The Sticking Place

Appalachia: The Source

by Clarus Backes

Here in the heart of Kentucky’s Pine Ridge mountains there is incredible, almost dreamlike beauty. But there is also overwhelming poverty – and that’s why the beauty is just a fragment of a broken dream, and the cold reality is a trek to a place called Uptown.

It is 575 miles from Chicago to Millstone, Ky., in the heart of the Pine Ridge mountains. The first 500 miles have a gentle monotony to them. The speed limit is 70 miles an hour, and the big semi-trucks scream down the four-lane highways of Indiana, southwest Ohio and central Kentucky like express trains, the drivers limp at their wheels.

Then, just the other side of Winchester, Ky., the hills begin to grow out of the soil, small at first with considerable space between them, then higher and more heavily coated with trees and closer and closer together. Tiny while flowers begin to blossom on the huckleberry plants, the farms become irregular patches leaning against the hills, and the ground has long stains of black running through it – soft coal outcroppings, still too impure to gather and burn, worthless to anyone.

And suddenly, at Jackson, Ky., you are in mining country-hillbilly country. It is like entering another world.

There is incredible, almost dream-like beauty here. In the morning the fog hangs high in the hills like long, lazy wisps of smoke, catching the warm sun barely at treetop and sometimes not burning off until noon. There are clear, icy streams bubbling everywhere from springs far up in the hills, handmade footbridges that swing gently against their ropes, and the soft green tops of the mountains rising as far as you can see.

The road winds and dips through solid rock, the long gray cliffs still bearing the grooves of the dynamiters’ drills every 18 inches apart, and there isn’t a billboard or a neon light on it anywhere.

But it also is a world of savage, even criminal, ugliness that strikes at you from every side and leaves you heartsick and limp. The enormous bulldozers of the strip miners have gouged away the tops of many mountains, sending huge masses of mud and chewed up timber oozing down the hillsides, overrunning roads, sometimes uprooting houses, turning in the rain to a sulphuric acid that poisons wells and kills fish and destroys all vegetation for years. Around every turn there is an abandoned slope mine shaft, its timbers rotting and collapsing against the black earth, its rusted railroad tracks running crazily away to nowhere.

And everywhere, everywhere there is poverty.

The poverty is overwhelming. There is simply too much of it to comprehend. It is as if a man from the Sahara had wanted to know what a lake looked like so you took him up in a helicopter and dropped him in the middle of Lake Michigan. And while be was down there thrashing about and gasping and trying desperately for sight of land, you leaned out and shouted down to him: “This is a lake. This is a pretty good example of a lake.”

The poverty of eastern Kentucky is like that. There is simply too much of it. You can’t escape it. The moment you step into the hills it surrounds you, it engulfs you, it washes over you in waves until, in spite of your curiosity, you find yourself looking around desperately for a way to escape from it.

On the streets of Whitesburg, Ky., the Letcher county tile seat, a paunchy middle-aged widower named Leon Green stands with a week’s gray stubble on his face and talks about trying to raise five children on a partial disability compensation or $21 a month. He is out of work with absolutely no prospects of finding any.

“For $2, I get me $48 worth of food stamps every month, but that don’t barely feed six people,” he says in his soft Kentucky drawl.

“The end of the month, me and the young ones jest gotta do without. The older ones still get free lunch at school. For $16 I got me a three-room house, but after movin’ my five rooms of furniture in it there aren’t hardly room to do nothing’ in there ‘ceptin’ cuss the cat – and then you get hair in your mouth.”

He grins shyly at his own joke, but there is still the humorless spectre of five children with hunger pangs, with rags on their backs, with no hope at all that things will change.

In Millstone a nameless man carrying two buckets of water stops at a wooded bridge and directs faded blue eyes at you from a face that is burned and etched in the dark, crisscross lines of all mountain men.

“I get $48 in food stamps every month, but that’s the only public assistance I’m on,” he finally admits in a deep, strangely soothing voice.

“Fact is, I’d just as like work, anyway, if I had any choice in the matter. Man feels better if he’s he’pin hisself with his own two hands. I gin around a little every day tryin’ to pick up a few extra dollars doin’ odd jobs here and there. But they’re hard to come by.

“I’m 48 year old, and that’s part of the problem, I guess. Most people lookin’ for younger men.”

He has nine children. Or perhaps eight. The rumor around Millstone is that one of them died last winter of starvation. There is no way of finding out for certain. Nobody in his right mind is going to ask him.

On Pine mountain, Letcher county’s highest peak, an elderly couple and seven or eight small children, probably their grandchildren, have been appearing quietly for the last week on the vast, crowded slope that serves as the county dumping ground. They come every day at twilight when there is nobody around and spend an hour or so scrambling over the tin cans, the dead animal carcasses, and the discarded hospital refuse, looking for something to eat.

Everybody thinks it is a shame, but nobody knows quite what to do about it. You can’t tell a man he has no right to live.

“Business picks up right smart on the first of the month when the food stamps come in,” says Matthew Stevens, a dark, burly man who owns a small cinderblock grocery store in the hills of Floyd county.

“People around these parts do their tradin’ jest one a month. They come in here and pick up a 50-pound sack of pinto beans, mebbe three or four 25-pound sacks of flour, a 50-pound drum of lard. Not much call for fresh meat, and most of them raise a few vegetables out back that they can themselves. Anything they can’t get on food stamps – hair oil or soap or writin’ paper – I might’s well not even fool with. I stock hit, but any of it that walks out of here I end up payin’ for out of my own pocket.”

Stevens is one of the relatively wealthy men of the area, a man of influence with a business to call his own. Last year, when a good many of the men in his trading area were on federally financed work programs, his personal income hit a peak of $100 a week despite his having to absorb some $2,000 in bad bills run up by men with more sudden credit than they knew how to handle. This year the work programs have run out, and Stevens’ income is back to its more normal $70.

It is like that in the Kentucky mountains these days. It is like that in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama too. And for the first time in history, the vast, well-scrubbed middle classes, the flatlanders of America, are beginning to realize it. Poverty has become extremely popular in America these days, and particularly the poverty of Appalachia, which offers the twin virtues of being real – real enough to be felt – and at the same time being quaint and backwoodsy and highly photogenic.

The hills are alive these days with bustling outsiders from the national magazines, from study committees, from the television networks, all rushing about and asking questions and photographing, photographing, photographing. Sometimes they get what they are after.

On the road outside Hazard, Ky., probably the most photographed town in Appalachia, a mountain man with bad teeth and a finger missing on his left hand is trying to hitch a ride with a somber, pasty-faced boy at his side. His name is Mason Oliver, and he lives far back in one of the hollows with his wife and eight children, drawing social security payments of $117 a month. Each morning, early, he hitchhikes the 20 miles down the road to Isom, where generally he can count on helping out at a roadside fruit market for a few hours at $1.50 an hour.

But he is a cheerful man, unafraid, proud of still being able to accomplish something with his two bands. No, he has not seen any poverty workers, he says, nor caseworkers from the social agencies nor clergy-men from the churches, offering to help him out.

“Fact is, the ones that helps us most ’round these parts ain’t none of them people, hit’s CBS.”


“Them picture people, from the TV outfit. They come by these parts regular wantin’ to make pictures, and they give us 25 or 30 dollar. We don’t even have to fix things up for hit; they say they want hit to look jest as bad as they can find it.

“Mebbe three year ago my house burned to the ground in the winter and them fellers come to make pictures. They asked could I take the shoes off’n my little girl so they could make her picture. My little lady standin’ barefoot in the snow, in front of my burned down house. They said they mailed them pictures to Washington, and mebbe they’d do me some good.”

Smiling shyly, proud of what he might have helped accomplish, ready to please in any way that he can.

Other picture people are not quite so generous. It is common knowledge in the mountains that Life magazine’s photographers will pay only $10 – actually a token payment for the right to publish the picture – and that they want the freedom to dress things up a bit – scattering loose clothing about the living room; pasting newspapers over windowpanes to make it look as if there is no glass. Last September 20, on the road outside Jeremiah, Ky., a camera crew filming a government-sponsored documentary insisted upon photographing a home without offering any payment, and despite several warnings to stop. Finally, a fiery mountaineer appearing with a gun blazing, and the cameraman fled, leaving the dying producer behind.

The trouble with the attention is that, in the long run, it hasn’t solved anything. Hunger doesn’t go away when you take a picture of it, nor do jobs blossom magically in the carefully tended soil of public sympathy. The TV cameramen, the study committees, and the politicians with their trains of press agents come and go. But when they are gone, the mountains still remain behind, soft and green, concealing the same tired earth and fallen down mines, the same haunting bunger, the same despair. This is the world of southern Appalachia.

This is the world that young Cliff McBee, like 2 million others before him, had finally made up his mind to leave. He didn’t want to do it. He had fought against it for a long time. But sitting in his father’s living room in the old mining camp of Millstone, his big shoulders bowed under the weight of his mind’s pressure. He knew that the lime had come.

“I got to,” he announced softly. “Don’t make no matter if I want to or not. I jest gotta make up my own mind and go do what I know to be right.”

It was a brave decision, but his voice didn’t have a single note of courage in it. Cliff McBee is 32 years old, and he has nine children, and he has never seen a city larger that Covington, Ky. Since childhood his universe has consisted of just about all the grass the trees and stumps and streams he could see in his own hollow and maybe the three on either side of it. There wasn’t anything else he needed that he couldn’t find at the Millstone general store. Strangers has always frightened him to death. And now he was going to Chicago, the nation’s second largest city.

But he was right – he had to do it. He hadn’t worked in six months, and $90 in food stamps he collected each month – his father, working as a $l50-a-month janitor, managed to come up with $3 each month to pay for them – were simply not enough to live on. The last three or four days of every month the stamps bad been running out, and he had lain beside his wife in their three room miner’s cabin and listened to the whimpering of his children in the dark, feeling, himself, the harsh pain of their empty stomachs. It was plain; a man reached a point sometime when he had no choice left but to go.

Yet, up until about six months ago, Cliff McBee had been one of the lucky ones; he had had a job with the state highway department that had lasted him for eight years.

It wasn’t until last fall, when the elections approached, that he realized there could ever be an end to it. Then the horrible certainty dawned on him that the wrong political party was going to win, and he was going to be caught with his political allegiance on the wrong man.

In desperation he quit ahead of the stampede and traveled to Covington on the promise of a better job, but that hadn’t worked out, either. The pay was even less than he had been making, the rents were higher, and nobody he talked to was willing to consider nine children. After eight weeks he was back home again, a little worse off than before.

Then began the familiar round of the welfare offices, the poverty program office, the politicians’ offices. It is an old story in eastern Kentucky. Because there are work programs here, public assistance programs, vocational rehabilitation programs. The war on poverty is very real here. The trouble with the programs is that while the money, at least most of it, is provided at the federal level, the day-by-day application of that money is made at the county level, and here the rumors of nepotism and outright, open-handed corruption abound.

McBee had no political pull; all of his applications for aid were carefully considered and found unworthy.

“I went to the judge and told him I wasn’t askin’ to be put on no program regular, I knew enough not to ask that. All I wanted him to do was let me work long enough to get me one pay check. Jest one, then I’d quit. It cost $22.45 to get to Chicago by bus, and I had no other way of gettin’ me $22.45. But he said no.”

“Those bastards!” said Chuck Dagnan, a native of Millstone who was a field supervisor of the poverty program in eastern Kentucky until frustration and personal tragedy drove him back to Chicago last December. “Those dirty bastards!”

Dagnan, despite his quiet, amiable manner, is a man capable of a fine rage, particularly when his sense of justice is aroused. He once managed to get Vice President Humphrey on the telephone and stormed to him about the unseemly delay in a project to provide safe drinking water for a group of mountaineers living over contaminated springs. Humphrey, to his credit, listened, and the project was resumed with amazing ·speed.

But in this case his anger was largely beside the point, and he, and probably even McBee himself, knew it. For the fact is that even if all of the war on poverty programs worked, even if the state and private welfare programs were humming at maximum efficiency and all corruption was rooted out, this wouIdn’t put an end to Appalachian poverty. There is simply too much of it. The numbers are too big.

More than 6 million people still live in the Appalachian mountain region, and nobody knows how many of them exist perpetually on the thin borderline of starvation. Certainly the number approaches almost half. The cost of bringing them all up to the subsistence level alone, especially thru government sponsored, tightly administered programs, is almost too staggering to think about.

“It’s like spending $5 to get a man a cup of coffee,” says Mrs. Mabel Kiser, a cheerful, white-haired former Salvation Army worker who supervises the federally-sponsored Millstone Sewing center. “Of course you have to give something to the man who I makes the coffee and the man who provides the cup and the man who runs and gets it. Still $5 is a lot of money to spend for a cup of coffee.”

Short of a massive influx of private industry – in all of Letcher county today there is but one factory, a furniture manufacturing plant that employs a maximum of 52 people – or the wholesale development of some new natural resource, there probably always will be families living in the hills exactly like the McBees.

So it was decided. Cliff McBee would leave his family behind and ride back to Chicago in the car with Chuck Dagnan and myself. We would leave, barring catastrophe, the next day.

Chicago Tribune, 6 October 1968 (PDF of this article here)

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