The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Story Gathering Project started in Fall 2021 as a way to both collect short histories of our people, and to connect urban Appalachians through the telling of our stories. As a result, the collection of stories in the archive has grown considerably. With the help of Core members, people with ties to UACC, students from Miami University Hamilton enrolled in Appalachian Studies course, and just about anyone with ties to urban Appalachia, we have an incredibly diverse collection of stories that offer pieces of living history that stretch back several generations and reach into a wide range of the Appalachian region. I took a look at some of these stories to see what was emerging.
It should come as no surprise that many of the people interviewed offered some similar tales of family members who made their way form Appalachia to the urban areas. At the same time, there are some curious differences that seem to attend generational views of what it means to be Appalachian.
Matt Dawson is a student a Miami University Hamilton who did his interview as part of a class taught by UACC member Ashley Hopkins in Appalachian Studies. He chose to interview Elliot Cesco whose family came mostly from Williamson, West Virginia. Matt’s experience is like many of us who know we have Appalachian roots but are removed form the mountains by geography and time. Growing up in suburban Maineville, Ohio, Matt Cesco knew much about his Appalachian heritage. As he explained to Matt Dawson, “my family is from the same place as the Hatfields and the McCoys.” He speaks fondly of the place where his family is from and proudly of his own Appalachian heritage.
Still, Elliot Cesco spoke directly to contemporary life in West Virginia when he said that “as an adult visiting rural West Virginia, I can clearly see the damage done to communities by the coal industry and the loss of other industries.” Elliot Cesco seems to view being Appalachian with a balance of pride in his “hillbilly roots” and an acute awareness of the realities of life in Appalachia today.
By contrast, Core member Ashley Hopkins’ interview with Myron Gabbard was revealing with respect to the Appalachian identity. When Hopkins asked Gabbard about his life and home, he was primarily concerned with talking about where he is now, and his interest in family has mostly to do with a kind of musical legacy more than a broad cultural legacy. Myron Gabbard is a musician. He was animated and proud of the fact that members of his family have been steeped in American music, having played with the likes of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In fact, Gabbard spoke of Pete Seeger as a family friend. When asked if he refers to himself as Appalachian or “mountain folk,” Gabbard replied “No. That’s not me, that’s my father.” These small moments tell us quite a bit about how some urban Appalachians see themselves in relation to Appalachia and Appalachian identity.
I know my own understanding of my Appalachian heritage has always felt distant. I knew that my family was Appalachian, but there was never much talk of it when I was growing up. It was as if my family felt the need to distance themselves from these origins. As a result, I rarely referred to myself as a “hillbilly” rxcept when I felt the need to defend my Appalachian heritage or when others coaxed it out of me. I have always been positioned at a step removed. I sensed a similar relation to Appalachia in Myron Gabbard, whereas Elliot Cesco, who is at least two generations removed from the people who came from the Appalachian region, expressed a real connection to his Appalachian heritage.
We can compare all of this to Core member Maureen Sullivan’s interview with Nora Stranger. Maureen Sullivan began her interview simply by asking where Stranger is from. Her reply was telling: “I grew up in Lawrence County, Ohio—the southern most county in the Appalachian Ohio region,” she said with pride. She went on to describe a childhood of playing in woods and on farms. In many ways, she described the kind of rural Appalachian experience many people would like to idealize. The main point, though, is that Nora Stranger’s ties to Appalachia are close and of immediate personal memory. Nora Stranger is now the Appalachian Outreach Coordinator for Sinclair Community College, so it is safe to say she continues to preserve and maintain her Appalachian identity to this day.
Three stories from three Appalachians offer us a fascinating glimpse of the Appalachian experience in our time. There was no predicting exactly what the Story Gathering Project would reveal. The project is quite simple and involves one person interviewing another with only some simple guiding questions to get things going. What we can already see is that the Story Gathering Project is working as an oral history and as an archive for research. In gleaning the contrasts in how individuals relate to their Appalachian identity from just three stories, we can clearly see a range of experience in terms of how people see themselves and their relationship with Appalachian identity. We can also see how this relationship is modified and shaped through generations.
The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is still collecting stories for the Urban Appalachian Story Gathering Project. The purpose is to engage members of our community in informally gathering and recording interviews with people of Appalachian descent in the greater Cincinnati area, and to collect and share these stories. If you would like to participate, follow this link for information on how to get involved:
If you would like to view the Story-Gathering Project Archive, click here: https://uacvoice.org/story-gathering-project-interviews/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.