Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts

Larry Holzwarth - June 18, 2019

The impact of Appalachia’s people and culture is found in food and entertainment, industry and business, music and entertainment, literature, language, and history. Often it is in the form of parody. Vast financial empires have taken advantage of the myths of Appalachian history; these can be found in Gatlinburg, Tennessee as well as neighboring Pigeon Forge, and their tourist-aligned entertainment based on the myths of the southeastern mountains and their people. The real, often hardscrabble and desperate lives of the people of the region, and their contributions to American society and history are often buried beneath these myths. Here for consideration are some facets of America’s Appalachian culture, both mythical and factual.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Al Capp’s Daisy Mae was the prototype for the voluptuous mountain girl. Wikimedia

1. The ravishing beauties of the Appalachian hills

One of America’s most enduring fictional characters is the hillbilly beauty, a tomboy as strong if not stronger as any man; voluptuous, innocent, and ever in pursuit of a man for whom she has set her cap. The image, as with many mythical perceptions of Appalachia, was born in the comic strip Li’l Abner, the creation of satirist Al Capp, and his female character Daisy Mae. Ellie Mae of The Beverly Hillbillies and Daisy Duke of The Dukes of Hazzard are direct descendants of the character. A similar image of a shapely young lass, in tiny shorts and revealing top, is prevalent in advertising throughout the United States, a long recurring theme in American culture.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Al Capp created rich characters for his fictional Dogpatch which became stereotypes for Appalachia. ABC Television

2. Al Capp created many of the myths of Appalachia

An impossibly obtuse, minimally educated, physically imposing, but good-hearted and gentle young man of the hills – a hillbilly in American parlance – was another creation of Al Capp, and remains a major character of American entertainment. Such characters – wholly fictional – are usually depicted as immensely stupid, expert in the use of their “shooting iron”, subject to the relentless pursuit of a Daisy Mae type character whom they use guile to elude, strong but gentle, and invariably handsome and more or less honest. They are often victimized by con men from the city but eventually, gain the upper hand.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Barney Google and Snuffy Smith continued the theme of Appalachian men being lazy, shiftless, and moonshiners. Wikimedia

3. Other comics created enduring images of Appalachia as well

Throughout the mid to late twentieth century Appalachia was presented in the nation’s comic strips and animated cartoons, creating stereotypes of the region and its people. In addition to Li’l Abner, there was Snuffy Smith, a character in the long-running strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Snuffy avoided all forms of labor other than tending to his illegal still and fighting off revenuers, while the women of his community, a mountain hamlet known as “Hootin’ Holler”, performed all the work necessary for survival. Snuffy proved so popular with readers that Barney, somewhat shiftless in his own right, was reduced to an occasional appearance, and eventually vanished from the strip altogether.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Although gentler in its approach The Andy Griffith Show exploited the public perception of Appalachia in its comedy. Wikimedia

4. The comics exaggerated Appalachian mannerisms and customs

Both Li’l Abner and Snuffy Smith used true Appalachian events and customs as plot devices, though in a humorous manner which created many of the stereotypes still prevalent. The Hatfield-McCoy feud served as fodder for “feudin'” in the comics, which carried over in motion pictures (some comedic, some less so) and later to television, as in The Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s. Hillbillies were portrayed as either pious teetotalers or ravenous consumers of their own home-distilled moonshine. Mountain people were simple folk, always wary of the strangers who found their ways to their communities, certain that they were in the neighborhood for no good, but welcomed anyway.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Jed Clampett was portrayed as the shrewd head of a goofy clan in The Beverly Hillbillies. Wikimedia

5. The typical Appalachian was presented as uneducated, but often shrewd

A good example of the stereotypes which emerged regarding the people of Appalachia can be found in Jed Clampett, as portrayed in The Beverly Hillbillies by venerable actor Buddy Ebsen (though Jed was from the Ozarks, rather than Appalachia). Jed was uneducated but shrewd, often accidentally so; devoted to family, which extended to scores of cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, and aunts. The depiction of the extended Clampett clan has long been extended to Appalachian clans, though that stereotype is based on some truth, as clannish settlements are still a part of the region, many of them intertwined, as in the case of the modern Hatfields and McCoys.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The use of hillbilly motif to attract tourists became widespread throughout Appalachia during the 1950s and 1960s. Wikimedia

6. Appalachian businesses embraced and exploited the stereotypes

Throughout the region encompassing Appalachia, businesses are found which play on and even expand on the stereotypes which emerged over time, in restaurants, souvenir shops, ziplines, campgrounds, stage shows, and other attractions. National brands such as Mountain Dew and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes used marketing campaigns based on the 1960s hillbilly craze, which also saw, in addition to The Beverly Hillbillies and The Andy Griffith Show, television programs which capitalized on the stereotypes such as Green Acres; The Gomer Pyle Show; and Hee-Haw. The exploitation of the hillbilly image remains in the south, with whole communities deriving much of their income from the tourism which it attracts.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The film Sergeant York captured facets of rural Appalachian life including poverty, moonshine, and religious fervor. Wikimedia

7. Sergeant York presented another type of Appalachian stereotype

The film Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper as the eponymous World War I hero, depicted several Appalachian stereotypes while at the same time disputing others. A prevalent belief of the day, and one which remains a foil for comedians in the present day, was that the men of the region were lazy, overly fond of liquor, mired in poverty, lacking modern conveniences, and woefully ignorant of the English language. Sergeant York presents all of those aspects of Appalachian life except that the York portrayed by Cooper was far from lazy, and after experiencing an epiphany of a sort while in a drunken rage loses his fondness for whiskey as well, or at least gives up the habit of drinking.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The Appalachian region is deeply religious, though the majority of the population do not belong to a specific congregation. Wikimedia

8. Appalachia is a deeply religious region, though anti-Catholic

When Cooper’s Sergeant York gave up whiskey, it was because of a religious epiphany, in which he was reborn as a Christian. In truth, the region of Appalachia is and has always been populated with deeply religious people, with more than eighty different sects practicing and following their beliefs, including in many areas the art of snake handling. Venomous snakes are used to prove faith is sufficient to protect the handler from harm. Catholicism is viewed with suspicion throughout most of Appalachia. During the 1960 Presidential election, John F. Kennedy campaigned heavily throughout Appalachia and especially in West Virginia to downplay his religious views and reassure the populace.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Sadie Hawkins Day celebration in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1944. Wikimedia

9. It was Al Capp’s version of Appalachia which gave America Sadie Hawkins Day

Sadie Hawkins Day first appeared in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner in 1937, when Sadie – a character in the strip known as “the homeliest gal in all them hills”, was allowed to chase down her own husband. All of the bachelors of Dogpatch were forced to participate in a race for their lives, or at least for their lives as unmarried men. They were given “a fair start” after which Sadie set off in pursuit, with “Th’ one she ketches’ll be her husban'”. Sadie caught herself a husband and the town decided the event would be a good means of ridding itself of lazy bachelors and made Sadie Hawkins Day an annual event. Within two years Sadie Hawkins’ festivities were widespread enough in the United States to warrant an article in Life Magazine.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner and hundreds of stereotypical Appalachian characters, in 1966. Wikimedia

10. Many of Appalachia’s images were given to the nation from outside of the region

With the exception of the wholesome family images of an Appalachian town which were presented to the nation by The Andy Griffith Show (Griffith was a native of Mount Airy, North Carolina), most of what is stereotypical of the region were created by outsiders. Al Capp was a Connecticut Yankee from New Haven; the creator of Snuffy Smith, Billy DeBeck, hailed from Chicago’s South Side. Mountain Dew’s hillbilly image was born in a New York based advertising campaign. But Appalachia made many contributions of its own to American culture, outside of the stereotyped image of the area as backward, ignorant, and poverty-stricken.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
By the 1840s performers such as the Virginia Minstrels and the Virginia Serenaders were popularizing Appalachian music in the North and in England. Wikimedia

11. The banjo evolved in Appalachian Virginia

The banjo is derived from African instruments and banjos were made by slaves throughout the American south, but it was in the mountains of Virginia where the instrument first became a part of the American music scene. The modern five-string banjo was popularized in the area around Appomattox Court House, Virginia, by Joel Sweeney. In the 1830s Sweeney popularized banjo music on American stages, and the following decade he performed with his ensemble, the Virginia Minstrels, in Great Britain, where his performances and the instrument itself drew acclaim. Banjos spread rapidly across the United States from the instruments’ root in Appalachia.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
An Appalachian dulcimer, which shares some similarities with a zither.

12. The dulcimer was developed in the Appalachian hills in the early 19th century

The Scots – Irish immigrants of the Appalachian region developed the instrument known by many names, but colloquially as the dulcimer, in the 19th century, prompting music history scholars to seek a similar instrument in the pasts of both nations. None has been found. The dulcimer remained for decades an instrument rarely found outside of Appalachia before the 1960s, when it gained popularity among American folk musicians and was used by some British rock bands for color, including being played by the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones when performing Lady Jane on both stage and record. American folk singer Joni Mitchell is another noted performer on the instrument.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Basket making is a craft practiced around the world, including in Appalachia. Wikimedia

13. Basket making thrived in Appalachia, and is widespread today

Throughout early America, basket making was an art practiced by settlers, with some styles copied from the natives using the available materials, and some adapted from those made in their homelands of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Baskets woven by Appalachian settlers varied in shape, style, and manner of use based on the types of bark and reeds available in the local wilds, and the shape of the items they were made to carry. Basket weaving remains an art form throughout Appalachia. Some are ongoing commercial concerns, creating designs available for purchase in souvenir shops and online storefronts, with many supported by regional schools and universities.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Smoked and dry cured hams and other meats, including game, is a popular part of the Appalachian diet. National Archives

14. The time required to travel in the mountains led to distinctly local diets

Until the 20th century, and in some locales even to this day, settlements in Appalachia were often remote and entirely self-supporting. Food was what could be obtained locally. Game was a mainstay of the diet, as was fish where obtainable, including crawfish. Hunting and fishing were necessary for the sustaining of life, and in many regions are still pursued today for the same reasons. With insufficient pasturage to raise cattle for beef, hogs and poultry became the mainstays for meat, and the need to preserve pork led to the famed Virginia and Tennessee hams, today considered the equivalent of the great hams of Westphalia and Parma in Europe.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
By 1860 western cities were connected by rail to the east coast, but stops in remote Appalachia were few and far between. Wikimedia

15. Appalachians were forced to become dependent on themselves

As the rest of the United States grew to the west and its cities expanded, fueled by the ports and the railroads, the regions of Appalachia were largely bypassed, other than trains which existed to exploit the region’s natural assets; lumber and coal. By the 1860s citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, well west of Appalachia, could purchase fresh oysters from barrels packed with salt which had been harvested from the Chesapeake Bay only one or two days earlier. The trains which delivered them returned carrying butchered hogs, but in neither direction were stops in Appalachia deemed worthwhile, since the region had little hard money and thus a stop would generate little in the way of profit.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
For decades the isolated nature of many communities meant they had to fend for themselves, creating an independent spirit which remains. Wikimedia

16. To preserve oneself one had to learn to conserve everything

In the remote Appalachian communities, including in the company towns which arose around the coal mines and logging camps, Appalachians preserved everything which they needed to survive. Apples, cherries, and other fruits grew well in the mountains, as did berries, and they were harvested when ripe and preserved. Canning became an art form in the mountains, and is still widely practiced. Meat was preserved by pickling or jerking. Corn was dried and ground into meal, from which it would later become cornbread and mush. The most popular sweetener, given the sparsity of sugar, was honey, which could be found readily in the woods, and which those hardy enough to do so obtained by smoking out the bees and harvesting the comb.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Company store for Koppers Coal Division employees, Kopperston, West Virginia. National Archives

17. Coal mines and company towns in Appalachia added to the reputation for poverty

The coal mines which were built to retrieve the fuel for the growing United States by both strip mining and deep excavation did more than just scar the landscape. They contributed to the impoverished reputation of Appalachia. They paid wages as low as they could get away with, and in the absence of competing jobs, they got away with paying next to nothing. What they did pay they recovered through the establishment of company towns, with supplies available for purchase only from company stores. Generation after generation of Appalachian families grew up with the male members’ only employment opportunity being the same mine at which his father, and grandfather before him, had worked.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
A decrepit timber mill near Cass, West Virginia, which once hummed with activity during the timbering heyday. Wikimedia

18. The future was equally as bleak at the logging camps

Appalachia’s other big employment opportunity, other than sustenance farming, was in the logging industry, which engaged in practices similar to those of the coal industry, paying low wages, and collecting them back from the rentals on housing and the sales in the company stores. Those employed in the logging industry did not face the likelihood of early death due to lung disease, but enough danger existed to make the logging camps equally hazardous to the mines. The railroads offered some potential to escape the circle of paying one’s employer the money one had earned from him, but railroad jobs were more difficult to obtain in Appalachia, often filled by men who had learned their trade elsewhere along with the system.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Barrackville, West Virginia, public school housing 12 grades in 1946. National Archives

19. Education was sporadic and of often low quality throughout the region

Education was not a priority throughout most of Appalachia even as recently as the mid-20th century, for a variety of reasons. Teaching is a profession, and those practicing a profession were (and in some cases still are) viewed with suspicion throughout Appalachia. So were strangers to the region, teachers arriving from elsewhere – particularly from New York and New England – were not warmly welcomed by the conservative and cautious residents. The need to work and help pay for one’s own upkeep superseded the need to learn from classroom and textbooks, since how much can be taught about mining coal or felling trees from within the confines of a school? The relationship of education to poverty was simply not a concept for consideration.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Appalachians attend a baseball game between mining company teams. Many resented outsiders who they thought wanted to change the way they lived and worked. National Archives

20. Many Appalachians resented the attitudes of outsiders towards them

Although many aspects of Appalachian history are exploited or celebrated within the region, others resent being included in the perception of the region being considered backward when compared to the rest of the United States. For example, the famous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys is presented in plays, musical shows, billboards, parodies, and in advertising and marketing for tourism, despite some within the region believing that the feud was an example of the region’s slow growth into the modern world. The belief exists that perpetuating its story also perpetuates the stereotyping of residents of the region being illiterate hillbillies. During the heyday of the rural programming which included The Beverly Hillbillies, many protested against the portrayal, though the Clampett’s were not, as already mentioned, from Appalachia.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Novelist Thomas Wolfe made numerous references to the resentment he encountered in his North Carolina hometown after writing about it. Wikimedia

21. You Can’t Go Home Again

In 1940 Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again was published posthumously. In the novel, the protagonist, a writer, publishes a novel in which several disparaging references to his hometown, Libya Hill, are made. The writer subsequently received threats and a hostile reception from his former friends and neighbors, who are aware the depiction was accurate but resent the writer’s making the outside world aware of the problems. While the state in which Libya Hill was located is never identified, Wolfe was from North Carolina, and the issues he referred to were those of Appalachia. The novel serves as an indication of the resentment which can occur when conditions are revealed which place one’s home under outside scrutiny, a resentment which is prevalent in some areas of Appalachia as a result of its past.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Mndolier Bill Monroe, one of the founders of the musical genre which became known as bluegrass. NPR

22. The music of the mountains

When the settlers to the Appalachian region arrived they brought with them the music of their homeland, chiefly the ballads of the day, a means of regaling listeners with stories sung a capella, since few instruments existed to accompany the singer. They also brought dance music, which was played chiefly on the violin, known to the dancers, listeners, and players as the fiddle. Over the decades, the tunes of the ballads remained, with the words of the song replaced by American legends and local yore, often several times over. The songs, dances, and new instruments led to an entirely American musical genre emerging from the hills of Appalachia during the 20th century.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Lester Flatt (banjo) and Earl Scruggs (guitar) helped popularize bluegrass far beyond Appalachia. YouTube

23. Appalachia is the homeland of bluegrass music, a uniquely American genre

The term bluegrass calls to mind the rolling hills of central Kentucky, but the musical genre which bears its name is a child of Appalachia and is an entirely American art form. It was developed from the blending, over time, of the traditional music of the Scots-Irish settlers of Appalachia, played on dulcimer and banjo, with the fiddle music of the Irish reels and clog dances. Its name came from an early performer of the music, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. One the of group’s members was a young banjo player by the name of Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized the style of playing the instrument. Another was a guitar player named Earl Flatts. Flatts and Scruggs remain one of the most famous, and popular, bluegrass combos of all time.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
West Virginia miners at the opening of an experimental mine. Appalachians have traditionally resisted change of all types. National Archives

24. The Appalachians developed a culture of fierce independence

The remoteness of the region from the rest of the United States, and from its own communities as a result of the mountainous terrain, led to the development of a spirit of self-preservation and independence which remains in all but the largest urban areas. The long-standing exploitation of the region by outsiders, who harvested the lumber and dug the coal leaving behind the damage done, led to a distrust of outsiders. Change is often viewed with suspicion, and accomplished only slowly when it is accomplished at all, the general belief for decades being that if it was good enough before, it remains good enough. In some mountain towns, the days of the company store are remembered wistfully, if not fondly.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Square dancers show their stuff at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina circa 1940s. Library of Congress

25. The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival

In 1927, in an effort to increase tourism given the rise of automobile travel in the United States, Asheville, North Carolina organized a Rhododendron Festival. The following year Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a musician with a law degree from what was then Trinity College (today’s Duke University) organized the festival as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Bascom performed dressed in formalwear while playing his banjo, in order to distance himself from the image of being a hillbilly. The festival he organized, no longer centered on rhododendrons, continues to celebrate Appalachian music and dance, and is the longest-running celebration of Appalachian music and culture in the United States.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Legendary musician Arthur Lane “Doc” Watson performing on banjo in 1994. State Archives of North Carolina

26. The Appalachian region has provided some American musical icons

The rich musical culture of Appalachia has been enjoyed throughout the United States for many decades, and will no doubt continue to be for many more. Country music legend and award-winning actress Dolly Parton hailed from the region. So did Loretta Lynn, who was truly a coal miner’s daughter. Crystal Gayle, Patty Loveless, and Naomi and Wynona Judd are but a few more. Guitarists Chet Atkins and Doc Watson, multiple instrument virtuoso Ricky Skaggs, and pianist and singer Ronnie Milsap are other famed American musicians whose work reflects the hills of the region in which they were born.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
A map of the Appalachian Development Highway System shows the generally agreed upon geographic boundaries of the region. Appalachian Regional Commission

27. What exactly is Appalachia?

Appalachia is less a geographical term than a cultural one, describing a region in terms of its social norms and demographics rather than its relation to topographical or geographic boundaries. It is generally regarded as including portions of 13 states including only one in its entirety – West Virginia. Portions of the populations of several cities and towns are considered to be Appalachian, though the cities themselves are not considered part of the region. Examples include Cincinnati, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan, both of which absorbed large numbers of Appalachian migrants who arrived seeking work during the Great Depression, and created communities reflecting Appalachian culture within the city.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The possibly mythical folk hero John Henry, likely a composite from several regional folk tales, is a large part of the lore of Appalachia. Wikimedia

28 Appalachians have a rich folklore, part of the American folk tradition

Of the many American folk heroes and tales, many of the most famous have their roots in the Appalachian traditions. Davy Crockett is both a very real and significant figure in American history and a subject of folklore and tradition in the Appalachian hills of eastern Tennessee. The mythical railroad worker John Henry, whether a composite of several different characters or a complete fabrication shared by railroad workers over their campfires, is another. Appalachian culture today includes story-telling festivals, a long-standing tradition, in which Jack tales – tales which feature a character going by the name of Jack – are presented with Jack’s heroic exploits described, to be amplified upon by the next storyteller.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The 1953 cast and performers from Midwestern Hayride, one of the earliest programs to air Appalachian music. WLW

29. Appalachian radio stations helped spread the culture to other areas

In 1937, a radio program originally titled Boone County Jamboree, and soon renamed Midwestern Hayride, began broadcasting from Cincinnati’s powerful station WLW. The program featured live performances of local and regional musicians and performers, many of them Appalachian, including bluegrass music. It was heard across much of the Midwest, exposing the music which had up to them been heard only in the Appalachian communities to a new audience. It was soon augmented by similar programs on rival stations, including in Wheeling, West Virginia, and later moved to television, picked up by NBC, and later by ABC. It was one of the first exposures of Appalachian culture presented to the nation in a positive light.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
LBJ’s Great Society specifically targeted Appalachian poverty and lack of educational facilities. Wikimedia

30. Appalachian economy continued to lag behind the rest of the nation in the 21st century

As recently as 2014, studies indicated that in some communities in Appalachia families were forced to subsist on as little as $5,000 per year of income. The absence of long-term jobs in some communities led to the acceptance of work as day labor when available. Families continued to survive by using the barter system, or labor exchange system (work for food). During the drive for the creation of LBJ’s Great Society, depictions of the poverty suffered in many Appalachian communities were used to gain support for the program, but fifty years later the poverty it was meant to eradicate remained in many communities, in some even worse than they had been.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
The building in the distance is an early church, with a frontier cabin in the foreground at the Jeffress recreation area in North Carolina. National Archives

31. The influence of religion on Appalachian culture

While the Bible and Christianity were always highly important in Appalachia, traditionally the role of an established church with a defined hierarchy was not. Approximately 80% of the region has always maintained to be of the Christian faith, but at the turn of the twenty-first century, nearly 70% were unchurched, belonging to no particular denomination or congregation. In the late 20th century several religious organizations began aggressive proselytizing campaigns, bringing with them the inducements of charitable support for the needy and improved educational programs, but many were rejected due to the culture of independence and self-realization which has always been present in the Appalachian mind.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Bethel Cemetery in the Great Smoky Mountains is a popular resort for ghost hunters. Bethel Cemetery

32. Double doors don’t necessarily mean a house is a duplex in Appalachia

Appalachia is liberally dotted with small and medium-sized towns, with houses which date back for well over two hundred years in some cases. Many houses were equipped with two front doors, which to a modern eye would lead the viewer to assume the house is a duplex. But in many cases, the two doors signify something else. One was for entering and exiting the house under normal circumstances. The other was for entering a room where one could sit with a recently deceased member of the household. Sitting with the dead, ensuring that the body of the deceased remained escorted at all times prior to burial was a custom brought from the old country, and the double front doors made it easier for friends and extended family to visit without disturbing the rest of the house.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Appalachian love spoons, derived from Welsh tradition, were meant to signify betrothal and demonstrate the bridegroom’s skill with his hands. Pinterest

33. Love spoons were a sign of proposal presented to a prospective bride

Because of the remote nature of many Appalachian villages and hamlets, the prospects for a bride were limited, and the competition for their hand in marriage keen, one of the reasons why Appalachian women married at a much younger age than their counterparts across the nation. Often a successful courtship – which had its own rituals and rules – ended when the prospective groom presented a hand-carved wooden spoon, called a love spoon and decorated as lavishly as the whittling skills of the gentleman allowed, in lieu of an engagement ring. The love spoon was a descendant of a tradition brought from Wales, and demonstrated that the gentleman presenting it was skilled with his hands, and thus likely to be a good provider.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Quilting was involved in both the courtship cycle and the wedding ceremony. National Archives

34. Quilting bees also were used to predict the next to be married

Appalachian quilting bees provided quilts for warmth, quilts for special events such as weddings and births, and the opportunity for socializing and exchanging news and gossip. It also provided young women of marriageable age (often as young as 15) an opportunity to appraise their chances of marriage by using the reliable predictor of “shaking the cat”. A wedding quilt would be grasped at all four corners by single women or girls, another would place a cat in the center, and the ladies would begin to shake the quilt back and forth. Whichever of the young ladies the cat leaped closest to as it made its escape was next to marry, and those young ladies with a particular gentleman in mind were no doubt encouraged.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Christmas traditions included sharing, giving, feasting, and for many locally distilled moonshine. Wikimedia

35. Christmas in Appalachia had its own special customs and celebrations

Before the advent of the railroads and its improved communications, many of the traditions of Christmas were somewhat different than they are today. One was the tradition, descended from the Welsh, of calling for gifts on the day after Christmas, allowing the poor to knock on the door of the more well-to-do and receive gifts. Some believe that the English Boxing Day also descended from this Welsh tradition. Christmas celebrations included shooting matches, community feasts rather than private family gatherings, and in later years gifts from the coal mining company, or logging company, given to their employees along with the day off, though most often without pay.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Tradition was that those who sat beneath a pine tree on Christmas would hear the angels sing, though the price was high. Wikimedia

36. Appalachian superstitions surrounding Christmas also came from Scotland and Wales

As in all cultures which celebrate Christmas, many superstitions and myths surround the holiday, most of them based on the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice which predated the Christian holiday. One held in parts of Appalachia was that sitting under a pine tree on Christmas Day allowed the angels’ singing to be heard, though it was a mixed blessing because it also ensured for the listener it was their last Christmas on earth. January 6 – the twelfth day of Christmas – rendered powers of healing to those born on that date. It was also believed in some areas that coal should not be given or lent on Christmas Day, a tradition which descended from the Druid belief that at the solstice lumps of coal contained the souls of departed relatives.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Cincinnati, Ohio developed several neighborhoods of Appalachian migrants filling assembly line jobs in the city’s manufacturing sector in the 1930s. Library of Congress

37. The Appalachian migration spread its culture west and north

In the twentieth century, the use of coal began the steady decline which continued into the twenty-first, and as profits dwindled many of the mines closed. Migrants began to leave the region in droves, heading to the cities where manufacturing jobs requiring easily learned skills paid well. The migration both emptied many towns in the mountains and created communities within the cities of the north and west. Finding the cities strange, frightening, and often hostile, migrants created their own communities, as had the Chinese, the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and others before (and after) them. Many such enclaves still exist, where the accent of the mountains can be heard among the sounds of the city.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
An Appalachian farm truck in the Heritage Farm Museum near Huntington, West Virginia. Wikimedia

38. Appalachian agriculture remained a mostly family affair

Beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the end of the twentieth-century American agriculture underwent a transition with many family-owned and operated farms being absorbed by commercial entities. The transition was not as severe in Appalachia, where though the climate is for the most part conducive to farming the topography is not. Smaller, family-owned farms remained prevalent. Nevertheless, the number of farms and the acreage in crops has declined steadily since the 1950s, and though farming remained an important part of the region’s economy the number of jobs and the income derived from agriculture, as with coal and logging, continued to drop through the twentieth century.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Biltmore House, one of many sites throughout Appalachia which have made it a tourist mecca. Wikimedia

39. Tourism became the major industry throughout Appalachia

As mining, logging, manufacturing, and farming all declined in the second half of the twentieth century, the tourist industry expanded, and the exploitation of the perceived stereotypes of the Appalachian people and culture began. It was then that the image of the hillbilly, resented by many Appalachian people, began to be used in marketing and to attract visitors to the region. It continues to be used in the 21st century. By the 1980s Great Smoky Mountains, National Park was the most visited of all of the American national parks, and the resorts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge had expanded, largely through the exploitation of the imagery which some of their neighbors found offensive.

Appalachian Culture Explained in 40 Facts
Despite federal, state, and local efforts, many areas of Appalachia are still stricken with grinding poverty. Getty

40. Appalachia continued to lag behind the rest of the nation

The census conducted in 2000 revealed that sections of Appalachia continued to lag far behind the rest of the United States in income and education, while leading to poverty. In Martin County, Kentucky, visited by Lyndon Johnson after the announcement of the War on Poverty in 1964, 37% of citizens were found to be living beneath the poverty line. In Appalachia, over 23% of all adults lacked a high school diploma, and more than 30% were considered functionally illiterate. The belief that a job in the mines, or logging camps, or driving the trucks which move their continually dwindling output of product, continued to outweigh the belief that an education is important in many of the remote areas, where the traditions of the past continued to displace the needs of the present and the future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon”. Anthony Harkins. 2003

“The Andy Griffith Show Book”. Ken Beck & Jim Clark. 1985

“The Rural Purge: The Year CBS Killed Everything With a Tree in It”. Robert Folsom, Socionomist. October, 2013

“History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past”. Robert Brent Toplin. 1996

“History of the banjo”. Article, Online

“A History of the Mountain Dulcimer”. Dr. Lucy M. Long. Online

“How to Make an Appalachian Potato Basket”. Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. Online

“Appalachian Foods: Defining Generations”. Mary Casey-Sturk, Smoky Mountain Living. Online

“The Sustainable Living of Traditional Appalachian Folk”. J. Shockley, Got Mountain Life. March 15, 2018

“Company Towns: 1880s to 1935”. Social Welfare Project, Virginia Commonwealth University. Online

“Culture, Poverty, and Education in Appalachian Kentucky”. Constance Elam, Purdue University Library. Online

“You Can’t Go Home Again Critical Essays”. Critical Analysis, eNotes. Online (subscription)

“A Brief History of Bluegrass Music”. Bluegrass Heritage Foundation. Online

“Clogging: The Ultimate Appalachian Dance”. Appalachian Magazine. January 28, 2019

“Discovering the roots of Appalachian Music”. Whitney Smith, The North Carolina Arboretum. June 22, 2016. Online

“A History of Appalachia”. Richard B. Drake. 2003

“Appalachia Mountain Folklore”. Micheal Rivers. 2012

“Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and its Performers”. Barry McCloud. 1995

“Burial Practices in Southern Appalachia”. Donna W. Stansberry, Eastern Tennessee State University. Pdf, online

“Love and Marriage in Appalachia”. Jessica Hager, Smoky Mountain Living. February 1, 2011

“Christmas in Central Appalachia”. Roadside Theater Online. April 30, 2014

“The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit”. Louis Adamic, The Nation. February 13, 1934

“Appalachia: A History”. John Alexander Williams. 2002