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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life

This Mother's Day, find the perfect handmade gift for the artsy mama, the outdoorsy mama, the mystical mama, and more.
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To honor her West Virginia family's coal mining legacy, Megan Brown created a stunning handmade necklace crafted from actual coal dust.
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2023 was Woodshed's first full year as a magazine! From every corner of Appalachia and beyond, readers have flocked to our articles — especially these ten, our most-read stories of the year.
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Give Appalachian this holiday season! All year, we've been combing hills and hollers for fantastic gifts, and, dang it, our collection of handmade crafts and small batch foods has never been more exciting.
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Interview: Award-winning Appalachian N.C. novelist Ron Rash talks headstones, childhood trauma, and what’s next for his career.
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This is the second part of our interview with author Silas House about his newest novel — set approximately twenty years from now. “Lark Ascending” shows humanity at its best and worst, in the context of a calamitous future.
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After losing a beloved aunt, Kentucky author Silas House channeled his grief into "Lark Ascending," a novel about humanity in the face of ceaseless loss.
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This Mother's Day, find the perfect handmade gift for the outdoorsy mama, the boozy mama, the culinary mama, and more.
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Punk meets Appalachia in "Vicious is my Middle Name" by David Dunn. Read an excerpt and hear what inspired the author to mash-up these two cultures.
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"To have a comparable job, they would have to drive 20 to 30 miles."
— Sue Jennings on jobs created by her woodworking shop in Thorton, W.Va.

Stan Jennings remembers the first time he spoke to Sue Williams. It was the start of a night shift in 1985. Everyone was in the lamp house above Kitt Mine No. 1, in Philippi, West Virginia. The usual banter echoed around the room — funny jabs, weekend plans, family talk — but, above it all, he heard a woman say she recently shot a deer. It was like everyone else fell silent.


Stan stepped around the lamp rack. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Sue. Her wavy, strawberry-blond hair was hard to miss. This time, though, he addressed her directly. “Do you really hunt?” he asked.

Sue was used to that kind of question.


She grew up playing football, riding dirt bikes and hunting alongside a female cousin. Raised on a dairy farm, she wasn’t fazed by hard work. Mining came naturally, and most of her male colleagues treated her well.

Still, she could hold her own when needed. This time, it was easy. “Hunted since I was 13,” she replied.


Stan was impressed. He liked her pluck, a woman who could always put meat on the table, and wanted to know her better. Night shift after night shift, they chatted.


Soon the conversation spilled over to early morning breakfasts, where they talked about everything from failed relationships to dream jobs. Sue said that if she could do anything, she’d be a woodworker. While mining was fine, she yearned for a creative outlet, and wood felt right — a natural material, one that encompasses all life in rural West Virginia, one that kept her ancestors alive. But how can you make a living carving wood?


She’d find out sooner than she could imagine. At the end of that year, right before Christmas, everyone at Kitt Mine No. 1 received pink slips. The mine was shutting down.


Losing a job is always frightening, but Stan and Sue were buffered by their self-sufficient lifestyles. Stan grew much of his own food on his 45-acre farm in Thornton, and the thing that first attracted him to Sue, that she could put meat on the table, now really mattered.


They began to spend more time together, hunting, sharing meals and carving wood in his farmhouse basement. Soon, it just made sense for her to move in.


Even with their independent streak, the couple still had to pay cash for things like utilities and gasoline. They picked up what Stan called “dead-end jobs that didn’t amount to nothing.” She did janitorial work. He poured concrete.


Money was tight, so when they saw a listing for a craft show in nearby Morgantown, they immediately thought of wooden spoons and spatulas they’d been making in the basement. They’d only ever given them away as gifts, but maybe they could make a few bucks.


They entered the West Virginia University Coliseum with boxes of utensils and a folding table. The giant room was filled wall to wall with craftspeople. On one hand, it was exciting to see so many folks who crafted things the old-fashioned way. On the other, it was daunting. Who was going to pay attention to their little table with this much to see?


Soon, the doors opened, and the public poured inside. People started mingling — thousands of them, it turned out. There were plenty of customers to go around. Before day’s end, all their wares were gone.


“After the show, I spent the rest of the night making stuff,” Sue said.

She restocked in time for the second day, which went just as well. In one weekend, the couple made about $1,000 — roughly 12 weeks of pay for a part-time janitor working minimum wage in the mid-1980s.


Sue called that craft fair their watershed moment. The couple knew they had to grow their operation, and the first step was moving out of the basement. As luck would have it, they’d been dismantling an old home Stan bought before the mine closed.


While taking down extensions to expose a log cabin at the building’s core, they saved every salvageable board. There were enough scraps to build their first true, stand-alone workshop. The cabin they exposed came with them, too. Reconstructed on their farm, it became a guest space and, eventually, a showroom for the couple’s beautiful wood products.


Under the name Allegheny Treenware, a nod to their mountain roots, Stan and Sue became masters of the craft show circuit. They worked the entire Eastern U.S., hitting 23 shows a year.


With that much time on the road, it was hard to turn out enough product, so they began hiring people, teaching them the trade. Before they knew it, a dozen employees were making their wooden utensils, following the couple’s signature process which starts with local hardwood logs and ends with a finish of mineral and pure, raw linseed oil.


Their product line grew to 170 different wooden utensils, and soon, strangers started showing up at the farm, asking to see their wares and workshop. Rather than turn them away, the couple welcomed them, and word spread.


Today, entire busloads of tourists sometimes visit.


“They go through the process,” Sue explained, noting that the tour is free. “And they get to go home with a spoon,” a little gift that’s also free.

But it’s not just the woodworking that interests people. Stan and Sue have carved out a sustainable lifestyle that puts most Prius-driving urbanites to shame. They grow their own food, most of it organically, and they’ve built a green business that recycles nearly all of its waste.


“We’re really proud of that,” Sue said.


Plus, in a rural area riddled with dead mines, they’re a significant employer, giving neighbors a chance to leverage their Appalachian heritage by making wood products.


“To have a comparable job,” Sue said, “they would have to drive 20 to 30 miles.”


That is both a gift and a challenge.


Stan was recently diagnosed with leukemia. “I feel very fortunate to have the type that I have,” he said, explaining that he’s responding well to treatment. But the couple also know they can’t work forever.


Even when they retire, they want to make sure their dedicated employees can keep carving wood.


“As long as they want to work, we will try to keep the doors open,” Sue said.


Visit Allegheny Treenware in Thornton, West Virginia: They’re open for tours Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Just give them a ring at 304.892.5008 to set a time.

This story was previously published in Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Mark Lynn Ferguson founded Woodshed. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Virginia Living, and many Appalachian publications. He mostly lives in Roanoke, Virginia, where he loves cooking a mess of fried taters, picking pawpaws, and exploring the old family farm he and his husband bought in 2021.



A few years back, my neighbor Kat appeared on my doorstep with a giant basket that was bending under the weight of her booze bottles. She'd rushed over minutes after I texted, saying I scored a mess of pawpaws.


These beautiful towels brighten up any kitchen. Hand printed by The High Fiber, a husband and wife team in Asheville, North Carolina, they're made from natural fabrics and environmentally kind inks.


Let's be honest — did anyone actually enjoy communion as a kid? At my church, I'm pretty sure the “wine” was unsweetened prune juice and the “unleavened bread” tasted like saltless oyster crackers that had been left unsealed for six months.

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Illustration by chainatp on iStock.

“Everything seemed just fine until the sun went down, and from the far corner of the field, Jack thought he heard something – I'm coming across the field. Sifting sand. Cooohecooo."

— Lyn Ford, telling the story "Sifting Sand"

Haints are nothing new to Afrilachian storyteller Lyn Ford. Raised in Appalachian Pennsylvania, she grew up hearing about all kinds of ghosts and spirits.

"My dad was the best spooky storyteller ever," she said. Round about bedtime, he'd spin out some tale about a haunting or other creepy affair, ending it with a deep, sinister laugh. "And then my daddy," Lyn added, "would kiss us goodnight and expect us to go to sleep."

Though it was hard to imagine at the time, these bedtime tales became the foundation of Lyn's career. As a storyteller, she pulls from the catalog of stories she heard growing up plus Appalachian, African American, Native American, and European traditions.

This time of year, those stories tend to get a little dark, she said. "The tales don't need gore or horribly detailed murders and deaths, just the storyteller's voice and one's own unique imagination."

Lyn demonstrates the power of her voice when she tells her favorite scary story, one she learned from her father, "Sifting Sand." The plot is simple — an unseeable force rises up from a field and follows farmhand Jack Sprat into a cabin — but Lyn's expert delivery makes it both spine-chilling and funny all at once.

You can hear it at the twenty minute mark in the below interview she did with BYU Radio. If you have a little more time, you'll find two additional stories in this clip plus Lyn's insights on storytelling.
She's also published a written version of "Sifting Sand" alongside many stories in her book "Beyond the Briar Patch: Affrilachian Folktales, Food and Folklore."



("Sifting Sand" starts at the twenty minute mark.)

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Twelve-year-old Ann Gotlib was last seen on June 1, 1983, biking away from a Louisville, Kentucky mall. Her friend Tanya said the girl was headed home, but she never made it. Though Ann's beat up bicycle was spotted outside a department store and authorities searched for decades, she was never found.

Author Ellen Birkett Morris was eighteen at the time, living in Louisville, and while she didn't know Ann, the way the girl seemed to evaporate rattled her. Even now, more than thirty years later, the story lingers in Morris' mind.

"When I was eighteen, thirteen-year-old Dana Lampton disappeared from the strip mall across from her family’s apartment," opens the author's new short story collection Lost Girls. This fictionalized version of Ann's reality is narrated by a young woman similar to the then teenaged Morris. "My mind should have been on other things—guys, college, getting past ID checker at the door of the club—but Dana’s disappearance captured my attention. We lived in the same neighborhood, and the nearness of the crime creeped me out."

Grim and illuminating in turns, this very short story, less than 670 words, establishes a tone for Morris' work. Largely set in Eastern Kentucky, her collection shows girls and women of all ages getting lost in every imaginable way and, sometimes, being found.

A childless woman stumbles into a breastfeeding group and lies so she can stay. When her son dies, a mother finds solace in video games and a teenage boy. A young woman discovers the power of naked selfies before "selfies" is even a word. And, in the below story, after witnessing her older sister hooking up, a girl makes a tragic mistake.

It's all part of a collection meant to reflect the range of women's experiences says Morris. "What we get in the stories are the secret lives, the hidden dreams and fears, and the unnamed passions of these women and girls."

It's an intense mission for seventeen short stories, and we'd love to hear your thoughts. Does "Helter Skelter" hit the mark?

Be sure to leave a comment below.

"Helter Skelter"

by Ellen Birkett Morris

My sister Amber told me not to stare at the sun or I’d go blind. She also told me that Beatle’s song “Helter Skelter” drove some guy crazy and he formed a cult and murdered people. I didn’t listen to the radio for a while after that. I still look at the sun though. I can’t help it. It’s up there, daring me to look. My father hardly ever sees the sun. He works nights at the Ford plant and sleeps during the day. Sometimes early in the morning I feel him kiss my forehead.

Once I woke up to find him kneeling by the bed just looking at me and Amber. She slept beside me, on her side of the bed, which was two inches bigger than my side. She put blue painter’s tape down the middle of the bed. When I crossed it, Amber pinched me. When she was out riding her bike, I measured it. I never learned to ride a bike, though Dad swears he taught me. I’m not the athletic type, which is good because if I was, I wouldn’t have anyone to play ball with anyway.

I hang out with Lucy from down the street. She has glasses and feathered hair. We walk down to the library and buy candy at the convenience store. Amber rides her bike and sometimes rides in cars with boys. She made me swear not to tell dad. Every now and then, she’d throw me a bag of candy and say “for our little secret.” I don’t believe in secrets. Sooner or later, everything comes out. Like the truth about our Mama. Dad said she was killed in an accident. But I saw in the newspaper that her car broke down on the highway and that she stepped out into traffic. Right into it. I wonder if the sun got in her eyes and she just couldn’t see where she was going. Those things happen.

Strange things happen all the time. Like when I saw a girl who looked just like Amber smoking in front of Mike’s Pub. Mike’s is where the old guys sit and drink beer in the afternoon. I pass by there sometimes and glance in. It’s dark inside, with clouds of cigarette smoke. The television over the bar always has a game on. Old guys are hunched over on stools.

Dad quit going to Mike’s after mom died. All he does now is work and sleep. He wakes up in time for dinner, which Amber made from a box. Spaghetti from a box. Chicken casserole from a box. Macaroni and cheese from a box. When she was in a real bad mood, she’d “forgot” to drain the grease off the hamburger before adding it to the noodles. I ate dinner Lucy’s on the days Amber made meatloaf. Her meatloaf was nasty. Now we have takeout.

Mama was a good cook. She’d feed me bits of carrot or jelly beans from a jar as she cooked. She’d dance around the kitchen while the food cooked. She always drained the grease.

She hung wind chimes over the kitchen sink even though there is no wind in the kitchen. She’d run her fingers across the chimes to hear the notes. It was my favorite sound. Now, my favorite sound is the theme song to the Flintstone’s, where you get to meet them and know all about them. I’m pretty sure Amber’s favorite sound was a Beatle’s song, even though they drove that man crazy. Crazy like Jim, who came back from Vietnam with a tattoo of a heart on his palm. He goes up to people on the street and screams, “Look at the sacred, bleeding heart of Jesus.” I looked, but I didn’t see any blood.

Sometimes there were spots of blood on our bed sheets when I didn’t cut myself. I showed Amber and she said told me to shut up. She was so touchy. She hated for me to touch her stuff. I’d play her records and put on her white blouse with the gold threads running through it and look through her drawers. In her underwear drawer, I found the map to her secret place in the office park across from the Ford Plant. The office park is full of plain white buildings, but in the middle of the parking lot there is a waterfall. If you walk past it and follow the path up the hill, there is small circle of fir trees. Inside the tree, there is a place with logs to sit on. I went there once during the daytime – the ground was covered with beer bottles, and something that looked like the finger of a glove was lying in the dirt. The place looked kind of nasty if you ask me, which no one ever does.

I woke up in the middle of the night one night, and Amber was gone. I was pretty sure she went to her secret place. I thought about moving the blue painter’s tape or spending the rest of the night trying on everything in her closet, but I decided to go and find her instead. I got dressed and put my house key around my neck. I got out my bike and headed for the secret place. Man, was it quiet at night. I passed dark houses and thought of Lucy snuggled under her comforter in her quiet, pink bedroom. I thought of Dad working the line at Ford, the air humming with noise. Then I thought about Amber hidden in the pine trees and wondered what it would feel like to do anything you wanted.

As I got to the office park, a pink light was spreading the sky. I leaned my bike against a boulder and started up the path. I could hear sounds above me. Breathing, trees shaking, grunts and gasps of air. I ran the rest of the way and into the space between the trees. Some guy had Amber against the tree. Her jeans and panties were around her ankles. Her eyes got really wide when she saw me.

“I’ll go get help,” I yelled and started running down the path. “Jake, get off me,” Amber yelled. Then “Sarah, come back.” I ran through the office park and toward the road that separated the park from the Ford Plant. Shift change. Cars were leaving the plant parking lot, their drivers eager for a cup of coffee, a drink, or a warm bed. I timed it just right and made it through the traffic and across the street. I looked back to see Amber running after me. She wore her Rolling Stones t-shirt, the one with the tongue on it. She didn’t see the car. She was looking at the horizon and the pink morning sun on a bed of clouds.

I love the Rolling Stones, who as far as I know have never driven anyone crazy. I like their song about clouds. I imagine Amber on her cloud, other angels come to visit. I bet when she gets tired of them she says, “Hey you get offa my cloud.” I hate their song “Paint it Black.” It reminds me of the darkness and all the things I’ve ever lost. Stuff that rolled under my bed or just disappeared. When it comes on the radio, I go out in the front yard and look up to the sky. I find the sun and take a good long look until everything goes red and I have to close my eyes.

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