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Stories about Modern Appalachian Life


If you have an Appalachian twang, you surely know about all the stereotypes that come with it. For a century or two, outsiders have assumed that mountain people are ignorant, racist, and poor, and nothing seems to trigger these ugly images faster than our voices. One use of "afreared" or "sigogglin" is all it takes to cement opinions about us.

Is it fair? Should we try to change our accents? How did they come to exist to begin with? The good folks at 100 Days in Appalachia and the West Virginia Dialect Project tackle questions like these in the below clip, and they'd like to hear from you.

Please leave a comment telling us how people respond to your accent. Have you tried to change it, or do you "twang out" with pride?

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I had no business biking up a mountain. I mean I regularly commute on my bicycle, but that's along a flat stretch of paths and roadways in the Washington, D.C. metro. A five foot pitch seems like effort there, so I don't know why I looked to Roanoke's Mill Mountain and thought, "Yeah, I can bike that."

I headed across the Walnut Avenue bridge, which leads to the mountain, and figured it was a fitting start. My hometown is a city of bridges. They arch over our river and railroad tracks, and this one was old. Dating to 1927, it was built in a vaguely art deco style. Biking along it, I thought how it added architectural grandeur to the gritty warehouses and railroad tracks it spanned. On its far side, it dawned on me why.

The bridge ends in a neighborhood full of American foursquares, classic homes from the same period. Too big and nice for workingmen, these houses were built for securely middle class families, maybe bosses from those warehouses or mid-managers from the railroad. Whoever they were, when they crossed that fancy concrete span, past its stately obelisk light fixtures, they did more than move from place to place. They literally rose over a gritty workaday district, surrounded by touches of luxury, and set foot on higher ground, in the charming neighborhood that lines Mill Mountain.

From there the land pitched up, gently at first, until, following directions I found online, I turned onto Sylvan Road. I can't imagine why some long dead urban planner thought a residential street should be vertical, but this one was so steep it forced me off my ride. I walked up the incline, pushing the bike and feeling like a loser. The mountain had beat me before I fully reached it.

At the next corner, where the land leveled, I paused to catch my breath and realized the neighborhood had changed. On my left stood a gorgeous tutor-inspired house. A classically French one was on my right. While the ones downhill were nice, these verged on mansions. I later read that this divide was by design. When the area was developed, more modest homes were built low, closer to the railroad tracks and river. Spots like this were reserved for the town's elites, high enough to enjoy unspoiled views and a cool mountain breeze.
I lingered to enjoy that breeze and the view myself, high enough now to see halfway across the valley, I looked northwest, toward the neighborhood where I was raised, which spreads out from a messy strip called Williamson Road. When we moved there in the 1970s, it was defined by massage parlors and triple-x theaters. Though the sex-industry was curbed in intervening decades, the area remains rough and tumble, one wealthier people only visit to buy new tires or look for authentic ethnic food.

To be fair, they can find both there. Growing up, we played with kids from Vietnamese and Mexican families. School friends were of Lebanese and Indian descent. Others could claim mountain lineages dating back at far as mine, but instead of hillside farmers, their ancestors had been slaves.

I don’t think this is most people’s vision of Appalachia—blacks, whites, Asians, and middle easterners living alongside one another in an aging suburb—but no one batted an eye. We just shopped together at K-mart and sat on one another’s porches, gabbing. At school, we learned, ate, laughed, and sang together. It wasn’t until high school, where whites were the ethnic minority, that we began to absorb how unusual our mix was, but even then, we thought it was funny. Irreverent kids that we were, we joked about all the stereotypes—the gun-toting white hillbillies, the watermelon eating blacks, the lazy Mexicans. To us, these were nothing more than absurd tropes created by old people.

In time, I realized that those tropes are still real in some minds, that racism is alive in America. I’d see police treat African Americans more violently than others; see whites don Klan hoods and one of them gun down black parishioners as they prayed; see some of these zealots forego their hoods altogether and reveal hate's true face on the streets of Charlottesville.

Their acts are horrific. We must rail against them, but even so, bigots are the true minority. While everyone struggles against internalized notions about other groups, the idea of the blatantly hateful South holds an outsized place in the American psyche.

Former senator Jim Webb has a thought or two on this. In his watershed book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” he said, ”The redressing of wrongs to African-Americans was not a Southern redneck phenomenon at all. It was an American phenomenon, for which the Southern redneck has been held up as the whipping boy.”

Study after study backs him up. For instance, as a group, poorly educated southern whites are most likely to endorse legalizing discrimination in home sales. That plays into a lot of stereotypes until you look at the numbers. Where 30 percent of poorly educated southern whites support it, 28 percent of all white people nationwide do too. That’s just two percentage points in difference, well within most margins of error, suggesting that Webb is right. Racism is a national issue.

On interracial marriage, the South is a tiny bit behind the rest of the country at 83 percent approval, but that's amazing given the national average hadn't even broken 50 percent in 1995. On residential segregation, Roanoke and other Appalachian cities including Charlottesville, Asheville, Knoxville, and Charleston are actually more integrated—in some cases, much more integrated—than their big city counterparts.

So I have reason to be proud of Northwest Roanoke. For all its auto body shops and vape stores, it's also home to a thriving multiracial community that complicates the Appalachian narrative.

But northwest wasn't the direction I was biking. I turned my wheels the other way and continued my climb with the homes around me growing larger and larger until they stopped abruptly, ceding to a thicket of trees and an old stone gate, the real edge of the mountain.
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Today, we call the road beyond this gate "Old Mill Mountain Road," but about a century ago, it was brand new. After a 1924 update, it was, in fact, the longest paved concrete road in the world, and it attracted tens of thousands of visitors each year. Those who could afford it stopped at the gate to pay their 25 cent toll (about $3.50 today), the rate for a leisurely drive up the mountainside. This was, of course, long before car ownership was assumed and the Roanoke Valley was scared by strip mall parking lots. Back then, automobiles were an extravagance and cruising along a scenic mountain road was a novelty.

To anyone who paid to drive this stretch in its early days, my bike ride might seem passé, exactly the kind of effort motor vehicles allowed them to escape. Yet, today, we're realizing some important things were lost to modernization. Exertion is the new treat, leaving our cars and using our own muscles to move from place to place.

The number of people who bicycle at least once a year in the U.S., for instance, has increased by about 22 percent since 2012. That's a dramatic jump, but even as self-propelled transit has grown more popular, it's also turned into a symbol of our nation's class divide. Those who peddle for leisure are often people with privilege—degrees, disposable income, good insurance. Obviously, they can afford the equipment. The Marin road bike I rode up the mountain did cost a few hundred bucks. But cost isn't really that prohibitive. One glance at Craigslist, and you'll see that a used bike can be bought for cheap.

A bigger obstacle is tribalism. I think of my working class relatives. Few of them would consider peddling across town for fun or even errands, and it's not because they can't afford bikes. It's that everyone they know (excluding me) drives, even when driving means riding in a car wrapped with ads (like on this page) or some clunker car that threatens to break down, even when their cholesterol levels push 270 and they know they should get more exercise. In their minds, yuppies and hipsters bike, not everyday people like them.

Last year, bike lanes were proposed along Williamson Road, the main drag at the heart of my childhood neighborhood, and several thousand people signed a petition fighting it. Bike lanes might take away car lanes, they claimed, and don't they just lead to gentrification anyway?

Looking to my other haunt, the D.C. metro, it's hard to argue the point. Amenities like bike lanes, classically designed street lamps, and public landscaping have been key to attracting wealthier residents. While D.C. developers are required to reserve a percentage of new units for affordable housing, it's never enough, and this problem is nothing new. People without much money have always lived in places wealthier people didn't want—swamps, back country, the entirety of Appalachia. Through the 1800s, aristocratic lowlanders pushed new immigrants into our mountains because it was a wilderness filled with perceived hazards like mountain lions and native people, ones they themselves weren't about to "tame."

By the 1920s, though, that perception had begun to shift. A few Appalachian communities like Asheville were becoming havens for American elites, and, for better or worse, many towns had a true upper class. In Roanoke, a West Virginia coal barren set his sights on Mill Mountain. Soon after moving to the area, William Henritze and his brother bought most of the city's nearest mountain from Roanoke Gas & Water. Over the years, the company had tried everything to turn Mill Mountain into an exclusive attraction. It had built a hotel, an observation tower, even an Alps-style lift, none of which drew guests in adequate numbers.

Today, all those amenities are gone. What remains from the era is the toll gate, which was recently restored by civic groups, and Henritze's 1929 mountainside home, Rockledge, which stopped me in my tracks.
Though I'd admired this house from the valley floor all my life, I'd never been close enough to see its true grandeur. Built from stone in an Italianate style, it sits on a slim plateau pressed close to the former toll road. Graced with balconies and terraces on all sides, the mansion must have impressed every passerby. Likely, they did like me and tried to peer through the windows. Maybe they were hoping for a glimpse of one of Roanoke's most notable residents or maybe they were just curious about the house's interior.

Restored a few years ago by its current owners, two area doctors, it's said to feature exotic wood paneling and inlaid floors, which were carefully preserved during the renovations. As a lover of old buildings, I'm thrilled to hear that someone is giving this grand home proper care, but as someone who was raised poor, I couldn't help but wonder what this house meant to my forbearers, relatives who lived during Henritze's time. Was Rockledge a beautiful home to them, a structure to admire, or a symbol of a life they'd never obtain?

I could have stared at that house all day and still found no answers, plus the sun was getting lower. I peddled onward, uphill, until my calves began to burn. Mill Mountain is not a huge climb, just about 930 feet from its base to the top, but, on a bike, it was enough work for me to welcome another short stop when I saw a clearing. As I snapped the below photo, I realized that from this height, I could no longer make out neighborhoods. Upper crust and low rent ones looked about the same. Largely concealed by trees, the whole city was upstaged by that big blue sky.
I pushed on through the mountain's last hard bends and was panting by the time the ground leveled. The forest floor was replaced by grass, and the twisting roadway thankfully turned into a flat, easy path. As I biked across what was once Roanoke's most exclusive mountaintop, I sucked in deep lungfuls of cool air to slow my breathing and began to wonder where that rarified hotel once sat, a business that used high prices to keep out many people and instituted rules to segregate it from others.

A 2006 management plan for the area explained that blacks were historically barred from Mill Mountain. "Only rarely did Mountain Park offer 'colored days,'" it said, "during which African Americans were allowed access to the park's amenities, and then only with ample warning and apologies to white patrons."

Though I admired the mountain's early elegance, few people I know would have been welcome there. Except on those rare "colored days," black friends would have been turned away, and my family could have hardly afforded it.

I have just one living relative who was around back then. When I mentioned this bike ride to my 85-year-old grandmother, she said, "Didn't there used to be a hotel or something up there?"

Clearly, she never stepped foot inside it, though she did climb the mountain. With friends, she'd take excursions to the top. "We hiked it," she told me and didn't have to say why. I knew she was raised without a car and was pretty sure none of her pals had one either.

It would be another day or two before I talked to grandma and realized that having sore legs atop Mill Mountain was a family legacy. Still, as I got off my bike, I stretched mine under one of the mountain's newest amenities—an 88 1/2 foot tall neon star. Built as a holiday publicity stunt in 1949, the Roanoke Star was an immediate hit. It drew so much attention the area merchants association decided to keep it up and lit year-round. It has since become my hometown's symbol, one I've seen adorn everything from t-shirts to trash trucks, and, as far I know, visiting it has always been free.

At its base, I watched tourists and locals mingle. A young black couple asked an elderly white man to take a photo of them. Seeing that he was old enough to be one of my grandmother's contemporaries, to remember when that couple would have been barred from the mountain, I watched for his reaction.

He didn't miss a beat. "Smile," he told them and then took his own advice, beaming as he snapped the picture and then lingering to chat when he was done. I wasn't close enough to hear their conversation, but the old man stood, relaxed and animated, facing the star as he talked. The couple stood arm-in-arm, facing the golden-washed valley. And, as the sun began to set, I stood, realizing that I faced a steep ride down.

Before getting on my bike, I snapped a final photo. It showed the platform that overlooks my hometown, filled that day with all kinds of Roanokers and visitors—different colors, different economic classes, different physical abilities—all enjoying this beloved mountain. It was a view that I thought defined our age. Even as we struggle against vestigial hate, the twenty-first century is already distinct from the last, a time when base cruelty was so widespread it was enshrined in our rules and laws. A sight like this would have been impossible for most of that century, and, for me, it was worth every sore muscle, the tough ride up. This view I would have gladly paid 25 cents to see.
Special thanks to Melinda Mayo in the City of Roanoke's Communications Office and Pete Eshelman At Roanoke Regional Partnership for help with this piece. Also, big thanks to my new Marin bike. You're as tough as you are pretty.
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I've spent a year asking—can legal marijuana help West Virginia and the rest of coal country? Thanks to The Washington Post Magazine for publishing what I've learned.



Johnsie Gooslin spent Jan. 16, 2015, tending his babies — that’s what he called his marijuana plants. More than 70 of them were growing in a hydroponic system of his own design. Sometimes, he’d stay in his barn for 16 hours straight, perfecting his technique.

That night, he left around 8 o’clock to head home. The moon was waning, down to a sliver, which left the sky as dark as the ridges that lined it. As he pulled away, the lights from his late-model Kia swept across his childhood hollow and his parents’ trailer, which stood just up the road from the barn. He turned onto West Virginia Route 65. Crossing Mingo County, he passed the Delbarton Mine, where he hadworked on and off for 14 years before his back gave out. Though Johnsie was built like a linebacker, falling once from a coal truck and twice from end loaders had taken a toll. At 36, his disks were a mess, and sciatica sometimes shot pain to his knees.


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Photographer Roger May is taller than I expected. I met him for the first time at this year's Appalachian Studies Association conference and was struck, first, by his six-foot-and-four-inches of height and, second, by his sincerity. I'd known him online for years, but as soon as he spoke, I could tell he was the kind of fella you'd trust with anything. Maybe it was because, after a firm hand shake, he opened up and told me about his transformative move home to West Virginia.

Like many Mountain State natives, Roger's family left looking for an easier life. They landed in North Carolina, where he studied at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies and later started his own family in Raleigh. He raised two children while working in IT, and the years added up. Before he knew it, Roger had lived in North Carolina for more than twenty of them, but he never stopped thinking about West Virginia or visiting.

With each trip back, he took cameras and shot beautiful vistas, religious signs, relatives' houses inside and out, and trucks belonging to coal miners. What resulted were more than photos. The views that caught Roger's eye deepened his relationship with the mountains and, in time, inspired him to launch Looking at Appalachia, a project that engages photographers from all across the region to try and represent Appalachia's true complexity. Since its 2014 start, the project has been featured in major news outlets like the The New York Times and has made Roger one the region's most recognizable faces.

That new notoriety led to a job offer, and that's really where the below story starts. It's written by Roger himself, a man who proves you can go home again, a man who has transformed his own life to fight for the mountains we all love.

I moved back home to West Virginia at the end of January this year.

It was a tumultuous time in my personal life, never mind the charged political landscape of both the nation and state. My last day of work in North Carolina was a Friday, and I had my car loaded so I could leave and drive straight to West Virginia. Monday morning, I was first in line at the DMV in Princeton to get my driver’s license.  (The town sits just an hour east from Welch, West Virginia, a town where national journalists often descend upon to tell stories of opioid addiction, a decline in coal, health care struggles — all related to poverty.) 

I was coming to get more than just a driver’s license. I was there to get a West Virginia driver’s license. The woman at the desk told me she’d never seen anyone as excited as me to stand in line at the DMV.

A t-shirt hangs high on the wall for sale at The Little General gas station, Omar, Logan County. (Photo: Roger May)

Over the course of my first few weeks, I watched the president sign executive orders that repealed regulations designed to protect the coalfields of central Appalachia. I attended an ill-publicized town hall meeting with Senator Joe Manchin (who refers to West Virginia as the Extraction State rather than the Mountain State) in Peterstown.

When it was time for questions, I raised my hand first and asked him to look me in the eye and tell me, as a West Virginian, how he could vote to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. Although he did look me in the eye, the next seven minutes were dedicated to everything but answering my question.

So why come home now? I believe in West Virginia.

A truck in Cedar Grove, Kanawha County with a sticker on the back glass read “Friend of God” a play on a campaign by the coal industry known as “Friends of Coal.” (Photo: Roger May)

A person close to me once told me West Virginia was in my DNA. I know I’m not alone when it comes to this place being woven into the very fiber of my existence, of who I am. I have never encountered prouder people in all the places I’ve traveled in the world. And I mean the kind of pride a mother has for a son, not the kind of pride The Bible warns us about.

I believe in West Virginia despite being told at an early age that if I wanted to make something of myself I had to move away. I believe in West Virginia because we are more than an extraction state. I believe in West Virginia because I owe to it my forebearers and my children. I believe in West Virginia because my inheritance, our inheritance, is more than surface-mined mountains, valley fills, polluted streams, and being ranked at the bottom of too many lists. I came home to West Virginia to fight for the future.

Our young folk are tired of not being heard. They’re tired of being told what’s best for them, where they should go, why they should stay, and they’re tired of not having a place at the table. They’re tired of being talked at. My granddad, Richard Watson of Chattaroy, once told me that I have two ears and one mouth and that meant I should listen twice as much as I speak. I came home to West Virginia to listen to young folk.

Our forebearers, whether they marched and organized or wrote songs and taught school and stood for what’s right, showed us a way forward. They created hope in times that were dark and sometimes bloody. I came home to West Virginia to honor my forebearers.

In 2014, I photographed the aftermath of the Freedom Industries chemical spill in the Elk River for The Guardian. After working for three days, I got in my car and drove 300 miles back to North Carolina, to clean water, and to a place where hardly anyone knew about the spill. I struggled with leaving and with not doing more. I came home to West Virginia to do more.

Roger May’s aunt, Rita Vanhoose, looks out over the valley below from the King Coal Highway in Mingo County. (Photo: Roger May)

I came home to West Virginia because I couldn't not come back. Kentucky writer bell hooks wrote in her beautiful essay To Be Whole and Holy, “Hence we return to the unforgettable home places of our past with a vital sense of covenant and commitment.”

I now have the incredible opportunity to direct the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, West Virginia. Founded by Don and Connie West in 1965, the ASFC was founded to educate young people about their mountain heritage and to focus on “the restoration of self-respect and human dignity lost as a consequence of the region’s colonial relationship with industrial America.”

We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t get out of this overnight. There is no quick fix, no easy button, no campaign promise to fix what is broken. What remains is you and me. What is possible is what we choose to do. In Don West’s poem Mountain Boy, he writes, “What will you do for your hills, You mountain boy?”

What will you do for home?

This article was previously published on 100 Days in Appalachia.
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Rebecca Kiger. June 30, 2014. Parkersburg, Wood County, West Virginia.

There's no other way to say it. Since its creation in 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has literally transformed our region. Using federal dollars to draw support from every sector—state and municipalities, major corporations, and local investors—it's created this dramatic multiplier effect and supercharged more than 25,000 projects.


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From high speed internet to job training to local foods to education to tourism to healthcare, the ARC has quietly supported every imaginable Appalachian sector. I say quietly because the commission doesn't post signs with its name at project sites or publicize its work. Which means, in Appalachia, the ARC is arguably the most powerful institution no one knows.

That's fine until the sitting U.S. President introduces a radical budget that strips the ARC of all funding. You read right. In his "Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again," President Trump allocated $0 to the ARC. This was in spite of the overwhelming support he found in rural parts of the region. (Election results in Appalachian cities were more mixed, but that's a topic for another day.)

Regardless of who won our presidential votes or where we fall on the political spectrum, we all know that parts of Appalachia are still in crisis. The economic underpinnings of coal country have collapsed. Even coal executives say it will never be the same, and this job crisis has led to a health crisis. Just look at drug abuse, diabetes, and obesity rates. They're all off the charts in Appalachia's struggling areas.

But we can turn things around. We're doing it in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, in Greenville and Roanoke, in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and in the Shenandoah Valley. To extend this economic revival west, we must fire on all cylinders. That includes federal support.

If you want to see every part of Appalachia thrive, please share the above graphic along with the hashtag #SaveARCgov. Still need convincing? Here are five reasons to save the Appalachian Regional Commission.

1) ARC is a lightning rod for private funds.

The federal government has invested $3.8 billion in Appalachia outside of highway projects. (Oh yeah, the ARC basically built the highway system that connected isolated mountain communities to the rest of the nation.) That $3.8 billion has leveraged another $16 billion in private funds. You'd be hard pressed to find a stronger driver of private investment in the region. The ratio between federal money and private money has actually grown over the years. In 2013, every federal dollar was matched by nearly $15 in leveraged private investments (LPI's below) plus additional dollars from other public sources like states, cities, and towns.

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2) ARC could help end concentrated Appalachian poverty.

The number of high-poverty counties in Appalachia (those with poverty rates above 150 percent of the U.S. average) has dropped a staggering 70 percent since 1960. That is a remarkable change in a region that was literally cut off from the rest of the nation until a few decades ago, and nearly every ARC grant has chipped away at poverty in some way. If we maintain this pace, Appalachia could have zero high-poverty counties in another twenty years or so.

3) ARC creates private sector jobs en masse.

The ARC's non- highway projects have led to more than 310,000 new jobs and $10 billion in added earnings in the region. That's almost $3 in earnings for every dollar of federal spending. How's that work? It all comes back to the commission's cross-sector partnerships. They have helped keep Appalachia's unemployment rate on par with the rest of the nation in spite of regional declines in coal and manufacturing jobs.
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4) ARC helps educate us.

In 1970, just 7.4 percent of Appalachian people age 25 and older held bachelor's degrees or higher. In the five year period of 2008-2012, that figure stood at 21.3 percent thanks, in large part, to the ARC's concentrated effort to boost graduation rates. This is a big improvement, but education must remain a focus. Appalachia continues to lag behind the national average, and college degrees mean more than ever. According to a study by Georgetown University, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education/training by 2020.
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5) ARC has saved children's lives.

Back in 1970, 1 in 9 Appalachian households still lacked plumbing. With a focus on basic needs like these, the ARC improved sanitation. It also funded healthcare projects. As a result, lifespans for all ages grew and infant mortality dropped by a dramatic two-thirds. Federal investments literally saved many of our children, but now we're seeing a reversal in trends. Factors like obesity and an aging population are driving overall mortality back up. If the ARC disappears, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost or never even created, forcing many young people to leave Appalachia, and with cuts to healthcare programs, the lives of those who remain would literally be on the line.
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Graphics from Appalachia Then and Now: Examining Changes to the Appalachian Region since 1965.

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Joe James, who is using sorghum to clean coal toxins from West Virginia soil, speaks during the Rural Entrepreneurship Summit.

The thing that struck me about the Rural Entrepreneurship Summit was the granola. I mean, it wasn't the only thing—there were also amazing small business people in the room along with heavy hitters like Aaron Sporck from U.S. Senator Shelly Moore Capito's office and Ray Daffner, Entrepreneurial Development Manager at the Appalachian Regional Commission —but this was some seriously good granola. It was sweet without being syrupy, and it had a smoky undertone that surprised me.

By sheer luck, I was seated next to the fella who made it. His name is Jacob Gahn. Tall and bespeckled with a wide smile and a ponytail, Jacob is the kind of guy you picture whipping up batches of granola in his kitchen, and that's actually how he and his wife Carolyn started their company Sweetgrass.

"Sweetgrass has been with us for longer than we've been a family," he said, "From the time we were just young pups, living out in a little cabin and making granola by the tray full."


Distinctly Appalachian granola

From these humble roots, the couple added employees and new products. They also added one of Appalachia's favorite ingredients, sorghum. That twist gave their granola its signature flavor and helped capture the attention of major retailers. Today, Sweetgrass products can be found in Kroger and Whole Foods supermarkets with the phrase "lightly sweetened with locally grown sorghum" right on the bag.

Oddly, sorghum came up more than once during the Blacksburg, Virginia event, which was hosted by Village Capital, a firm that drives entrepreneurship outside California, Massachusetts, and New York. That's where some 78 percent of venture funds currently go. None of these states face problems like West Virginia, where a lot of land has been contaminated by coal, but biomass specialist Joe James has found a natural, sustainable way to clean it—by growing sorghum. In this case, it's a non-edible variety, one that actually pulls problem substances from the soil. When planted over old surface mines, mine tailings, water collection sites, and coal fine ponds, the plant jumpstarts the restoration process, capturing all kinds of nasty substances. While you wouldn't want to eat this sorghum, it can be made into products, ranging from plastic fillers to a renewable form of bio-coal, which Joe's company, ATP-WV, plans to sell to industry customers.

Sorghum-based plastic, a product of ATP-WV.

Sorghum-based plastic, a product of ATP-WV.

Speaking of coal, it's no secret that the traditional kind, the fossil fuel, is losing its market fast, which leaves many miners out of work. As of March 2016, the U.S. had just 56,700 remaining coal jobs, down from a high of 178,300 in April 1985. Amid these depressing figures, Rusty Justice saw an opportunity. He's the fourth generation in his family to live in Pikeville, Kentucky, the heart of coal country, and he knows that, contrary to every stereotype, former miners have what it takes to become computer programmers. Rusty set about proving it when he co-founded BitSource, a software development firm that hails from his hometown holler. Entering its second year, Bitsource has trained ten mountain people, including many former miners, to program websites. While the small business' leaders acknowledge that this is just the start, it's been enough for Forbes magazine to name Bitsource as one of seven world-changing companies and for Justice and crew to land their first Fortune 500 client.

Each of these start-ups has an element that's unique to Appalachia. Each either pulls from the area's traditions or addresses area problems. This distinction doesn't escape Village Capital CEO Ross Baird. He sees a lot of people outside Appalachia wringing their hands over the region. "But few ever go there to understand how people live every day, what challenges they're facing, and what resources they have."

That's what it will to take to spread the wealth and discover true innovation, he said, looking outside venture capital's big three states. All across the country, entrepreneurs are solving real problems right in their communities. It's just a matter of finding them, according to Baird, and then "working side by side to improve their businesses."

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The good folks at WVTF Public Radio invited me to talk about Trump's appeal with working class Americans and the revival we're seeing in Appalachia.

Listen Here.

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Sometimes I get snarky. Like the other day, when I spotted Jim Justice's gubernatorial campaign ideas for turning West Virginia into a tourism mecca. I tweeted, "Tourism, yes! Horse races, golf, & theme parks? It's not 1980. See Charleston SC & Asheville 4 ideas."

Without a 140 character limit and two bourbons under my belt, I swear I would have been more constructive. I would have said that successful tourism must be in lockstep with current trends and projects requiring big capital outlays must pay off for decades, making millennials and Gen Z central to their success.
In the little orange box, down and to the right, I critique each of Justice's ideas mentioned in my tweet. To prove I'm not just being a Negative Nancy, though, I also want to share new ideas for reviving West Virginia's economy.
Some are tourism-based. Others aren’t. And I’ll be the first to admit they all need pressure testing. I'll leave that to Justice's staff since mine consists of one eager but illiterate puggle. Here goes:

1) Give away a coal town.

Take your pick—Welch, Madison, Logan, Mullens—all are filled with great old buildings, left to rot. After remodeling a few into live/work and retail spaces, you could literally give them to qualifying artists and entrepreneurs. Can you imagine the media coverage? Can you imagine to deluge of applications from people ready to trade their $3,000/month Brooklyn studio apartments for free space in the inspiring Appalachian mountains? The second wave of spaces could go for a deeply reduced rate. By development's third wave, there should be enough momentum for private investors to take over. Oh, and don’t worry about these towns being remote. Other artistic hubs like Homer, Alaska and Hot Springs, Arkansas prove that can be an asset.

On Jim's Ideas

Horse Racing: Thoroughbred Daily News says the fanbase is aging, and living in the DC metro, the biggest city within three hours of West Virginia, I can assure you that high-disposable-income types of all ages aren’t flocking to the state’s existing track in Charlestown. I’d scrutinize the market potential for a second track, taking another big concern into account, animal welfare. Animal rights groups are targeting horse/dog tracks, citing wide-ranging animal abuses. Should West Virginia step into the middle of that controversy for an idea that may not have a market?
Golf: A better bet. According to Forbes, it has seen an upswing with young people. "Youth playing the game has increased by 2015.” I bet you can guess my one concern—market saturation. Golf isn’t a blue collar activity, and mountain people are decidedly blue collar. Who will travel for hours to play golf in West Virginia, who isn't already playing at one of Greenbrier's four courses? I guess this isn’t an issue if Jim Justice's golf aspirations are limited to landing the U.S. Open, which he mentions on his campaign site, but if he's looking to grow the golf market, I worry that it’s tapped.
Theme Parks: You may have read the case against theme parks in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Bottom line—the only successful one to open in the last 30 years was Dollywood. Three things to know about Dollywood: 1) It abuts the country’s most visited national park. 2) It has the corner on hillbilly kitsch. Nobody will do it better. 3) It is aligned with a globally-known brand, voice, and set of boobs. For all his assets, Jim Justice lacks those!

2) Beef up the eastern panhandle.

We should always lean into what’s working, and I can tell you that young professionals are visiting the eastern panhandle for tubing, kayaking, and hiking. Make it easier to get there, and give them more to do. I’m talking twice daily train service from DC, including the weekends, with stops in both Harper’s Ferry and Shepherdstown. In Harper’s Ferry, there is precious little in the town proper, aside from park exhibits. Get a beer garden in there and more restaurants, maybe even a tubing company within walking distance of the train station. In Shepherdstown, shops and restaurants abound, but lodging is a problem. While there are a few hotels, most look like they were decorated during the Reagan administration, and for some reason, there's a dearth of AirBnBs. Oh, and for God's sake, restrict sub-developments out that way. They are destroying the beauty that draws people to the area in the first place.

3) Be authentic along the New River.

Jim Justice wants to give New River visitors reasons to stay—great idea—but he cites a wildlife park as the solution. I don't think that will work with the people who will be driving tourism over the next fifty years or more. Millennials and Gen Zers aren't flocking to pre-packaged parks, whether they hold wildlife or roller coasters. They want authentic experiences that reflect the unique heritage of a place without being corny. So how about giving them an amazing walking and biking trail along the New River, a la the C&O Canal. The trail could connect cool river towns, breweries, or base camps with cabin camping. When you weave amenities into the fabric of the area, rather than plopping them down and surrounding them with a big fence, you retain that place's essential character. You also spread the wealth, giving small businesses a much bigger role. Existing  state parks and national park land provide a good starting point. Developed carefully, they could become a regionwide draw.

4) Booze it up.

Asheville was named Beer City U.S.A. four years running and is now home to Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. Roanoke just landed Deschutes and Ballast Point. Plus distillery trails and cider festivals are popping up all over. Local booze is big, and West Virginia already has some great producers. The new governor could foster more with small business incentives, and connect them through trails and festivals. She or he could also court bigger distilleries that are looking for regional hubs. While some livers are getting saturated, the market for local booze isn't even close.

5) Legalize

A few months ago in The Roanoke Times, I asked if legal pot will end Appalachia's biggest cash crop. The short answer—it might if we don't move quickly. The region produces a massive amount of marijuana, and as states legalize, they are starting to grow their own. Since my piece ran, a new report has estimated that legalized and taxed marijuana could pump $19 million to $70 million into West Virginia's coffers plus it would decrease law enforcement costs. With most residents supporting legalization and the state in a financial free-fall, a visionary leader needs to push legalization before the market is gone for good.

6) Serve up Appalachian food.

Have you heard? Appalachian food is the "next big thing" in regional cooking. So says The Washington Post. Chefs inside and outside the region are taking a close look at our food traditions with attention being galvanized around the Appalachian Regional Commission's Bon Appétit Appalachia! campaign. West Virginia can tap this growing movement by setting up a scholarship for Mountain State chefs to attend the Appalachian Food Summit, hosting morel-themed events, or publicizing the state's ramp and pawpaw festivals. An incubator approach can translate to real dollars as adventure diners begin visiting the mountains for a taste of our culture. Charleston, South Carolina is the new model city for food tourism, having scooped up food and travel awards from Bon Appétit, Condé Nast, Travel & Leisure, and more. Mr. Justice should head down there and check things out.

7) Turn coal miners into tech grunts.

With their jobs being mechanized over time, miners have actually been tech grunts for a while. That skill set could serve them well as the mining industry dries up. The Revivalist and other pubs have focused on a new tech company in Pikeville, Kentucky that's training former miners to code. With it's work ethic and skilled labor force, West Virginia could take this model to scale, positioning itself as Silicon Holler (to borrow a term), a new home for coding, data centers, fulfillment and customer service facilities, and other tech services that could be situated anywhere and that benefit from affordable land and labor.

8) Don't just market; rebrand.

Jim Justice refers to himself as the state's "marketer in chief," proposing an ad campaign to publicize all West Virginia has to offer. That's the right direction, but he should push it further. I'm talking about a full rebranding. Justice needs a little help I think, and taking a look at Secret Hideout's website, even hiring a group like them would go a long way to help him revive the state. Think about it—when West Virginia gets national exposure, what's it about? The death of coal, mountain top removal, meth, or backwoods antics like those on MTV's Buckwild. None of it drives tourism or attracts investors, and the state has centuries of bad press working against it. Hillbilly stereotypes extend to the region's first European settlers, so it will take a radical repositioning to change people's hearts and minds, to convince them of what you and I know—that West Virginia is not just wild. It is also wonderful.
Which of these ideas do you think would work and which wouldn't? What else could help turn things around in West Virginia? Please leave a comment below.
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Been reading the blog for a while? Then you might remember Appalachian Appetite. Last year's food photo contest was so much fun, we're doing it again, this time with some new twists. More details will be coming soon. In the meantime, here's a delicious tune to get you in the mood!
It's performed by Susie Ledford, Lily May Ledford, and Rosie Ledford Foley—sisters from Kentucky's Powell County area who formed the band Coon Creek Girls in the late-1930s. While the group was created as an act for a single radio show, Renfro Valley Barn Dance, their talent won them a huge fanbase that included President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"On the evening of June 8, 1939, limousines began to deliver the cream of Washington, D. C., society to the East Room of the White House," writes John Lilly, describing what may have been the group's most special performance. The Roosevelts invited them to play for England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. It's worth a click to read the full story, but first, give this tune a listen and see how the Coon Creek Girls won hearts around the world.
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  1. It's okay to sit in the yard in your underwear.

  2. The second coming already happened. It was called The Allman Brothers Band.

  3. Everyone loves an ABC Store gift card for Christmas.

  4. Ain't nothing more fun than bouncing along country roads in the back of a '78 Chevy truck, except driving a '78 Chevy truck on country roads.

  5. If you can drive a '78 Chevy truck, you can drive a tank. 

  6. Wear more than a corduroy jacket when you go deer hunting.

  7. You can get a decent car for $25.

  8. Never make your kid mow when it's over 100 degrees.

  9. Chainsaws are fun!

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If I seemed a little distracted last year, it was because I was high on paint fumes and trying to find my laptop amidst remodeling rubble. Our place is finally done (mostly). Thought y'all might enjoy before/after pics, showing where The Revivalist gets made!
Door window 2bookshelf   Fireplace kitchen
Dining Kitchen
Basement Window
Basement Corner
Guest Room
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William Jones hates highway driving—he told me this during one of our text marathons—so I felt bad when he aimed for an I-64 entrance ramp, me following his minivan, certain he was taking interstate just to save me time.
This was our first meeting. After two years of online friendship, him living in the southern part of West Virginia and me outside D.C., we decided to veer from our beaten paths and get together in White Sulphur Springs. It was too cold for more than a sidewalk hello, so we rushed back to our vehicles and started what I thought would be a backroads drive to the nearby Sweet Springs Resort.
You might have read about it. William's older cousin, Ashby Berkley, who renovated another nearby resort called Pence Springs in the 1980s, recently purchased this dilapidated beauty—almost 30 acres, a hot springs, and ten historic buildings, all for $560,000. Since William is a preservationist and I am a sucker for old buildings, we thought it would be a fitting way to spend the day.
[caption id="attachment_11927" align="alignnone" width="1024"]IMG_7495 William Jones under the resort's gracious porticos.[/caption]
I was, in fact, pressed for time. The hubby was headed to Chicago, and I had to get back home to mind the dog. While I felt bad that William took the highway, it was faster and did give us more time at Sweet Springs, which struck me, during our approach, as less creepy than expected.
When I heard that I'd be visiting a decaying resort, with structures dating back to the 1790s, one that was once used as a tuberculosis ward, I pictured a house of horrors—ghastly twins lurking in the hallways and Jack Nicholson chasing me with an ax.
But walking across the wide lawn and the building's first floor, I thought it was fundamentally cheery. In spite of collapsing plaster and deserted remnants from its hotel past, there was something upbeat about the place. Big windows brightening each room. Plastic cups and furniture were scattered like someone had thrown one hell of a party. Any spirits who chose to linger there were surely of the Casper sort because nothing malicious would fit in.
[caption id="attachment_11932" align="alignnone" width="1024"]The resort's dining room was converted to a chapel for retirement home residents. The resort's elegant dining room was converted to a chapel for retirement home residents.[/caption]
Before the resort existed, William told me, there was a courthouse and rough-hewn jail on these grounds. Serving four surrounding counties from 1795 to 1817, these judicial structures were rented to guests when court was not in session, and soon an adjacent spring developed a curative reputation. Those who bathed in its waters claimed to be healed of everything from arthritis to depression. As word spread, people flocked to this little hamlet. In 1839, the first part of the resort was completed, and soon Sweet Springs was attracting thousands of visitors each year.
[caption id="attachment_11938" align="alignnone" width="1024"]The dining room during its heyday. The dining room during its heyday.[/caption]
Like everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon, the Civil War hit hard here. Area resorts, including the big ones—The Greenbrier and The Homestead—shut down until peace resumed, but unlike its larger brethren, Sweet Springs never quite recovered. A series of owners helped it struggle along for sixty-some years, until 1928, when it closed to the public for good.
West Virginia ended up purchasing the resort, and in 1941, it followed the lead of other rural places, opening a sanitarium there for victims of tuberculosis. Those struck with the disease were said to benefit from fresh air and outdoor living.
What did not benefit from the conversion to a medical facility were the structures that made Sweet Springs special. The resort's gracious entry hall, elegant ballroom, and quaint rental houses were all stripped of architectural detail during remodeling.
As I shot dozens of new photos, capturing the place in decline, William said he'd been combing through old ones and, using the images, he's sure they can restore Sweet Springs to its former glory.
[caption id="attachment_11940" align="alignnone" width="1024"]The oldest structure at Sweet Springs, the jail predates the resort, dating to the 1790s. The oldest structure at Sweet Springs, the jail predates the resort by some forty years.[/caption]
I am an irrepressible shutterbug and slow every tour. William was ahead of me throughout the place, waiting patiently at the end of corridors and at stairwells to ensure I didn't get lost. Though I was deep in blogger mode, stumbling around, studying Sweet Springs through my phone screen, he never showed frustration.
By the time we reached the basement, all I could do was imagine what this place could be once restored, just stunning with its greek revival architecture set in a remote West Virginia valley, and given its size, it could be more affordable than its nearest neighbor. The Greenbrier, one of the world's toniest resorts, is just down the road and rooms there start around $250 a night.
Beyond that, Sweet Springs might also reflect the culture around it. I've always thought this was a failing of bigger mountain resorts, creating aristocratic islands in the middle of Appalachia. I took my thumb off the shutter long enough to say that their oversight could be Ashby's competitive advantage, and William agreed. His cousin has been thinking along those lines too and is exploring features that play on local heritage, including a cidery, performances by local musicians, a colony for mountain artists, and a full-on Appalachian festival.
[caption id="attachment_11953" align="alignnone" width="1024"]Furnishings and office supplies hint at Sweet Springs' past. Furnishings and office supplies hint at Sweet Springs' past.[/caption]
My phone does this funny thing in the cold. Well, it does if dying is funny. The moment we stepped outside the resort's main building, it keeled over.
I may have cussed a little. William may have laughed.
But after that, I no longer stumbled around half-ignoring my friend because I was myopically experiencing Sweet Springs through a 4.7" screen. Side by side, William and I walked the property with hands buried in our pockets for warmth, ducking into smaller buildings—the former guest houses and collapsing bathhouse—roaming with no particular goal, just enjoying one another's company, laughing and chatting, the way we people did at Sweet Springs for more than a century, the way they will again soon.
Work has begun on the resort. While the restoration will be arduous (William has already sent photos of a chimney that collapsed during repair), it will preserve this piece of Appalachian history and create a new haven in the Allegheny mountains. When it reopens, Sweet Springs will, of course, have its famed healing waters and gracious structures, but what else would you like to see there?
Now's the time to share your ideas. Leave a comment below, telling us about features and activities you'd find at your dream mountain resort.
One of the resort's many windows provides a portico view, with sprawling grounds beyond.

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