A lesson in the roots of Upper Cumberland poverty

A Liberal Dose

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 In the last two columns, we have determined that 1) there is a long history of drug-and/or-alcohol-related crime in the Upper Cumberland compared to the rest of the country, and 2) the Upper Cumberland, Appalachia in general, are much poorer than much of the rest of the country and has been for a long time. I suggested that the drug-and-alcohol problems of the Upper Cumberland have, as their root cause, the economic stress of the region - this both creates a demand, from people whose life prospects have been limited by their economic circumstances and who wish to escape that reality, and creates opportunity for some to expand their economic horizons by providing for that demand, a situation which seems to promise a quicker return than working at a minimum wage job (if you can find one). This is neither an excuse nor a justification for crime but is, at least, a partial explanation of it.

Before the Civil War, Appalachia was not significantly poorer than any other rural part of the country - that most people were subsistence farmers and there were varied economic interests. This started to change in the 1870s, when railroads extended into the region, closely followed by extractive industries like coal and timber. Before then, most of the coal in America was mined in NORTHERN Appalachia, in Pennsylvania and Ohio. There was plenty of coal in the Southern mountains, but, with no railroads to haul it out, it was not economically or logistically feasible to remove it. Before the Civil War, while the many northern railroads were closely linked like latticework, southern railroads existed primarily to transport cotton from plantations to the harbors of coastal cities to ship overseas. Areas that produced little to no cotton - mountainous areas -were ignored. This changed in the 1870s - in part because there was renewed demand for coal (the 1870s were the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution) and in part because there was a move toward more industrialization in “The New South.” A frequent marker of this expansionist drive was local businessmen creating partnerships with northern investors. For example, former Confederate General George Dibrell, of Sparta, was largely responsible for bringing both the railroad and coal mining to White County. The coal and timber companies of Appalachia were frequently owned, or at least co-owned, by people in other parts of the country.

At the same time, another form of economic opportunity was coming into the region: tobacco. Before the Civil War, most tobacco was “dark tobacco” grown in Virginia and Maryland. In the late 1800s, though, a new tobacco strain was developed -burley - which can thrive in the mountains. By the early 1900s, the vast majority of this popular new strain was coming from Kentucky and Tennessee. This strain - which was virtually guaranteed to produce a profit - enabled some Appalachian subsistence farmers to supplement their income. They had mostly been self-sufficient but not prosperous - as someone once said, not poor but also not accustomed to a lot of money.

Coal and lumber companies, however, were competing with tobacco for the mountain land - or at least the timber and mineral rights to it. They were also looking for a work force, which was initially hard to find because most people worked their own small farms and were content to do so (and reluctant to leave or sell those farms). In the early years of the coal industry in the Upper Cumberland, countless immigrants were imported to the mountains to work them, many from either Scotland, Ireland, or Wales or Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic). Land, however, could not be imported - it had to be bought. The Panic of 1893 caused a four-year depression in which many farms failed - many were bought by coal companies, and the now-unemployed farmers became the cheap, desperate workforce the companies had been waiting for.

Next week I’ll discuss how this all led to our current situation.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.       

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  • sissytoo

    Interesting!!! Looking at mid to late 1800s census rolls, I found many men listed as miners and they came from what is now UK, living and working in the mines in Alabama, where my family was also working. My great grandmother lost her first 2 husbands in the mines, both cave - ins, leaving her with a small child each time.

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