by Mike Templeton
The cultural makeup of Over-the-Rhine has gone through several distinct shifts over the decades, transitioning from its original German atmosphere which gave the neighborhood its name to a largely urban Appalachian neighborhood by the middle of the twentieth century. The Over-the-Rhine Museum has since found a wealth of new information on the presence of Appalachians both in the neighborhood and in the building that will house the museum. Core member Mike Maloney added that researchers at the Museum have found forty urban Appalachian families who once lived at this site. In June the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition ran an article on the Over-the-Rhine Museum’s plan to include exhibits that focus on the history of urban Appalachians in the neighborhood. This month, Donna Harris filled me on some of the details that are included in the Window Exhibit at 3 W McMicken Avenue.
When we last presented on Appalachians and the Museum, the focus was on the fact that one of the rooms in the museum will be devoted to urban Appalachian family. The researchers at the Over-the-Rhine Museum have since discovered that numerous Appalachian families resided at the 3W McMicken site over the decades, and the Museum is working toward presenting this in the future displays when the Museum is fully operating. Harris told me, “Among the 137 families and businesses that resided in the building, researchers have found increasing amounts of information on urban Appalachians families,” including those in 3 W McMicken.
Donna Harris explained that many discoveries are reflective of the struggles of poor and working-class people in Cincinnati. Some of this is quite tragic, as in the case of the Riggs Family. The Riggs family were an urban Appalachian and working-class family. Living, like most, fairly anonymously at 3 W McMicken, they became notorious in 1936 when Anna Riggs shot her husband Gene to death with a shotgun, as reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer in February 1936. Any attempt to sensationalize this story was offset by the fact the Anna Riggs testified that her husband, Eugene, had beat her and made a prisoner of her in their home over the course of their more than 30 years. This story is cruel on every level, and it illustrates the kinds of struggles that poor and working-class urban Appalachians contended with at the time. The strains on displaced families that stem from economic disadvantage remain as they ever were, and things like domestic violence are the horrifying outgrowth of poverty, social and cultural alienation, and the ravages of industrial labor that tear away at people’s lives. A panel in the 3W McMicken Window Exhibit reveals this tragic story.
The story of the Riggs family is one of several historical findings currently on display at the Over-the-Rhine Museum. The exhibit also features the story of a young Austro-Hungarian girl of 16 who lived in the building for about one year. After spending some time with a circus, this young woman found herself in the 3W McMicken building where she gave birth to her only daughter. The display also features several artifacts found in the building which include a hand-made chair, a cigar case, and a hand-carved stone from the front of the building. It appears to have been carved by one of the people who built the structure: the Fettweis family, a German family of stone masons. Even though the Over-the-Rhine Museum is still taking shape within the building itself, it is still shaping up to be a singular feature of the cultural and historical life of greater Cincinnati. Work continues with the findings from researchers and the role of Appalachians in Over-the-Rhine.
Donna Harris explained that they are currently working with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to further explore and refine their research. Harris said: “We will convene in February and July to decide which stories we will tell. This will involve experts in relevant fields including Dr. Barbara Howe who is an expert in Appalachian Studies.” Dr. Howe is Professor Emeritus at WVU. Her Career has been dedicated to the study of the Appalachian region and was the first Director of the Public History Program at West Virginia University. In addition to Dr. Howe in Appalachian Studies, others involved in the process of choosing stories for the Museum will include scholars in Jewish History, African American History, and Museum Studies. The panel will include a community advisory group to assist the experts, and this will keep the neighborhood involved.
The Over-the-Rhine Museum is shaping up to be fantastic resource for all of the greater Cincinnati, and their ongoing research continues to reveal the central place of urban Appalachians to the culture and history of our city. That so many urban Appalachian families occupied the site of the Museum is testimony to how important Appalachians have been to the cultural life of Cincinnati. It was the presence of these urban Appalachians who would give rise to things like the Urban Appalachian Council and, of course, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. The culture, history, and people of Greater Cincinnati are defined by all kinds of people. Our communities are a reflection of all that made the city, and all that continues to create who we are as a larger community. Urban Appalachians have historically been at the center of urban life in Cincinnati, and we are happy to see this documented at the Over-the-Rhine Museum. The 3W McMicken Window Exhibit is still on display at the Museum. No appointment necessary; just walk by to see a magnificent portrait of what we have been in Over-the-Rhine.
You can learn more about the Over-the-Rhine Museum at this link: http://www.otrmuseum.org/.
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, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. 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.