Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Appalachian Values and Some People Who Exemplify Them (Part 2)

Continuing on author Loyal Jones’s list of Appalachian Values as given in his book by the same title (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1994), we focus on neighborliness (also known as hospitality), familism (obligation to family) and personalism (relating well to others).

In recent decades, dwellers in Appalachia have adopted the customs of people in other areas, which, unfortunately, has somewhat curtailed our normal tendencies toward neighborliness and hospitality. Distrust and suspicion, and the fear of harm from strangers have erected walls of suspicion so that we are querulous of helping people. The time was, when persons passed through as strangers in the vicinity, with hotels and motels almost non-existent in the hill country, people “took in” the travelers and treated them to the best they had available in food and lodging. Sometimes, for a stranger, a bed in the hayloft on stacks of newly-threshed hay was welcomed, and the persons who offered such rest for the weary were thanked volubly. That was back in the day of trust and the desire to share what a family had with those who might happen by. Now, if we have people in our homes for meals, or to be overnight guests, we extend a special invitation in advance. This, of course, still shows the spirit of neighborliness and hospitality, but it somewhat takes away from the old mountain custom of “keeping the welcome mat” out.

Back in the nineteenth century there came through Choestoe community periodically a person who at one time had lived in the valley but who had migrated west to Texas. His name was Phillip Humphries (b. ca. 1841, a son of Kizziah Souther Humphries and John Humphries). He had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and many said his shock from battle left him somewhat deranged and with a desire to wander the country. He would come preaching on the end times. People knew of his family connections to the Souther families of the valley. They showed hospitality and neighborliness, listened to Phillip and gave him food and lodging, warm water for bathing, and clean clothes to wear. Then his restless nature caused him to move on. Someone, taking compassion on him, finally found him a permanent home in a veterans’ home in North Carolina.

Familism, or obligation to family, is a strong trait of Appalachian people.

The general idea is that you don’t talk badly about “my” people, nor do you treat them with unkindness. Loyal Jones states: “Family loyalty runs deep and wide and may extend to grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins and even in-laws. Family members gather when there is sickness, death or a disaster” (Appalachian Values, p. 75). An example of this loyalty to family shows in remorse that occurs if there has been a rift in a family relationship and apologies and reconciliations have not been made before the death of one or the other at odds with each other. Another example of deep familism is the obligation felt by mountain people to “take care of one’s own.” Until recent decades, assisted living and nursing homes were not a consideration, since children cared for aging parents or other relatives not as closely kin as parents. And if a young mother or father died and the widow or widower needed help with young children in the family, relatives were quick to take in the children and love and rear them as their own. Union County did have a “Poor House” back in the nineteenth century where, as a last resort, persons were housed and cared for if relatives could not, due to their own circumstances, take care of the indigent. Or maybe the residents of the Poor House had no kin who could take them in. But the general principle has been for generations in the mountains to “take care of our own.” Family is a strong entity. Even divorce is a more recent blight in Appalachian society because of the strong sense of family.

Personalism is a bit harder to define. Loyal Jones sees it as “relating well to other persons…going to great lengths to keep from offending others…not alienating others” (Appalachian Values, p. 81). However, don’t think that mountaineers are easy to give in. Consider, for example, when Tennessee Valley Authority was buying up land to build lakes in the area for generating hydro-electric power. Because much of the land had been a legacy, passed down from generation to generation, people were reluctant to let it go, even to sell it for the ‘purpose of progress’ as the promoters proclaimed. When the government prevailed, and the land had to be sold, the people would comply, but dissatisfaction often remained, and some of the most adamant against selling their land refused for years to “hook up” to the electrical lines that came into their communities. In summarizing how Appalachian people relate to others, Mr. Jones states: “We may not always like or approve of other people, but we normally accept them as persons and treat them with respect” (p. 82).

[Resource: Jones, Loyal. Appalachian Values. Photography by Warren E. Brunner, with an Introduction by John B. Stephenson. Ashland, Ky: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1994.]

c2012 by Ethelene Dyer Jones. Published March 1, 2012 online with permission of the author at the GaGenWebProject. All rights reserved.

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