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Homespun jeans and linsey used to be the universal garb of the mountain people. Nowadays you will seldom find them, except in far-back places. Shoddy “store clothes” are cheaper and easier to get. And this is a sorry change, for the old-time material was sound and enduring, the direct product of hard personal toil, and so it was prized and taken care of; whereas such stuff as a backwoodsman can buy in his crossroads store is flimsy, soon loses shape and breaks down his own pride of personal appearance. Our average hillsman now goes about in a dirty blue shirt, wapsy and ragged trousers toggled up with a nail or two, thick socks sagging untidily over rusty brogans, and a huge, black, floppy hat that desecrates the landscape. Presently his hatband disappears, to be replaced with a groundhog thong, woven in and out of knife slits, like a shoestring.

When he comes home he “hangs his hat on the floor” until his wife picks it up. He never brushes it. In time that battered old headpiece becomes as pliant to its owner’s whim, as expressive of his mood, as a clown’s cap in the circus. Commonly it is a symbol of shiftlessness and unconcern. A touch, and it becomes a banner of defiance to law and order. To meet on some lonesome road at night a horseman enveloped to the heels in a black slicker and topped with one of those prodigious funnels that conceals his features like a cowl, is to face the Ku Klux or the Spanish Inquisition.

When your young mountaineer is properly filled up on corn liquor and feels like challenging the world, the flesh, and the devil, he pins up the front of his hat with a thorn, sticks a sprig of balsam or cedar in the thong for an aigrette, and then gallops forth with bottle and pistol to tilt against whatsoever may dare oppose him. And on the gray dawn of the morning after you may find that hat lying wilted in a corner, as crumpled, spiritless and forlorn as — its owner, upon whom we charitably drop the curtain.

I doubt, though, if anywhere in this wide world mere personal appearance is more deceitful than among our mountaineers. The slovenly lout whom you shrink from approaching against the wind is one of the most independent and self-satisfied fellows on earth, as quick to resent alms as to return a blow. And it is wonderful what soap and clean clothes will do! About the worst specimen of tatter-demalion that I ever saw outside of trampdom used to come into town every week, always with a loaded Winchester on his shoulder. He may have washed his face now and then, but there was no sign that he ever combed his mane. I took him for one of those defectives alluded to in a previous chapter; but no, I was told he was “nobody’s fool.” The rifle, it was explained, never left his hand when he was abroad: they said that a feud was brewing “over on ’Larky,” and that this man was “in the bilin’.” Well, it boiled over, and the person in question killed two men in front of his own door.

When the prisoner was brought into court I could not recognize him. A bath, the barber, and a new store suit had transformed him into a right good-looking fellow — anything but a tramp, anything but a desperado. He bore himself throughout that grilling ordeal like the downright man he was, made out a clear case of self-defense, was set at liberty and — promptly reverted to a condition in which he is recognizable once more.

The women of the back country usually go bareheaded around home and often barefooted, too, as did the daughters of Highland chiefs a century or two ago, and for the same reason: simply that they feel better so. When “visit-in” or expecting visitors their extremities are clad. They make their own dresses and the style seems never to change. When traveling horseback they use a man’s saddle and ride astride in their ordinary skirts with an ingenuity of “tucking up” that is beyond my understanding (as no doubt it should be). Often one sees a man and a woman riding a-pillion, in which case the lady perches sidewise, of course.

If I were disposed to startle the reader, after the manner of impressionistic writers who strive after effect at any cost, I could fill a book with oddities observed in the mountains, and that without exaggeration by commission or omission. Let one or two anecdotes suffice; and then we will get back to our averages again. I took down the following incident verbatim (save for proper names) from lips that I know to be truthful. It is introduced here as a specimen of vivid offhand description in few words:

“There was a fam’ly on Pick-Yer-Flint that was named Higgins, and another named the McBees. They married through and through till the whole gineration nigh run out; though what helped was that they’d fly mad sometimes and kill one another like fools. They had great big heads and mottly faces — ears as big as sheepskins. Well, when they dressed up to come to church the men — grown men — ’d have shirts made of this common domestic, with the letters AAA on their backs; and them barefooted, and some without hats, but with three yards of red ribbon around their necks. The sleeves of their shirts looked like a whole web of cloth jest sewed up together; and them sleeves’d git full o’ wind, and that red ribbon a-flyin’ — O my la!

“There was lots o’ leetle boys of ’em that kem only in their shirt-tails. There was cracks between the logs that a dog could jump through, and them leetle fellers ’d git ’em a crack and grin in at us all through the sarmon. ’T ain’t no manner o’ use to ax me what the tex’ was that day!”

I may explain that it still is common in many districts of the mountain country for small boys to go about through the summer in a single abbreviated garment and that they are called “shirt-tail boys.”

Some of the expedients that mountain girls invent to make themselves attractive are bizarre in the extreme. Without invading the sanctities of toilet, I will cite one instance that is interesting from a scientific viewpoint. They told me that a certain blue-eyed girl thought that black eyes were “purtier” and that she actually changed her eyes to jet black whenever she went to “meetin’” or other public gathering. While I could see how the trick might be worked, it seemed utterly absurd that an unschooled maid of the wilderness could acquire either the knowledge or the means to accomplish such change. Well, one day I was called to treat a sick baby. While waiting for the medicine to react I chanced to mention this tale as it had been told me. The father, who had blue eyes, solemnly assured me that there was “no lie about it,” and said he would convince me in a few minutes.

He stepped to the garden and plucked a leaf of jimson weed. His wife crushed the leaf and instilled a drop of its juice into one of his eyes. I took out my watch. One side of the eyeball reddened slightly. The man said “hit smarts a leetle — not much.” Within fifteen minutes the pupil had expanded like a cat’s eye in the dark, leaving a rim of blue iris so thin as to be quite unnoticeable without close inspection. The eye consequently was jet black and its expression utterly changed. My host said it did not affect his vision materially, save that “things glimmer a bit.” I met him again the next day and he still was an odd-looking creature indeed, with one eye a light blue and the other an absolute black. The thing puzzled me until I recalled that the Latin name of jimson weed is Datura stramonium; then, in a flash, it came to me that stramonium is a powerful mydriatic.

If our man killer, hitherto mentioned, had had blue or gray eyes and had not chosen to stand trial, then, with a cake of soap and a new suit and a jimson leaf he might have made himself over so that his own mother would not have known him. These simple facts are offered gratis to writers of detective tales, whose stock of disguises nowadays is so threadbare and (pardon me) so absurd.

The mountain home of to-day is the log cabin of the American pioneer — not such a lodge as well-to-do people affect in Adirondack “camps” (which cost more than framed structures of similar size), but a pen that can be erected by four “corner men” in one day and is finished by the owner at his leisure. The commonest type is a single large room, with maybe a narrow porch in front and a plank  door, a big stone chimney at one end, a single sash for a window at the other, and a seven or eight-foot lean-to at the rear for kitchen.


An Average Mountain Cabin


Some of the early settlers, who had first choice of land, took pains in building their houses, squaring the logs like bridge timbers, joining them closely, smoothing their puncheons with an adze almost as truly as if they were planed, and using mortar instead of clay in laying chimney and hearth. But such houses nowadays are rare. If a man can afford so much effort as all that he will build a framed dwelling. If not, he will content himself with such a cabin as I have described. If he prospers he may add a duplicate of it alongside and cover the whole with one roof, leaving a ten or twelve-foot entry between.

In Carolina they seldom build a house of round logs, but rather hew the inner and outer faces flat, out of a curious notion that this adds an appearance of finish to the structure. If only they would turn the logs over, so that the flat faces joined, leaving at least the outside in the natural round, the house would need hardly any chinking and the effect would be far more pleasing to good taste. As it is they merely notch the logs at the corners, leaving wide spaces to be filled up with splits, rocks, mud — anything to keep out the weather. As a matter of fact, few houses ever are thoroughly chinked and he who would take pains to make a workmanlike job of chinking would be ridiculed as “fussin’ around like an old granny-woman.” Nobody but a tenderfoot feels drafts, you know.

It is hard to keep such a dwelling clean, even if the family be small. The whole structure being built of green timber throughout, soon shrinks, checks, warps and sags, so that there cannot be a square joint, a neat fit, a perpendicular face, or a level place anywhere about it. The roof droops in a season or two, the shingles curl and leaky places open. Flooring shrinks apart, leaving wide and irregular cracks through which the winter winds are sucked upward as through so many flues (no mountain home has a cellar under it). Everywhere there are crannies and rough surfaces to hold dust and soot, there being probably not a single planed board in the whole house.

But, for all that, there is something very attractive and picturesque about the little old log cabin. In its setting of ancient forests and mighty hills it fits, it harmonizes, where the prim and precise product of modern carpentry would shock an artistic eye. The very roughness of the honest logs and the home-made furniture gives texture to the picture. Having no mathematically straight lines nor uniform curves, the cabin’s outlines conform to its surroundings. Without artificial stain, or varnish, or veneer, it is what it seems, a genuine thing, a jewel in the rough. And it is a home. When wind whistles through the cracks and snow sifts into the corners of the room one draws his stumpy little split-bottomed chair close to the wide hearth and really knows the comfort of fire leaping and sap singing from big birch logs.

Every room except the kitchen (if there be a kitchen) has a couple of beds in it: enough all told for the family and, generally, one spare bed. If much company comes, some pallets are made on the floor for the women and children of the household. In a single-room cabin there usually is a cockloft, reached by a ladder, for storage, and maybe a bunk or two. Closets and pantries there are none, for they would only furnish good harborage for woods-rats and other vermin.

Everything must be in sight and accessible to the housewife’s little sedge broom. Linen and small articles of apparel are stored in a chest or a cheap little tin trunk or two. Most of the family wardrobe hangs from pegs in the walls or nails in the loft beams, along with strings of dried apples, peppers, bunches of herbs, twists of tobacco, gourds full of seeds, the hunter’s pouch, and other odd bric-a-brac interesting to “furrin” eyes. The narrow mantel-shelf holds pipes and snuff and various other articles of frequent use, among them a twig or two of sweet birch that has been chewed to shreds at one end and is queerly discolored with something brown (this is what the mountain woman calls her “tooth brush” — a snuff stick, understand).

For wall decorations there may be a few gaudy advertisements lithographed in colors, perhaps some halftones from magazines that travelers have left (a magazine is always called a “book” in this region, as, I think, throughout the South). Of late years the agents for photo-enlarging companies have invaded the mountains and have reaped a harvest; for if there be one curse of civilization that our hillsman craves, it is a huge tinted “family group” in an abominable rococo frame.

There is an almanac in the cabin, but no clock. “What does man need of a clock when he has a good-crowin’ rooster?” Strange as it may seem, in this roughest of backwoods countries I have never seen candles, unless they were brought in by outsiders like myself. Beef, you must remember, is exported, not eaten, by our farmers, and hence there is no tallow to make candles with. Instead of these, every home is provided with a kerosene lamp of narrow wick, and seldom do you find a chimney for it. This is partly because lamp chimneys are hard to carry safely over the mountain roads and partly because “man can do without sich like, anyhow.” But kerosene, also, is hard to transport, and so one sometimes will find pine knots used for illumination; but oftener the woman will pour hog’s grease into a tin or saucer, twist up a bit of rag for the wick and so make a “slut” that, believe me, deserves the name. In fact, the supply of pine knots within convenient distance of home is soon exhausted, and anyway, as the mountaineer disdains to be forehanded, he would burn up the knots for kindling rather than save any for illumination.

Very few cabins have carpet on the floor. It would hold too much mud from the feet of the men who would not use a scraper if there was one. Beds generally are bought, nowadays, at the stores, but some are home-made, with bedcords of bast rope. Tables and chairs mostly are made on the spot or obtained by barter from some handy neighbor. In many homes you will still find the ancient spinning-wheel, with a hand-loom on the porch and in the loft there will be a set of quilting frames for making “kivers.”

Out in the yard you see an ash hopper for running the lye to make soap, maybe a few bee gums sawed from hollow logs, and a crude but effective cider press. At the spring there is a box for cold storage in summer. Near by stands the great iron kettle for boiling clothes, making soap, scalding pigs, and a variety of other uses. Alongside of it is the “battlin’ block” on which the family wash is hammered with a beetle (“battlin’ stick”) if the woman has no washboard, which very often is the case.

Naturally there can be no privacy and hence no delicacy, in such a home. I never will forget my embarrassment about getting to bed the first night I ever spent in a one-room cabin where there was a good-sized family. I did not know what was expected of me. When everybody looked sleepy I went outdoors and strolled around in the moonlight until the women had time to retire. On returning to the house I found them still bolt upright around the hearth. Then the hostess pointed to the bed I was to occupy and said it was ready whenever I was. Well, I “shucked off my clothes,” tumbled in, turned my face to the wall, and immediately everybody else did the same. That is the way to do: just go to bed! I lay there awake for a long time. Finally I had to roll over. A ruddy glow from the embers showed the family in all postures of deep, healthy slumber. It also showed something glittering on the nipple of the long, muzzle-loading rifle that hung over the father’s bed. It was a bright, new percussion cap, where a greased rag had been when I went out for my moonlight stroll. There was no need of a curtain in that house. They could do without.

I have been describing an average mountain home. In valleys and coves there are better ones, of course. Along the railroads, and on fertile plateaus between the Blue Ridge and the Unakas, are hundreds of fine farms, cultivated by machinery, and here dwell a class of farmers that are scarcely to be distinguished from people of similar station in the West. But a prosperous and educated few are not the people. When speaking of southern mountaineers I mean the mass, or the average, and the pictures here given are typical of that mass. It is not the well-to-do valley people, but the real mountaineers, who are especially interesting to the reading public; and they are interesting chiefly because they preserve traits and manners that have been transmitted almost unchanged from ancient times — because, as John Fox puts it, they are “a distinct remnant of an Anglo-Saxon past.”

Almost everywhere in the backwoods of Appalachia we have with us to-day, in flesh and blood, the Indian-fighter of our colonial border — aye, back of him, the half-wild clansman of elder Britain — adapted to other conditions, but still virtually the same in character, in ideas, in attitude toward the outer world. Here, in great part, is spoken to-day the language of Piers the Ploughman, a speech long dead elsewhere, save as fragments survive in some dialects of rural England.

No picture of mountain life would be complete or just if it omitted a class lower than the average hillsman I have been describing. As this is not a pleasant topic, I shall be terse. Hundreds of backwoods families, large ones at that, exist in “blind” cabins that remind one somewhat of Irish hovels, Norwegian saeters, the “black houses” of the Hebrides, the windowless rock piles inhabited by Corsican shepherds and by Basques of the Pyrenees. Such a cabin has but one room for all purposes. In rainy or gusty weather, when the two doors must be closed, no light enters the room save through  cracks in the wall and down the chimney. In the damp climate of western Carolina such an interior is fusty, or even wet. In many cases the chimney is no more than a semi-circular pile of rough rocks and rises no higher than a man’s shoulder, hence the common saying, “You can set by the fire and spit out through the chimbly.” When the wind blows “contrary” one’s lungs choke and his eyes stream from the smoke.

 In some of these places you will find a “pet pig” harbored in the house. I know of two cases where the pig was kept in a box directly under the table, so that scraps could be chucked to him without rising from dinner.

Hastening from this extreme, we still shall find dire poverty the rule rather than the exception among the multitude of “branch-water people.” One house will have only an earthen floor; another will be so small that “you cain’t cuss a cat in it ’thout gittin’ ha’r in yer teeth.” Utensils are limited to a frying-pan, an iron pot, a coffee-pot, a bucket, and some gourds. There is not enough tableware to go around, and children eat out of their parents’ plates, or all “soup-in together” around one bowl of stew or porridge.


A Bee-Gum


Even to families that are fairly well-to-do there will come periods of famine, such as Lincoln, speaking of his boyhood, called “pretty pinching times.” Hickory ashes then are used as a substitute for soda in biscuits, and the empty salt-gourd will be soaked for brine to cook with. Once, when I was boarding with a good family, our stores ran out of everything, and none of our neighbors had the least to spare. We had no meat of any kind for two weeks (the game had migrated) and no lard or other grease for nearly a week. Then the meal and salt played out. One day we were reduced to potatoes “straight,” which were parboiled in fresh water, and then burnt a little on the surface as substitute for salt. Another day we had not a bite but string beans boiled in unsalted water.

It is not uncommon in the far backwoods for a traveler, asking for a match, to be told there is none in the house, nor even the pioneer’s flint and steel. Should the embers on the hearth go out, someone must tramp to a neighbor’s and fetch fire on a torch. Hence the saying: “Have you come to borry fire, that you’re in sich a hurry you can’t chat?”

The shifts and expedients to which some of the mountain women are put, from lack of utensils and vessels, are simply pathetic. John Fox tells of a young preacher who stopped at a cabin in Georgia to pass the night. “His hostess, as a mark of unusual distinction, killed a chicken, and dressed it in a pan. She rinsed the pan and made up her dough in it. She rinsed it again and went out and used it for a milk-pail. She came in, rinsed it again, and went to the spring and brought it back full of water. She filled up the glasses on the table, and gave him the pan with the rest of the water in which to wash his hands. The woman was not a slattern; it was the only utensil she had.”

Such poverty is exceptional; yet it is an all but universal rule that anything that cannot be cooked in a pot or fried in a pan must go begging in the mountains. Once I helped my hostess to make kraut. We chopped up a hundred pounds of cabbage with no cutter but a tin coffee-can, holding this in the two hands and chopping downward with the edge. Many times I stopped to hammer the edge smooth on a round stick. Verily this is the land of make-it-yourself-or-do-without!

Yet, however destitute the mountain people may be, they are never abject. The mordant misery of hunger is borne with a sardonic grin. After a course of such diet as described above, a woman laughingly said to me: “I’m gittin’ the dropsy — the meat is all droppin’ off my bones.” During the campaign of 1904 a brother Democrat confided to me that “The people around hyur is so pore that if free silver war shipped in by the carload, we-uns couldn’t pay the freight.” So, when a settlement is dubbed Poverty, it is with no suggestion of whining lament, but with the stoical good-humor that shows in Needmore, Poor Fork, Long Hungry, No Pone, and No Fat — all of them real names.

Occasionally, as at “hog-killin’ time,” the poorest live in abundance; occasionally, as at Christmas, they will go on sprees. But, taking them the year through, the Highlanders are a notably abstemious race. When a family is reduced to dry corn bread and black coffee unsweetened — so much and no more — it will joke about the lack of meat and vegetables. And, when there is meat, two mountaineers engaged in hard outdoor work will consume less of it than a northern office-man would eat. Indeed, the heartiness with which “furriners” stuff themselves is a wonder and a merriment to the people of the hills. When a friend came to visit me, the landlady giggled an aside to her husband: “Git the almanick and see when that feller ’ll full!” (as though she were bidding him look to see when the moon would be full).

In truth, it is not so bad to be poor where everyone else is in the same fix. One does not lose caste nor self-respect. He is not tempted by a display of good things all around him, nor is he embittered by the haughtiness and extravagance of the rich. And, socially, the mountaineer is a democrat by nature: equal to any man, as all men are equal before him. Even though hunger be eating like a slow acid into his vitals, he still will preserve a high spirit, a proud independence, that accepts no favor unless it be offered in a neighborly way, as man to man. I have never seen a mountain beggar; never heard of one.

Charity, or anything that smells to him like charity, is declined with patrician dignity or open scorn. In the last house up Hazel Creek dwelt “old man” Stiles. He had a large family, and was on the verge of destitution. His eldest son, a veteran from the Philippines, had been invalided home, and died there. Jack Coburn, in the kindness of his heart, sent away and got a blank form of application to the Government for funeral expenses, to which the family was entitled by law. He filled it out, all but the signature, and rode away up to Stiles’s to have the old man sign it. But Stiles peremptorily refused to accept from the nation what was due his dead son. “I ain’t that hard pushed yit,” was his first and last word on the subject. This might seem to be the very perversity of ignorance; but it was, in fact, renunciation on a point of honor, and native pride refused to see the matter in any other light.

The mountaineer, born and bred to Spartan self-denial, has a scorn of luxury, regarding its effeminacies with the same contempt as does the nomadic Arab. And any assumption of superiority he will resent with blow or sarcasm. A ragged hobbledehoy stood on the Vanderbilt grounds at Biltmore, mouth open but silent, watching a gardener at work. The latter, annoyed by the boy’s vacuous stare, spoke up sharply: “What do you want?” Like a flash the lad retorted: “Oh, dad sent me down hyur to look at the place — said if I liked it, he mought buy it for me.”

Once, as an experiment, I took a backwoodsman from the Smokies to Knoxville, and put him up at a good hotel. Was he self-conscious, bashful? Not a bit of it. When the waiter brought him a juicy tenderloin, he snapped: “I don’t eat my meat raw!” It was hard to find anything on the long menu that he would eat. On the street he held his head proudly erect, and regarded the crowd with an expression of “Tetch me gin ye dar!” Although the surroundings were as strange to him as a city of Mars would be to us, he showed neither concern nor approval, but rather a fine disdain, like that of Diogenes at the country fair: “Lord, how many things there be in this world of which Diogenes hath no need!”

The poverty of the mountain people is naked, but high-minded and unashamed. To comment on it, as I have done, is taken as an impertinence. This is a fine trait, in its way, though rather hard on a descriptive writer whose motives are ascribed to mere vulgarity and a taste for scandal-mongering. The people, of course, have no ghost of an idea that poverty may be more picturesque than luxury; and they are quite as far from conceiving that a plain and friendly statement of their actual condition, published to the world, is the surest way to awaken the nation to consciousness of its duties toward a region that it has so long and so singularly neglected.

The worst enemies of the mountain people are those public men who, knowing the true state of things, yet conceal or deny the facts in order to salve a sore local pride, encourage the supine fatalism of “what must be will be,” and so drug the highlanders back into their Rip Van Winkle sleep.

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