Identity in a Mountain Family

by Kathryn L. Staley

With the influx of outsiders moving into the Appalachian region, concern has risen among native inhabitants about changes in their communities and the perceived disintegration of their culture. As they watch their youth mature and newcomers interact within their communities, longtime mountain residents realize that both the influx of outsiders and the cultural abandonment by youth jeapardizes the "mountain way of living." As a result, the way they see themselves as well as the way they see newcomers becomes topics of casual conversations. Although they do not always verbalize their distress, longtime residents realize their unique identity may be fading.

The literature does not directly discuss this issue. Instead, scholars gather much information on the stereotypes and culture of mountain people1 and their development. From much of this literature, however, identity-related information may be gleaned.

The unique aspects of mountain culture have been debated for decades. As Stephen Fisher says, early writings of Kentucky-born Henry Shepherd and Jack Weller greatly influenced many later researchers who accepted their stances. Both men describe inhabitants of Central Appalachia in unflattering terms such as "slatterns" and "inadequate." Fisher argues that Weller's discussion of Ford-based value dimensions2--individualism and self-reliance, traditionalism, fatalism, and religious fundamentalism--"emphasizes only the dramatic and destructive elements of the culture" (Fisher 1991:190).

Loyal Jones described the characteristic value traits in more becoming terms: "Religion, Individualism, Self-Reliance and Pride, Neighborliness and Hospitality, Family Solidarity, Personalism, Love of Place, Modesty and Being One's Self, Sense of Beauty, Sense of Humor, Patriotism" (Jones1991:170). Although other authors such as Weller use these traits to illustrate mountain people's deficiencies, Jones speaks of them as "values which I think are good" (1991:70).

Fisher believes that while Weller's intentions were well-meaning, he inadvertently contrasted the Appalachian people to a white American middle class standard. This standard may not be applicable to the Appalachian people. In contrast, Jones, who originates from the mountain region, believes Appalachian traits are positive. Perhaps, these differences reflect the individual author's own reference group.

Another aspect of personal identity revolves around how people react to people from outside the community. Outsiders may take many different forms: new residents moving in from outside the region, native people permanently residing elsewhere but continuing limited contact, the media, and the perceived "others" who only exist in vague generalities. Once again, very little literature directly discusses how mountain people react to outsiders and the stereotypes these outsiders are perceived to hold.

In Rural Community in the Appalachian South, Patricia Beaver (1986) dedicates her chapter, "Foreigners," to newcomers' integration into mountain society. Although she discusses how an older local couple adopted a younger couple of back-to-the-landers and helped them through their assimilation into mountain society, Beaver focuses on the newcomers' experiences and attitudes rather than that of the locals. One wonders, how did the locals truly feel about the growing numbers of "hippies" within their midst?

Reflecting on the effects of increased numbers of newcomers on local regulations and community beliefs, Susan Keefe stresses that "native Appalachian residents can be expected increasingly to identify as an 'ethnic group' in the region in order to try to secure their status in the new social order" (Keefe 1997:18). Keefe, however, does not expand on this identification process.

J.W. Williamson's (1995) book, Hillbillyland, discusses the portrayal of mountain people in the movies and, to a limited degree, television programs. Concentrating on the media's use of various hillbilly stereotypes, Williamson postulates that "the hillbilly mirrors us, and like most mirrors he can flatter, frighten, and humiliate" (Williamson 1995:2). In order to separate us from our past and what we fear is our present, movies depict mountain people as drunken, monstrous, sex-crazed and naive. However, Williamson does not discuss how mountain people react to these disparaging depictions.

During the last several decades, out-migration has become more common as youth obtain higher levels of education and local economic growth stagnates. Its effects are multiple: those who remain lose valuable community members and those who leave lose connection to their culture, family members, and family heritage. The psychological effects of leaving one's community are only beginning to be discussed.

Obermiller and Maloney (1991) discuss two key issues relevant to the issue of identity: how urban migrants are faring and urban assimilation versus returning to Appalachia. They found urban migrants experienced higher rates of school failures, higher marriage rates, and higher likelihood of reporting a religious affiliation than non-Appalachian residents. Appalachian migrants concentrate their living and work in enclaves of Appalachian friends and family, although the authors found studies indicating that the third generation of migrants begins to lose their ethnic identity.

During a one month ethnographic field school taught by Dr. Susan Keefe of Appalachian State University's Anthropology Department, I lived with Homer and Martha Snyder Whittington (pseudonyms), a working class family in Alleghany County, and participated in much of their daily routine. In order to learn how they interpret their cultural identity and view the encroachment of outside influences, I both listened to their conversations and conducted formal interviews with them and their family members. For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate on the opinions of Martha Whittington's natural and fictive family members.


I entered the ethnographic field school in preparation for my entry into graduate school as an Appalachian Studies Master's Degree student. The field school students lived in separate homes within Alleghany County, NC, for one month taking part in day-to-day activities and learning about Appalachian culture. Our instructor planned weekly field trips such as hiking and visiting community centers so that we could better acquaint ourselves with the mountain region and culture.

Immediately upon taking up residence, I began to notice casual, yet jocular, self-references to "hillbillies" and "rednecks." This tendency was used in particular as an explanation for actions, such as having a couch on their porch, which they thought would be unusual to outsiders. Having previously minored in Afro-American Studies, I was familiar with how marginal groups develop humor as a defense against stereotyping and I decided to pursue this as my research theme.

In order to characterize family members' opinions regarding identity, I gathered information by means of participant observation during day-to-day life within the community for one month as well as 15 formal interviews of family members, whose ages range from 16 to 81 years of age. Initially, I relied mainly on participant observation until my conversations began revolving around local gossip rather than just becoming acquainted with one other.

Participant observation data was gathered during the Whittington's daily informal conversations with family members. As Martha and Homer babysit their three year old grandson with neighbor Lorraine and her two year old son, the adults congregate on the Whittington's covered porch watching the boys play in the yard. Martha's outgoing personality leads her to frequently receive telephone calls and visits from family members and friends. Her covered porch often becomes the center of family gatherings after work, particularly on the weekends. Once the children's parents return from work, dinner is made and more people join the conversations. When the weather is cool and dry, the able-bodied adults hoe in the fields of cash crops as well as work in the gardens. When my schedule allowed, I joined in the porch conversations, child care, agricultural fieldwork, and other duties.

I conducted both informal and formal interviews with Martha and her extended family members. Questions centered on determining how individuals formulate their own identity as a person living within the mountain culture, how they react to others creating an identity for them, and how deeply they wish to remain in the mountains. I formally interviewed Martha and Homer Whittington, each of her siblings, her sister-in-law, her paternal aunt, her son and daughter-in-law, and her nieces. Many of these interviews were conducted at the Whittington's house but several were conducted while driving or at the interviewees' home.

Informal interviews occurred primarily with the four teenagers in order to learn whether or not they planned to remain in the county upon completion of college. As I was not writing down their responses, they did not know the reason I asked these questions. Formal interviews, on the other hand, were preplanned with a specific time, place and questions. None of the interviews were taped, except that of Cessie Moore. Questions included "describe what mountain people are like," "describe yourself," "how would an outsider describe someone living in the mountains," "have you experienced any problems with outsiders...if so, how did you react," and "how do you like television programs and movies that portray people from the mountains."

As a point of interest, many of the interviewees commented that they had never thought about their identity as a resident of a mountain community or how their culture affects them. These questions often led to expanded conversations regarding changes within their community, stories of "northern infiltration," and television series. Although they openly admit to their passivity regarding these changes, discussing these issues in terms of their culture fascinates them.

Because Martha's home acts as a center of family activity, many interviews were conducted at her home. She and other family members often flowed into the interviewing room. A talkative family member, Martha attempted to remain quiet, but with great difficulty. Eventually, most observers offered their opinions and comments. Family dynamics may have created situations which hampered honesty. Because the community is close-knit and it is easy to identify individuals, names of the community and the family members involved have been altered.

Community Background

The Whittington family lives in Walden (pseudonym), an unincorporated community in Alleghany County, NC. Walden consists of several churches, mainly Baptist with a few other Protestant denominations, two country stores, a volunteer fire department, a post office, a few restaurants, and one tavern. The only school house, which closed several years ago, was temporarily used as a community center until it was condemned.

Spawned from Ashe County in 1865, Alleghany County consists of 200 acres of mostly mountainous land with a population of about 10,000. Its county seat of Sparta, with a population of 2,000, qualifies as the county's only town. Caucasians make up the majority of the county's population, while 1-2% are black. Currently, Alleghany is experiencing an unprecedented increase of Hispanic migrant workers, many of whom are employed through the burgeoning Christmas tree industry.

Major employers include agriculture, government, and factories. Traditionally, inhabitants were subsistence farmers, but as industrialization increased, farming became a secondary income to factory jobs. The mid-twentieth century introduced certain agricultural cash crops which are currently becoming de-emphasized overall, but are continued in some families. During the 1930s, burley tobacco led the way as a cash crop. Dairy farming became more common as electricity came to Alleghany and allowed farmers to produce Grade A milk. In recent years, Christmas trees have become the crop with high market value. Although many farms have disappeared, agriculture remains a dominant force, particularly as the Christmas tree industry grows.

With major transportation systems such as railroads, public airports, and interstate roads bypassing Alleghany, a deficiency of major industries and, consequently, high paying employers, exists. In fact, a few of the long-standing factories closed in recent years. As a result, the few professionals employed in Alleghany County are situated in government jobs including teachers, mental health workers, and the Department of Transportation. Most of the county residents who are employed commute outside the county or work at the local factories.

Although the Blue Ridge Parkway passes through the southern section of Alleghany County, tourism has had little effect on the political or social affairs of the county. Alleghany has had a considerable increase in new homeowners, both permanent and seasonal, moving in from outside the mountain region.

Family Background

Martha Whittington's family has lived in the Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany tri-county area for as long as anyone can remember. The Snyders, traditionally subsistence farmers and an occasional moonshining family, originated from Wilkes Mountain. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Patrick Snyder, Martha's grandfather, fathered seventeen children by two wives. His children began working the family farm at a young age. According to his eighty-one year old daughter, Cessie Moore:

We never went to the stores to buy our food. We went up in the loft. Well, that's how all of them lived. They put their food away. They canned and they dried. They dried all kinds of vegetables and peaches. And they dried apples and every kind of fruit there is. See, they didn't have many cans or something like that. They'd dry it and keep it for years.

Patrick died young, leaving several children under the age of ten for his wife Sarah to raise. To support the fatherless family, the sons, including Martha's father, Ben, farmed fulltime.

At age nine, Ben quit school and began working on the family farm. In 1940, he married Nora Perkins, who lived in Ashe County near the Alleghany-Ashe line. She was raised as an only child by her father, Walt Perkins, while her mother was in the hospital with a chronic, and at that time, incurable illness. Walt, a subsistence farmer and moonshiner, owned 25 acres and allowed the young couple to live on his land until they purchased their own land.

Together, Ben and Nora raised their five children on 75 acres of land in rural Walden, a few miles off the main road. Their house, a two bedroom house which added indoor plumbing in 1967, is located on a relatively new paved road recently renamed Huckleberry Road (pseudonym). Ben grew tobacco and raised dairy cows while working at various blue collar jobs. Nora died in 1979 and Ben died in 1994. After they married, each of the children continued living on the Snyder land in their own mobile home or house.

Upon Ben's death in 1994, much disagreement occurred regarding land inheritance of the Ashe and Alleghany County lands. What to do with the home place was of great debate. Eventually, the land in Ashe was sold and the Alleghany land was divided five ways, with all but Charlene continuing to live on their plot.


Sharonann Kilby, the oldest child born in 1940, married Patrick Kilby and has two married adult daughters, Donna Nichols and Tracy Kaufman. Since 1968, she has worked locally as a factory foreman. Her husband retired twice, pensioned as a volunteer fireman, and currently works as a Christmas tree foreman. For additional income, they grow burley tobacco and have a garden for food. They live in a house on land inherited from her father.

Tracy Kaufman, Sharonann's twenty-eight year old daughter, married Arthur Kaufman. Currently, she works at a local factory and he works at a local media organization. Arthur's past jobs included work for a public assistance organization and a local factory. They live in an apartment in Sparta and currently do not have any children.

Martha Whittington, born in 1947 with a disability, married Homer Whittington and has one married adult son, Hank Whittington. Fifty-year old Homer Whittington, raised in nearby Whitehead with six sisters and three brothers, has worked since he was fifteen years old. His mother lived in Basin Cove, which is now part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He has worked in various blue collar jobs as well as farming his wife's land. In recent years, he was disabled and became self-employed. The Whittingtons live in a two bedroom house on seven acres adjacent to the Snyder home place.

Next door in the family homeplace lives their twenty-seven year old son, Hank, his twenty four year old wife Priscilla, and their three year old son David. Both Hank and Priscilla work for a local company which makes expensive rugs, including one sent to the White House. Pricilla, who was raised in Sparta and Hickory, is working on her GED through a correspondence program. Hank is a member of the Volunteer Fire Department.

The Whittington families have two fields of purple cone flowers and two burley tobacco fields. The cone flowers represent an attempt to diversify their cash crops, now solely tobacco. They are an experiment by the Agricultural Extension Office in reintroducing herbs and other medicinal plants to farmers. Father and son share responsibilities for the fields while Hank plans to raise sheep.

Forty-six year old Charlene Whittington married Bob Whittington and works for a local rest home's kitchen. He works at a local factory and belongs to several social organizations. They do not have children and live in a house in Sparta.

John Snyder, forty-two years old and the only son, married Ruth Clark and has three teenage children, Kelli, Mark, and Jenny. John works in a local factory while Ruth cares for her remaining daughter at home and a teenage boy with Down's Syndrome. Ruth's parents were Alleghany County dairy farmers and her father also was an upholsterer. They live in a trailer on his family land.

Nineteen year old Kelli Snyder, a rising sophomore at a local university, plans to major in social work. She received scholarships and worked in order to be able to attend college.

Sixteen year old Jenny Snyder is a rising junior at Alleghany's local high school. She works on local farms when opportunities avail themselves.

Thirty-eight year old Iris Willette, the youngest child, married her second husband, Mark Willette of Pennsylvania, two years ago. Her sixteen year old daughter Nora is the daughter of her first husband, Tommy Billings. Nora is a rising senior at the local high school.

Cessie Snyder Moore is one of Patrick Snyder's three surviving children. An eighty-one year old widow, Cessie raised four children, worked in a factory for 30 years, and currently lives with one of her sons.


How people describe themselves is one aspect of identity. The words they choose indicate their orientation. While no one chose words such as "hillbilly" or "mountain person" except when masked with laughter, most eventually discussed a connection with the mountain region and personally identified with a simple life peppered with generosity and privacy--the polite description of a southerner. Identifying with the mountains takes on many aspects: never wanting to leave, protectiveness of the environment, and a desire to preserve the culture. Informants strongly believe that Alleghany County is a good place to live and to raise a family, despite an acknowledged poor economy.

Repeatedly, the Snyder descendants expressed an innate connection to the mountains, both the land and its people. Eighty-one year old Cessie said that she couldn't leave Alleghany because "this is where I belong," whereas Sharonann said her "roots are too deep" and nowhere else interests her. Even the teenagers attending college chose colleges situated in the mountains because they felt comfortable at them.

Reoccurring references to nature and its importance to health were made. As farmers and gardeners, they are dependent on the weather to determine their daily schedule so they have familiarized themselves with environmental issues. Many dislike the Christmas tree industry due to their opinion that the chemicals are harmful to health. Instead, they emphasize non-chemical methods, like Martha who says she grows "whole" food and has good air for her grandson David.

Table 1
Self-Description Among Thirteen Interviewees


Rural Descriptions

Jokingly Answered Question

Non-Mountain Answers

How Individuals Described Themselves

"plain Jane""bold and beautiful""freak, weird"
"plain and simple""redneck, hillbilly and proud""don't know who I am, bored, ill-temper, mean"
"honest, dependeable, motherly, slow to anger but have a temper""backward country boy""just a person"
"country hick" "helpful, laid back, creative, confused, accommodating"
"plain and simple"  
"pest, helpful, confused"  

Source: Formal interviews.

Although inadvertently preserving aspects of mountain culture such as canning, Decoration Day and handicrafts, most informants continue these activities due to traditionalism and necessity. As an explanation of her canning, Iris said, "I don't want to get caught in snow without food." Of those interviewees who spoke of the preservation of the culture, two have recently begun participating in the local "mountain music" scene. They both realize that their children have little connection to mountain life and this appears to sorely disturb them. Their realization that their children disassociate from mountain culture may be an additional impetus to increasing their preservation efforts.

When asked to describe people living in the mountains and themselves, all interviewees used terms relying on an appreciation of a simple life. The most frequently used descriptions were "private," "helpful," and "plain." They view these traits as being different from those of other areas. "People here mind their own business," said Charlene. "There'll be a problem if you don't." Generosity is especially important. "There's always a benefit for someone who's been burnt out [whose home has burned down]." Of the three who varied from such "home-grown" aspects, all indicate less of an orientation towards the mountains and one more toward living in town, and two are planning to leave the county completely.

Attitudes Towards Outsiders

The Snyder family members believe outsiders have stereotypes about people from the mountains. The most common response to "How do outsiders envision mountain people?" was "hillbilly" and "hick" [see Appendix A]. When probed for specific meanings of these vague terms, they brought up colorful descriptions of poor, uneducated, toothless, inbred, shoeless people. They dislike the presumption that all people from the mountains might fit this characterization.

When asked about television portrayals of people from the mountains, most identified "The Beverly Hillbillies" as an example. The vast majority of respondents enjoy watching this show and think it is funny. "It wasn't truthful but people realized that," said Ruth. Marth agreed interjecting, "Don't you think everyone was put down? Like the banker and the secretary?" Only two, Homer and his adult son, Hank, disliked the show due to its stereotyping. "Real hillbillies had to be smart to survive. Not book smart but smart to save a cow, grow a garden," said Homer. He considers the stereotypes as disparaging the experience of the mountain people.

When asked directly, the older adults denied personally experiencing any prejudice due to being from the mountains. Fifty year old informants Martha, Sharonann, and Homer insisted that they never had had any problems. Hopefully, they have never experienced taunts or prejudice, but considering the others' answers and their own casual conversations, this is unlikely. For example, Martha discussed situations during personal conversations that implied some difficulty. During a doctor consultation, she told a doctor from Winston-Salem (a large nearby city) that her Sparta doctor said a certain procedure could not be performed. The Winston-Salem doctor replied, "Sparta hospital is like a Ford pickup and [Winston-Salem's] Baptist Hospital is like a Cadillac." Why the adults were reluctant to openly discuss such problems cannot be completely determined. Perhaps, they associate prejudice solely with other, more serious, forms of prejudice and, therefore, do not visualize their encounters to be as serious. Their memories may also be rose-tinted as they age.

The young adults and teenagers openly discussed problems of teasing which they have experienced. Twenty-four year old Priscilla, who lived in Hickory, NC, for two years, was teased for her "slang talk" and called a "mountain girl." Especially at parties, people asked her if she sat on the porch playing the banjo and singing or owned more than one pair of shoes or had rotten teeth. Martha's younger brother, John, also experienced the results of outsiders' believing stereotypes. At Boy Scout camp, he met Scout leaders and boys who asked him questions stemming from stereotypes such as the lack of indoor plumbing. These degrading questions and the corresponding condescending attitudes upset these informants.

Each individual interviewed feels uncomfortable with outsiders' attitudes but each reacts within the bounds of his or her own personality. The polar extremes, violence and disregard, exist among the Snyder family. Ruth, who describes herself as "motherly," ignores her "Southern Yankee" supervisor's supposed "jokes" about mountain people. In contrast, Charlene, who describes herself as "mean," began a fight with her out-migrant sister-in-law for acting superior. Both women protect their egos although two extreme reactions are utilized.

The middle ground, of course, is humor. Humorously putting oneself down is quite common. It acts to deflect outside condescention because the person him/herself has already done it. When I moved into the Whittingtons' house, for example, Martha commented that "you can call us rednecks" because they have a sofa on the porch. As a result, much of their identity develops in reaction to how they believe others might perceive them.

A self-professed "backward country boy," John prefers to "play against the stereotype." For example, a "flatlander" co-worker thinks all mountain people's family trees "have just one branch." One day, he visited her office with a sour look on his face. "Is there a problem?" she asked. "I'm feeling awful," he says in his most hillbilly accent. "My whole family is upset." She probed deeper. Finally, he told her a cousin of his "married outside the family and brought in this new blood and everyone's in an uproar." His joke creates the dual effect of playing a prank as well as subtly telling someone to reevaluate her ignorant assumptions.

"Playing into the stereotype" is not acceptable to everyone. Homer's deceased Uncle Harrison went to the Blue Ridge Parkway each summer pretending to be a 106 year old mountain man. After growing out a foot-long beard and dressing in old clothes, Harrison told "hillbilly stories" to tourists. Telling "lies" about himself greatly upset Homer's mother and others. As Martha put it, "Don't you think if someone does this and secretly gets a snicker but without [the outsiders] knowing it, don't that feed into the hillbilly image all the more?"

However, they accept this teasing behahvior among their own mountain people. For example, while a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman gave his doomed-from-the-start sales pitch, he made several disparaging remarks about hillbillies such as, "I'm from Tennessee and wearing shoes today." The family members laughed at these remarks seeing them overall as an acceptable form of humor.

This behavior may illustrate attempts to distance themselves from what outsiders label as mountain people. Each day, I heard individuals evaluating whether or not a particular family is truly hillbilly, particularly in connection to my coming to the area to study. Although the families profess that outsiders' stereotypes are not true, they believe that these characteristics do exist among "other" mountain people, particularly certain family and certain communities.

Family members insist that "true hillbillies" (with whom they do not identify) exist. The Smiths, for example, are perceived to have many traits that are "hillbilly." Bobbie Smith doesn't bathe or brush his teeth or hair and his hands are always greasy. His presence led to a discussion on inbreeding (something suspected of Bobbie's brother and sister). While Bobbie Smith helped Hank with his vehicle, they joked that he smells badly and never brushes his hair. Yet, they assert that he is a nice man.

Many locals dislike people moving in from the outside because it has altered the local culture. Having new residents creates a situation where "you don't recognize everyone" in an area where they pride themselves for knowing everyone. Outsiders build large houses on small lots, thereby increasing the land prices and tax values. As more outsiders migrate to Alleghany, the working class citizens cannot continue paying the increasing land costs and gradually resort to selling out, thereby allowing even more outsiders to purchase land.

The Snyder family believe that outsiders behave differently and in such a way that they feel uncomfortable being around them. Communication in general is difficult. Ruth says that when she talks to newcomers, they each understand the other's words but they really don't understand each other, "and the more you talk and know about the person, the more you hate them."

Certain communication styles such as swearing are especially disturbing. Family members claim Northerners swear more frequently and harsher. When Ralph brought his Delaware-reared wife to visit, "every breath, it was Ralph S.O.B.," said Martha, who raised Ralph. "That made me very angry. I don't see why you can't say, 'Ralph, honey.'" To be a religious-based culture, this and other behaviors dissuade local people from becoming more acquainted with newcomers.

Outsiders are also considered "mean" and unfriendly. "People wave 'hey' here. If you do that south of Wilkesboro, you risk getting shot," says Hank. The two newcomers who live on Huckleberry Road do not visit the long-time residents. One neighbor intensified this disassociation further and "told us he didn't want to have anything to do with us." Although most acknowledge that some newcomers are nice, only Iris--who married a Pennsylvania back-to-the-lander--stated that once you get to know outsiders, they are nice. Instead, the consensus was that outsiders are manipulative and unwanted in Alleghany County.

Martha offered one lengthy example of possible culture differences which led to conflict. A displaced Northerner, Mr. Murray, developed a feud with the Whittingtons about ten years ago after a teenage Hank ran into Mrs. Murray's car. Mr. Murray threatened Hank and sued them. Mutual friends of the Whittingtons and Murrays warned Hank to distance himself from the Murrays in fear of his life. While Mr. Murray may have been an ornery man, he also could have been following his cultural instinct. To the more urban individual, lawsuits seem a more civilized manner to resolve a problem; however, in a rural, kin-based society, discussing or ignoring problems is often considered a more appropriate action.


Since World War II, mountain people have migrated to urban areas because they needed the work. Migrants often lose contact with their former neighbors and family members and resolve not to teach future generations basic aspects of mountain culture. Like the former mountain children in The Dollmaker who mock a comic strip granny woman on a mule, urban migrants may degrade their former lifestyle. As Priscilla Whittington says, "If people move, they lose their personal connections to the mountains." Those left behind are upset, but with daily responsibilities, they eventually forget.

Only one Snyder family member, an in-law at that, has lived outside of the mountains although a few adults have considered the possibility. Few desire to leave "the only place [they] know" [see Appendix B]. The several reasons offered for remaining revolve around three central themes: preference for rural areas, distaste of non-Appalachian culture, and lack of motivation.

Informants disagree whether or not people changed dress, speech and behavior once they migrated. Some shrugged, "Not really." On the other hand, John said, "People change after they leave" and offered many examples including his eldest daughter who talks with a different dialect after attending one year of college outside the area. For example, a friend who moved to Goldsboro said that he wouldn't come back because there's nothing to do; he grew accustomed to clubs and city life.

Leaving the mountains again is out of the question for twenty-four year old Priscilla. Living in Hickory (about 90 miles south) constituted the "most miserable days of my life," she said. At age fourteen she lived with her married sister, who relocated with a group of Alleghanians who lived in the same Hickory neighborhood. The streets were filled with dope pushers and "hateful people," Priscilla was no longer allowed to roam outside after dark. The Alleghanians did not assimilate well with the locals. Although they tried, their attempts were all fake, according to Priscilla.

During the first few months of Priscilla's move, "everything was OK." At first, they visited their family and friends back home regularly but as they continued to remain in Hickory, the frequency lessened. Purchasing items beyond their means and no longer talking about home, the migrants became "high class" and "snobby." Although Priscilla believes she is more outgoing due to the experience, she does not want her own son to leave the mountains.

As for those who wish to leave but have not, their dreams are only a vague idea. Charlene's dream of leaving the area has not materialized. She wants to "see the world" but which places she cannot say. Iris, on the other hand, planned to enlist in the military upon high school graduation "to get away from this place." But because her father forbade it, she resigned to remaining in Alleghany and now contentedly lives on her family lands. In fact, she now practices "Mama's ways," such as canning and home doctoring.

Now, a new concern has arisen. As the children have become better educated and acculturated to outside life through television and the internet, they desire employment and an environment different than what is available in their ancestral home [see Appendix C]. The parents of teenagers realize that their children want to leave Alleghany and that migration is an economic necessity. Although they wish their children to be happy, they will miss them and "don't want them to be scattered." They also regret that their children do not fully embrace their cultural background.

None of the older teens, Nora, Mark and Kelli, want to live in Alleghany after graduating from college. All allude to the lack of job opportunities (according to Mark, the only jobs are preachers, factory workers, and farmers) and the narrow-mindedness of residents. Even twenty seven year old Hank, who plans to "learn David to milk cows, run a tractor, ride an unbroken horse, to not be scared of hard work," is saving money for a college fund because he realizes his three year old son's future is outside of Alleghany.

The relevance of the "old timey" ways is lost to the teenagers, in part due to the lack of direct instruction and total immersion within the culture. Sixteen year old Jenny said that although people, like her great aunt Cessie, assume she knows the people and places they discuss, no one has explained the information. With access to television, radio, and the Internet, they taste other ways of life and theirs does not appear as interesting or glamourous. Considering themselves to be "alternative," the teenagers do not feel as if they fit into the culture here. Although they want to continue some aspects of life such as a garden and certain values, they consider residents to be narrow-minded and racist. Nora currently considers Asheville, the most urban of North Carolina's mountain cities, an ideal place to move whereas Mark and Kelli envision relocating to Durham, one of piedmont North Carolina's largest cities.


Change in lifestyle and the increase of in-migration of outsiders and out-migration of locals alters the community chemistry. The Snyder family represents one segment of Appalachian society which dislikes the shift away from the old values. While they appear stymied as to how to hinder complete cultural change, many members attempt to perpetuate aspects of their culture by participating in activities passed down by their parents. Unfortunately, unless economic opportunities increase, the youth will leave the county during their employed adult life. Ironically, economic development may be at the root of the lessened cultural identity and subsequent cultural abandonment. More research needs to be done on a larger scale to determine this and how best mountain (and other rural) communities may integrate newcomers into their communities with the least alteration to mountain values and culture.


1. Much discussion exists regarding the proper term to describe those originating from the Appalachian region. While most scholars commonly refer to inhabitants as "Appalachians" or "mountaineers" for the conciseness, the people themselves appear to prefer "mountain people" or, if in a jocular mood, "hillbilly." In fact, one of my informants asked what "Appalachian" meant.

Many family members consider mountain people to be persons who live fully subsistence lifestyles with few, if any, modern amenities. As Iris stated, "I'm just a person. The real mountain people are gone. They farmed to feed themselves. Now people are weenies." Some believe that today's youth lack identification with their culture as a result of their easy modern lifestyles. As John says, the mountain ways have disappeared because the hardships are gone.

2. In his essay "The Passing of Provincialism," Thomas Ford (1962) evaluated the Appalachian people's concentration of four value dimensions -- individualism and self-reliance, traditionalism, fatalism, and religious fundamentalism -- in order to determine whether Appalachian residents' values differed from other segments of American society; he concluded that mountain values were consistent with mainstream American values. Although Weller has an opposing conclusion, Fisher believes that Weller's study was greatly influenced by Ford (Fisher 1991:186).

References Cited

  • Beaver, Patricia D.
    1986 Rural Community in the Appalachian South. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

  • Fisher, Stephen
    1991 "Victim-Blaming in Appalachia: Cultural Theories and the Southern Mountaineer." In Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present, Third Edition, Bruce Ergood and Bruce E. Kuhre (eds.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt. Pp. 185-194.

  • Ford, Thomas R.
    1962 "The Passing of Provincialism." In The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey, Thomas R. Ford (ed.). Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. Pp. 9-34.

  • Jones, Loyal
    1991 "Appalachian Values." In Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present, Third Edition,Bruce Ergood and Bruce E. Kuhre (eds.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt. Pp. 169-173.

  • Keefe, Susan
    1997 "Appalachian Americans." In Many Americas: Perspectives on Racism, Ethnicity, and Cultural Identity, Gregory R. Campbell (ed.). Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt.

  • Obermiller, Phillip and Michael Maloney
    1991 "Living City, Feeling Country: The Current Status and Future Prospects of Urban Appalachians." In Appalachia: Social Context Past and Present, Third Edition, Bruce Ergood and Bruce E. Kuhre (eds.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt. Pp. 133-138.

  • Williamson, J.W.
    1995 Hillbillyland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.