Appalachia as a region was once heralded for the frontier virtues of its inhabitants, who included such iconic figures as Daniel Boone and many ordinary citizens who fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War. But in the 20th century it became identified both with rural folkways that had ceased to exist anywhere else in the country and also with seemingly intractable poverty. While recent books such as “Hillbilly Elegy” and “White Trash” have examined the culture of the region, no one has delved into detail about its history in the way that Fordham professor Steven Stoll does in his new book, “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia,” which has just been published by Hill & Wang. He gave a talk about the book last week at The New School.
Stoll calls himself an environmental historian, and he has read histories, newspaper stories, novels and memoirs about the region going back to the time of its first settlers.
“I had to write carefully about development,” he says. “I don’t want to be in a position of saying people’s lives of poverty are somehow noble, but I do ask the question, is it a good idea that the complete transformation of someone’s way of life is somehow necessary? When I look at the agrarians’ way of life today and in the past, it’s the degradation of the larger world that they inhabit that makes it poor. It’s just not true that they’ve never been able to take care of their own needs, never been able to feed themselves. “
Stoll did his undergraduate degree at Berkeley and his Ph.D. at Yale. He has also written “Larding the Lean Earth” and “The Great Delusion,” both published by Hill & Wang in 2002 and 2008, respectively. In order to write about Appalachia, he read about it in archives and libraries and also visited the area. Ramp Hollow is a small canyon in West Virginia.
The author strongly believes that the lives of the people in this region have been transformed for the worse by going from a subsistence economy in which they were able to avail themselves of much of what they needed from the fields and forests that once bordered their small farms to working for wages in factories and mines. Giving up their small holdings has been particularly damaging, Stoll notes, explaining that originally coal companies encouraged their workers to have gardens next to their houses — owned by the company — so that they could supplement their diet with food they grew themselves. This would allow the firms to pay lower wages. The mine owners could throw the workers out of their houses at will, and they were paid in scrip good only at the company store. In “Ramp Hollow,” Stoll notes that, as coal mining became mechanized, there were fewer but better jobs. When some mines closed, some miners there were making good salaries. But then it was over.
Historically, having access to their own small farms and commons enabled workers to better resist attempts by management to drive down wages while ramping up production. They could afford to go on strike because they could still feed themselves from the land and receive aid from relatives living nearby. For their part, timber and mine companies clear-cut forests and amputated mountaintops to get at the underlying coal more easily, all without any regard for the ecological destruction they were causing.
“I went to West Virginia three times,” Stoll says. “I drove around and I talked to people. [Extension agent] H.R. Scott spent days showing me around. I learned from him what it was like to be someone who has a pickup truck, has his own life taking what he can from one piece of land. I went to the state archive and talked to a librarian, who said, ‘You need to go a town called Bluefield, West Virginia,’ so I did.
“The town was vacant, bankrupt; the public library — there was almost not enough money to keep it open. But there was a coal archive, an archive of the town’s history when it was an amazingly different place with fraternal organizations and women’s clubs. I found the earliest business records of the Flat Top Mining Co. There were things that really kind of blew out the door, some letters from residents, communications between them and an attorney for the company. I stayed a week there, and I got just about everything out of it. I suggested to the state archives that they take it over because [the library is] really vulnerable. I didn’t find a single restaurant in town that was not fast food. I went into a convenience store, and the women behind the counter were scared and gaunt. It was just awful. There was almost no food there.
“I’m interested in how what we call the economy fits into the larger economy, how we make things and exchange them and the environment that we inhabit.”
The professor even goes so far as to make a legislative proposal of new laws that would respect and reward those engaged in subsistence agriculture. It’s called The Commons Communities Act, and says, in part, “The U.S. shall create a series of commons communities, each designed to include a specified number of households within a larger landscape that will be managed by them, the residents.”
“I put command, select, delete on that part a number of times,” Stoll says. If his proposal seems radical, he hopes that “I and the book will be denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives and that they’ll talk about what a horrible person I am. It’s a dream of mine.”