This week at In The Past Lane, the history podcast, we look at the history of one of the more troubled regions in American history, Appalachia. In particular, we’ll examine the backstory to how Appalachia became one of the poorest places in the US, and why it has stayed poor. I’ll speak with historian Steven Stoll about his new book, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. Stoll takes us back in time to when immigrants from northern Europe settled the region and developed an agrarian society that was self-sustaining and based on kinship networks. These backcountry people were the quintessential pioneers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, clearing land on the frontier, establishing farms, building log cabins, and developing kinship networks that helped them survive. Much of the economy was based on barter and the livelihoods of the people depended on open access to vast tracts of forests (primarily for hunting) they treated as commons. Whiskey made from rye was a key source of cash that allowed them to buy tools, guns, and other finished goods. This was the world of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. But after the Civil War, this world was upended by the arrival of big business. Lumber companies clear cut most of the forests and the coal companies enticed or forced people off the land, turning them from independent agrarians into dependent coal miners working for wages. This story of the decisions and policies that led to Appalachia’s impoverishment raises important questions about how we think about the sources of poverty and our notions of what capitalism is. And as a consequence, Steven Stoll’s book, Ramp Hollow, offers an important corrective to some of the underlying assumptions found in the bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance.
Among the many things discussed in this episode:
The agrarian society that developed in Appalachia before the arrival of big business.
Why whiskey became so important to the people of Appalachia and why Hamilton’s tax sparked the Whiskey Rebellion.
How after the Civil War, coal mining companies forced the agrarian people of Appalachia off the land and into the mines.
How big business brought coal mining — and poverty — to Appalachia.
How the story of Appalachia reveals the important ways in which Americans misunderstand capitalism.
What J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, gets wrong about Appalachia.
More about Steven Stoll – website
Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill and Wang, 2017)
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
Ronald D Eller, Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945
William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty
Robert Shogan, The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
The Womb, “I Hope It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)
PCIII, “Cavalcades” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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