Growing Up Poor in Appalachia and the Rural South: Defining Attitudes Toward Work

Mary Martinez, Western Carolina University

Love and work, work and love… that’s all there is.
— Sigmund Freud

Growing up in Appalachia and the rural South is no easy feat. In his book, They Say in Harlan County, Alessandro Portelli wrote, “We grew up hard, yet you grow up with a sense of pride,” and the “harder” it was, the greater the pride.1 This perspective was undoubtedly true of Western North Carolina native, Sanji Watson. Sanji had the “hardest” childhood of all of the five interviewed subjects in this project. The pride and sense of satisfaction she felt about her upbringing is a profoundly moving account of life and work in Appalachia.

Portelli quoted G. C. Jones, the former businessman, logger, and coal miner, whose autobiography, Growing Up Hard in Harlan County, detailed his early days in southeastern Kentucky. Jones stated that “growing up hard” not only meant growing up in hardship, but it also meant “gaining strength and learning tenderness from that hardship.”2 This insight resonates in particular with the central character in this oral history, Sanji Watson. The other narrators in this project also exhibited pride in “growing up hard” and not only survived but transcended the hardships of their childhoods. In addition to the 53-year-old, Tuckasegee, North Carolina native, Sanji Watson, this oral history project also includes the words and insights from Patricia (Pat) Solomon, 72, raised in Sylvester, Georgia; Ron Hicks, 76, born and raised in Caretta, North Carolina; William (Buster) Gray, 66, born and raised in Ridgecrest, North Carolina; and Hazel Soles, 80, born and raised in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. 

“Growing up hard” meant working hard from an early age. Harlan County resident James Wright recalled, “To make ends meet, the work of all family members was necessary.”3 Wright carried coal and cut wood daily. He went to work in the coal mines when he was just twelve or thirteen. Raleigh Bailey, the author of The Appalachian Experience, explains that children began work at an early age and that chores were “essential to the family economy.”4 Harlan County’s Arthur Johnson described working in the family fields: “We children used to work in the fields and have to carry out rocks… The littlest and the big ones, they would all join in and do that, and they would also carry water. Sometimes we had to carry water to livestock; little, little children would carry like a four-pound bucket.”5

Another Harlan County resident, Bobby Simpson, said, “I started working when I wasn’t big enough to even pack the bucket. I was about four years old.”6 In her book, A Cades Cove Childhood, Margaret McCaulley shared the story of her husband, J.C. McCaulley, and his life growing up in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. He remembered the long, early morning walks to the schoolhouse. It was his job each morning to light the school’s woodstove. “I split kindling,” McCaulley recalled, “carried in a supply of coal and got the fires lit so that the rooms will be warm before students arrived.”7 Pat Solomon recalled her brother having a similar job at his schoolhouse. He didn’t get paid, but he got a free school lunch in exchange for his work.8 

Like J. C. McCaulley’s mother, Pat had to haul water for washing and cooking in buckets from their well. Sanji Watson remembered chopping wood and carrying it in each day, so the family had the fire they needed for heating and cooking. She, too, had to haul water daily. McCaulley described “wash day,” which included cutting wood to build a fire and then boiling the clothes in the iron washing pot. Pat remembered having ten tubs of water for rinsing the clothes and recalled that wringing out the clothes and hanging them on the line was a challenging undertaking.9

In her book, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, Florence Bush detailed the early life of her mother, Dorie Cope. Bush quoted her mother, who said, “We children did our share of farming. Harvest, preserving, and canning.”10 Like Cope and McCaulley, all five subjects in this oral history project grew up on farms, and all but one began doing chores at an early age. Sanji Watson said:

We worked in the garden. My granddad was a very firm believer that if the sun was up, you were supposed to be up, and he would come through, and he’d say, “Get up, we gotta get in the garden,” because we always had a huge garden. We plant like two acres of Indian corn, and we’d have a huge garden with everything you can think of – potatoes, corn, beans, squash, zucchini, mustard, turnips, and whatever it was, we grew it. We raised hogs, so we had to feed the hogs. We had chickens, and we had to feed the chickens. We had rabbits. We did that.11

Portelli quoted Mary Ellen Russell, who noted that “although men plow the gardens, women and children were responsible for raising the corn, beans, greens, tomatoes, peas, and other vegetables for annual food supply. We raised about everything we ate.”12 Harlan County resident Arthur Johnson remembered, “My mother she picked salad greens –‘sallit’ they call it; she would pick Polk (a wild green, sometimes poisonous, used for salads) [and] they sell it down at Harlan, that’s the biggest thing everybody eats. My grandfather used to say when you see those women going around the hill with their buckets and knives – they carry a butcher knife to cut the greens – you know spring is here.”13

Portelli observed that among people of Appalachia, “Dignity is often asserted by downplaying hardship or balancing it against other, positive elements.”14 Mildred Shackelford recalled, “We was poor in that way, but… what was important enough food to eat. We ate really well; we had a four-room house that had pine floors and pine walls; we burned coal.”15 Ron Hicks maintained that his family always ate well because of his grandparents’ garden and livestock. He also recalled the active part he played as a child in taking care of the garden. Pat Solomon delighted in talking about the delicious homemade food her mother made, and Sanji Watson remembered standing on a kitchen chair at five or six years old and learning to cook for her family.16

Harlan County resident Debbie Spicer recalled, “You just about eat what you raised, raised what you eat.” Anne Napier concurs: “We always grew about everything we ate. We didn’t have money, you know. But we always had plenty to eat.” Portelli noted that this was a recurring statement of both pride and hardship in Harlan County residents’ as they remember growing up on the farm.17

Ron Hicks recalled that he never went hungry. “Now lots of times, I remember some Christmases where we never got nothing for Christmas because we just couldn’t afford it, but as far as going hungry, no.” Ron also remembered his grandfather and some of his brothers having gardens. He also recalled his grandmother having cows, pigs, and chickens.18

Dorie Cope remembered that “Slaughtering the pigs was a gory, horrible time, and I would do anything to escape.”19 William (Buster) Gray recalled being six or seven when he started taking care of hogs:

When we first come up, we didn’t have a ranch, but we had a cow, a milk cow; we had to milk the cows. We had some hogs that we butchered every year. We took care of the hogs. Had a plot of ground that we were responsible for hoeing and plowing. And when I was a real little pup, so my grandfather lived below us, and we build our house up here on about four acres or five acres or whatever it was. My grandad, I never knew what he worked at before he retired, but always know him… he was out there in the garden doing something with the plow horse. And I remember the first tractor we got was a steel wheel; it had steel spikes on it. You had to crank it, two-cylinder, that thing, whip you too, boy.20

Sanji Watson had her issues with butchering farm animals as well. “To this day I find it hard to eat chicken ‘cause when we were growing up, Granddad would holler, ‘It’s chicken-killing day,’ and oh God, we try everything in the world to get out of that, ‘cause it wasn’t four or five, it was forty or fifty.” Sanji also remembered the hardship of working on a farm without a father around. 

I was raised to work like a man. Used to be if it rained like it is today, it’s not really a hard rain, it’s just rain, our road would be impassable, you couldn’t get a vehicle in it. So we raised Indian corn. Now, I told you before we planted two acres at a time or more, and we would take that Indian corn and get it ground. Now part of it we would have ground into cornmeal because that’s what we used, and the rest of it we have ground into hog feed, and then put it into 100-pound sacks. Now when it was bad, and you couldn’t get in and out, a lot of times in the winter, we had to park in the graveyard and walk in. You’d come up, and you’d have four or five hundred pounds of hog feed, and you can’t get it home, you had to carry it. So you know it wasn’t nothing to throw hundred pounds of hog feed on your shoulder and take off or throw it up on your back and go on. I was just raised to work like a man.21

Sanji remembers continuously carrying water, chopping wood, and plowing. While Buster’s grandfather was the one “doing something” with the plow horse, it was a twelve-year-old Sanji 

I was taught to do things just like the boys was. ‘Cause there was more boys my age than girls. But we were taught to plow, either single-tree or double-tree, which means one horse, or two, and that’s how we plowed because we didn’t have a gas-powered or any kind of tractor, we had plows. And the neighbors had two big old Belgians, Dan, and Little Ann, and they did all the plowing, and then when I got to be about twelve, they got to teaching me how to plow. So they’d hook me up, here it is I’d have this plow, and it was bigger than I was, and we… these old Belgians and out through there you go. You tie the harness around your neck, put a knot in it and put it around your neck, and I got good at taking my teeth, and go in and get in the harness and pulling it to the left and right, so I wouldn’t let go of the handles. Yeah, and then where I got to where I could plow pretty good, I went and plowed fields for other people.22

Sanji got her first paying job at the age of fourteen. She turned fourteen on a Friday, and the next day, she went to work in the cabbage fields planting cabbage in the Tuckasegee Straits. She was up at daybreak and planted cabbage plants all day long. Sanji remembered, “That was a hard job. And I’ll never forget my very first paycheck. I took it to my mama, and I gave it to her. And she bought something she had wanted for years — a screen door.” Sanji got emotional as she described this story. Giving her mother something that she desperately wanted but could not afford was a very heartwarming memory for Sanji. She remembered watching her mother throughout that day lovingly cleaning the screen door with vinegar and newspaper.23 

When Sanji was a freshman in high school, she got a job at Western Carolina University, working in Dotson Cafeteria after school and on weekends. In the summertime, she would work two or three jobs just to get money to take care of her mother and siblings. By the time she was a junior in high school, she had paid off the house.

Ninety-six dollars a month. I’ll never forget that. Mama set there and cried. She said, “Sanji,” she said—Mama had to fight to get money from Daddy for anything; she had to fuss at him not physically fight, but fuss at him. And once I went to work, I pay the light bill, and we had a phone was on the party line, which was a hoot, and I paid the house payment. We went to the store once a month, and we got sugar in 25-pound bags, and I can remember my mama having to sign a piece of paper saying she wasn’t using it to make liquor with. And we bought pinto beans in 100-pound bags, and that’d last us a month. And we bought flour, and we bought salt. We didn’t buy iodized salt; we bought 10, 15-pound bags of pickling and canning salt at the time ‘cause we would put up our own meat. We used more of it than anything, and when we were growing up and lived in Gastonia, we live just down from a dairy, so we always had fresh milk. And then when we lived in Franklin when we was building our house here, my uncle Dan had a dairy, so he gave us milk. So when we moved to Tuckasegee, we couldn’t get milk, so mama would buy powdered milk, and I can remember it being in the big old box, and if… if everything worked out okay, and we had spare money, and we didn’t need it, it was something else for us to come to Hooper’s Drug Store; it was on Main Street in Sylva at that time. They had a soda bar in there for us to get a hot dog. We were in high class when we could get a hot dog. Now a lot of people thought that was strange. Kids at school we talk about doing this and that, and that and this, and I would never say nothing because mama didn’t want nobody to know how bad things were sometimes.24

Like Sanji, Pat Solomon worked outside the house, and though she preferred working inside, she detailed the challenging nature of fieldwork. Pat’s family were sharecroppers, as was the family of Martha Alice West. In her book, Country Women Cope with Hard Times, Melinda Walker noted that the West family kept only half of their harvest, as well as half of their chickens and eggs.25 Pat didn’t know how much her family received from the cotton, tobacco, and peanuts they raised, but she and her siblings were delighted because they kept the money they earned from picking cotton. She said working in the fields “made you angry, but the problem is everybody around us worked in the fields, so we didn’t know what anything else was except fieldwork.” Pat said she and her sisters would get tired and hot, and they would try to find the biggest cotton stalk to find shade. “You know you didn’t get no shade in no field, but we thought we did.” The children had the cotton weighed at the end of each day, and a hundred pounds of cotton by weeks end netted three dollars for each child. Pat and the other children often took their money to town where they bought candy, went to the movie on a dime, and bought popcorn and Coca-Cola.26

Pat’s family shared many connections with the family of both Martha Alice West and Dorie Cope, including growing tobacco. Dorie complained, “Our job would be to pick the horrid green tobacco worms off the tender stocks. I hated this job, but it was the only way to save the tobacco.”27 Pat and her sister did the same thing, and they found it equally disgusting. Pat remembered being about seven or eight years old when she started working in the fields. She told a funny story about her sister, who was about two years old when Pat began fieldwork:

I remember my aunt telling me that my little sister, we called Stinky… when she was walking up the path to go do tobacco, she looked at my mother, and she said, “I don’t want to suck no damn tobacco!” And she was probably two or three years old. (Laughter). But she was tired of tobacco already and hadn’t started. (Laughter).28

The topic of food was a recurring theme for nearly everyone researched and interviewed for this project. J. C. McCaulley noted that many of his meals were meatless, “consisting of vegetables from our garden, with lots of cornbread.”29 Pat remembered that her main meal was dried butter beans and a streak of lean (fatback). Sometimes her mother would make a hoecake of flour bread, “But my best, the one I liked the best, was cornbread and milk. And if she could get a hold of cracklin’, we had cracklin’ cornbread and milk.” Dorie felt the same, claiming, “Cornbread crumbled into a tall glass and filled with milk was better than the best of cereals.”30 To this day, Pat often has cornbread and milk as her evening meal. Hazel Soles also had meatless meals during the week, as did Ron Hicks. Most of the interview subjects, like Dorie, had chicken and dumplings on Sunday, which they remembered with great fondness.31  

Biscuits were also routine parts of meals. Hazel Soles recalled that her mother made the best biscuits out of simple, basic ingredients. Dorie and J. C. McCaulley also remembered eating them with pleasure, and many spoke of biscuits with homemade butter and jam. Sometimes, though, there was a food memory that was not quite as rosy.32 Mildred Shackleford of Harlan County recalled, “If we took our lunch to school, we had to take ham and biscuits you know homemade, and stuff like that and we were looked down upon because of that.”33 Pat Solomon remembered, “We took biscuits and jelly for lunch: Biscuits and jelly, that’s what we had for lunch, just biscuits and jelly, that’s all and water. And it wasn’t no bottled water either; we had to go to the water fountain at the schoolhouse and drink water.” Pat believes that her negative childhood experiences with biscuits are the reason she does not eat them today.34 

Nearly everyone had at least one cow for milk. Dorie recalled, “Our cows were very important to us. Fresh milk and butter were prized above everything else.”35 Several Harlan County residents talked about churning butter. Sanji Watson, Pat Solomon, and Ron Hicks all remembered churning butter themselves. Though all of the narrators prized their cows and their other barnyard animals, not all the barnyard animals felt the same about their humans. Pat remembered, “We had a Billy goat, and that Billy goat loved everybody but my Daddy, and every time he went into that pen, he would butt Daddy; he would fight Daddy. And we even had a rooster that done the same thing.”36

Hazel Soles relates an early childhood, somewhat traumatic, encounter with their rooster:

I had a sandbox on one side of the house, and I decided to move it to the other side. So I got my little sand bucket, and I’m going along, and I’m singing at the top of my little lungs, “You are my Sunshine,” I remember what I was singing. And here comes the old rooster, and he didn’t like my singing. He knocked me down. I was just a little thing. And he had a couple of holes in my head before my mama came out. I didn’t like roosters after that.37

Hazel was the only subject of this study who did not have any assigned chores except for tidying up a little in the house. Her mother didn’t want her in the kitchen, perhaps as Hazel remarked because she was left-handed. Hazel didn’t learn to cook until she was married.38 Dorie described the time a turkey attacked her; “The turkey had sneaked up behind me, taken a running go. Hit me with his big, dirty feet and flogged me with his wings.”39 She also recalled, “Mr. Wade’s goose like to nest in the honeysuckle vines along the road and didn’t like anyone passing to close by. His goose chased me on many occasions.”40 

Many remember their childhoods fondly. Harlan County’s Mildred Shackleford stated:

But it wasn’t all that bad, really. I think it gave us something that a lot of kids nowadays don’t have because we learn to entertain ourselfs; we learn to do things for ourselfs. Didn’t have money to buy anything with. We didn’t have baseball bats, gloves, or any of that kind of stuff. So if we wanted to play ball, me and my sister were going to the woods and cut the tree down. We would make a baseball bat out of that. We would get all green apples or rocks or anything that was hard, and we would put rags around and wrap black tape on it, and we would make balls out of that. We spent a lot of time swimming, playing rivers, climbing the mountains, chasing after snakes or other animals.41

Pat Solomon remembered her childhood similarly:

Farming life, as everybody knows, is a hard life from sun up to sundown. You didn’t have a chance– on Saturday we’d go to town, and we would buy groceries and went to the movie for ten cents in Sylvester, Georgia. And we had to love—it—I look back as the good old times back then because there was not so much killing or fighting; we all was just loving. And on Sunday, you could count on a chicken, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes. And we have our family come over, my aunts and uncles would come over, and it’s just one happy family. And the kids would get together, and we would go down and play on the sawmill. There was a pine tree growing up the top of the sawmill, and we climb that pine tree and bend it over and let it go. (Laughter). And they kept on saying to us that the sawdust was going to swallow us, but we didn’t believe it. So that’s what we played. We didn’t have a bicycle at the time. My brother got the first bike, and we all, the girls learn to ride on a boy’s bike, but we always found something to do. Back then, our houses were up on blocks. You could crawl up under the house, and that’s where me and my two sisters would go and playhouse. We would make mud pies, put them in the sun, and bake them.42

In the introduction to Country Women Cope with Hard Times, Melissa Walker wrote that “Poor families live in substandard housing, often in meager cabins that were not sealed against the weather, insects, rodents, or dirt.”43 In her book, Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood, Drema Hall Berkheimer described her aunt and uncle’s two-room house this way: 

Uncle Vertis’ and Aunt Nalda’s two room house, no running water, well on the yard. Butter, milk, and eggs kept cold in the spring house. The outhouse, situated downstream, was wallpapered with pictures aunt Nalda cut from seed catalogs… A bucket of lime with a tin cup sat in the corner, and a cup or two sprinkled into the hole kept the stench down and the flies away. If money and toilet paper ran out at the same time, a page or two of the Sears Roebuck came in handy.44

Sanji Watson recalled: 

Mama had inherited some land from her Poppy. We were living in Gastonia when he died, and Mama inherited land from him. And she wanted to come back to the mountains ‘cause she hated it down there. So she, she made the arrangements for a Jim Walter home to be built on that property. You know back then it was just shells. You got the outside, roof, and two by fours to mark off the rooms, and that was it. No electric, no water, no nothing. We lived over on Skeener in Franklin while they built the house over here. And before there was any power, any water, any bathroom, anything, Daddy made us move into it because he was tired of paying rent in Franklin. So we moved into this house, and it had no electricity, no running water, no bathroom. We had a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat on it. I’ll never forget that, and we had to take that out every day.45

J. C. McCaulley said that they lived in a “tiny cavity” where “the spaces between the logs let in the cold wind. My brother Millard told me that he often woke on winter mornings with snow on the bed covers.”46 Pat Solomon’s house had only three rooms, and she and her brother and sisters slept in one room. When temperatures dipped, her mother would warm a quilt by the fireplace, and she would wrap all the children up in the same bed to keep warm and place the warm bricks at their feet.47 

Pat’s house had no running water, and like Sanji’s family, they used an outhouse for toileting. Pat recalled that every time she went to that outhouse, she and her sister kept looking for snakes. “But we thought we were rich ‘cause we had a two-hole outhouse” (laughter). “So at nighttime, if we had to go, I’d get one of my sisters to go, and we go to the outhouse. Sometimes we would just go to the edge of the yard if we just had to do number one, so we wouldn’t have to go way out to the outhouse.”48

Pat’s mother kept their house spotless, and Pat believed she inherited her mother’s clean ways. Both Ron Hicks’ and Buster Gray’s mothers also kept immaculate homes, and both Ron and Buster helped their mothers with cooking and housework, defying typical Appalachian beliefs that there was men’s work and women’s work. As mentioned earlier, Pat and Sanji “worked like men” outside and in the fields. Both Ron and Buster still cook and do housework to this day.49

Many of the narrators recalled the clothes they wore as children. Harlan County resident Bobby Simpson revealed, “All our clothes was, they was feed sacks. Where they got feed for the stock, and then you made clothes out of that.”50 His neighbor, Susie Crusenberry, recalled her mother making clothes from colored flowered feed sacks as well.51 Drema Hall Berkheimer wrote, “Grandpa would take me with him to buy feed for the chickens, so I could pick out the sacks I liked. When Grandma ran the sturdy flower prints through her singer treadle sewing machine, rose and yellow and lilac sundresses flowed out the other side.”52 Pat Solomon’s grandmother made beautiful dresses out of flour sacks for Pat and her sisters.53 

James Turner of Harlan County recalled getting one pair of shoes a year.54 Pat Solomon and her siblings got two pairs – one pair for school and one pair for church. They had to take their shoes off and go barefoot whenever they came home from either. Portelli wrote that “going barefoot became the experience that sums up – materially and symbiotically – the experience of growing up hard.”55 Another Harlan County resident, Ben Lewis, reported that he, like most kids, “went barefooted all summer and they wouldn’t get, but one pair of shoes and they get it in the wintertime.”56

When Appalachian and Southern rural families got sick, they didn’t go to the doctor. Meedia Jones remembered home remedies such as hot poultices her mother made, and a spring tonic made from cherry bark that her mother made in the Spring to help perk up her tired blood.57 Dorie Cope’s mother taught her about the plants in the woods that had healing power over sickness.58 Sanji Watson recalled her mother letting her miss school two times a year, once in the Fall and once in the Spring to “graze in the woods to pick ginseng and get medicine.” Sanji remembered, “We were doctored at home. Only thing we ever went to the doctor for was shots.”59 Her grandfather prepared the folk medicines, and when he died, Sanji got the book that had all the written down homemade medicinal information. 

The mother of Hazel Soles practiced mountain medicine, but only for her immediate family. “She’d go out in the woods here, dig up roots, berries, and brew teas, and you’ll get better…So many of those secrets went to the grave with her, but she could brew a mean tea, mean poultice, but you got better.” Hazel’s mother never taught her the art of mountain medicine and wonders if her mother simply wasn’t interested in teaching her. She recalled, “I see things back in the woods that I recognize and certain plants that she would make teas out of. And catnip; she would make a candy out of catnip, which was good for something.”60

In addition to feeding, clothing, and keeping them healthy, Appalachian and rural Southern parents believed in disciplining their children to make sure they learned right from wrong. Portelli found that in Harlan County “A ‘strict’ raising was part of growing up hard… part of a ‘good childhood,’ to be remembered with pride.” He quoted Parris Burke who remembered, “We would work, my dad he would [work] us, they were very strict on us. Wouldn’t take anything for the way I was raised, I just love it because it was hard, but seemed like you appreciated the world, you appreciate things more when you are raised like that.”61

Drema Hall Berkheimer remembered her sister Vonnie talking back to her mother and then promptly sent to break a switch off the cherry tree. Vonnie handed her mother the switch, then took off running.62 Sometimes, the punishment was too strict. Chester Napier recalled, “I got spanked so many times when I was growing up – I’ve been tied with a rope and whipped – that now I can hardly ever do it. Every time I start to do it, the thought of what I went through flashes right through me, and it hurts me more than it does the kids. I just don’t believe in it.”63 Buster Gray remembered: 

I was raised up, “Yes, sir; no, sir; yes, ma’am, no ma’am, stuff like that… polite, manners. We wasn’t the best of kids; I got in trouble, Jesus Christ, did I get in trouble. I earned every whipping I got. Should have got some more that I didn’t get. Wendy (their daughter) did too. She got frailed a few times coming up.64

Later, he admitted that his father was too free with the beatings. 

Pat Solomon recalled how she had to get her own switch. “And if the switch wasn’t right, you went back and got two of them, and then they plaited them together. But I look back now, and I said I’m so happy I was raised that way… Because I learned to love, what love is. I learned what work was. It was just a loving time, really. It was just a loving time.”65 Annie Napier remembered, “We had nothing but hard times and each other,” and her husband Chester agrees, “we may not a’had much, but we had love.”66

Sanji Watson remembered telling her children and grandson, “We had something that 90% of the kids in the world didn’t have, an over-abundance of love.” It is interesting to note that the greater the deprivation, and the harder the children had to work, the more love the children experienced. This notion certainly represented the views of Sanji Watson and Pat Solomon, who, of the subjects interviewed for this project, suffered the most poverty and hardship. Sanji Watson remembered:

And I guess it was because I was always raised that family came first. Your family was your most important thing. My mama always used to tell us; she said, “You know, people always want better for their families.” She says, “A nice house, a fancy car, lots of money,” she said, “that’s good, and I’d love for my children to have that,” but she said, “That ain’t the main thing I want.” And I guess she felt this way because of how my daddy had done her. She said that she wanted us to find somebody to love us for us, nobody else but us, and that we had a family, and that we were close, and that we loved each other. She said that’s all she ever wanted for her children.67

Drema Hall Berkheimer, Dorie Cope, and J. C. McCaulley all had very close relationships with their parents, siblings, and grandparents. Sometimes, it was a child’s grandparents that made all the difference in the life of a young Appalachian, especially when one or both parents were dysfunctional or absent. J. D. Vance, in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, believed his relationship with his grandmother saved his life: “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”68 Sanji Watson remembered:

We were real close to my papaw and my grandma, that was on my Daddy’s side. My mama’s mama died when I was six years old, and I can remember the day she died. And then my granddad lived with us the last five years of his life, and he was something else. But yeah, we were real close to my papaw and grandma. They—not speaking ill of the dead, but my daddy wasn’t much of a daddy. My papaw and grandma, which was his parents, try to keep an eye on us and to help us. Two of his brothers stepped up and helped us.69

Pat Solomon could not recall a time when her grandmother on her mother’s side didn’t live with her immediate family.70 

Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles studied the needs and deprivation of Appalachian children. He wrote that these children had a “greater sense of family, of shared allegiance to parents and grandparents, that somehow makes for relatively more cooperative activity, frolic, and eventually work than one sees among many other American children.”71 Harlan County resident Daniel Howard stated, “Of course every family has a black sheep. But then the black sheep always stay a part of that family whether they liked him, or whether they didn’t. It’s been the closeness – you’re poor, but you don’t realize you’re poor, and you make it up in family ties and family values.”72 Robert Simpson said, “I ain’t got much but I’ve got family and I’m one of the well blessed people on earth.”73

Growing up poor was a common theme among subjects in this project. Annie Napier told Alessandro Portelli: I think a lot of people is ashamed of the way they was raised. We didn’t have good clothes to wear. We wore patches on our breeches ‘cause we had to. Now you buy patches, they’re designer jeans. They make fun of you, the other children do, for what you wear; what you eat for lunch; and most of ‘em can’t do any better. But, I think, if you’re raised right, you come out from under poverty. We was raised with poverty; and we worked with poverty. Under the circumstances, the older people, my parents, did the best they could.74 

However, many Appalachian and rural Southern folks were not ashamed of their upbringing, nor do they recall being laughed at by others. Instead, most took pride in their early lives of deprivation and hard work, many counted themselves happy, and some did not realize they were poor at all.

Mary Webb Quinn was one of nine in a large sharecropping family from Spartanburg County, South Carolina. She remembers a very happy childhood, working hard on the farm growing cotton, and recalled the family producing their own food. She recalled, “of course, life was hard, and we were poor people, and we knew that we were. We didn’t really know it because everybody was poor. And we had friends and they were in the same boat we were in but we helped each other.”75

Unlike the experience of Mary Webb Quinn, Hazel Soles described a different scenario. She said, “I was very poor, very poor and so and sort of like lived on the other side of the tracks. I didn’t have all the things that other kids in the class did. But I had a pretty good mind, and I was always at the head or close to the head of the class.” When asked whether there weren’t other poor people around her near her home in Spruce Pine, North Carolina Hazel replied, “Oh yeah, there were. Spruce Pine is a very, always has been and always will be, I suppose, a very depressed area.”76

Harlan County resident Myles Horton asserted, “We were poor, but we were never poor in spirit.”77 The awareness of the true nature of his poverty was limited because everyone around him was in the same boat. Confronted by people of higher economic status, people in Appalachia faced a growing realization of their own poverty. Johnny Woodward tells a defining story about this realization: There is a friend of mine who has a very profound statement about growing up in a coal camp and being a poor kid. He says he was happy as he could be when he was a kid. Didn’t have any worry, didn’t have any problems – he was poor; didn’t know he was poor. And he said that all his life he would overhear conversations, from his own cousins, talking about them poor sons of bitches down there. And didn’t know until he was 16 years old that he was the poor sons of the bitches they was talking about. And he said that it depressed him beyond no means, and that he really didn’t know it was a bad shape he was in until somebody told him.78 

Sanji Watson always knew she and her family were poor. She was emotional as she described how hard of a life that her mother lived. In telling her story, Sanji was very matter of fact when she explained what “being poor” meant to her, but when she talked about its impact on her beloved mother, tears filled her eyes. She said:

I had seen my mama; she would put her shoes together with duct tape because we didn’t have money to buy things. We were out getting wood one weekend, I don’t know, Darryl and DeRonda were both in school, and this man had brought some property up in Hunter Flats, and he told us we could have wood off of it if we’d clean the underbrush. So my mama’s best friend and her husband, we all done it together, and we cut them a load of wood. Then we loaded us a load. And he had a three-quarter ton truck we hauled in on. We were loading the truck, a truck of wood one day, and mama and her friend was setting there on the stone, and my brother stepped up on the back end of the truck and went over the tailgate to stack it, you know we were throwing it in and he was going to stack it. When he did, he ripped the straddle out of his britches, and my mama just set down and cried because that was the only pair of britches he had. We were poor. We were poor. I didn’t know that cornbread was anything but blue for years until I went to school ‘cause all I’d ever had was Indian cornbread. It was hard.79

Despite their poverty and constant struggle to make ends meet, each of the subjects in this project believed strongly in the value of hard work. Drema Hall Berkheimer’s family used to feed hungry travelers who came to their simple home, asking for a meal. Her story about what her grandfather taught her about work is a memorable one:

Grandpa led a hobo to a stack of kindling and gestured toward the cellar door. The man nodded and began to fill the wheelbarrow with the wood, the very same load another hobo had carried from the seller door to the chopping block just a week or so before. Grandpa always said that a man who earned his own dinner could hold his head up.80

The central theme of Hillbilly Elegy is the relationship between working-class whites and work itself. Though his mother and father distrusted politicians, Vance remembered: Still, Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure. ‘Never be like those fucking losers think who the deck is stacked against them,’ my grandma often told me. You can do anything you want to.81 

Vance recalled being upset one day after leaving his nieces and nephews to go to his high-school job in a grocery store. His mother told him she wished he could stay home with the babies too, “but if you want the sort of work where you can spend the weekends with your family, you’ve got to go to college and make something of yourself.”82

Pat Solomon described her beliefs about work by saying:

My attitude about work is work never killed nobody. And if you’re going to get somewhere in this world, you need to work; you need to work for it. I enjoy working. I enjoyed working; I enjoy helping people. To me, working was just, that’s just the norm; you were going to work. You weren’t going to be lazy. So we all learned work ethic from working on the farm.83

Ron Hicks remembered learning the mantra: “If you want something, work for it.” Buster Gray echoed, “If you work for a man and he pays you a dollar an hour, you better make him a dollar and a half an hour ‘cause if you don’t, he don’t need you.”84

Sanji Watson summed up her attitude toward work this way:

We was raised to work hard, and when you have a job, you worked. You gave it your all. And until two years ago, I’ve never had just one job in my life. I’ve always had two or three that I would work. And it was anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day that I would work, but that’s the way I was raised. If you had a job, you went in and you done your job, and if you had to, you stepped up.85 

The subjects in this project recognized a change in the attitudes of work in people of today. Even as a child, J.D. Vance realized that there were two very different attitudes about work and life. He wrote, “My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, highly faithful, self-reliant, hard-working. My mother and the entire neighborhood embodied another increasingly: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful. I always straddle these two worlds.”86

Harlan County resident Plennie Hall stated:

People now, they got a silver spoon in their mouth. They don’t even know how hard times was back then. You walked backwards and forwards to your work, you didn’t have nothing but horseback or wagon, that’s all you had to ride. Now kids, they want the school bus to go out under the bed and get them… I’m awful proud that I had it to do.87

J. D. Vance despairs of present working-class whites in Appalachia:

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we will get a job, but it won’t last. We will get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five 30-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talked about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some unperceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach. We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk.88

The attitude that many people have about work in today’s world serves as a sore spot for Sanji Watson. As a child, her parents told her that she “had to work for what you got, and you couldn’t have nothing unless you worked for it.” Like Vance, Watson believes that too many people in Appalachia have a “why work” attitude when they can get things handed to them instead. Watson portrays this counterintuitive statement: “I can whine and complain, and I can live on the dole, get welfare or whatever, and I don’t have to work.” Buster Gray sees the difference in children today when he goes to visit the schools in his capacity as a Black Mountain, North Carolina police officer. “I see stuff going on in schools now that would have taken my skin off the walls if Daddy had come down to the school for those things.” He told of one mother offering to buy her son an ice cream if he would only behave. Buster said his father would have “busted my hind end all over that place in front of everybody.”89 

Pat Solomon feels that if kids today had farm work to do or if they had to “go and really work,” they would be a lot different and would appreciate the value of work. She knows a lot of young people who don’t want to work. “They don’t even want to clean their rooms, much less work. So if they would just—If they could live like we did, I think there would be a difference.”90

It is clear that growing up poor in Appalachia and the rural South produced a generation of hard-working, responsible, and self-sufficient adults who fought their way out of poverty and proudly created new lives for themselves and their families. Sanji Watson, as always, eloquently summed up the remarkable nature of Appalachian people. She recalled:

My grandson came to me one time, oh about two years ago; he’s now 14. He said, “Mamaw, did you know we’re poor?” I said, “What are you talking about, Wesley?” He said, “We’re poor.” I said, “How do you figure, we’re poor?” He says, “Well, they’ve been sending these food bags home with us from school.” You know the lunch bag things they do for the kids, and he says, “The kids at school been making fun of me for getting ‘em because only poor kids get ‘em.” And I said, “Let me tell you something, son. There is no shame in being poor. Some of the greatest people in this world started out poor. They worked hard; they stayed true to their selves, and they made it. And they made something out of themselves; they didn’t lay down and say, “Oh, woe is me, I’m poor, and stick their hand out. You work. You get it; you work for it, you will appreciate it more.” And I said, “Son, if they ever say anything else to you about being poor, tell them, ‘Yes, I am, and I’m proud of it,’ because you have something that those kids never had. You’ve had a family that loves you, that would move heaven and hell for you, and those kids don’t.” “Okay, Mamaw,” and that was the end of that.91

1 Alessandro, Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 45.
2 Ibid., 45.
3 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 32.
4 Raleigh Bailey, The Appalachian Experience: A Community Workers’ Guide (Greensboro, NC: A CABLE Publication, 1981), 17.
5 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 32.
6 Ibid., 32.
7 Margaret Osborne McCaulley, A Cades Cove Childhood (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008), 30.
8 Pat Solomon, interviewed by author, October 21, 2018, Hunter Library, Digital Collections, WCU Oral History Collection.
9 Solomon Interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Sanji Watson Interview, interviewed by author, October 13, 2018, Hunter Library, Digital Collections, WCU Oral History Collection; McCaulley, A Cades Cove Childhood, 27. 10 Florence Cope Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 52. 11 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
12 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 82.
13 Ibid., 33.
14 Ibid., 292.
15 Ibid.
16 Ron Hicks, interviewed by author, November 7, 2018, Hunter Library, Digital Collections, WCU Oral History Collection; Solomon Interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Watson Interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
17 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 31.
18 Hicks interview, WCU Oral History Collection
19 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 52.
20 William Gray, interviewed by author, October 28, 2018, Hunter Library, Digital Collections, WCU Oral History Collection
21 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection
22 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Gray interview, WCU Oral History Collection
25 Melinda Walker, Country Women Cope with Hard Times: A Collection of Oral Histories (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 133.
26 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection
27 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 63.
28 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
29 McCaulley, A Cades Cove Childhood, 41.
30 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 53.
31 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Hazel Soles, interviewed by the author, October 27, 2018, Hunter Library, Digital Collections, WCU Oral History Collection; Hicks interview, WCU Oral History Collection. 32 Soles interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 32, 53; McCaulley, A Cades Cove Childhood, 33.
33 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 292.
34 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection 35 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 53.
36 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection 37 Soles interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
38 Soles interview, WCU Oral History Collection. 39 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 43.
40 Ibid., 53.
41 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 46.
42 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
43 Melissa Walker, Country Women Cope with Hard Times: A Collection of Oral Histories (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2004), xxv.
44 Drema Hall Berkheimer, Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 179.
45 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
46 McCaulley, A Cades Cove Childhood, 23.
47 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
48 Ibid.
49 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Hicks interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Gray interview, WCU Oral History Collection, Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
50 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 47.
51 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 48.
52 Berkheimer, Running on Red Dog Road, 63.
53 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection. 54 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 47.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid.
57 Ibid.
58 Bush, Dorie, Woman of the Mountains, 24.
59 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 47.
60 Soles interview, WCU Oral History Collection. 61 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 48.
62 Berkheimer, Running on Red Dog Road, 166.
63 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 48.
64 Gray interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
65 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
66 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 35.
67 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
68 J.D Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Collins Publishing, 2016), 148.
69 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
70 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
71 Robert Coles, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers: Volume II of Children in Crisis (Boston, MA: Brown and Little, 1971), 500.
72 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 35.
73 Ibid.
74 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 49.
75 Walker, Country Women Cope with Hard Times, 150.
76 Soles interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
77 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 292.
78 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 293.
79 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
80 Berkheimer, Running on Red Dog Road, 49.
81 Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 35.
82 Ibid., 148.
83 Solomon interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
84 Hicks interview, WCU Oral History Collection; Gary interview, WCU Oral History Collection.
85 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection. 86 Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 148.
87 Portelli, They Say in Harlan County, 45.
88 Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 147.
91 Watson interview, WCU Oral History Collection.