Friday, June 30, 2006

Three Things Worth Reading

Okay kids.

Right now I'm stewing up a few different big entries - be patient, they're coming. In the meantime, I have some tidbits for you, especially ya'll outside of the region, because dammit, we all need a little Appalachia. Here's your fix.

First, as bordertown, Mother-of-Country-Music (that is to say good country music, not whiney, mass-produced, bubble gum country) Bristol, VA/TN turns 150 this year, the Bristol Herald-Courier is, it would seem, running retrospectives on the city's history - consider this article by Tom Netherland in which resident Bill Taft reminiscences about Bristol's downtown and its declining role in the city's life:

Meet Bill Taft.

That’s exactly what generations of Bristolians did during his career as a pharmacist at Massengill’s, a large drug manufacturing company in downtown Bristol.

Now 89 and long since retired, Taft recalled years past, as Bristol turns 150 this year. As one of but five living members of Bristol’s centennial celebration executive committee of 1956, Taft said he looks upon Bristol’s sesquicentennial with a mixture of pride and love of place.

“Everybody’s friendly here,” Taft said. “Whenever I’ve gone away on vacation for a week or so, I always loved coming back here, home, to the hills.”

Taft isn’t originally from Bristol. Born and schooled in Michigan, Taft found his place in life when he found Bristol about 68 years ago.

“Since 1938. That’s a few years ago,” he said, his voice loud and clear. “When I graduated from college at the University of Michigan, I went to work at Massengill’s, which was in the King building.”

And as indicated by his accent, Taft was born in Michigan, but the state wasn’t for him.
“It was too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer,” he said. “I like four climates, and that’s what Bristol has. It’s not too cold and it’s not too hot.”

But Taft had no intention of staying here.

“When I came here, I was only going to stay a year. It doesn’t hurt that I married a girl from here.”

In those days, Taft said that downtown was the center of the hive. Excitement buzzed along State Street as folks filled sidewalks and stores alike. Department, grocery, drug – all sorts of stores called State Street home then.

“State Street is different now,” Taft said. “Back then, you could walk down there and see people you knew well.”

Taft became a prominent leader in the community. He was one of 21 members of Bristol’s centennial executive committee who formed to organize, recognize and celebrate Bristol’s 100th anniversary in 1956. Only five members remain: Taft, Carl Moore, Bob Nicar, Pete Gravely and Tom Morrell.

“It was a big thing at that time. Television didn’t keep people in their home, and so they were looking for things to do,” Taft said. “We had a pageant out at old Shaw Stadium, which was near where Bristol Mall is now. My job was to sell tickets to that pageant.”

Taft said State Street was closed for about a week to better accommodate a carnival. Then, there was a thing about men recognizing the past by growing chin whiskers. Men of the 1950s were mostly clean-shaven, but past generations were known for their hairy-faced men.

“We had brothers of the brush, and any man who went downtown had to have a beard,” Taft said. “It was all in good fun.”

Taft said Bristol bought into the celebration.

“The whole town got into it,” he said. “We had the two railroads meet downtown, and there was a golden spike driven on the spot.”

Governors Thomas B. Stanley of Virginia and Frank G. Clement of Tennessee also participated.

“We had the two governors riding in the same car,” Taft said, “but they rode in their own state, right down the middle of State Street. It was fun.”

Taft said he laments some changes that, for one reason or another, have lessened downtown’s role in Bristol.

“On weekends, (State Street) was full, and that’s no longer the way it is. We were closer then because we didn’t stay home watching TV. You knew your neighbors. Nowadays, you might know your neighbors. Television changed all that.”

Yet despite that, he said there’s just no other place for him than Bristol.
“It’s God’s country,” Taft said.

Sure, that was pretty good you're thinking, but why did you put it on the blog? Dude, beards. There was peer-pressure to wear beards. Peer-pressure to wear beards. BEARD PEER-PRESSURE!?!?!?! So awesome.

The Lexington Herald-Leader, an East Kentucky publication, published this article on the slippery elm by Andy Mead - it details how the herbal, um, movement (?) is leading to declining stocks of slippery elm en masse in throughout the region - I am reminded of the disappearing pawpaw from the woods of Bland County, Virginia myself, in large part due to overharvesting by people who simply don't understand the delicate plant's reproductive cycle or who, frankly, don't care.

People who believe in herbal medicines say slippery elm bark is good for what ails you -- especially problems associated with the skin, stomach and bowels. But stripping all the bark from slippery elm trees isn't good for the trees. It kills them.

Thefts of slippery elm bark -- like ginseng and other plants valued as herbal cures -- are on the rise on public lands in Kentucky and elsewhere.

In the last couple of weeks, several people have been charged in connection with stripped elm trees in Leslie and Jackson counties in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

In Leslie County, three people were charged twice in one week. The second time, they told officers they were trying to make money to pay fines for the first offense, Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Feltner said yesterday.

Slippery elms, also known as Ulmus rubra or red elms, are found in southern Canada and across the eastern United States. In Kentucky, they grow along creeks, where they are an important part of the ecosystem.

The yoke of the Liberty Bell is made of slippery elm wood, but it is not considered a valuable timber tree. It is said that George Washington and his men survived at Valley Forge by boiling and eating slippery elm bark.

Deborah Hill, a University of Kentucky extension forestry professor, said she knows little about the slippery elm bark trade in Kentucky, but in other states, she has seen "generic brokers" who might deal in ginseng, slippery elm and scrap metal.

Long vertical strips of bark can be taken without killing the trees, she said. But Forest Service officials say people stealing bark in the Daniel Boone often strip as much bark as they can.

"They will often girdle the tree and then pull the bark as far up as they can until it breaks," said John Strojan, the ranger in charge of the Daniel Boone district office in London.

Strojan said he has seen an increase in stripped elm trees in the last two or three years. "I guess these people just drive the roads, looking for these trees," he said.

The people caught recently in Leslie County were charged with first-degree criminal mischief, a state offense. Feltner didn't have details on theJackson County cases. But people who remove "any timber, tree or other forest product" from a national forest can face federal charges, she said.

Ahem. Quit. Stealing. Our. Trees. For. Your. Hippie. New-Age. Cures.

Note: The above statement is not intended to either infer that all hippies are stealing trees (e.g. are "posers") or that herbal treatments are all hoo-joo-blither-blather. Its merely a dramatic and awesome expression of my emotional disconcertion. And stuff. I'm sorry. I'm just bitter.

There aren't many things that make me happier than paleontology. I love fossils and I yearn for the technology that (probably) will (never) allow us to bring back all the species our species has made extinct - mammoths and giant ground sloths and such have you. Regardless, this article from the Valley Beautiful Beacon (from Erwin, Flag Pond, Unicoi, and the Tri-Cities in Tennessee) and by Joshua Blades details one of the greatest digs in the region's history - one with pandas. That's right. Appalachian pandas.

With the cost of gasoline fluctuating between very expensive and ridiculously expensive, the need to find alternative recreation locally has become increasingly important.

With that said, the Gray Fossil Site visitor/interpretive center – located less than 25 miles from downtown Erwin – is nearing completion. According to lead researcher Dr. Steven Wallace, the mild winter helped construction stay ahead of schedule. The building, located about one mile off of the Gray exit, should be completed by late fall. The museum should be ready a few months after the building is finished – probably sometime early next spring.

While construction is underway at the building site, researchers and volunteers are working furiously to dig up history. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Wallace, “I don’t think it will ever be completely excavated…at least not in my lifetime.”

The actual site is located behind the visitor center and roughly comprises 4-5 acres. TDOT originally found the site while working on Fulkerson Road, and has since canceled all plans to continue work in the area. The site, which was originally owned by the state, has been deeded to ETSU and is now considered part of the campus.

The site, Wallace believes, was created when a cave lying too close to the surface became plugged with water. The cave eventually became a collapsing sinkhole and over time that sinkhole ultimately became a pond.

All of the evidence points to the pond theory. Researchers have found fish, turtle, alligator, frog, rhinoceros, tapir, camel, and saber-tooth remains. These fossils help to draw a picture for researchers of the biological diversity found in the area between 4 ½ to 7 million years ago.

“We have all the indications of a marine habitat,” said Wallace, “because we have the predators and the prey all in one place.”

“Usually, as an archaeologist, they expect you to go and find your own sites,” said Wallace, “but this has been great because they just threw it in my lap.” In the short time that researchers have been excavating the site, two new species have been discovered: the red panda and the Eurasian badger.

The red panda (Pristinailurus bristoli) is technically related to the greater panda, but while the greater panda is more like a bear, the red panda is essentially a raccoon. An interesting side note: the smaller, modern red panda subsists on bamboo, but the Gray site does not contain any fossilized evidence of bamboo, leading researchers to believe that the discovered red panda must have survived on something else.

The Eurasian badger (Arctomeles dimolodontus) is basically a weasel. Wallace believes that the badger teeth found at the site suggest a vegetarian diet – probably of acorns.

Another unique animal to the site is a dwarf form of a tapir (Tapirus polkensis) which is closely related to the horse and rhinoceros. The tapirs found at the Gray site are the smallest on record, weighing less than the woolly mountain tapir found in Ecuador (previously believed to be the smallest).

The one fossil that kids want to see is the articulated (archaeologist talk for “put together”) rhinoceros skeleton which will be displayed at the museum’s opening. Since the initial discovery of the rhinoceros remains, several pieces of other rhinoceroses have been found in the area. Researchers discovered fetal remains near one of the newer rhino finds and had hoped that it would be a female, but the newer skeleton has a larger bone structure consistent with male rhinoceros fossils, meaning that there are possibly several other skeletons waiting to be unearthed.

Once it is completed, the museum will provide both history and fun for children and adults alike. Children will marvel at the size of the rhinoceros skeleton, the crushing power of the alligator’s jaw, the sharp pointed tooth of a saber-tooth cat, and the spikes on a turtle’s shell. Adults will love the fossils, but also marvel at the incredible diversity that our region once held.

Summer volunteers are needed and researchers at the site welcome local help – no experience is necessary. Contact information and general information about the dig can be found at

Like Saltville. In Tennessee. And with less "salt."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


I was browsing the blog's list of newspapers (as I try to do every couple of days) and came across the Danville Register & Bee. They had a feature, apparently built up over numerous issues, on the subject of lynching in general and in Southwest Virginia in particular. And it got me thinking - while Appalachia was in many ways the origin point of American anti-slave and desegregation movements it still had, and frankly still has, its problems in terms of ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination - human beings do live there, after all. I just wanted to share a couple of links with you that I though might be useful in considering this, and frankly, in helping us as Appalachians and Americans to remember we must remain conscious of the long-term effects of looking the other way when others act in bigotted ways. First, I want to link you to the Danville Register & Bee's stories and visuals - there are also some really good links. Secondly, I am going to link you up to a map of selected instances of lynching on the website The History of Jim Crow. . . this is where I first learned there was, in 1912, a lynching in my hometown of Bluefield. Sigh. And finally I am going to link you to PBS's The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, which has an interactive map of particular quality, and which details the total number of lynchings in each state:

Kentucky: 142 black and 63 white
North Carolina: 86 blacks and 15 white
Tennessee: 204 black and 47 white
West Virginia: 28 black and 20 white
Virginia: 83 black and 17 white

This subject, I should say, specifically brings to mind books such as Lies My History Teacher Told Me - works that bring up the propensity of educational institutions to be molded by their parent institutions (such as churches or governments) in order to manipulate childrens' perceptions of right or wrong and their loyalties. For me, this tendency, to teach our children not the whole truth, but the truth we think will be kindest and most "politically correct" (white people were nice to all their happy slaves, women were happier in the home performing only male-dictated activities, native Americans were socialist, environmentalist, never-greedy folk, African slaves were in their position only because of European [and not African as well] greed, the Western democracies have either done no evil or caused nothing but evil, and so on) is, I think, at the root of humanity's tendency to 'repeat history.' Our children do not learn because, for our own reasons, we deprive them of the knowledge they require to make superior political, economic, and socio-cultural decisions. Tell your kids not only about the sins of others, but of their ancestors' sins as well.

One other really . . .hmm . . . moving site is this one - Without Sanctuary. Its an incredible collection of horrible images that illustrate the horror of lynching in an incredibly powerful way.

Fire Towers of the Appalachians

Recently I had the chance to pay a visit to an old friend, High Knob in Wise County, Virginia. Reaching an elevation of 4223 feet, High Knob was the first of many mountains in the Appalachians that I have come to know and love. High Knob is also special because at its peak is one of the few remaining fire tower lookouts of the region.
One of the legacies of the Appalachian mountains and the management of its National Forests are fire towers. Constructed during the 1930's and 40's mostly by the Civilian Conservation Corps (its many contributions to the Appalachians I hope to blog about in greater detail), the fire towers originally served the utilitarian purpose of giving forest managers an early means of fire detection. Only a handful of these towers remain and are recorded in the register of National Historic Lookouts. High Knob's tower was originally built by Company 2348 of the CCC in 1938-39. It's original structure was a 14'x14' wooden house. The current three-story structure was built by the Flatwoods Job Corps in 1978-79.
Because more advanced means of detecting forests fires are used today, most towers are vacant and used for recreational and historical purposes only. With their prominent locations, the towers still provide some of the best opportunities to view the mountains today.
Below are some photos I took from High Knob's vantage point looking west toward Powell Valley and Big Stone Gap.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Flood of 1985

All of the heavy rain that we've been receiving in the mountains the past three days takes me back to a time 20.5 years ago when the Central Appalachians saw some of the worst flooding in its recorded history due to the remains of Hurricane Juan stalling out over the mountains. On November 4, 1985, areas in Highland County, Va. and Pendleton County, WV. received close to 22" of rain, all in one day. For an area with ridge and valley topography, the rain storm amounted to God filling up his ice trays under the kitchen sink faucet. Mountains were turned to a muddy and rocky soup, sending boulders the size of cars "floating" down into the valleys below. Bridges connecting communities were wiped out, that is if the communities weren't wiped out completely, so sending help from one area to the next was nearly impossible. Amazingly, only sixteen people lost their lives in Pendleton County. Had such a rain event taken place near anywhere other than two of the most sparsely populated areas in Virginia and West Virginia, the history of this flood would have Biblical comparisons. I remember touring the area near Seneca Rocks about 12 years after the flood and you can still see structural damage and debris from the mountains scattered throughout the valley. The Army Corps of Engineers has taken bulldozers up and down the creekbed, widening the river channel to give water more room to flow and spread out if and when the river floods again.

I've linked an article from WV media archives of the storm below. Unfortunately, the e-archives of this storm are not as complete as they probably should be, due to the magnitude of the storm, but it will give you more of a first hand account to this day.

West Virginia Archives and Culture

Night of Raging Waters

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Bridge Day

There sure are a lot of crazy people in this land of ours. For one day each Autumn, the top 30% of all crazies that aren't institutionalized decend on Fayetteville, West Virginia to research if the law of gravity still applies. This one day, people are free to jump off of the New River Gorge Bridge during the Bridge Day Festival. If you're a base jumper, mark your calendar for October 21.

If one photo of people jumping off of the bridge doesn't give you the feel for the festival, watch the movie clip from Cirque Productions (in case you missed it from the last post).

Wild & Wonderful indeed.

As a side note, my grandfather was a crane operator, orginally from Hinton, WV. He spent many years in the early 1970's swinging steel girders and buttresses of the bridge into place just so that one day people could jump from it


Warning: More Appalachian Trail subject matter below.

Last night I watched an amazing documentary about four guys from North Carolina, all in their early twenties, and their pursuit of conquering the 2,168 mile Appalachian Trail. The "Four Horsemen", the name they give to themselves, take turns in the roles of narrator, subject, videographer and ultimately editor to create Trek. These guys are regular guys, the type of dudes you probably ran around with in high school and college. Their personalities are what makes a good film with great scenery into a great production. You have two guys that are the eternal optimist, one who is questioning his will to continue from day one on the trail and a fourth who has the drive but has family & personal issues that keep him from achieving all that he wants (watch the film). Outside of the main four, we get to meet a dozen or so characters that the group encounters along the way. Some look like misguided hippies trying to find themselves but others are regular Joes, retired teachers or just plain avid hikers who want to tackle the trail (one of these hikers, "Sheriff", is the owner of the Baja Cafe' in Damascus). Since everyone has the same goal, this creates a family-like support group among the hikers. If you've ever talked to a thru-hikers about their journey, they'll tell you that this relationship with your fellow hiker is not limited just to this film.

One other aspect that made the film great was watching the reception the hikers received from each little community that the trail winds through. Places like Hot Springs, Damascus, Harper's Ferry. I was somewhat surprised at the overwhelming hospitality the hikers found north of the Mason-Dixon line. Maybe it's just my Southern bigotry toward Yankees but I wasn't expecting to see entire communities coming together at town parks to have a pot-luck dinner for hikers. This is something these towns do on a weekly basis the entire summer, just to be good, nice Appalachian folk. You see the mountain spirit of hospitality transcending any north-south sense of place.

Lastly, the scenery. Try to imagine walking the ridges of the Smokies, Blue Ridge, Allegheny, Green and White Mountains and all of the cliffs, critters, sunsets, sunrises, plants, pastures and people that you would see. Now imagine being overwhelmed by this for 6 months. Better yet, watch the film and get a taste of it for two hours. You'll be ready to hike the trail once the credits roll. Here's the trailer link page just as a teaser. If you like what you see there, check out Amazon or the Appalachian Trail Conference for DVD purchases.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A State of Convenience

West Virginia, the only state in the Union whose entire geography is composed of the Appalachian Mountains, is turning 143. I remembered this just the other day when I came across an article in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph by Adria Hairston on the thoughts of locals as to why West Virginia was a decent place to live, specifically in reflection on both that anniversary and the the state's tourism motto, "West Virginia, Almost Heaven." All that said, the article pointed out that the West Virginia Division of Culture and History had put together a retrospective on the unusual (to say the least) process by which West Virginia was painfully born from a Virginia being ravaged by civil war.

The documentary (available here) is truly fascinating - documenting the emotion and debates of the era en masse, including a number of great photographs and first-material references. Most interesting is the honesty of the whole thing - not much propaganda here, to say the least - for instance, pains are taken to admit that only 37% of the future residents of West Virginia voted on the secession vote at all (of whom 96% voted for seceeding from Virginia, such a high number that widespread voter fraud of any number of kinds must be suspected) - consider the political implications. It all reminds me of a yelling fight I had with a friend of mine from my old church - she insisted on the public school BS version in which West Virginians, all disgusted with the tyranny of Southern slavery and Virginian aristocracy, united (and apparently more open-minded than any state in the Union today) and holding-hands and skipping into a perfect future. Not a lot of discussion of Lincoln's Machiavellian, unconstitutional proddings and executive orders, nor of the obvious mixed feelings towards leaving the Commonwealth (my home county of Mercer, for instance, was largely pro-Virginia) that many (if not most) West Virginians held - in part explaining why "West Virginia" won out over "Kanawha." This article, however, dispenses with those myths by dealing with the mess of the war years for what they were - a mess. Sadly, not much is written about the military element of the process, more specifically the failure of Confederate forces to reinforce and maintain the region (as they managed to do in East Tennessee).

The United States of Appalachia

Don't get too excited - I was just sitting around, feeling kinda' awesome, dancing occassionally, and I remembered this: a blog entry I dropped into my other blog on the The United States of Appalachia. Consider:

The first words after Jeff Biggers' dedication were the first snippets of non-dinosaurian Latin I ever learned.

Montani semper liberi.

Mountaineers are always free.

You had me at hello, Mr. Biggers.

A man named Jeff Biggers, a man who is not from Our Mountains (though some of his folk were), has written a book which, if you are from Appalachia, you must read. Let me tell you why.

Its not because of the history Mr. Biggers showers his readers with, though he does that. It is not because of Mr. Biggers' truly fantastic prose, though his prose is truly fantastic. And its not because his work is like a master bibliography, a guide to paths by which every Appalachian might know him- or herself, though it is that too.

No. If you are Appalachian you need to read Mr. Biggers' The United States of Appalachiaanywhere else if you're, like me, from West Virginia. Its only equal I've read along these lines, though in a radically different medium, is Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven.

I feel obliged to give some sort of critique, to balance the record. I have only two. One, if you edit your work, Mr. Biggers, please tell the world about Bluefield - I know its not all that important anymore, but its not a bad place, and we do have a Nobel Prize winner. Two, if you edit your work, Mr. Biggers, please tell the world about the Melungeons - their story is as Appalachian as anyone's and they need a storyteller very, very badly.

because it will give you back a dignity that you never even knew you'd lost. You need to read this book, you need to tell your friends to read this book. You'll feel happy and sad, angry and proud. You'll find yourself cursing your "history" and "civics" books (damn all colonizers who convince the colonized they are responsible for their discontent) . You won't lie and say you're from Richmond if you're from Roanoke, Charlotte if you're from Asheville, Cincinnati if you're from anywhere in Kentucky, and anywhere else if you're, like me, from West Virginia. Its only equal I've read along these lines, though in a radically different medium, is Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven.

I feel obliged to give some sort of critique, to balance the record. I have only two. One, if you edit your work, Mr. Biggers, please tell the world about Bluefield - I know its not all that important anymore, but its not a bad place, and we do have a Nobel Prize winner. Two, if you edit your work, Mr. Biggers, please tell the world about the Melungeons - their story is as Appalachian as anyone's and they need a storyteller very, very badly.


I just thought that was worth sharing again. . . hope ya'll don't mind.

Monday, June 19, 2006

River Settlements

As you may have figured out by now, my Appalachian experience started and continues to be anchored in the flowing waters of the New River. One area of interest for me over the past few days has been the history of the settlements in the valley of Virginia. I just came across a gem of a site detailing this such subject. A History of The Middle New River Settlements and Contiguous Territories by David E. Johnston was published in 1906. Thanks to the Kinyon Digital Library, we can flip through the pages of this 100 year old document.

Here's a brief passage from Johnston's writings on the earliest settlements in the region:

"Where or when the upper part of this same river came to be called New River is not altogether agreed. The late Capt. Charles R. Boyd, upon the authority of Judge David McComas, says it was an Indian name meaning "New Water." Hardesty in his geographical history, says that "Captain Byrd, who had been employed in 1764 to open a road from the James River to where the town of Abingdon now stands, probably using Jefferson's map of Virginia engraved in France in 1755, and on which this river did not appear, named it New River. The late Major Jed Hotchkiss of Staunton, Virginia, attributed the name to a man by the name of "New," who at an early day kept a ferry at or near where "Ingle's Ferry" was afterwards established.

The first white man who is supposed to have entered this valley, was Colonel Abraham Wood in 1654. Wood lived at the Falls of the Appomatox near where the present city of Petersburg, Virginia, now stands, and being, as said, of an adventurous turn of mind, obtained from the Government authority to open trade with the Western Indians. It is supposed, in fact stated, that Colonel Wood came over the Alleghanies at a place now and long known and called Wood's Gap in the present county of Floyd, and passed down Little river to the river now known as New River, and seeing a river flowing in a different direction from those up the course of which he had just traveled, he took it to be a new river and gave to it his own name "Wood's River," and it so appears on some of the oldest maps of Virginia.

So far as known, between the date of the discovery of this river by Colonel Wood, Captain Henry Batte in 1666, Thomas Batte and party in 1671, John Salling who was captured by the Indians and carried over this river to the West thereof in 1730, Salley, the Howards and St. Clair in 1742, Dr. Thomas (note: Upon the authority of Haywood, Vaughan of Amelia County, Virginia, with a number of Indian traders crossed New River about Ingle's ferry in 1740.) Walker, and his parties in 1748-1750, are the only white men that had seen or crossed New River, or penetrated this vast wilderness country prior to 1748, unless it were the three men whose names are hereinafter mentioned.

It is now more than a century and a half since the first white settlement was made in the New River Valley. It has been claimed, in fact conceded, that the first white settlement was made in the year of 1748 by Ingles, Drapers and others near where Blacksburg, in Montgomery county, Virginia, now stands, but this claim is now and has been for many years disputed and upon an investigation it appears from discoveries made at the mouth of East River at its junction with New River in Giles County, Virginia, that in the year of 1780, when Mr. John Toney (note: Built the brick dwelling house at mouth of East River, the first brick house built in Giles County.) and his family, from Buckingham County, Virginia, settled at that place, they found the decayed remains of a cabin and evidences that some of the land around the same had been cleared, and nearby they found a grave with a rough stone at the head, on which was engraved, "Mary Porter was killed by the Indians November 28, 1742. (note: This stone with engraving thereon often seen by Dr. Phillip H. Killey and Mr. G. W. Toney.) "Then followed something respecting Mr. Porter, but the crumbling away of the stone during the century and a half which has elapsed since its erection, has rendered it illegible."--Hardesty's Geographical His. 405.

This Ingles-Draper settlement was called "Draper's Meadows," but we are told that the name was changed by Colonel William Preston to "Smithfield," in honor of his wife, who was a Miss Smith of Louisa County, Virginia. While the Draper's Meadows" settlement was not made directly on the New River, it was not far away and the drainage of the waters in the vicinity is into this river.

Adam Harman, who came with the Ingles, Drapers and others form Pattonsburg, in the Virginia Valley, shortly after the planting of the Colony, located, probably in the Spring of 1749, on New River at the place now known as Eggleston's Springs, but called by the early settlers "Gunpowder Spring," from the resemblance of its odor and taste to that of gun powder. This settlement of Harman, save that of Porter at the mouth of East River, is believed to be the oldest settlement made by white people in what is now the territory of Giles County."

NASA Image Exchange

Western Virginia:

Some of the guys who post here are, frankly, great photographers - I credit their experience and their artistic sensibilities. Me, well, I can take the occasional decent shot, but I am a substantially better writer and draughtsman than I am a photog. That said, I love great photography, especially photography of scale, the kind that gives the humble member of our species a genuine sense of his or her place in our place in the Universe and, of course, in relation to the people and places we love - perhaps that is why I find myself awed and astounded by class photographs, especially al fresco. I dunno'.

Regardless, I have long felt an urge to drop some photos on ya'll myself. . . call it jealousy, call it envy, call it keeping up with the Joneses. And, in light of my particular skills (and lack thereof), I decided to hit the NASA mother site and dig up a little deliciousness. After a little browsing and a few successful searches, I found NIX, the Nasa Image Exchange. Essentially, this site is little more than a collection of images, gathered from NASA's archives and up for free consideration and distribution (of the non-profit genre). I'm dropping in a few images (and their sublinks) for ya'll to look at: all are images of Appalachia from several miles up. . . astounding, really. First off, don't be under any illusion that these are the extent of the available images - there are literally thousands of images (though only a hundred will show up under any given search, so precision in searches may be useful). Of course, if you're interested in other areas of the world, this site has potential as well. Hope you enjoy it and/or find it useful.

East Tennessee:

Snowfall in Southern Appalachia:

Western Virginia:

East Tennessee:

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Slow Road Home

Yes, another book for you.

Roanoke's NPR
station runs a local interview show, somewhat in the mold of "Fresh Air", on weekday evenings. Most guests are local politicians, artists, government employees and authors. Tonight, we were able to listen to Fred First, a local author. An Alabama native, he has lived in Virginia since 1975 where he taught at Wytheville Community College. Through a mid-life career change, he became a physical therapist. He later changed gears once again and started to focus on writing and photography. He started blogging in 2002, mainly as a place to do what we do here, share our favorite Appalachian experiences and photography with the world. Refining his writting over the past four years, he has become a regular essayist for WVTF and has been published in a number of Appalachian arts and trade mags. He's also just penned a new book, Slow Road Home.

First's web site for the books states that "If you live in or long for the southern mountains--If you find yourself drawn toward the pace and pleasures of unhurried, out-of-the-way places--If you hope for a home you are waiting to find, then you will feel at home in the pages of this memoir of place" You can order the book directly from the author's publishing company, Goose Creek Press or if you want to support Blacksburg's only independent bookstore, Easy Chair Booksellers, give them a call at 540-552-2665. These are good folks that will gladly ship you the book. I'll be stopping in tomorrow to pick up my copy.

Sunrise on the New River

Far Appalachia

First I want to apologize for posting so many book reviews lately - frankly you're probably wishing for a little more web-based content. Don't worry, I have a feeling this is gonna' be the last one for awhile. But jimminy, is it a good'un.

If you have listened NPR for awhile, you've probably heard of Noah Adams. He's been a well-respected radio news personality for years upon years and frankly he is one of those gentlemen who its not only a pleasure to hear speak, but who actually knows what he's talking about. Well, come to find out, this particular gentleman is from Ashland, Kentucky, up on the Oh-Hi-Oh. Well, apparently all the years of jumping from here to there to here all across these glorious United States made him long for the Mountains. So he did: Mr. Adams followed the New River from its roots in North Carolina up through the Commonwealth of Virginia to where it conjoins with the Gauley to form the Kanawha. And the product of this riverborne Odyssey? Far Appalachia.

I am going to pause here for a second to point out that if you are from the Appalachian regions of any of these three states and you had parents or friends who weren't totally afraid of the outdoors (or, relevantly perchance, the animals in the outdoors) the odds are you have bathed, in part or in full, in the New. If you're not from the swath of land associated with the second oldest river (and therefore most ironically named body of water) in the world, I want to assure you - it is an enormous element in the lives of the people who are near it, whether they realize it or not. I've fished the New, camped on the New, boated the New, run electrical products of the power generated by the New, drank water harvested from the new, and yes, drank beer while swimming in the New. For about eight hours.

That said, I just want to list some of the places Mr. Adams writes about to make a point to anyone who might be incredulous as to Mr. Adams knowledge: Three Forks, Snake Mountain, Todd, Jefferson Peak, Weavers Ford, Shatley Springs, Mouth of Wilson, Fries, Galax, Draper, Ingles, Radford, Plum Creek, Eggleston, Pembroke, Narrows, Rainelle, Thurmond, Fayetteville and the place where God rested after the Making (6 billion years ago), the New River Gorge . Now, if you're from the area, you know these towns and you know that most of them don't make the usual tourist listing and, if they do, its for a weekend or two a year. The fact that they would be brought together and described in such a light and endearing way all in one volume, well, yeah.

Okay, I'm giddy. So what? I'm gonna' keep going.

I'm not going to describe everything in this book - I want you to have the experience of reading it as fast as you can, then immediately going and rereading substantial portions just like I did. I do want to tell you a couple things, however. First, he defends Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular better than virtually anyone I've ever read or heard, tracing the shift from a stereotype of backward but harmless into one of backward and dangerous to the infamous and repugnant rape scene in Deliverance and shoddily written, researched, and executed "reporting" and "documentaries" (what I routinely refer to in my political science lectures as, "talking head, if-it-bleeds-it-leads, Jerry Springer-esque, tripe). He describes Shatley Springs, in such magnificent detail that I will be letting Sean "Papaw" Taylor take me there as soon as possible, costs be damned. He weaves an utterly masterful metaphor for country hill folk, driving tool-laden pick-ups with dogs in the back, comparing them to Scottish highlanders (from whom many of those folks are at least partly descended) with their hounds and longswords (and, I almost scribbled into my own copy, their shin dirks). Adams gives an excellent, if brief, telling of the Mary Draper Ingles story which, better than any brief account I've ever come across, makes the geography of her harrowing tale comprehensible and he describes Radford, Virginia (and the surrounding locale) in a way that should prompt the local Better Business Bureau to send him a check. His work is full of tidbits on local wildlife - hell, he mentions pawpaws, which wins him the genuine vote from me - and he takes great delight in merely identifying life. . . for some reason this strikes me as a very American sort of activitiy, like memorizing baseball statistics. It carries with it a sort of Zen-factor, an indulgence in self-satisfying (and slow) observation. Hmm.

So, you get the picture, right? Its all this plus a compelling plot - a man finding himself and exploring a people and their history via a river. He hikes, he rides bikes, he canoes, he rafts, the whole nine yards. Its beautiful, its compelling, and it is by no means dumb literature. Heck, its the kind of book Appalachian parents might want to give their kids when they're going through that stage of self-hatred that develops around puberty when they realize people are constantly making fun of their homes, their culture, their accents, and so forth, but before they've realized that people stereotype and discriminate against anyone and anything that is different, allowing them to shove such nonsense and bigotry aside.

I'd like to conclude a little philosophically in a vein that this book described. My Dad is from Newport News, Virginia - a Tidewater city - and talking to him and visiting our ancestoral grounds has made me come to a realization that the culture in this area is utterly caught up in the water that defines it. Rivers bigger than anything western Virginians can possibly conceive of, creeks bigger than what those same western Virginians call rivers, salt water, brackish water, tidepools, swamps, on and on - in many ways the land in the Tidewater seems to be a concession to humanity and a few quadrapeds at best, a pleace to dry off between trips onto big water or into dense, tree-filled ponds mascarading as forests. On the other hand Appalachia, while by no means a dry place (and in the eyes of some scientists a temperate rainforest) has traditionally been defined in an opposite sense - by earth and stone and land and all the things that grow on them. We, after all, have no sharks or stingrays or bluefish or oysters - a bluegill or pumpkinseed is hardly a match -heck, our most dangerous watery denizens are snakes (which would rather crawl an extra mile than interact with us) and wolf spiders. At least that is how I used to think. On reflection, having finished Mr. Adams' book, I have had some other thoughts. For the Appalachian, water is nearly equally defining. Look at our maps - settlement is clustered around the trade routes through the mountains, trade routes defined by rivers or lakes for the most part, the occasional exception being the great "gaps" that allowed easy movement from great valley to great valley. Indeed, most other settlement was linked to springs (be it White Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Green Sulphur Springs, Hot Springs, Warm Springs, Shatley Springs, Berkley Springs, Sweet Springs, Salty Springs, or any other springs). Indeed, the key defining differences between several of the subregions' economies has been the way in which they have chosen to harness their water resources (tourism "versus" the TVA).

Well, I'm certain I've rambled enough. Mr. Adams, I hope I meet you someday. You write as I wish I could write about the places I love. Next time you're in the region, give us a holler. We'll be there in spades.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A History of Appalachia

I have a book to recommend - Richard B. Drake's (a professor emeritis of Berea College up in Kentucky and a co-founder of the Appalachian College Association) A History of Appalachia (I mentioned it below , if you 'll remember). The book is, as it posits to be, a history of the region. Let me say the parts that are negative first, get them out of the way so we can move on. One, the book is pretty repetative about certain themes - thus I recommend reading it as a series of essays or collected lectures rather than as a single tour. Also, there is a subtle, but noticable, not so much anti-Wesleyan bias (Wesleyan here refering to all evolvants from Wesleyan theology, from the rationalist Methodists to pentacostals), as much as a "not-a-fan" bias (and a tendency to leave out Methodists from several theology roll-calls, including contributions to education). On the other hand, he's a big, big fan of Calvinism and Presbyterianism. . . which I'm cool with - its nice to get the other side (grin).
All that aside, I have few complaints about the book. Heck, let me drop you a quote that I love. . . maybe it'll give you sense of what I mean:

As we examine regional arts, a key charcteristic of the region's artistic mind is that the "lowbrow" folk arts predominate over the "highbrow" fine arts. In urban society the highbrow is clearly given primary status, but in Applachia the lowbrow is seen as less pretentious and is widely respected. And it appears always to have been thus. In fact, many modern scholarly analysts of folk culture insist that the folk artist when he or she creates has in mind remarkably mature contextual insights, though skeptics sometimes are suscpicious of the level of sophisication that folklorists claim to see. But it is certainly true that "democratic" folk arts are remarkably active in the region, and the creations of Appalachian folk artists command a remarkable respect among urban, mainline Americans.

You want to read it now, don't you?

Of course you do.

I won't go into too many details on this one, frankly, because to do so would open a huge can of words - how do you stop writing about the qualities of a book you've dog-earred up till it looks like an origami piece? The one other part I would like to mention explicitly is this: Drake outlines the unique Appalachian attitudes towards race (i.e. our leadership in civil rights in integration) and dealing with calamity (the "Appalachian sense of humor") better than anyone I've read so far.

Put simply, this is a great review of Appalachian history - a solid introduction for the layman who wants to understand, but hasn't had the opportunities to do so.

Monday, June 12, 2006

An Appalachian Summer Festival

Want to experience one of the finest arts festivals in the region? Check out the Appalachian Summer Festival in Boone, NC during the month of July. The festival itself is entering its twenty-second year of existence and "is emerging as one of the nation's most innovative and highly regarded regional, multidisciplinary arts festivals". Things kick off July 1st with Doc Watson and Sam Bush in concert together and continue throughout the next thirty days with theatre & dance performances, visual art galleries and more concerts from jazz, classical, rock and country musicians round out the event. A visit to Boone is a day well spent and with this smorgusboard of entertainment, a day seems like too short on time.

A Mountainous Geographic Region By Any Other Name

I'm currently reading a great book, one of the classics on Appalachian history: Richard B. Drake's A History of Appalachia. I'm only about a third of the way through, still in the early stages of European settlement, but its already got me thinking about names - specifically the original names for the regions Appalachians currently inhabit. That, I was struck, would be a great blog entry. So I'm writing about it. Now. Neat, eh?


1. East Tennessee was nearly the Republic of Watauga (see the Watauga Petition here), the state of Washington, and/or the State of Frankland (later changed to Franklin) (also listen to this great NPR interview). And of course, dare we forget, had the Confederacy failed to adequately reinforce East Tennessee adequately, odds are that it would have withdrawn from Tennesse and stayed staunchly Union, just as West Virginia did in 1863.

2. West Virginia was also aflood with alternative names. Early on the region was split into Vandalia in the South and Central parts of the state (as well as parts of contemporary Virginny and Kentucky) and Indiana in the Northern reaches. Also, at the time of West Virginia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Virginia, there was some debate as to whether or not the state should be named West Virginia, Western Virginia, Kanawha, Columbia, Vandalia, New Virginia, Allegheny, or Augusta. (Also, if you're interested, check out this page, which lists the roots of West Virginia place names)

3. While I don't know much about it, I do know that Eastern Kentucky was originally known as Transylvania (meaning "beyond the forest") and originally settled by (in the European sense) by the proprietors of the Transylvanian Company (including Daniel Boone) - in 1776 their holdings would become Kentucky County of the Commonwealth of Virginia, who would grant its independence in 1790. The original grant, as far as I can tell, was roughly the size and shape of the current Transylvania Presbytery.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Burkhard Bilger

The other day I had a distinct craving for some comfort reading. Oh, you know the kind, the sort of reading that allows you to immerse yourself in sweetly delicious words and phrases and metaphors, sinking deep into your couch and out of the world. I went through my personal library and, as usual, had trouble in that department - the vast majority of my books are on history, politics, philosophy, geography, paleontology, evolutionary theory, or are art history books. What fiction I have is largely dominated by political commentary (Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Orwell's 1984 for instance) or American pseudo-romantic works (Mark Twain and Hemmingway, in particular) all of which is more likely to stimulate rather than relieve the state known as "funk." Then I came upon a book I had purchased in a bookstore on the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea) years ago. Its name? Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts: Travels in the American South.
Before I go on to tell you about Mr. Bilger's fantastic book, I want to point out that it's name in these Glorious United States of America is, in point of fact, something different: Noodling For Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts. Nothing dramatic, but if you're looking for it in the bookstore round the States, well, you're gonna' wanta' know.
Man sakes, this is a fine piece of esoterica. Mr. Bilgers, originally an Oklahoma boy but more recently a staff writer for The New Yorker and Discover magazines, well, he does something wonderful. He writes about uniquely Southern activities and cultural artifacts without diminishing them or trying to pretend like they are always the norm. When I say this, well, I mean a couple of different things. First, I mean even if Bilgers disagrees with a particular activity, whether it be in rational or moral/ideological terms, he doesn't try to make out the practioners thereof to be monsters or fools - they are people engaging in an activity which, in one way or the other, provides them with a good (be it spiritual, financial, social, political, economic, or psychological) in their eyes. He obviously treats them with respect and, in turn, they open themselves up and treat him just as well (when you read his list of people he thanks, well, you know that part to be true). But don't take my word on this, check out this quote from Publishers Weekly, found on

It's refreshing to read a book about Southern subcultures that doesn't bog down in easy caricature or yet another Confederate flag discussion. Bilger, a journalist and features editor at Discover, writes with deadpan grace to capture half-buried worlds, linking the vivid participants to a larger historyAwhether it be the transatlantic heritage of soul food, the legal and illegal sides of cockfighting in America or the evolution of coondogs since the time of "the father of coon hunting," George Washington. The title essay describes the squirmy practice of "noodling" one's bare fingers inside a catfish's underwater hiding place until the toothed fish bites hard enough to be hauled to the surface. In his exploration of Louisiana cockfighting, Bilger pulls off something that easily could have backfired: he contrasts the rooster farm of John Demoruelle (where the cocks are pampered like feathered celebrities) with the anonymous violence of the modern chicken factory. As Bilger tours a Tyson chicken facility, the spectacle of the young birds riding passively to their conveyor-belt deaths complicates the reader's feelings about the comparatively glorious (but bloody) lives of the gamecocks. In other essays about a South Carolina "moonshiner's reunion," an Oklahoma coon-treeing competition and a visit with Kentuckians whose delicacy is squirrel brains, Bilger always sees past the freak show to get the full, resonant story, often of older cultures retreating before the new. Readers who liked the Southern exotica of Confederates in the Attic or Mullett Heads should enjoy this promising debut about "the forgotten folkways [that] still inhabit our back roads.

Pretty solid, eh?
The other thing Bilger does is convey a sense of where these practices actually stand in the real world. So many portraits of the South seem to infer that we all have coon hounds, we all drink moonshine, we all participate in estatic, pentacostal religious rites, and we all participate in Civil War re-enactments. And yes, probably most everyone knows someone (or multiple someones) who do each of these. Yet this does not mean that everyone participates in these things. Bilger lets his readers know that these are subcultures of subcultures of subcultures - isolated (which isn't really the right word, is it?) in communities that are sometimes geographic (consider the predominance of Franklin County, Virginia in moonshine production) and are sometimes merely metaphoric (as in the kinship of Bluegrass musicians that leads to fiddlin' conventions). Furthermore, Bilger notes that some of these traditions are on the wane and some where frankly never very widespread at all. What this means is that the South "unflattens" and becomes a much more varied and interesting place - and also a place that it is far more difficult to stigmatize (perhaps a Southern writer should undertake the same activity in the North and Midwest?).
This book is, of course, not just about Appalachia, but includes the entire South (for ya'll who don't understand the implication, that means, the Ozarks, the Delta, the Deep South, the Upper South, the Tidewater, Old Florida, the Mississippi-Missouri basin, the Blue Grass, the Eastern Shore, the lowlands of South Carolina, the Piedmont of North Carolina, and Coastal region of North Carolina, and any number of areas). That said, there are a few chapters that will hold special interest to anyone trying to take notes on our region. In particular I recommend the chapters on cock-fighting (which goes on in spades less than forty minutes from where I sit), moonshine (which I might or might not have had a few times), squirrel huntin' (and eatin') [which was a major part of my childhood), coon huntin', and chittlins. But the whole book is fantastic (rarely have I been so transfixed by any essay as much as I was by the chapter on noodling for flatheads).
All that said, just check this one out. Of course you can buy it from Amazon or Powell's, but if you're interested, you can also get it straight from the publisher (Simon & Schuster) in a digital format and read it from a computer or handheld device. Also, if you're still unconvinced I have some interviews for you: one from Southern Scribe and one from NPR.

Oh, and a final bit: if you're very sensitive about the treatment of animals, well, you might not want to read this book - while its not gruelingly detailed, the violent death of several species is described. There you go.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Centralia, Pennsylvania

Vaughn’s post on Saltville below got me thinking about industrial disasters in the Appalachians. There are probably thousands of individual coal mining accidents that can be told but I'll only touch on two that involve the black diamond.

In 1972, a slurry (liquid coal waste) impoundment dam at Buffalo Creek Hollow (Logan Co., WV) failed, unleashing over 130 million gallons of sludge down the valley through 16 mining communities. 125 people we killed, 1,121 were injured and over 4,000 people were left homeless. The total population of this valley was approx. 5,000. 625 survivors sued the Pittston Coal Company but settle out of court for $13.5M. Typically, attorneys earn somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/3 of the settlement. Using that number, each survivor won $7,200.

Probably the worst story that I have heard about takes place in the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. I first heard about this town when I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Here is an excerpt of his book that goes into amazingly sad detail of how a small Appalachian boom town met its demise:

“Centralia was a sturdy little pit community. However difficult life may have been for the early miners, by the second half of the twentieth century Centralia was a prosperous, snug, hardworking town. It had a thriving business district, with banks and a post office and the normal range of shops and department stores, a high school, four churches, an Odd Fellows Club, a town hall – in short, a typical, pleasant contentedly anonymous small American town.

Unfortunately, it also sat on twenty-four million tons of anthracite (anthracite is a type of coal that is hard to light but once it starts burning it is nearly impossible to put out). In 1962, a fire in a dump on the edge of town ignited a coal seam. The fire department poured thousands of gallons of water on the fire, but each time they seemed to have it extinguished it came back, like those little birthday candles that go out for a moment and then spontaneously reignite. And then, very slowly, the fire began to eat its way along the subterranean seams. Smoke began to rise eerily from the ground over a wide area, like steam off a lake at dawn. On Highway 61, the pavement grew warm to the touch, then began to crack and settle, rendering the road unusable. The smoking zone passed under the highway and fanned through a neighboring woodland and up and towards St. Ignatius Catholic Church on a knoll above the town.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines brought in experts, who proposed a number of possible remedies – digging a deep trench through the town, deflecting the course of the fire with explosives, flushing the whole thing out hydraulically – but the cheapest proposal would have cost $20 million, with no guarantee that it would work, and in any case no one was empowered to spend that kind of money. So, the fire burned on.

In 1979, the owner of a gas station near the center of town found that the temperature in his underground tanks was registering 172 degrees. Sensors sunk into the earth showed that the temperature thirteen feet below the tanks was almost 1000 degrees. Elsewhere, people were discovering that their cellar walls and floors were hot to the touch. By now smoke was seeping from the ground all over town, and people were beginning to grow nauseated and faint from the increased levels of carbon-dioxide in their homes. In 1981, a twelve year old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened up around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was then that the people started getting serious about the fire.

The Federal Government came up with $42 million to evacuate the town. As people moved out , their houses were bulldozed and the rubble was neatly, fastidiously cleared away until almost no buildings remained. So today Centralia isn’t really a ghost town. It’s just a big open space with a grid of empty streets still surreally furnished with stop signs and fire hydrants. Every thirty feet or so there is a paved driveway going fifteen yards to nowhere. There are still a few houses around – all of them modest, narrow, wood framed structures stabilized with brick buttresses – and a couple of buildings in what was once the central business district.”

Bryson continues his visit to Centralia and finds that the library still is standing and is full of information on the fires. There he stumbles across a Newsweek article quoting a mine fire authority official stating that if the current rate of burning held steady, there was enough coal under Centralia to burn for a thousand years. If you visit this site, you can find photos taken as recently as 2005 of Centalia, and yes, the ground is still smoking.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Salt In the Wound

Image taken by my grandmother
Hazel Holley Crabtree 1924

The story of Saltville VA (or as some of us call it now “Saltvegas”) is dotted with cultural and ecological importance, disaster, battle, harshness, history, and simple beauty. The people there are rugged and good-natured. They adapt to the sharp slopes of the hills around them and the swampy waterways of the valley. Saltville is tucked away in the backwoods of Southwest Virginia and to go there usually means that you go back in time. Over the past centuries Saltville has become a national historic landmark with the past battles of our own Civil War and a world treasure with the discoveries of artifacts and animal specimens ranging back to before the Ice Age. The importance of Saltville for all researchers is the salt deposit in the earth’s crust. Salt has always been a vital ingredient to our way of life. This deposit allowed many cultures and animals to thrive. But, to remain connected to this fertile land meant that most had to guard what they had with their lives. Some of the residents of Saltville were, prehistoric mammals including the mammoth, several tribes of American Indians, early American trail blazers, Spanish Conquistadors, Confederate and Union troops, mining companies, and my own ancestors. My mom’s family lived in and around Saltville. My grandfather worked on the 9th level (800 feet below the earth) with the United States Gypsum Company. That is another story. The gypsum company owned The Locust Cove mine which opened it’s first mine in 1961 and remained opened for almost 40 years. It was shut down in 2000, along with the plant after several mines collapsed causing major damage to farmland, roads, and some of it people. I could go on and on about the history of Saltville but I want to talk about one incident, the 1924 Christmas Eve Muck Dam Disaster. I do want to say that you can still see the holes left from Civil war cannon balls in the abandoned railways going in and out of Saltville. I used to go looking for them as a boy.
Image taken by my grandmother
Hazel Holley Crabtree 1924

On this night the town of Saltville did stir with the sound of it’s large Muck Dam exploding and breaking. At the start of 1908 the Mathieson Alkai Works plant started pumping waste into a pond at the North Folk of the Holston River. By Christmas of 1924 the amount of caustic muck that resided in that pond covered 30 + acres with a 100-foot dam holding one side of this stuff from escaping. When the Muck Dam broke the pressure of waste went running down the valley and destroyed the small town of Palmertown. One of these houses was my family’s farmhouse. Nineteen people died in the flood. Large pieces of the explosion blocked the North Fork and flooded the smaller community of Chinch Row. See witness stories here.
No one really knows why or how the dam broke and speculations of recent rain loosening the muck caused the dam to break. Other speculations were of an angry factory worker who wanted a job set explosives in the dam. He was later cleared by jury because lack of evidence.

Saltville lives with salt in its wounds. The history is tragic yet the importance of its survival is a testament to time, from muck one can find life springing. This town’s history is a history we should never forget. As William Faulkner said “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”

Museum of the Middle Appalachians
Virginia Museum of Natural History
Saltville VA

Friday, June 02, 2006

Way down south in the land of cotton...

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) told the press exactly how he feels about the South yesterday. He is not pleased that the federal homeland security money that his state had been receiving will be cut and sent to other locations. Sure, it's political hee-hawing but it's a good example of the stereotyping that the South and Appalachia still receive from the "elite" class of Americans. Here's a good response to his comments.

University Colors

I am that kind of nerd who is occasionally taken by manic obsessions. For a week all I’ll do is watch a particular type of animation, or read Greek tragedies, or paint, and so on. Pretty much everyone who knows me can, often to their chagrin, confirm this aspect of my personality.

Here is today’s mania.

Last night Sarah and I were talking about what flowers we are going to use in our wedding and she asked if I knew how much orange daisies cost. Surprised, I said I had no idea, and asked why she was thinking in this direction. Come to find out she’d heard that Tennessee had gotten its distinctive team colors (an almost bright orange and white) from the orange and white American daisies that grew on the Hill (more properly Barbara Hill), which made up the center of main campus in the old days and which still dominates UT’s scientific disciplines.

Jumping French Acrobats, I thought, that is awesome.

I looked it up and damned if the UT athletics website ( didn’t say this:

The colors Orange and White were selected by Charles Moore, a member of the first football team in 1891, and were later approved by a vote of the student body. The colors were those of the common American daisy which grew in profusion on The Hill. Tennessee football players did not appear in the now-famous Orange jerseys until the season-opening game in 1922. Coach M.B. Banks' Vols won that game over Emory and Henry by a score of 50-0.

After crying a little for my blessed E&H, I had a thought: I have never, ever, ever seen a wild daisy that was orange in any sense. Hmm.

I did another search. Dig:

The school colors of orange & white date to April 12,1889, when Charles Moore, president of the University's athletic association, chose the colors for the first field day. His inspiration came from the orange and white daisies which grew profusely on the Hill. In 1891, students again wore orange and white to the Sewanee football game. In 1892 students endorsed the colors at a special meeting called for the purpose, but two years later were dissatisfied with the choice and voted to drop the colors. After a heated one-day debate no other colors proved satisfactory, so the students returned to orange and white.
One recent student has called Moore "color-blind" after checking with a UT instructor of ornamental horticulture and design landscape who has never seen such a daisy, wild or hybrid. Several local florists concur. At any rate, PMSO21 from the Pantone Matching System is the official University of Tennessee, Knoxville, orange color with white.

Colorblind. Awesome. Almost as awesome as yelling, “GO WHITE AND PMS021!!! WHOO!”

All this got me thinking. Because I’m a thinker. I decided to figure out where other major university colors in the region came from, if I could. Note that I won’t even touch West Virginia University because blue and gold, being of course the state colors, are so manifestly obvious. And awesome. Consider:

Marshall University (Kelly green and white)

Okay, so I could find nothing on how Marshall got their colors, which seem to have been established pretty darn early, but I did find this ( absolutely fascinating article:

Why The Thundering Herd?

The Thundering Herd is American folklore ... as old as the buffalo that roam the western plains. The Herd once provided nearly every substance needed for human survival, including food, clothing, tools and weapons. The Herd still provides Marshall University's athletic teams with their nickname.

"Thundering Herd" has long been recognized by sports enthusiasts as one of the great, distinctive nicknames in college athletics. But on several occasions throughout Marshall's history other nicknames have been suggested and, on occasion, been hung on the school.

The first nickname of record is Indians, a moniker bestowed upon the pre-1900 athletic teams. By about 1910, sparked by the color of team uniforms, Big Green began to be used in reference to Marshall athletics. Criticized by some from its inception as being boring, Big Green was soon ripe for replacement.

When Huntington Herald-Dispatch sportswriter Duke Ridgley referred to a late-1920s squad as a Thundering Herd, after a then-current movie based on the 1925 Zane Gray novel of the same name, it caught on quickly. Both Thundering Herd and Big Green have been used in reference to Marshall ever since.

It didn't take long, however, for Thundering Herd to draw criticism as well. Some folks thought it inappropriate since it came with connotations of the western plains and didn't represent West Virginia or founding father John Marshall. One suggested nickname, which never caught on, would have honored John Marshall by calling the school's teams the Judges.

Huntington Advertiser sportswriter Dug Freutel in 1933 started referring to Marshall teams as the Boogercats (referring to Scotland's Bogie Cats, a "fleet, elusive, courageous" animal) and some other scribes followed in using that nickname. Freutel complained that Thundering Herd made one think of "cows stampeding down a country road," but many people thought Boogercats stirred up worse images than that.

The Boogercat controversy sparked the Marshall alumni association to hold a special meeting, in which a vote was taken to refer to the school teams as the Thundering Herd for the time being - but that a study should be undertaken to find a mascot that had a connection with the school or West Virginia.

Despite Freutel's attempts to keep Boogercat alive for the next couple of years, Thundering Herd and Big Green remained the commonly used nicknames. In 1958 the Marshall student body, without input from the faculty, administration or alumni, decided that two nicknames wouldn't do and held a vote to settle the issue. Along with Thundering Herd and Big Green, one group of students bought a turkey as a suggested mascot and promoted the name Green Gobblers.

The students voted on Big Green as the nickname, but the media continued to use Thundering Herd to refer to the teams.

In the fall of 1964 Marshall president Stewart Smith appointed a faculty-student committee to suggest a more permanent nickname, feeling that Big Green denoted no action and was not appropriately symbolic. The nine-member committee narrowed its field to Big Green, Thundering Herd and Rams, which had been suggested by Huntington businessman Leonard Samworth, a past president of the alumni association.

On January 5, 1965, over 85 percent of the Marshall students picked Thundering Herd above the others and chose the buffalo as the official mascot and green and white as the official school colors. The athletic fundraising organization took on the name Big Green, and Rams was left by the wayside along with Judges, Indians and, of course, Boogercats.
Boogercats. So frigging awesome.

Virginia Tech (Chicago maroon and burnt orange) (

The official university school colors - Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange - also were introduced in 1896. The colors were chosen by a committee because they made a 'unique combination' not worn elsewhere at the time.
Wow. How exiciting.

University of Kentucky (royal blue and white)

The University of Kentucky adopted blue and white as its official colors in 1892. Originally, however, UK students had decided on blue and light yellow prior to the Kentucky-Centre College football game on December 19, 1891. The shade of blue, which is close to a royal blue, was chosen when a student asked the question, "What color blue?" At the time, Richard C. Stoll (who lettered in football at UK in 1889-94) pulled off his necktie and held it up. The students then adopted that particular shade of blue. A year later, UK students officially dropped the light yellow color for white.

Also, if you’re a nerd, you can check out this. (

University of Virginia (navy blue and orange)
Orange and blue were adopted as the University of Virginia's official athletic colors at a mass student meeting in 1888. UVa athletic teams had previously worn silver gray and cardinal red, but those colors did not stand out on muddy football fields, prompting a student movement to change them.

One of the students attending the mass meeting was Allen Potts, a star athlete who played on Virginia's first football team in 1888. Potts showed up at the meeting wearing a navy blue-and-orange scarf that he had acquired during a summer boating expedition at Oxford University. Orange and blue were chosen as the official athletic colors after one of Potts' fellow students pulled the scarf off Potts' neck and, waving it to the crowd, yelled, "How will this do?"

Okay, this story has one major flaw - red and silver were hard to see on the football field? What tha'? Guess no one told Ohio State . . . or UVA - Wise for that matter.
A nifty little waste of time, eh?

By the way, my primary resource for all this data mining is this site right here (, which is simply a collection of “color traditions” made by a “fiscally interested party.” Hah.