Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Purpose of The Land of Saddlebags

I write fiction.  I read fiction.  It’s not that I’m opposed to non-fiction, it’s just that the reality of our world is often so bleak that in the limited time I get to read, I think I want to escape into a good book.  Understanding this desire, I’ll confess that my writing has been criticized as “too real”.

However, historical research must be conducted in the realm of facts – at least as much as is available, and a lot of the history I want to learn about isn’t recorded in detail.  So when I’m reading a book like The Land of Saddle-Bags, I often forget to ask myself why was this written?

In reviewing books for publishers, I recently got ahold of one whose agenda was immediately so clear and so contrary to my personal views that I had to return it and beg to be excused from reviewing it.  That was certainly not the case in reading James Watt Raine’s The Land of Saddle-Bags.  However, by the end, I realized he did have an agenda albeit not one that is particularly offensive to me.

Please recall that when I first began sharing this book with you, I was thrilled that he was nearly native to the mountains (having been born in Scotland and raised in West Virginia and Arkansas) as well as sympathetic to the mountain people.  Throughout the book, unlike so many early-twentieth century treatises about us, Mr. Raine proved his knowledge and sympathy.  Missing was the attitude that we are an ignorant, do-less people who must somehow be fixed by educated people from cities – and usually northern cities. 

Early 1930's Mountian Farmer - you can see the farm in the background with the split rail fence.  He's proud enough of his horse that he's posed for a picture with it.

Early 1930's Mountian Farmer - you can see the farm in the background with the split rail fence.  He's proud enough of his horse that he's posed for a picture with it.

Then I came to the final two chapters, Wealth and Welfare and The Challenge.  Here, the author began to summarize the needs of the mountain people and to theorize the method by which those needs could be met.  I wouldn’t argue with his summary – historically, there’s been little cash-flow in mountain homes, difficult transportation, only rudimentary education, and a lifestyle that reflects each of these limitations.  However, to see a challenge and to formulate a methodology, you have to find a desire for change. 

Herein lies the rub.  When I was in high school my English class was assigned a paper based on interviews with family and neighbors who lived on the Plateau before electricity was available there.  Now, this was a contest sponsored by either the local electric cooperative, or maybe by TVA.  We had learned how to interview and how to present a balanced and unbiased news story and silly me set off to complete my assignment with those lessons in mind.  The people I interviewed (my grand parents and maybe a great aunt or uncle) well remembered life without lights.  They remembered wood-burning cookstoves and keeping your butter cool in the spring.  They recalled the first appliances they bought – and my Daddy remembered the excitement at being able to freeze popsicles in their brand new refrigerator.  And they all remembered good times.

Now, it won’t surprise you that I didn’t win that contest – don’t remember the grade I got on the paper but since I completely missed the point of the essay it may not have been a very high score.  You see, the sponsors were looking for a thrill associated with the coming of electrical power.  They wanted to hear how dark and low was the life in the powerless home.  That just wasn’t what I was hearing. 

And as I listen to the mountain stories of yesteryear, I don’t envision the bleak life that posed a challenge for outsiders to overcome. 

This is a familiar theme on this blog – and I don’t mean to be repetitive.  I’ve talked before about how thankful I am that we have good medical care now.  And my generation has had far more opportunities for education than any previous generation on the mountain – and those opportunites have multiplied in the ensuing years. 

So the question I pose to you now is whether we are the same now.  Or, are we a totally different people?

Do good roads and cars change who we are or do they simply change where we spend our time?  Does literacy change the character of a people or does it merely enlarge our coast (as Jabez prayed in 1 Chronicles)? 

I hope you’ll comment below and share your thought; you can surely guess mine.

Many of the suggestions that James Watt Raine published in 1924 have been implemented.  Farm training was offered in the 1940’s, and many young men took it because they were desperate for cash and the government paid them to attend.  Strong cattle breeds are present on our farms now, and we have a lot of steep land lying fallow and rebuilding soil - we are constantly fighting the erosion that will always challenge our mountaintop.  And we now enjoy hard-surfaced roads that allow us to ship produce and stock anywhere in the world.  We have good schools and I’d wager out literacy rate outranks many urban areas. 

I would further assert that we are still the strong people that settled this difficult land and survived where so many others would not.  While we’ve learned new ways, many of us still remember the old ways – ways that have persevered for centuries and will sustain our people through the hardest of times. 

I get pretty protective of my people when I read derogatory reports – consider this my defense, even if the attack is nearly 100 years old.

What do you think?