The women are part of the mountains, as are all the people. They carry their culture with them when they leave. It is why the eastern seaboard is littered with little mill villages with names like Cabbage Town or Olympia or Hagood. They have always been the keepers of the flame, the home fires. They have always had all of the skills, and then some, of the men. They have always worked just as hard and just as diligently doing the same work as the men. Make no mistake, these women may stay silent in church, but this is most definitely a matriarchal society.
Women control much of the business interactions here. If I, for instance, wish to hire a man to come help me with some task on the farm, I must call his wife and arrange it. She will make the decision whether he may accept my job.
Appalachian women have held positions throughout history as coal miners, textile mill workers, farmers, actresses, nurses, midwives, activists and union organizers. They can string up 10 miles of barbed wire then go home and nurse a sick child back to health using a concoction made from wild herbs.
Women’s traditional duties included, but were not limited to, all matters of the running of the homestead. This was not merely housekeeping. They kept a large garden, a flock of chickens, a bee skip or two, milking either goats or cows …or both. They kept the fires burning in the large wood burning cook stove and hauled water from the creek and the spring. They bore and raised children in an era before antibiotics, sometimes in the fields as they worked. They cooked meals for their families, with corn meal being the primary staple. They worked in the fields with the men during planting and harvest. They have been known to drive teams of oxen during plowing. They were skilled at the wild-crafting of herbs for medicines. Most of the women I know canned between 1500 to 2000 quarts of food each winter and kept it in a root cellar. They knew ways to preserve tomatoes and potatoes well into the winter. They presided over the hog killings and made scrapple and smoked hams in the smokehouse.
Life was very busy indeed. But if you worked like this, your family always had enough to eat. The only thing you needed money for was sugar and flour and the odd luxury item like a bag of hard candy. If you didn’t work like this, you didn’t survive. Though the community did take care of its own, and neighbors would take care of the less fortunate, Appalachian folk do have a great admiration for self sufficiency.
When the men poured out of the hills to work in the textile mills, the women went right along with them and took dangerous jobs in the mills. The children did the same. Many of them stayed in the mill towns, but just as many came back in the spring to “make a garden” and continued this life until it got too cold to work the fields again.
They ran power into Grassy Fork, TN in 1964. Phone lines were added in the mid 1970’s. Before that there was a phone down the mountain that would take calls and a rider on horseback would bring your phone message to you for a small fee. I have many neighbors who have not made the jump to indoor plumbing. To the outsider, this looks like poverty. But many times it is just the way they choose to live. It’s the way they have always lived.
Life has changed very slowly here from the time the original Scots/Irish came here. Most of that change has occurred over the past 75 years. The world Catherine Marshall wrote about in Christy was the early 20th century. Yet her mother, Leonora Whitiker, who the book is based upon, entered a world that was much more primitive than she expected.
When you really enter this culture and participate in it, you do start to realize how much of a Brigadoon this actually is. Because of the long tradition of passing on oral histories, both spoken and sung, stories that happened 150 years ago are often related as something that might have happened to a dear friend. They often forget to tell you they are talking about their great-great-grandmother. The women pass on stories, songs, remedies, recipes and food preservation to their daughters and the culture survives intact through the generations. So, we have colonial period speech and culture still being practiced here.
The isolation of the mountain hollers helps this longevity of the culture. The isolation has also produced some of Appalachia’s most fascinating people like the Melungeons and the Blue Fugates of Kentucky.
Life has always been hard in the mountains. The grit that women needed to survive here from the 1700′s to the present often shows up in the genealogies. Hannah Hall Finney would walk to Charleston with her family to visit relatives in the early 1800′s. It takes me six hours to make that drive. Can you imagine? It is not that uncommon today to have to scare off bears and coyotes from the yard. Women needed to be able to use firearms. The elements themselves are very hostile at times.
I found the area oddly Republican when I arrived. I was even more surprised when I found out that they had been that way because of events that occurred following the Civil War. People have long memories here. Many of the Appalachians sided with the Union during this period. Slave keeping was not practiced here on the scale it was practiced in the rest of the South, so they had little interest in defending it. Today’s story, Sadie Makes Her Stand, is drawn from this period. It’s a story you’ve heard before, but I don’t think you’ve heard the Grassy Fork version.
Here are a few resources for finding more about women in Appalachian History: