Dave Tabler is an Appalachian historian, blogger and editor of Appalachian History Weekly Podcast. His blog, Appalachian History, Stories, Quotes and Anecdotes focuses on Depression Era Appalachia and features a rich and extensive archive of stories and vignettes that highlight the unique struggles and uncommon resourcefulness of the region.
Sarah O’Connor: You have a remarkably broad presence on the Internet and use an array of social media tools to share your knowledge of Appalachian history. It’s clearly a passion for you. Where does this interest stem from, and how did you start?
Dave Tabler: I had no interest in history or genealogy whatsoever till I was 40 years old. That year my dad Kenneth, who grew up in Depression era West Virginia, decided to write a memoir. It didn’t take long before I found myself getting drawn into that project (here’s a review of that book:https://www.kirkusreviews.com/
Early in the process he asked me to help him edit it, which I did. Certainly I had heard many of the stories he shared in his book told round the dinner table over the years, but one thing continually gnawed at the back of my mind as I observed which stories my dad decided to focus on, and which to leave out. Not once in his writings does he mention the word hillbilly. He avoids talking about feuds. Or moonshine. He knew quite well how negatively the rest of America viewed these things, and felt it was his duty to show a less stereotyped, more realistic side of Appalachia.
I originally created the Appalachian History site in the fall of 2006 to help my father sell his then newly published book, but soon grew restless to branch out from the site’s original purpose. I was keen to explore some of those stereotyped aspects of App culture, in my own voice, that my father wanted to leave be.
Sarah: You offer so much insight and perspective on an often overlooked region. Although many have moved well past the old stereotype of Lil’ Abner in their view of the region–do you find there are still misconceptions that persist to this day?
Dave: Of course. The ‘Appalachian Outlaws’ show is just the latest in a long line of reality tv shows that perpetuate the misunderstandings and ignorance about the region. I came across a wonderful YouTube piece the other day from a young man known only as ‘eastkymen’ titled ‘The Appalachian Region: Exposed’. It’s a brilliant send-up of how today’s mass media might typically film a segment on life in Eastern Kentucky, complete with “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as theme song. The filmmaker drives through modern-day Pikeville, KY showing bustling malls, new construction, and suburban MacMansions, all the while narrating a classic-style script of how downtrodden and poverty ridden Appalachia is.
Why do non-Appalachian Americans insist on seeing the worst aspects of the region as representative of the whole?
In the case of Kentucky and West Virginia, I’ve come to believe it’s very much in the interests of the coal, gas and timber entities who control the region’s economy to maintain the hillbilly caricature of the dangerous backwoods bumpkin. If Americans from outside the region perceive Appalachian residents as a frightening ‘other,’ they’re much less likely to be sympathetic to the incredible destruction foisted on the region’s populace by mountaintop removal. It’s been heartening to see a potential shift in this cultural perception as the poignant, human stories from the Charleston water poisoning have started appearing in national media. We’ll see if it takes, long-term.
Sarah: For many people, the first glimpses they had of Appalachian history were from Foxfire magazines and books. Those old publications have become a popular survivalist guide and are full of photographs and oral histories. As an avid Appalachian historian, what is your view of the publications?
Dave: Love ’em! I think they have complete credibility since they were spearheaded by a high school teacher local to the area, Eliot Wigginton, who in turn guided his students in conducting the interviews. Barbara Woodall, by the way, one of the original students involved, recently penned a memoir about the experience called “It’s Not My Mountain Anymore.”
Sarah: One of the themes of my blog is to highlight the importance of our ancestors’ experience, not just catalogue the facts and figures of their existence. I think your site is a fabulous resource for understanding what it was like for many of our grandparents or great-grandparents in depression era Appalachia. I know it’s impossible to generalize “what it must’ve been like”, but if you think about some of the fundamental difference between people then, and the way we live now–what would you point to?
Dave: This is a very slippery question to answer, because Appalachia is a huge geographic area, there are different races, classes, and ethnic origins, and each of those factors shades how one might answer this query.
I encounter folks all the time who wax poetic about ‘the good old days.’ How very easy it is for us to forget the harsh aspects of the past and focus on pleasant memories only! That’s not to say that the Depression era was all misery and misfortune, but we have to be careful not to swing too far toward the soft and fuzzy side.
Probably the most fundamental differences between now and that era — a difference that DOES cut across geography, race, class, and ethnicity — is expected lifespan. Yes, it’s true that today’s Appalachia falls toward the bottom of the lifespan list as measured against the rest of the USA. However, compared to Appalachian lifespans from the 1st quarter of the 20th century, when a person could expect to live to the ripe old age of 50, Appalachia has added an additional 20 years on average to lifespan. Despite the continued drag of widespread poverty in the region, that’s an astonishing change in such a short time.
In just the span of 3 or 4 generations we’ve banished diseases such as smallpox that were the scourge of humanity for thousands of years. We’ve learned about nutrition, and how to properly balance a diet. Vitamins and minerals were unheard of in 1900. Now, instead of a stick-thin populace barely able to feed itself, we find ourselves with the opposite problem of food abundance. Our ancestors were luckier than us in this one way — they never had to worry about the health problems that come with over-consumption of soda and fast foods: obesity, diabetes, heart problems, tooth decay.
The other broad change that has occurred between the Depression and now, and that affects everyone in the region, is the rapid buildup of infrastructure. Prior to the coming of railroads, paved roads, bridges, and more recently, TV/radio/internet, Appalachia was literally sealed off from the outside world. Hence the centuries-long preservation of ancient ballads, speech mannerisms, and other cultural norms brought over by the Scots-Irish, the Palatine Germans, the Huguenots, and other early immigrant groups.
Furthermore, knowing they were cut off this way, the Appalachian populace of 3-4 generations ago emphasized self-sufficiency in ways we can barely imagine today. “Mend it, fix it, wear it out, make it do, or go without” is a maxim that appeared regularly in the region’s cross-stitched samplers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This wasn’t an academic point: if you couldn’t do these things you were liable to find yourself in dire straits in short order. No one from the outside could be expected to help you.
Sarah: Amazing characters and personalities are found throughout your site. Do you have a favorite? Or is there an anecdote or quote that you find particularly compelling?
Dave: A hard choice, for sure. But if you’re going to pin me down, the story of Daintry Allison offers a pretty good summation of everything that I find admirable in the Appalachian character.
Allison describes how as a young school teacher she was sent to a remote village in western NC, where new teachers had been routinely getting run out-of-town by the town bully. Why? Because his teenaged daughter was a wild thing in school, and any teacher who attempted to discipline her met with the father’s rage.
Moreover, she cared deeply about her charges getting a solid education. She was a tough disciplinarian on her female students — she saw clearly that many of them had been getting pregnant far too young, and dropping out of school. So she stepped in to try to prevent that. And of course it was only a matter of time before she crossed the town bully.
What surprised and delighted me most about her story was the clever, clever way she finally brought the bully to heel. I recommend you read this inspiring tale all the way through!
Sarah: I’ve been exploring the artistic ways in which people express themselves in preserving and displaying their family history. For instance, I truly appreciate beautifully restored heirlooms, family history quilts, creative family trees and the like. Have you come across any interesting examples of the intersection of genealogy and artistry that are unique to this part of the United States?
Dave: Just today I ran an article, “The Urge to Create Something Beautiful from the Commonest Materials” about how the hearth broom was lovingly crafted, and often passed down generation to generation. One of my readers responded: “My Great Grandfather Burress made the cane chairs, and was also a blacksmith and made all sorts of tools. My grandmother made this rocking chair pin cushion out of a tin can. She gave it to me when I was a child and I am going to try to reproduce just one. My other grandmother is said to have made the [hearth] brooms, and my Aunt had one for many years she had made.”
Sarah: Beyond your interest in history in this region, do you also research your own family history? Can you share any particular notable discoveries or breakthroughs with my readers?
Dave: My dad, and now my younger sister, are the official genealogists in my family. I’m less interested in the who begat whom, begat whom, begat whom of formal family trees, than I am in the rich individual stories. And so often the further back you go, the less frequent the stories become.
I’m distantly related to both Noah Webster and John Greenleaf Whittier, but so far as I know those connections have never brought me any fame or fortune!
Last fall I attended the Museum of Appalachia’s Fall Homecoming in Clinton, TN. As I was looking through one of the carved wooden object displays, I noticed a tag identifying one Edward Ambrose of Winchester, VA. I knew there were Ambroses in my family tree from that area, so I called my dad to ask about this fellow. Turns out he was the brother of my paternal great-grandfather. No one in my family was aware that this item was even part of the museum’s collection.
Sarah: I’ve enjoyed the amazingly rich archive of posts you have on your site, going back to 2006. I have to confess, I’m a bit in awe of how prolific you are, especially when I realized that so many are original essays. How do you do it? What’s your secret to sustaining this level of productivity?
Dave: It’s incredibly challenging, which is why a lot of sites pop up, only to fade away 6 months later. I’m very fortunate to have been raised by a professional librarian. Many times as a young kid I can remember nagging my mother Pat about the answer to some question I had, and she would always firmly point me to the bookcase that housed our World Book Encyclopedia collection.
And as I’m sure she hoped would happen, I’d often find the answer to my original question, but the encyclopedia article would pique my interest in some offshoot item. So I’d spend an hour or two just jumping around and reading what caught my attention. So secret #1, if you can even call it ‘secret,’ is to have a ravenous curiosity about whatever subject your site is to be about.
I’ve been running the App Hist site, as you observed, since 2006. There are a thousand distractions that throw up roadblocks to staying productive: family emergencies, sick days, obligations of all shades. So the second comment I’d offer up to anyone thinking of starting a site is: you’ve got to be disciplined. You have to have a sense going in of how you’re going to structure your approach. In my first year of working on the site I was always frantic: committing to a daily post on a site is a full-time job. After awhile I realized that if I could create 2 posts in one sitting, I could get out from under that daily crush and buy some breathing space. But how to do that? Well, as with the encyclopedia experience I mentioned a moment ago, I kept my eye out for offshoot articles that could be developed from whatever main topic I was researching at a given moment. I started keeping a spreadsheet of these ideas so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.
One of the great joys of growing a site over time is that, if you’re doing it right, you start to gather community around you. This is vital, both to refresh the spirits of those running the site, and to help incorporate fresh points of view into the site. I’ve been very grateful to have had museums call me offering to write up articles on shows they’re doing, authors and filmmakers offering to share insights on projects they’re working on, and general readers offering input, either corrections/additions on previously posted articles, or suggestions for fresh articles. So these days I get a wide circle of support.
Sarah: You’ve got so much going on, what’s your vision for the work you’re doing and where it will go in the next few years?
Dave: I’ve been completely startled by the unexpected evolutions the site and podcast have taken already over the last few years, so it makes me hesitant to even begin to guess how my landscape will appear 4-5 years out. Maybe a book? Maybe a documentary? Who knows, I’m open to whatever comes down the pike!
Thank you, Dave, for sharing your work and inspiration with my readers. You’ve provided a valuable resource for anyone researching ancestors from Appalachia. Please visit Dave’s blog and subscribe to his podcast for more of his poignant stories and historical narratives.