The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Let’s set the record straight on this Appalachian-values thing

A Carl Feather column


One of the many frustrations of being a writer is that what is written is often misconstrued by the reader. Another is that the reader will assume that because the writer quotes someone, the writer personally accepts that observation as gospel and agrees with its premise.

I hit the jackpot and fell into both traps when I quoted Patrick Arcaro, director of Job and Family Services, about the historical basis for Ashtabula County underperforming surrounding counties.

Mr. Arcaro was quoted in the opening story in our Reality Check series. What he told me was not his personal opinion but what he had been told by others. The gist of it is this: In the 1940s and ’50s, many people came from Appalachia to get jobs in Ashtabula County, following Route 11 (which hadn’t been built yet) from the Ohio/ W.Va. border. Their presence somehow permeated the culture with what has become a stereotypical “Appalachian” mind-set that’s responsible for the local regressive attitudes and dependency on entitlements.

I chose to use this quote as an opening to this series for two reasons:

1) It ties into the current mind-set of our congressman, Steve LaTourette, who thinks making Ashtabula, Mahoning and Trumbull counties part of the Appalachian Regional Commission will relieve our economic distress. For further explanation, see Monday’s per capita story; and

2) It’s a local urban legend that has been repeated over and over to the point most residents under 50 believe it true.

Comments posted on the Star Beacon Web site this week indicate as much, although the story stated that this myth is nothing more than a convenient way to dismiss a much more complex problem.

Delving into the history and sociology of the migration of Appalachian workers to northeast Ohio is way beyond the scope of this series. Back in 1993, the Star Beacon published my series about that subject. And in 1998, Ohio University Press published my book, “Mountain People in a Flat Land: A Popular History of Appalachian Migration to Northeast Ohio 1940-1965.”

The book is available in local libraries. Better still, buy a copy from amazon.com. If I sell four books, the royalties will buy a gallon of gas, assuming I can find it for $3.43 a gallon.

The series and book paint a picture of hardworking folks, like my parents, who came to Ashtabula County not for a handout but for jobs – dirty, hard, dangerous jobs. These workers came here because Electro-Met, National Carbide and other postwar plants had more jobs than they could fill locally. They’d even give workers a bonus for recruiting a relative from the hills. Employers wanted these guys: They were strong, smart and had a great work ethic.

If you were to read the book, you’d learn that ads were indeed placed in West Virginia newspapers for workers to come to northeast Ohio, and buses were sent south to bring these guys up here. I suspect that’s where the myth of advertising in Appalachian newspapers to come to Ashtabula County for cheap rent and welfare benefits originated. If you have evidence to the contrary, please present it. Otherwise, let’s put that myth to rest, as well.

The Appalachians needed the jobs because mechanization had decimated the mining industry, subsistence agriculture was declining and West Virginia lacked the capital to reinvent itself, thanks largely to out-of-state owners who had gotten rich by cheating landowners of their mineral rights and sucking out the profits. For a disheartening read on this subject, turn to Ronald Lewis’ “Transforming the Appalachian Countryside.”

My parents came here from West Virginia in the mid-1950s. I’ve lived here 50 years and, frankly, still consider myself an Appalachian. I’m darned proud of it. I consider it an honor when someone calls me an “Appalachian” or “hillbilly.”

I believe a person needs to understand his roots and values. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Mountain People” and why the “Reality Check” series is running. We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been.

I grew up around these migrants. I love these people. They aren’t perfect, but if there is one thing they are, it’s hardworking. They are proud and extremely self-sufficient. They didn’t even know they were poor until Lyndon Johnson informed them.

I spend my vacation time in West Virginia. It’s the only time of the year when I feel like I’m actually “home.” When there, I write for a magazine called “Goldenseal.” It’s a magazine of Appalachian culture. I’ve had dozens of articles published in Goldenseal and write the Back Roads column published in every issue. It’s a great magazine, not an inch of advertising in it. Check it out at wvculture. org/goldenseal.

I state these things because I want Star Beacon readers to understand that I understand, love and practice true Appalachian values, not the corrupted, stereotyped version embraced by the uninformed.

There’s a great book on the subject written by Loyal Jones, “Appalachian Values.” Get it, read it and understand it before spouting off about Appalachians destroying Ashtabula County. If you don’t read it, then rent the three-DVD PBS documentary, “The Appalachians.”

What we have in Ashtabula is not Appalachian thinking. Appalachians, in the face of incredible hardships and challenges, are survivors. They are self-sufficient. They have a love of place. They are humble, fiercely family-oriented and stick together — and they prefer to be left alone.

I apologize to any reader who was offended by these statements. And if you’re angry about Mr. Arcaro’s comments, please direct that anger toward me, not him. He’s just repeating what has been said in this community for decades.

It’s time this Appalachian excuse be buried, along with the divisive spirit that has made Ashtabula County the place it is today. Just as racism has no place in our community, these local urban legends and the convenient wholesale corruption of Appalachia and its people ought to be taboo, as well.

Feather is Star Beacon lifestyles editor.

and an Appalachian.