Tennessee Mountain Stories

Old Time Virtues – From The Land of Saddle-Bags

A few weeks ago I told you I had a great ‘new’ book.  I may have mentioned how excited I was when I first began to read something written by one of us.  I need to reiterate that sentiment today.

Chapter four of The Land of Saddle-Bags is entitled “Elizabethan Virtues”.  Now, I doubt anyone on the mountain today would pick up a book by that title and we surely wouldn’t label anything about our way of life “Elizabethan”.  Yet James Watt Raine might well have been in one of our back yards as he wrote these observations. 

Molasses Stir Off some 'foreign' writers might present this as a sad means of acquiring sweetener.  It was always a festive time and everyone was please to put forth the effort as sorghum was the main sweetener in their diet.  This is not a picture of do-less people but hard workers.

Molasses Stir Off
some 'foreign' writers might present this as a sad means of acquiring sweetener.  It was always a festive time and everyone was please to put forth the effort as sorghum was the main sweetener in their diet.  This is not a picture of do-less people but hard workers.

He begins, “It is perhaps inevitable, but none the less unfortunate, that most of those who write about the Mountain People do not live among them.”  Let me just begin my ‘amens’ right here.  You may recall an article I wrote here well over a year ago about Dr. Wharton who founded the Pleasant Hill hospital and worked to expand it to the current Cumberland Medical Center.  Dr. Wharton did a great work and certainly gave us a wonderful gift in the medical facility we now enjoy.  However, I took some offense to her assessment of the mountain people she found around Pleasant Hill in 1917.  Dr. Wharton was born in Minnesota and educated in North Dakota, Europe and Michigan.  I imagine early-twentieth-century Appalachia was as foreign to her as any third world country would be to me today.  And what she reports seeing is a rather bleak environment of shiftless men anfaceless women; of families scarcely eeking out a living and seeming unconcerned about their plight.  And hers was not the first such report I’ve read; rather, it is what’s represented in most books written in the early twentieth century.

In contrast, Mr. Raine presents the mountain people as a unique race.  We may get a little nervous when people start talking about race in 2015.  However, when he wrote this book in 1924, the reader might have been more open to a broad definition of racial characteristics.  In fact, he mentions that the word ‘racial’ might be a stamp of inferiority.  Some in his day had portrayed the “actions, …motives, [and] outlook upon life [of the mountain people]… as so different …that they are made to seem a strange, peculiar, and far-off people.”  That really does sound like you are describing some foreign race. But Mr. Raine asserts this extreme view is inaccurate.

Instead, he points out the geography that kept the people of the mountains isolated for so many years and therefore they have either allowed the development of resourcefulness and independence; depending on your perception, this may have been forced upon them rather than allowed by them.   These were certainly traits our forefathers brought from England, Germany and Ireland and they have endured across the years.  The book’s author even finds virtue in the mountaineer’s ‘love of leisure’ for he points out that they are satisfied with what they have and not always striving to “procure these coveted things” which others have.  I guess that goes back to our individuality and it’s one of the characteristics I fear we’re losing as the world creeps up our mountain.  We are now told what the “average” American has and think we need at least that or more.  We long to dress the way we’re told is fashionable and drive the cars that are marketed to us and even eat the food of the world. 

“The Mountain men today are called shiftless because they do not flock to the city where they might enjoy the great benefit of crowds, confusion and noise.” I've rarely heard the sentiment that everybody ought to run off and get a factory job, but I’ve sure heard a lot of folks with good jobs up north longing to be back home.  Of course there were some who remembered hunger and cold and never wanted to look back.  But so many of our folks have looked back to the mountain longingly – and many came back when circumstances allowed it.  Of those folks who did move away, they seemed to carry memories of hard working folks with little opportunity for luxury or conveniences.  They moved wherever work carried them and there they cooked the food they’d loved in the mountains – if they could get it for Poke Sallet and cracklin’s are hard to find in the city.  They plied the crafts they’d learned at home, if only as a hobby, for many still whittled and quilted.  And they taught their children the values of their homeland – a love of God, devotion to family, honesty and perseverance. 

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to write about these people and places from the perspective of “one of our own” and I love finding other people doing the same.  I find bloggers from my own generation (and maybe younger) who still live in the mountains (such as the Blind Pig and the Acorn) and cherish the old ways or those who have never really lived here but descend from families that worked in cities and loved farms (such as Appleroot Farm).

So, the next chapter in The Land of Saddle Bags is “Mountain Speech and Song”.  I’ve written a few times here about our Southern English.  What do you think?  Do you want to hear what Mr. Raine had to say about it over ninety years ago?  Please click on “Comments” below and let me know.