Berea, KY,” he tells us, “rose up to become one of the nation’s foremost companies to specialize in handweaving. The company, Churchill Weavers, played a pivotal role in expanding the visibility of handwoven goods through its business practices, marketing, design, and willingness to experiment.”

And thanks to the good folks at Columbia Record Archives, we’ll be able to enjoy some authentic Appalachian music from Gid Tanner & His Skillet-Lickers in a 1928 recording of Hog Killing Day.

So call your old Plott hound up on the porch, fire up your corncob pipe, and settle in for a dose of Appalachian history.

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How Scottish dances got their names

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 1, 2014

Please welcome guest author Jennifer Cox. Cox is an instructor for the West Virginia 4-H Dance Ambassadors. She is also an instructor for the state’s 4-H Music and Dance Weekend, where 400 West Virginia 4-Hers spend a weekend at Jackson’s Mill every March, and learn a variety of types of heritage dancing. Cox has been the coordinator for the heritage dancing at the Vandalia Gathering for the last 20 years.


Growing up in rural West Virginia has always been a benefit to me. At the age of nine I joined 4-H and had a 4-H extension agent who was what most would say an ‘eccentric hippy.’  Looking back on that time I consider myself very lucky, because it was through 4-H and the guidance of Jane George that I learned to expand my horizons.

Jennifer Cox leads her highland dancers at the 2014 Vandalia Gathering, Charleston, WV. Photo courtesy WV Division of Culture & History.

Jennifer Cox leads her highland dancers at the 2014 Vandalia Gathering, Charleston, WV. Photo courtesy WV Division of Culture & History.

Jane taught dance groups in several different counties as an extension agent. I was fortunate to be one of those whom she taught to do heritage dancing. Initially she taught me Scottish and Irish dancing, and later folk and square dancing. Along with learning the dances we also learned the heritage, traditions and stories behind them.

As an adult I have tried to keep these dances alive by working through 4-H to reach out and teach what I was taught.

The most interesting part of the dancing, for me, is the stories behind the dances. I would like to share some of that with you, focusing on Scottish dances.

Legends/folklore about Highland (Scottish) dancing

The Highland Fling- a solo dance that was said to be danced upon a shield with a spike in the middle (a Targe). The dance was performed on the ball of the foot due to the spike. For most of the dance the arms are up with the hands making the head and antlers of a stag by putting the thumb and middle finger together (the head) and the three remaining fingers up (the horns). The movement of the feet and turning is said to represent the stag playing. One legend for this dance is that it was a victory dance performed at the end of a battle.

Solo Sword Dance- This dance has different legends. The tune for this dance is Ghillie Callum. The dance dates back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero against one of Macbeth’s chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054. After winning the battle it was said that he crossed his bloody sword with the sword of the defeated chief and danced.

Scottish postcard illustrating The Sword Dance Ghillie Callum. Collection of Edinburgh University / School of Literature / Language and Cultures / Celtic and Scottish Studies; special acknowledgement to Carol Stubbs of Edinburgh.

Scottish postcard illustrating The Sword Dance Ghillie Callum. Collection of Edinburgh University / School of Literature / Language and Cultures / Celtic and Scottish Studies; special acknowledgement to Carol Stubbs of Edinburgh.

Another legend is that the night before a clan would go into battle, they would pick their best dancer to perform the dance. The sword would be crossed over the sheath (or over another sword). The dancer would then dance the first step around the outside of the sword and sheath and the remainder of the dance would be performed inside the 4 quadrants created by crossing the sheath and sword. The dancer would frequently have their feet in two different quadrants at the same time. The goal of the dancer was to never touch the sword or sheath while dancing. The legend states that if the dancer did touch the sword/sheath that the clan would lose in battle the following day. (Another version of this legend states that the dancer would have an untimely end.)

Blue Bonnet’s Over the Border- This is traditionally a ladies dance. Blue Bonnet is slang for a Scotsman. The dance was said to be a flirting dance to catch the eye of and flirt with a “Blue Bonnet”.

Strathspey & Half Tulloch- One origin of the Reel of Tulloch was said to be: on a cold morning in a church yard while the congregation was waiting on the minister, they whistled a highland tune and began to dance to keep warm.

A more gruesome legend of the dance is that the inhabitants of Tulloch played a game similar to football with the severed head of an enemy and the words of a Gaelic tune tell this story.

Strathspey & Half Tulloch is often used as a party dance and is also a dance that is now done in competitions.

16 Pas de basques and Pas de basques and High Cuts- These are beginner dances that are used to teach the technique and foot placements for two of the most used dance movements.

Seann Triubhas- The title of this dance means old trousers in Gaelic. This dance is said to represent the repeal of the proscription of the kilt by the English. After the failure of the Jacobite uprisings of 1745 the clans were forbidden to wear kilts/tartan. One reason said to be behind this is because the clans could identify their clan/relatives by the design and colors of the tartan. The English wanted to strip them of their identity. The bagpipes were also forbidden because they were an instrument of war. During battles the bagpipes could be used as a means of communication to send signals. If you visit a Scottish Military Museum you will see bagpipes on display. The first part of the dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt.

The first part of the Seann Triubhas dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt. Image courtesy Stéphane Béguinot

The first part of the Seann Triubhas dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt. Image courtesy Stéphane Béguinot

Highland Laddie- Hielan Laddie is the name of an ancient Scottish folk tune. There is also a poem by Robert Burns entitled “Highland Laddie, Highland Lassie”. The tune Highland Laddie was used by the Highland Regiments in the British Army as their regimental march. The dance originated between 1850-1860, and was said to be a tribute to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the “Highland Laddie”.

Argyll Broadswords- This dance is of Military origin and was commonly danced by the Scottish regiments of the army. The dance is usually performed by four dancers around swords that are placed to make a cross. One legend states that it was used as a form of calisthenics by the regiments.

The Sailor’s Hornpipe- This dance mimics a sailor in the Queen’s Navy doing work aboard a ship: hauling rope, sliding on the rollicking deck, and getting his paycheck. This dance is performed in a sailor’s uniform. The music for this dance was played on a hornpipe rather than bagpipes. Hornpipes were very common in those days and are similar to a tin whistle.

Scottish Lilt- National ladies’ dance that is very graceful. The timing of this dance is atypical because it has only six beats per measure. The tune used for this dance is ‘Battle of the Somme’- a World War I battle, fought July 1, 1916. Fifty eight thousand British troops died in this battle.

1749 portrait of Flora McDonald by Allan Ramsay. Courtesy Wikipedia.

1749 portrait of Flora McDonald by Allan Ramsay. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Flora McDonald’s Fancy- This dance is in honor of Flora McDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye, Scotland, during the Jacobite uprising in 1746, so he could flee to France after his defeat in the battle of Culloden. Flora dressed Bonnie Prince Charlie up as her Irish spinning maid, Betty Burke. She was later arrested and for a short time imprisoned in the Tower of London. After the Act of Indemnity was passed in 1747 she was released. She was married in 1750 and then immigrated to North Carolina. She did later return to the Isle of Skye where she died in 1790. Dr. Samuel Johnson, an English essayist, said of her “Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” This dance is to honor her heroism.

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ETSU Center hopes to clarify Appalachian misconceptions

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 31, 2014

The following article by Elizabeth Saulsbury ran in the Johnson City Press on July 26. It is re-posted here with permission.


In news, television, movies and popular culture, Appalachia is often depicted as drug-addicted, dirty, uneducated and impoverished. But the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services and The Appalachian Project are on a mission to change that.

The Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University celebrates the true cultural heritage of Appalachia by documenting and showcasing Appalachia’s past. This year marks the center’s 30th anniversary.

Haying on the Loyd Sizemore farm in Hancock County, TN (Vardy Lantern Collection/Courtesy of ETSU Archives of Appalachia)

Haying on the Loyd Sizemore farm in Hancock County, TN (Vardy Lantern Collection/Courtesy of ETSU Archives of Appalachia)

“The truth about any region can never be fully known because diverse perspectives see different ‘truths,’ ” said Roberta Herrin, center director. “Research is the key — research in all its forms. As part of an institution of higher education, the center is committed to research that captures these diverse perspectives, thereby helping to see a whole region, which is far more meaningful and interesting than the flat media representations that are so common.”

The center includes the Reece Museum and the Archives of Appalachia. It also publishes Now & Then, a magazine committed to the honest representation of all aspects of the Appalachian region.

“In the last 10 years, the center focused on curriculum and created the world’s only academic department devoted to the Appalachian region,” Herrin said. “This unique Department of Appalachian Studies houses the only B.A. in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies and a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies, one of two nationally.”

The Reece Museum exhibits the true nature of Appalachia’s past for ETSU and the community. It also displays the contemporary art and culture of the area. Herrin said the museum undermines negative stereotypes about Appalachia “by preserving material culture and interpreting or exhibiting it in new and evocative ways that help us see the region’s future.”

Female coal miner (Jeanne M. Rasmussen Collection/Courtesy of ETSU Archives of Appalachia)

Female coal miner (Jeanne M. Rasmussen Collection/Courtesy of ETSU Archives of Appalachia)

The Archives of Appalachia collects, preserves and shares the written words, sounds and images of the people of Appalachia. By preserving the documents and materials of a long-ago Appalachia, the archives serve both the ETSU community and the region in providing the facts and stories of the past.

“A lot of times, people come in and want to know specific things about the people’s history and the region’s history,” said Laura Smith, education and outreach activist for the Archives of Appalachia. “We can let people delve into that by providing preserved documentation and materials from that history.”

Smith said that in their role as a research facility, they serve an vital role in the community.

“That’s why we’re important,” Smith said. “We show the region things that were created by Appalachia, not just for Appalachia.”

Herrin said the center also hosts one of Tennessee’s Governor’s Schools, a residential program for high school students that explores the region through history, paleontology, museum studies and archival studies.

“What better way is there to combat negative representations of the region than to engage high school and college students in meaningful dialogue about Appalachia?” asked Herrin.

Awareness about the importance of uncovering the true stories of Appalachia is spreading throughout the region as organizations, projects, films and documentaries on the subject are being created by locals. As the center celebrates 30 years, Herrin is hopeful it has many more years of educating the public in store.

“Because there are many ‘truths’ about Appalachia’s identity and history, the best we can do is provide a lens through which all the different perspectives can be seen and examined,” Herrin said.

Johnson City resident Shane Simmons is on a similar mission. He and his partner, Jason Barton, are in the process of creating a documentary that will showcase the culture and heritage of Appalachia.

Simmons and Barton are making the film as part of The Appalachian Project, which will feature the stories and memories of a long-ago Appalachia.

Shane Simmons (l) and Jason Barton. Photo courtesy David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier

Shane Simmons (l) and Jason Barton. Photo courtesy David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier

“Certainly the documentary is where a lot of our focus and attention is right now, but we developed The Appalachian Project as something more than just a documentary,” Simmons said. “Our mission for The Appalachian Project is to present the culture, traditions and most importantly, the people of our part of the world in a positive, accurate way that isn’t always reflected by media and television coverage that tends to often spotlight sensationalized stereotypes for entertainment purposes.”

In order to accomplish this, the filmmakers are not only searching for stories from the region’s senior citizens, but also from groups of people who are considered minorities in Appalachia.

“We are also looking for stories from African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities in Appalachia who don’t fit the stereotype of the poor white moonshiner that often comes to mind when discussing the area, but who are very much a large part of our communities and history,” Simmons said.

Simmons said that he and Barton hope to not only help the public to understand the truth about Appalachia, but also spur local residents to a greater appreciation of the area.

“The real tragedy to me is that it seems some people in our area buy into the negative images and don’t appreciate our heritage like they should,” said Simmons. “We are striving to change that by promoting a sense of Appalachian pride as we have a history and uniqueness to which no other region in the country can compare. Our goal is not just to show a more complete picture for people away from the area, but also to create a sense of identity and unity for those of us still residing here.”

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Coca Cola’s restoration of ‘ghost murals’ in Appalachia

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 30, 2014

Please welcome guest author Lauren C. Steele. Steele, who is Sr. VP of Coca-Cola Consolidated, grew up in Auburn, AL. He worked as press secretary for a US Senator before starting his 32-year career in the Coca-Cola system. He and his wife live in Charlotte, NC and have two grown children and one grandchild. He has a passion for both Coca-Cola memorabilia and small town America.


Times Square is known as the ‘Crossroads of the World’ and indeed tens of millions of people from around the globe visit each year—and by doing so they get a first-hand look at the most famous sign in the world—the Times Square Coca-Cola Spectacular.

Hinton, WV sign before repainting.

Hinton, WV sign before repainting.

Hinton, WV sign after repainting.

Hinton, WV sign after repainting.

But long before this iconic New York landmark first debuted in 1920, thousands of Coca-Cola wall murals decorated the fronts and sides of buildings in the downtowns of American cities, big and small—towns like Hinton, WV and hundreds of others throughout Appalachia and the rural South.

The very first Coca-Cola wall mural is believed to have been painted on the side of a drug store in Cartersville, GA in 1894. Back then, Coca-Cola was brand new and unknown, so these early advertisements were used to introduce the drink that would one day become the world’s best-selling beverage and the most recognized and beloved brand in the world.

Shortly after marketing genius Asa Candler bought the little known beverage in 1891, he commissioned sign painters to fan out across the country to extol the virtues of the fledgling drink. “Delicious and Refreshing’, ‘Relieves Fatigue & Exhaustion’, The Pause That Refreshes’, ‘Work Refreshed’, ‘You Can Trust Its Quality’, and ‘Take Some Home Today’ were among the many early Coca-Cola advertising tag lines.

By 1910, a quarter of The Coca-Cola Company’s advertising budget was dedicated to wall murals with seemingly every town and crossroads having its own Coca-Cola sign painted on the side of a building. We believe as many as 16,000 wall murals were painted by the Company and its many local bottlers. Candler once famously boasted that a motion picture couldn’t be made anywhere in America without capturing the image of a Coca-Cola wall mural advertisement.

But over the decades most of the once-gleaming signs faded and many became almost unrecognizable. Others were destroyed or painted over. Sadly the dilapidated condition of many of these ‘ghost signs’ mirrored the circumstances of the downtowns where they were located. Many once-thriving, charming downtowns became virtual ghost towns as young people moved to cities and businesses abandoned city centers for the by-pass and the suburbs.

At Coca-Cola Consolidated, we recognize that these ghost signs are an important part of Coca-Cola’s history. But more importantly, the faded wall murals are part of the history of each of the towns where they exist; often treasured landmarks and nostalgic connections to the past. But it took the prodding of Concord, NC Mayor Scott Padgett to convince us we needed to play an active role in preserving this important part of our company’s heritage.

Concord, NC sign before repainting.

Concord, NC sign before repainting.

Concord, NC sign after repainting.

Concord, NC sign after repainting.

Concord had a Coca-Cola mural at its main downtown intersection which dated back to the 1960s, but it was badly faded and largely covered by a metal structure. As part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, Mayor Padgett wanted to uncover and repaint the iconic sign—and he convinced us to repair the building and refurbish the sign.

We turned to a bona fide expert for help, Andy Thompson, who had painted hundreds of Coca-Cola signs for our company over a 50-year career. He did a wonderful job restoring the masterpiece to its former glory.

Brides now pose in front of the Concord sign, and it has been prominently featured in television advertising for several local businesses and is once again a landmark in now-vibrant downtown Concord.

Local media coverage caught the attention of a group of young men in nearby Salisbury, NC, who had a passion for their hometown and were working to revitalize that community’s downtown. Creating a link between one of the earliest forms of media and one of the newest, these young people launched a Facebook campaign to promote restoring ghost signs in Salisbury. Coca-Cola Consolidated joined in and refurbished two badly faded Coca-Cola ghost signs.

Charlotte-based Coca-Cola Consolidated is the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the US, and we do business in 11 states stretching from Mississippi to West Virginia. We asked our family of 6,000 employees to help us identify ghost signs in the communities we have served since our company was founded in 1902. We discovered lots of Coca-Cola ghost signs and have partnered with elected officials and community leaders in a growing number of communities to restore these beloved wall murals. The list includes two signs in North Wilkesboro, NC; two ghost signs in Mebane, NC; a massive wall mural in Hendersonville, NC; and several signs in Roanoke, VA among others.

To celebrate each sign repainting, we have held community ribbon-cutting events. The outpouring of support has been truly humbling. Large crowds have come to each event, with old-timers sharing their stories of what the sign meant to the town before it faded into an almost unrecognizable ghost sign. We have learned that these signs are much more than an advertisement painted on a wall. They are an important part of the community. We are very glad that the refurbishing of these ghost signs often serves as a kick-start for downtown revitalization efforts.

North Wilkesboro, NC sign repainting in process.

North Wilkesboro, NC sign repainting in process.

North Wilkesboro, NC sign after repainting.

North Wilkesboro, NC sign after repainting.

And we have good news for those who share our love of Coca-Cola wall murals: the fine art of wall mural painting is alive and well more than 120 years after the first wall sign was painted. One very talented artist, Jack Fralin, from Roanoke, VA, has just this year painted several Coca-Cola ghost signs.

Recently, Coca-Cola Consolidated held three community ribbon-cutting celebrations in Virginia and West Virginia, and each was special in many ways. In Rocky Mount, VA, the refurbished sign is located on our old bottling facility and the ghost sign dated back to 1929.

The building now houses a brand new restaurant, the Bootlegger Café, and more than 200 people came out to celebrate the new sign, eat great food from the new restaurant, and order a delicious ice-cold Coca-Cola in an iconic glass bottle. Just up the road in Ronceverte, WV, community leaders and former Coca-Cola employees turned out to celebrate the repainting of a 1920s mural on a former Coke plant that is now the town’s recycling center.

But the largest Coca-Cola mural we have refurbished to date was unveiled in Hinton, WV. The 100 year old mural—originally painted in 1914—is a whopping 17 feet high and more than 60 feet wide and is part of a major revitalization effort in downtown Hinton. At the turn of the 20th Century, Hinton was a boomtown, with a downtown featuring high-rise buildings, two large hotels, restaurants, bars and a hospital. Built as a railroad town at the junction of the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone Rivers, Hinton has suffered from years of economic decline. We are proud that the massive refurbished Coca-Cola mural is playing a role in Hinton’s resurgence.

All of us at Coca-Cola Consolidated have been humbled by the heart-felt emotional reaction we have experienced by community leaders and residents of each town. These ghost signs are a proud part of the history of Coca-Cola, but we discovered they are so much more than a painted sign to the people of these towns. The signs are part of their histories as well. It has been heartening for us to hear all the ‘Coke stories’ of people who grew up with the wall murals and to create new ‘Coke stories’ for the young people who came to our events. Entire communities have come together to celebrate the revitalization efforts in their towns and to enjoy a good, cold delicious Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola has been part of the American life for more than 128 years, and the ghost signs are living testaments to that enduring connection between Coke and the American experience. Because of recent media coverage, our ghost sign project has been ‘discovered’ and we have been contacted by dozens of communities to work with them in restoring their Coca-Cola wall signs. We have years of work ahead of us, but we are on the lookout for more. Stay tuned!

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‘Mountain Girls’ Celebrates the West Virginian Identity

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 29, 2014

Stephanie KarasPlease welcome guest author Stephanie Kadel Taras. Taras has just published Mountain Girls. The book features the lifelong friendship of two girls from Elkins, WV, whose resilience, humor, and creativity shape unexpected lives. Inspired by stories from other West Virginia women, they learn what generations of Appalachians have long known—it’s up to you to make the life you want. Taras’ personal biography firm TimePieces Personal Biographies, LLC, gathers and preserves clients’ stories into heirloom books that record the passing of time.


The view as I drove toward Riverside High School, just south of Charleston, was a typical West Virginia mix of beauty and industry, with the mile-long DuPont chemical plant on a stretch of the Kanawha River framed by lush green hills. I had come to give a talk about my new book, Mountain Girls, at a public library that was located within the high school, just beyond the tiny town of Belle. My self-published book had come out a few months previously, and in May 2014, I left my current home in Michigan to return to my childhood home state of West Virginia for a brief book tour.

As I pulled into the parking lot of a modern white brick building, I was feeling a little deflated. My book talk the previous night in downtown Charleston had attracted only three attendees, and I worried that this daytime talk would be even less successful. But when I arrived at Riverside, the librarian said, “Well, at least we know you’ll have a good turn out for this one.”

Mountain Girls cover

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because two of the high school teachers are bringing their classes. Didn’t I tell you?”

This was news to me! I looked at the clock. They would arrive in about five minutes. And I hadn’t prepared a talk for teenagers.
But I knew this was an opportunity. After all, Mountain Girls is partially about two teenage girls—my best friend and I growing up in the small West Virginia town of Elkins. And it’s also a book about possibilities, about how you can grow up to love your Appalachian roots without letting those roots hold you back from your full potential. If I could figure out a way to reach these young people with my story, maybe I could even have a modest impact on somebody’s future.

Mountain Girls was not specifically written for a young audience, but it is a book for anyone who treasures their Appalachian identity. I doubted most of these young people—who now sat facing me, bored and skeptical, but not talking or asleep—had given much thought to their identity as West Virginians. But I knew something they didn’t yet know: wherever their lives took them, being West Virginian would eventually mean a lot to them.

It was my own longing for the mountains and curiosity about why West Virginia had such a hold on me that led me to write this book. I wasn’t born there, and I moved away at age sixteen, but even though I’ve lived in Michigan most of the past 25 years, I have kept going back to Elkins, wanting to understand more about where I grew up and what it means to be West Virginian.

As a professional writer and personal biographer, I had the idea to write a social history of my childhood home. I originally intended to write about other women, not myself. I planned to interview older women about their lives on mountain farms, about gardening and canning and cooking, about raising children and playing music and “living out” in mountain hollers—to capture a way of life and a body of knowledge that had pretty much disappeared in a single generation. I did some interviews, and I did a lot of reading about West Virginia history.

Then I started to write. And a different story began to tell itself. I found I kept writing about my own life and family and how my experiences in Elkins shaped the independent woman I became. I also wrote about my best friend, Lisa, whose family had lived in West Virginia for centuries before she moved away after college. I wrote scenes from our high school years and present-day stories about our work lives and love lives and trips back home to drive the mountain roads and eat beans and cornbread.

I still wrote about other women, too, about our mothers and our peers and women’s choices in the past and present. I also wrote about the Scots Irish settlers and the origins of old time music and the ecology of the Monongahela National Forest and the role of West Virginia in the Civil War.

The book took shape slowly over ten years, while my life and Lisa’s life continued to change even as we looked to our childhood home for help in making sense of who we had become. In the end, Mountain Girls emerged as a combination memoir and social history that introduces West Virginia to outsiders and taps into a deeply shared story for those who know the region best.

Did those teenagers care about any of this? Well, who can really say? But I told them about my life as a self-employed writer, and I read to them about being a good friend, and I tried to describe what West Virginia means to me now. I hoped to encourage a sense of pride and a belief that they could do whatever they want. They asked a few questions, and a teacher assured me afterward that the students had been unusually attentive. Well, at least none of them fell asleep.

WV map

Excerpt from Mountain Girls:

West By God Virginia.

I’ve been telling people in Michigan about my recent trips to West Virginia to reconnect with my hometown, my old friends, and new stories of old places.

“Hope you have a great trip to Virginia,” says a woman who has known me for years.

“How was Virginia?” asks another woman upon my return to Ann Arbor. We’re shopping at Zingerman’s Deli—Ann Arbor’s coolest and priciest fancy food store.

“I was in West Virginia,” I say, as I dip a piece of baguette in a tasting cup of extra virgin olive oil. I know that correcting people’s minor mistakes in conversation is awkward and unkind, but I do try to clarify “West Virginia” when they get it wrong. I can’t figure out if most people have never heard that one of the fifty states is called West Virginia, if they don’t see the need to distinguish between the two states, or if they just can’t believe that’s the place I mean.

If it sinks in that I’m talking about a different state from Virginia, and which state that is, their faces suddenly change like they’re thinking, “You grew up in that place of inbred hicks and barefoot children and black lung? How did you make it out of there?” Maybe, as we’re standing together buying aged balsamic vinegar and cocoa-dusted almonds, it’s easier for them to imagine me growing up in Richmond or Norfolk or Alexandria.

West Virginia writer John O’Brien describes having the same experiences during the years he and his wife lived outside of the state. He found that while people often didn’t know anything about West Virginia, or thought he was talking about western Virginia, they did know about Appalachia, and the images of poverty and hillbillies the term tends to conjure. He deemed such conversations an “odd confusion in the background of our lives.”

When I have tried to bring clarity to such confusion, some people simply wave off the distinction between West Virginia and Virginia. The West doesn’t seem to register at all, as if I just tried to distinguish between Roquefort and bleu cheese. I want to point out that West Virginia seceded from Virginia and really doesn’t have anything to do with that other state of urban riches, Atlantic coastline, and southern charm. But I don’t know if I should remind them of the Civil War, when West Virginia managed to become its own state, while never seeming to embrace its Yankee status … for example what about the fact that my junior high school was built on Robert E. Lee Avenue? Or that southern accents and sausage gravy flow freely among the folks of West Virginia?

History has revealed that the people of this region were by no means in agreement on the matter of separating, or even particularly opposed to southern priorities. After all, the new state’s constitution did not outlaw slavery or free the slaves living there. And when the war started, many young men left their homes in western Virginia to join with the Rebels. If they were lucky enough to return after the war, they found themselves living in a new state.

Consider Stonewall Jackson. When I was a teenager, I went to a weekend church camp every fall at Jackson’s Mill, a historic property near Weston, West Virginia, that belonged to the family of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. A huge portrait of this famous soldier in his Confederate uniform hung over the fireplace in the dark meeting hall, looking down on us campers as we ate spaghetti at long wooden tables. West Virginians continue to honor him as their own, because he was born in Clarksburg and grew up at Jackson’s Mill. But Stonewall Jackson always considered himself a loyal Virginian. During the war, he begged to be transferred back to his home territory to roust the Unionists from what had become West Virginia.

Today, West Virginians celebrate Stonewall Jackson and other vestiges of southern heritage without any apparent identity crisis. It’s as if they dare outsiders to say they can’t be both loyalist and rebel. Why can’t they have southern charm and northern hospitality, southern grit and northern wit? Having it both ways means they don’t have to accept either way. They can simply be a unique people, somewhere between, not of, the north or the south. Wild and wonderful. Hip holy rollers. Refined rednecks. Living atop the Cultural Continental Divide.

When I was a child, I jealously defended my state from Yankees who called it southern. Long before I understood the social, historical, and political identities of the South, long before I knew much about the Civil War, I was a staunch defender of West Virginia to outsiders from farther north. I thought the weather would demonstrate the difference. “We aren’t southern,” I used to say. “It’s too cold. School is always being called off for snow days.” Perhaps I felt that paying the dues of harsh winters gave me the bragging rights of a northerner.

But I had no particular sense of a northern identity, either. I simply always wanted to be West Virginian. And I wanted others to see that West Virginians were not what those outsiders imagined. We didn’t all go barefoot and have coal mines in our backyards, as some kid at a camp in New York asked my sister. We ate fast food and listened to cool music and bought Chuck Taylors if we wanted them. As a teenager, I was awakening to what the rest of the world thought of my beloved state, but I wasn’t ready then to stand up for its unique culture. I wanted to prove we were just like everybody else.

A few years ago, I was watching television at home in Ann Arbor the day Martha Stewart was released from a prison in West Virginia. I noticed that every time the news media mentioned her prison stay, they always noted its location. Do you think they would have done that if the prison had been in New York? (Of course, even if the media had repeatedly said it was in New York, no New Yorker would have cared.) But I think it sounded to the reporters like extra punishment to send the queen of hand-made wreaths and elegant table settings to serve her time in unclean, backward West Virginia, where Martha was appalled to discover she couldn’t get a fresh lemon.

Today, I purposely tell people I’m from West Virginia because I like how it sounds. Although being a native-born Floridian is in itself unusual, there’s nothing much interesting about saying I’m from Florida or from Michigan. I like being from somewhere unexpected and unfamiliar. It’s the same mystique about West Virginia that other people disdain that makes me proud—and therefore complicit in rendering West Virginia abnormal. Similarly, I want to use the state to hide from outsiders while simultaneously ensuring that West Virginia is acknowledged by them. No wonder everyone else is confused. . . .

I’m sitting in my home office when the phone rings. I can see on the caller ID that Lisa is calling. Even though I’m anxious for new clients to call, I’m relieved to see it’s just her.

I pick it up and say, “Hey.”

“Hey. Guess what? I got my passport in the mail today.”


Lisa is planning her first international trip, and it is her first-ever passport. I’m excited about her plans to see Europe with some friends. I’ve been twice to Europe, once as a child with my mother and once for a semester in college, so I’ve had a passport since I was eleven.

“So I opened the passport,” she says, “and guess what they have as my state of birth?”

“Oh no.”


We laugh—a familiar, despairing laugh. We’ve heard this joke before.

3 Responses

  • Excellent blog, Stephanie! So much of it resonated with me. As a woman from West Virginia, oftentimes I’ve also often had to make the geographic distinction.

  • Kim says:

    You and Marie are excellent ambassadors for West Virginia. Keep spreading the word!

  • Rob Escow says:

    Great job on the book and glad you are touching more and more lives telling the tale of your life and book. Although you moved to Michigan, and I moved away, we consider you to be a Michigander! Best to you and Jeff and all the A2 folk. Hope the garden is lush this Summer! Big hugs and much love, Rob…

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