Almost Heaven

Posted September 29th, 2008 at 5:01 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment
Coonskin caps were warm accessories in the cold southern mountains. The raccoon’s tail, hanging down one’s back, might have been a fashion statement.

Back when Hector was a pup, as my mother used to say in one of her imponderable expressions, I went spelunking — cave exploring — for the one and only time, somewhere in the hills of West Virginia. I well remember crawling into the blackness beneath the earth, but another image stands out more.

Along the road outside the cave, a couple of unkempt entrepreneurs had set up a table from which they were selling “authentic hillbilly goods”: moonshine jugs, fake buck teeth, goober-pea (peanut) pies, toy long guns and coonskin caps of the kind actor Fess Parker wore in an old television show about frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett was from Tennessee, two states away, but to these fellows, one hick with a raccoon tail hanging down his back was as good as another.

Hicksville, W.Va.
Grand Ole Opry superstar Minnie Pearl exaggerated her hick-ness for comic effect. Note her trademark store-bought hat with its dangling price tag still attached

They laid the backwoods routine on thick, scratching their heads, peppering their patter with phrases like “them boys thar” and blowing on the jug spouts to create “real live mountain music.” I told my caving guide that I wasn’t impressed by these yahoos and didn’t think they were doing West Virginia’s reputation much good, either.

“They’re smart guys from good families,” the guide told me. “They do better with this than they’d do at a factory job in town.”

Those were the days when a frumpy woman who called herself Minnie Pearl strode onto the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in Nashville, Tennessee, attired in a dime-store dress, sagging socks, cloddish shoes and a floral hat with fake flowers and a $1.98 price tag still attached. “Howdeeeee,” she would screech.

In this CBS-TV series, Jed Clampett strikes oil in the Ozark Mountains, then moves his “hillbilly” family to posh Beverly Hills, California.

In the early 1960s, descendants of the Scots-Irish settlers of Appalachia were just beginning to unite in disgust at their stereotype as “rednecks,” “ridge runners” and “trailer trash.” Mainstream culture was also rife with tasteless jokes about the supposed rash of inbreeding back in the hollows. Then along came a TV show called The Beverly Hillbillies that became a nine-season hit. Its bumpkins-turned-oil tycoons were said to hail from somewhere in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri or Arkansas, once home to a comic-strip hayseed named Lil’ Abner and the early film yokels, Ma and Pa Kettle. Ma gave Minnie Pearl a run for her “Howdeees.”

Enough Cornpone, Already

This Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-hick eruption really galled West Virginians, whose natural isolation already fed the mythology about their backwardness. Like many others who ventured there, I remember endless ordeals following coal trucks — the hillbilly comics would have said they were turnip wagons — as they inched their way up narrow, corkscrew mountain roads. West Virginia was so remote that it was said, believably, that no whites had yet stepped on many of its ridges long after Daniel Boone and other explorers had broken through the Appalachians and fully settled the flatlands to the west.

A coal miner’s statue stands outside the courthouse in Madison, West Virginia, in the heart of “coal country.” But the number of mining jobs in the state has dwindled from 120,000 to fewer than 15,000.

In a recent story about the importance of Appalachia in the 2008 presidential campaign, Newsweek’s Steve Tuttle wrote: “In the western Virginia county where I grew up” — next door to West Virginia and just as hilly — “there wasn’t a single traffic light.” Not one in an entire county, and there were counties just like it in West Virginia coal country across the line.

“The voters of Appalachia (a) are hicks (b) are hillbillies (c) are rednecks (d) don’t appreciate where you’re going with this,” read the headline on Tuttle’s piece. It’s clear where he came down on the matter, taking to task even U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney for his remark at a fundraiser that there were Cheneys on both sides of his family, “and we don’t even live in West Virginia.” Another incest joke. And Cheney’s not the only standup comedian still twanging the backwoods banjo. In books, and on audio and television, Jeff Foxworthy, a college graduate from Georgia, fashioned a lucrative career around one incomplete line: “You might be a redneck if . . .”

One answer: “. . . if your parents met at a family reunion.”

You’re Where, Exactly?
Fascinated with the work of the 18th-century engineers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, civil engineer Robert Doan Hutton Sr. found and photographed many of the Mason-Dixon Line’s stone mile markers, including this one.

Not only does West Virginia bear the brunt of these putdowns, but the state is also a little hard for most Americans to place. It lies almost wholly below the Mason-Dixon line, the old surveyors’ boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that loosely separated North from South. Yet how can a state that broke away from Virginia to cast its fate with the North in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s be a southern state? From a satellite, West Virginia looks sort of mid-Atlantic, but saltwater is 100 kilometers away. And West Virginia isn’t very midwestern, either; its flinty old spines don’t allow for much farming.

So most West Virginians simply say they live “in the mountains,” about midway along the Appalachian Trail that runs from northern Georgia all the way up to Maine. West Virginia is officially “The Mountain State,” and the sports teams of its big state university are “Mountaineers.” Those mountain images are brisk and bracing, but they also stir the old hillbilly pot. To the dismay of many, West Virginia University’s mascot is a fellow in a fringed buckskin outfit with the requisite coonskin cap. And we told you where the Davy Crockett image got the state.

The Good Life
This 1894 Victorian house, called “Highspire,” is one of many beautiful homes and shops in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, also home to the nation’s first hot-springs spa.

Fortunately, proud West Virginians have made some progress in buffing the state’s image. The uptick began in 1971, one can argue, when folksinger John Denver sang about “Almost heaven/West Virginia” in his smash hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “Life is old there,” he crooned, “Older than the trees/Younger than the mountains/Growin’ like a breeze.” We’ll pass right by his line about the “misty taste of moonshine.” Almost heaven was a good place for West Virginia to be for a change, and tourism officials made the most of it.

The state’s long-serving, and thus powerful, Washington congressional contingent — notably Senator Robert C. Byrd, affectionately known as the “King of Pork” — steered billions of federal public-works dollars West Virginia’s way. The state went from near-impenetrable to one of the easiest and most pleasant places in which to drive.“Yuppified” antique shops, bed-and-breakfast inns, and trendy restaurants turned little towns like Berkeley Springs and Shepherdstown into tourist attractions.

West Virginia is a fall paradise, as the photo, taken from Seneca Rocks in the Monongahela National Forest, attests.

Pastoral settings, a modest cost of living, and low crime rates attracted retirees. And even the state’s intelligentsia concede that the grand successes of West Virginia University’s men’s football and basketball teams — the footballers crushed perennial power Oklahoma in one of the nation’s prestigious postseason games this year — have pumped up the state’s visibility and hubris. So much so that West Virginia began calling itself “Wild and Wonderful” in its promotions.

All in all these days, West Virginians have a lot more to sell than peanut pies.





(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Bumpkin. Another disparaging word for an unsophisticated, dimwitted backwoodsman, often written as “country bumpkin.” Apparently the term originated with British settlers as a derisive term for the Dutch, for whom they had low regard. Boomken in Dutch means “a little tree.”

Cornpone. A colorful synonym for cornbread, a simple bread made from cornmeal in a hot skillet. Poor mountaineers often had little beyond cornpone and a bit of bacon to eat. Lard or pork drippings served as the skillet oil. Because cornpone was associated with humble people living back in the “hills and hollows,” the term became yet another unflattering adjective, as in “cornpone humor.”

Frumpy. Decidedly unfashionable, even shabby. But people who look frumpy are not slovenly or unkempt, just drab and old-fashioned, almost amusingly “clueless” about their appearance. They are the opposite of “fashion statements.”

Moonshine. Home-recipe distilled alcohol, concocted in secret apparatuses called “stills” back in the woods, hidden from federal agents or “revenuers.” Batches of this potent drink are often produced at night, illuminated only by the moon. According to some accounts, moonshine more often approaches the quality of paint thinner than elixir, and such stories as losing one’s hair after consuming impure moonshine are not exaggerated.

Pork. In a political context, pork or “pork barrel” appropriations are a slice of fat off the government hog, directed specifically to a single state or congressional district. Shrewd members of Congress are skilled at directing projects such as new highways, bridges, and factories their constituents’ way. The pork is often quietly appended to totally unrelated bills that are so popular that they easily pass. Either the pork goes unnoticed or nobody says anything, since “everybody does it.” (Not really, but to critics, it seems that way.)

Yuppified. Appealing to “yuppies,” or young, “power suit”-wearing, Gucci-briefcase-carrying, upwardly mobile urban professionals. Yuppies were idealized in what is often looked back upon as the self-centered “me” decade of the 1980s. The term became widespread with the 1983 publication of The Yuppie Handbook, a sort of guide to conspicuous consumption and wealth. To say that a community has become “yuppified” is to observe that it has gone trendy, with upscale shops, restaurants, and spas.

Please leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


September 2008
    Oct »