Columbus, Ohio USA
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Appalachian Ancestry
By Betty Garrett Deeds
October 2011 Issue

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Our forebears date back to the English and Scots-Irish people who first moved into Virginia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Gradually, they migrated northwards to the Blue Ridge and Cumberland Mountains, and by the early 1800s, others explored and settled into Kentucky and West Virginia. For generations, they clung to the bottomlands they could farm while cherishing the beauty of the mountains and maintaining both their independence and clannish ties.

After the Civil War, “Gilded Era” profiteers explored the area and found priceless lodes of coal and immense stands of virgin timber. They knew the people who lived there did not want to leave their homes, so they offered to let them live on the land forever while they paid them as little as 50 cents an acre in exchange for the mineral rights to land. The industrialists proceeded to ravage the land around them of coal and timber, and repercussions of that process continue to this day.

I once covered the aftermath of an explosion at a coal mine in Hyden, West Virginia, which killed more than a dozen men, most of them related. When I sought out the mine's “owner,” I found he leased the land from the Ford Motor Company, which had bought it decades before to use timber for their buggy wheels. Ford is probably still reaping a profit on that original 50 cents an acre investment.

Deep coal mining continued full bore until after World War II. By that time, the primary sources had played out and only a few underground operations and strip mining remained. It wasn’t enough to support much of the population then. Regretfully, migrants began the move north to look for work.

Many of them came to Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit at that time. It has been estimated that perhaps a third of Columbus’s population originally came from Appalachian roots. By now, that first tide of migrants is largely “assimilated” into Columbus’s lifestyle and mores. Succeeding waves of people from the hills, and by the late ‘50s and the ‘60s, others settled in clusters of “their own people” in the south end, the Bottoms, and parts of what is now Victorian Village and the Short North. Renovated houses on Third Avenue, for instance, used to house many Appalachian migrants who often met at the Godman Guild for both material help and companionship. I interviewed some of them for Columbus Monthly.

Inevitably, the upscale housing and wonderful restaurants, art galleries and boutiques which line High Street south of Fifth Avenue displaced them. Even at that time, though, they were aware of the scorn their accents and customs evoked from their new neighbors. “I don’t mind if they call me a hillbilly,” one woman laughed ruefully, “as long as they don’t call me a damned hillbilly.”

Those who have remained in southern Ohio’s industrialized river valley, notably New Boston, Ironton and Ashland, Ky., clung to the steel work – and later to exposure to plutonium in the federal government’s nuclear facility at Piketon (known to natives as “the A Bomb Plant”) – also risked its hazards to remain in a bonding beauty that outsiders can never see from highways.

For them, thankfully, the State of Ohio park system has preserved more than 60,000 acres of virgin timber, trees and roads winding around the tops of hills overlooking the Ohio river. Shawnees once camped there and watched the white newcomers come to displace them. In spring, the countryside is glorious as dogwood and redwood trees bloom. In autumn, the woods catch fire with color. But it is only back in the hollows and creeks, where frame and trailers stubbornly park there (abandoned only long enough for the waters to recede) that people know the land year around. They cling to it, themselves (fiercely independent) and “their people.” Family ties, and even disagreements, are closed to others.

This is what I recall most strongly and lovingly about my home. After nearly 50 years living here, I now call Columbus “home,” but in my soul, it will always be the Ohio village of New Boston.

© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

First published in the March 2003 Short North Gazette.

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