Embracing Appalachian history to build for the future


Lecturer, History
University of North Georgia
Phone: 706-864-1541
Email: barry.whittemore@ung.edu



As you’re watching these times play out right now, are there lessons you think we have not learned from the past? Or that small towns in Appalachia have not learned from the past?
We’ve not learned to take care of ourselves. One of the big problems I think is when we look to the outside, to some large corporation or some large business to come in and save us. Like the people in Tennessee found out, Toyota can giveth, and Toyota can taketh away. They can get the new Saturn plant, but then they stop making Saturns and what have you got?

In my dissertation, I studied eight small towns in Southwest Virginia [in the 90s], and the ones who were dependent on outside development lasted the shortest. The ones who had regional development did okay, but never really grew. The ones who really grew and developed were the ones where all the work was done by the local people. It was their town, they took care of it and they weren’t dependent on an outside force to fund their dreams, to give them any sort of regularity.

It’s really doing it homegrown, and relying on yourself and the resources you have around you, which are sometimes considerable.  We take things for granted that are really close. I think one of the things we may start seeing in Appalachia now a lot, that we have a really good chance at, would be things like local food ways, having small farmers in the area. I’ve been to some really good farm-to-table restaurants in Appalachia. Local distilleries and craft brewers and these sorts of things, more artists. People, I think, are really tired of the machine-made, mass-produced stuff. We’ve got enough stuff from Walmart to last us the rest of our lives. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something handmade or homemade? That has a little bit more character to it, speaks of the place where we live?

What other lessons emerged from the work that you did in your dissertation?
There were sort of three things. One was the direct relationship between how far away money came, and how quickly the town collapsed. Another was the complexity of the business. If you were dependent on iron mining, or timbering or something like that, once the timber was cut, you’re out of luck. Troutdale, Virginia, was a huge town at one time and then the timber was gone, they took up the tracks and it went away. The other is transportation. You’ve got to get to it fairly easily. Local involvement, transportation, and a diverse, complex economy is a pretty good recipe for success.

What do you most wish town managers and mayors in small towns knew, but don’t know?
I wish they knew their heritage. I have a lot of students who come into my Appalachian history classes and they say, ‘I want to teach here, but I don’t know my own history.’ They don’t realize the richness that’s around them. I think it’s really important to protect your local environment. That’s our real selling point, people really like that. And I think, especially right now, it is under serious threat. We could lose all of that, and the uniqueness and beauty of our area would go away.

It’s looking to your local resources and not worrying about what they are doing in Richmond or Raleigh or New York or wherever it is, but to look local and take care of yourself and probably to build coalitions with other small towns in their area. If one town has one interest and another town has another small interest, if two or three of them can get together, they can market themselves as a group, rather than just trying to compete with all their friends doing the same thing. They get that “This is Main Street USA”  [attitude], and we’re going to replicate something that exists in someone’s imagination of what 1900 looked like, and it’s never what we were really like. Stick with what you’ve got. You’ve got good stuff, so rely on that. Don’t try to pretend to be somebody else.

What do you make of people believing that coal jobs are coming back, steel jobs are coming back?
No, they never will. There’s not that many coal jobs now, and most of them are basically heavy construction. They are doing mountaintop removal and strip mining. The coal market is going away.  The easy coal is out. They just built a new steel plant I think in Youngstown, it’s going to employ 400 people, not 4,000 people. Hoping that those jobs— they have been sold a bill of goods. “Vote for me, I’ll bring back the coal jobs” – that won’t happen. I think people have been hoodwinked. We need to find something else.

Maybe we could take some of those areas that have been stripped down and put windmills on them or something, because that land is dead, and I don’t think those jobs are coming back. It won’t be like it used to be.  It’ll never be like it used to be. The world has changed, the easy coal has gone. As long as we’re in a free market, there are people in the third world now who can make steel a lot cheaper then we can. It would be nice, but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, but my mother was from Carroll County, Laurel Fork.  We looked forward every year to going up and visiting our grandmother more then we looked forward to Christmas. That’s why my brother and I both came to Virginia Tech, I did my first master’s at Radford, and the area I studied was actually in Southwest Virginia, Carroll/Grayson County.

You said people don’t know their heritage. Sometimes heritage is used as a synonym for “I’m for the Confederate flag.” What did you mean by heritage?
There’s a county just north of where I live now [in Georgia], and they were the Fannin County Rebels, and they used to have the cannon and the flag runners and things like that. During the Civil War, one-fourth of the men from Fannin County who enlisted in the Confederate army deserted. They didn’t throw down their guns and run, but they realized this was not their fight after a year and they went home, because the local issues were more important to them. We weren’t all Confederates, we weren’t all Union people. Most people in Appalachia were more worried about their valley, their community, and how they could take care of it. We didn’t have a dog in that hunt. We got all excited and went off, some of us fought for the whole time, some of us did it for a year and came home. It’s a made up heritage.

If you really know the history of your area– In Carroll County, a prominent lawyer told me once years ago that he was the darling of the UDC, because he was able to prove that that county had more volunteers per capita than any other county. He said ‘what I never told them, and probably should have, is that we may have had the highest rate of desertion also.’ It was like everybody went off in a big blaze of glory, but then it wasn’t what they counted on, it wasn’t what they were signed up for. They started the draft and all of a sudden, people said ‘I didn’t sign up for a draft. I came here for a year, and now I’m going home.’

There’s a lot of things we miss like that—our local folk ways and food ways, as well as that. There’s the idea that our heritage is hot biscuits. Well, that’s wheat, that’s expensive—we ate cornbread. There’s things we can glory in that are really good that are ours, and not that sort of fake image that we’re given a lot.