Traveling on this trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway is actually a return to my childhood. I have a connection to those mountain farms of North Carolina as my Father was born and raised on one and I remember spending time there off and on in the late 1950’s. At that time the farm had electricity but still no indoor plumbing. You hand pumped water and it was boiled on a wood-burning stove to fill a copper bathtub. I remember mornings splitting wood for the stove and walking across the yard at night to the privy. On the farm they raised crops (stringing green beans and shucking corn), kept hogs and chickens and had a couple of cows. While they had a radio for entertainment it only picked up one station but there was always guitars, fiddles and autoharps and on weekends there was a dance somewhere nearby. I still find it hard to believe how far we’ve come in the past number of decades.
Today sitting on the mountainsides of the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina are living history lessons covering the early years of America. Restored and preserved farms, mountain homesteads, water powered mills, apple orchards and historic names tell a uniquely American story.
The people who pushed west from the Atlantic coast and settled these mountains, beginning in the late seventeenth century were generally Scots, Irish and English. Those farmers and craftsmen were used to hard work and were not threatened by the harsh environment of these rugged Southern mountains.
Many Scots left the British Isles and came to America in the early 18th century moving into the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. They were descendants of Scots who had survived decades of fighting against English invaders who had pushed them back into the hill country of Scotland and they held a strong belief in independence and a love of liberty. These harsh mountains reminded them of the mountainous lands of their Scotland.
Early English immigrants also migrated from the Tidewater regions of Virginia and North Carolina and were the descendents of original settlers in the colonies or were recent immigrants who found most of the best land taken and prices for existing homesteads beyond their means. There were also people of faith, such as Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, and were leaving Tidewater in order to escape discrimination, persecution, and taxes levied by the English to support the Anglican Church in the colonies.
Like the Scots-Irish, the English settlers brought with them an intense devotion to the principles of liberty, law, and justice. In their heritage was the story of a long struggle for individual rights against centuries of oppression in England.
Not only do historic sites survive in these mountains but the very culture today is still a reflection of those early settlers heritage. Bluegrass music is a form of unique American music with roots in these mountains and is a sub-genre of country music. It is an American variation of Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. Bluegrass evolved from the music of those immigrants from England and Ireland, particularly the Scots-Irish. Irish ballads, jigs and reals are still common music forms found here and bagpipes, autoharps, fiddles, the tin whistle, flute and pipes are still popular in mountain music.
Irish step dancing is still a popular dance form in the mountains but is often expressed as clogging in the mountains today.
Scottish Tartans are still recognized in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the clans still gather each year at the MacRae Meadows on Grandfather Mountain for their Highland Games.
The strong beliefs in independence, democracy and religious liberty that permeated the mountain culture made these people dedicated supporters of the American Revolution. They were strong believers in the cause and provided many men to the Continental Army. The most notorious group from the western slopes of the mountains in Virginia, North Carolina, and what is now Tennessee and Kentucky were the Overmountain Men. The name came from the belief that they were outside the original thirteen colonies on the other side of the mountain.
They were American frontiersmen from western ranges of the Appalachian Mountains who took part in the Revolutionary War. While they were present at multiple engagements in the war’s southern campaign, they are best known for their role in the American victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. The term “overmountain” arose because their settlements were west of, or “over”, the Appalachians, which was the primary geographical boundary dividing the 13 American colonies from the western frontier.
Because of the strong support in the mountains for the revolution these mountain people were very loyal to their new country and the government of The United States of America and contrary to popular opinions today, including many Southerners, they did not support secession and as states in the southern United States moved toward secession, a majority of Southern Appalachians supported the Union. These people were mostly small, independent farm families that held little sympathy for and were very politically opposed to the planter-dominated Southern Democratic party. In 1861, a Minnesota newspaper had actually identified 161 counties in the Southern mountains, which the paper referred to as “Alleghenia”, where Union support remained strong.
While these people were strong Unionists and opposed secession they also saw themselves as citizens of their individual states and when their legislatures voted to secede, some, out of loyality, shifted their support to the Confederacy. Nowhere in the country was the pain of brother fighting against brother more real than in the mountains, hollows and valleys of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.
Fifty years after the Civil War most mountain communities remained isolated with a way of life stuck in the early nineteenth century. As American cities rushed into the twentieth century many mountain farms still had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Cooking and heating was done with wood much as their grandparents had done.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was designed to provided for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States like the mountains of Appalachia and with the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) it began to provided electricity to the rural south in order to help stimulate the economy and industrialize the region. As ambitious as it was it didn’t happen overnight and by 1950 its own records indicated that it was less than one third of the way to the goal.
If you have the opportunity to visit the Smokeys or Blue Ridge Mountains don’t overlook these incredible windows into our countries beginnings and not so distant past.