Abramson, Rudy and Jean Haskell, eds. 2006. Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

This massive volume (1,832 pages) describes an area that covers parts of several states: New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

After a Foreword by William Ferris, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina and an “Appreciation” by Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard, there follows Acknowledgments, a Guide for Readers and an Introduction before the main sections of the tome.

The main divisions are: 1) The Landscape (Geology, Ecology, Environment); 2) The People (Family and Community, Images and Icons, Race, Ethnicity, and Identity, Settlement and Migrations and Urban Appalachian Experience); 3) Work and the Economy (Agriculture, Business, Industry, and Technology, Labor, Tourism and Transportation); 4) Cultural Traditions (Architecture, Crafts, Folklore and Folklife, Food and Cooking, Humor, Language, Literature, Music, Performing Arts, Religion, Sports and Recreation, and Visual Arts; 5) Institutions (Cultural Institutions, Education, government, Health, and Media). The volume concludes with an index of Contributors, a General Index and Illustration Credits.

An encyclopedia like this cannot be adequately “reviewed”, it must be “experienced”. I have only skimmed the book and then read more carefully the parts that interested me: Settlement and Migrations, Agriculture, folklore and Folklife, Humor, Language, and Religion and Education. I will briefly summarize what I found in those sections.

Settlement and Migrations (284-345)

The first migrants to Appalachia were Native Americans and there is evidence of their camps some 14,000 years ago. The eastern area was occupied mainly by Iroquoian and Algonquian language groups, living in single family wigwams or multifamily longhouses. The Native Americans had a number of wild pants they cultivated: sunflower, swampweed, squash, maygrash, goosefoot, little barley, and knotweed were some of them (428).

The first European invader was Hernando de Soto of Spain, followed by Batts and Fallam of Britain, who followed the New River into southwestern Virginia in 1671. There was competition between the British and the French, which led to the French and Indian War, incited by the British to their advantage. The Native Americans were pushed out of their traditional lands as waves of migrants moved westward. The “Trail of Tears” is a sad account of the Cherokee people’s trek out of their homelands, eventually settling in Oklahoma.

Across the 19th century the area was settled mainly people who came from the British Isles, France and Germany, then later from Italy and Greece.

The first Gold Rush began in Appalachia in 1820s and the area supplied copper, coal, timber and salt as well. In fact, salt licks for the widespread buffalo caused primitive roads through the wilderness and the migrants followed them, with trading posts, inns and outfitters along the way. The migrants also followed rivers and landscape routes.

By the end of the 19th century, there were almost 23 million people living in the area. At the turn of the century there was a large African-American industrial migration to work on the railroads and by the end of the 20th century there were 330,000 living in southern Appalachia.

Agriculture (394-439)

“Agriculture and the rural life it has supported are at the core of Appalachian culture and history….” So begins the chapter on agriculture, one that I can identify with personally, having grown up on a small farm in Pennsylvania.

But farming in the area goes back a long ways, to the Native Americans, to when the Cherokees and others farmed corn, beans and squash, with small garden plots and forest foods to support village people. The Spanish came later and introduced peaches and sweet potatoes, followed later by the European immigrants, with new farming practices, livestock and an interest in working with forest products. The uncleared land was considered the property of the community as a whole. Items such as dried ginseng, other herbs, corn whiskey and livestock were common in the costal cities from Philadelphia to Savannah.

However, by 1860 agriculture was already in decline in some areas and by the late 1920s many of the forests had been destroyed. Farmers had suffered a collapse in prices, which the New Deal legislation tried to remedy in the 1933 Act. The farms were generally small and the matter of sustainability was “understood to embrace economic, environmental, and cultural viability” (400). Cooperative organizations and new items were tried but had little impact on mountain agriculture. The Freedom to Farm Act of 1995 was a late attempt to phase out farm subsidies, with the assumption that the free market would take over and be of value to the farmer. Nevertheless, the full-time number of farmers continued to decline: in 1969 there were 47 million; by 1997, 35 million and by 1997 only 28 percent of the land area was in farm use.

Cooperatives increased between 1930 to 1950, but many of them operated with unsound business practices and collapsed. At the same time agricultural education was introduced into the schools. In the High School I attended in Huntington Mills, Pennsylvania, there were two ‘streams’, the agricultural and the academic. I swam with the former for two years but I was going upstream and did not enjoy all the John Deere movies and lectures about chickens and pigs. I switched to the academic stream and floated through my last two years of H.S.

From the earliest days of European frontier settlement, salt was exploited as a source of income and later iron ore deposits that became prominent.

For small farmers, corn and other grains were the primary source of income, although on farms further south tobacco was conspicuous. Direct marketing became a way of omitting the fees charged by the middle men.

Appalachia is a leading area for growing apples and by 1930 there were 5000 fruit farms in the area. Bee keeping and cattle were also well established until the later half of the 20th century.

Early on, corn was used for currency, then for making whiskey: an early 18th century exchange was a pistol for 120 bushels of corn. In the southern areas cotton was king and throughout the area there were dairy farms. However, after WWII the dairy farms were declining and large, specialized diaries were taking over, mainly from outside of Appalachia.

However, farmer’s markets continued and increased throughout the area. Other important considerations were fence laws, restraining the grazing of animals, fish farming as an important industry, forage crops, and ginseng, a plant that is deciduous and grows along the forest floor. In the 1990s it was worth about 400 dollars per pound. Peaches and poultry, sheep, sorghum, and as mentioned, tobacco are still noticeable.

Heirloom fruits and vegetables (open pollinated and passed down through generations) are also widely grown in the area. Other important products and animals are hemp, hogs, horses and mules, mushrooms and maple syrup. The latter is labor intensive and time consuming, as I can verify from our experience of making some of it on our small farm.

Mechanization and migrant labor have changed the way farms operate in Appalachia. These have been due to “sustainable agriculture” concerns, where farming approaches incorporate productivity with preserving the ecosystem (433).

Folklore and Folklife (845-909)

The first folk festival was held in 1928 in Asheville, NC, demonstrating regional aspects in particular; however folklore in Europe began in the late eighteenth century (843). One example is the widespread tale of how the stork delivers babies, although regional animals are sometimes used (849).

The most important celebrations in southern Appalachia are Sundays set aside for preaching, singing, and a communal dinner. Two major cultural traits are family cohesion and neighborliness (855). Worldview is associated with ideas related to the land and nature. There is therefore a network of parks and historical sites.

In the fall tourists, known as “leaf peepers” come to the area to see the trees and their colors. Halloween was the time for mischief—upsetting outhouses and putting wagons or cars where they otherwise would not be found (such as on rooftops).

There has been a revival of crafts in some areas, such as at Brea College and the Hindman Settlement School, and folklore societies abound throughout the whole Appalachia area.

“Charming” and “powwowowing” are known above the Mason-Dixon Line, often with healers that prey on the minds of people. This includes folk medicine, such as taking the blood from a black cat or chicken to cure shingles (867). Medicinal plants are widely known and used. There is also widespread hunting and fishing lore, with mountain heroes like Davy Crockett having their feats wildly exaggerated. Each area has their own public folklore publications and festivals.

Oral narratives are widely known, with Ray Hicks a favorite for many years. Stories were adapted to the tastes and values of the immediate audience (887). Pennsylvania lore, for example, often included the anthracite miners and one work was called “Coal Dust on the Fiddle” (891). Signs were frequently obtained from the stars, birthmarks and conversion experiences (896-7).

Humor (963-996)

Appalachian joking is often directed at visitors, townsfolk, relatives and neighbors, especially if they are “considered to be putting on airs or having forgotten their origins as well” (965). Their humor often makes “light of deeply held values, social icons, habits and stereotypes” (964). There are many religious jokes. An example: “Two fellows meet at a Methodist convention. One asks the other if he is a Methodist. He responds, ‘No, I’ve been sick’” (967).

There are also many examples of “Bawdy and Scatological Humor” (970) and comedians, country singers, speakers and authors present regional humor at shows and festivals. The Encyclopedia lists many of them and gives references to their well-known works.

Hillbilly jokes and humorous storytelling, newspaper columns, and other genres abound, with political jokes a favorite.

Language (999-1033)

The word Appalachia is Ap-pa-LATCH-a in the southern areas and-Ap-pa-LAYCH-a in the north. I am from the north and had never heard the former until I had two students from the south.

“Europeans were relative latecomers to Appalachia, first engaging native speakers of Iroquoian languages about 1540…” (999). French traders made contact with Cherokee and their cousins, including the Oneida and Seneca.

The English language of Appalachia has been a source of interest for many years, often included in novels and plays. It includes similes like meaner than a striped snake or thick as fiddlers in hell. The Midland Area is distinct with forms like bawl ‘ a calf’s cry; blinds ‘window shutters’; hull ‘to shell’; poke ‘paper bag; jag ‘armful of corn’; run ‘creek’; fireboard ‘mantel; and jacket ‘vest’. Further south words like whistle pig ‘groundhog’; lay out ‘to play truant’; gaum ‘a mess’ are used.

Grammar forms such as young’un, big’un, you’uns, whenever ‘at the time that’; workingest; singingest; everwhat; supposta; and anymore (now a days)are common. In my area of the north it was common to hear I done did it or he done done it.

Appalachian English and Ozark English have a lot in common and comprehensive studies in the Linguistic Atlas “have disclosed overall similarities beyond vocabulary and indicate significant phonological and grammatical links between the two dialects” (1007-8).

There are many books and articles that demonstrate and study Appalachian English in literature or as literature, with illustrations of various dialects. Other languages that have had an influence on Appalachian English are Cherokee, German (the Moravians arrived in North Carolina in 1753), Shawnee, Spanish, and the Iroquoian languages.

Specialized vocabulary is represented by logging terminology, medical and health ( such as tizzy ‘asthma’; grippe ‘flu’; dyspepsia ‘indigestion’; consumption ‘tuberculosis’; piles ‘hemorrhoids; flux ‘diarrhea’; swimmy headed ‘dizzy’; creel ‘to sprain’), moonshining, coal mining and even Upper Ohio Valley (1030) and “Pennsylvania Speech” (1023-24). The latter includes forms like gallivanting, bucket and belling (a celebration of some kind). And my dad used to tell visitors at our dining table that if you want anything at this table you got to retch for it, so there was a lot of retching done.

Personal and place names have also received a lot of attention as has “Speech Play” (1029-30). Some examples are:

A whistlin’ woman and a crowin’ hen always come to the same bad end
The apple never falls far from the tree
She went down that row like a hen a-peckin’
He just took off like a scalded dog
Don’t butter both sides of your bread
To build the fence after planting the corn
(shotgun wedding)
To fly over a field and settle on a marriage (poor choice of spouse)

There is also a section on Vulgarity and Profanity and I heard plenty of it growing up, so I’ll not mention it here.

Religion (1281-1359)

“From the earliest days of Appalachian settlement to the continuing urbanization and industrialization of the twenty-first century, religion ahs been one of the most powerful and definitive forces in the region’s culture” (1281).

Many of the original religious groups have persevered, such as the Old-time Baptist, Regular Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, United Baptists, Separate Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and Primitive Baptists continue to this day in areas of Appalachia. Of course, in more modern times there are 1st, 2nd, and so on, Baptist churches, usually Southern Baptists.

Six common characteristics of Appalachia religion are:

  • A strong sense of spiritual independence
  • A distrust of religious hierarchies
  • A lean toward congregational policy
  • A God-called and trained clergy—“whom God calls, God equips”
  • A call for personal experience in salvation
  • A modified Calvinism

Other common denominations or religious groups in Appalachia include Adventist, African American, Brethren, Catholics, Cherokees, Christian, Churches of God, Episcopals, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Mormons, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Mennonites (related to the Old Order Amish), Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and Judaism.

There are also a number of religious terms or expressions that are common to the area, such as:

  • Anointment, or Baptism of the Holy Spirit
  • Backsliding (in the context of salvation/regeneration/redemption)
  • Barking (in Revival Exercises)
  • Call to Preach
  • Camp Meetings
  • Churching (or exclusion—excommunication)
  • Dancing in the spirit
  • Double marriage (marriage after divorce)
  • Double predestination (more inclusive to election)
  • Election
  • Falling Exercises
  • Fire Handling
  • Flower Service (swapping a blossom in fellowhip)
  • Foot Washing
  • Glossolalia
  • Holy kiss (and the love feast)
  • Lined singing (leader chants a line and the group responds)
  • Living water baptism (streams and rivers)
  • Love Feast (shared communal dining)
  • Memorial services
  • Methodist circuit riders
  • Perishing in the Spirit
  • Retreats
  • Revival exercises (“physical behaviors motivated by spiritual enthusiasm” (1348)
  • Running in the Spirit
  • Serpent Handling
  • Short hell doctrine (a version of Universalist theology)
  • Speaking in tongues

There is diversity in almost every denomination, with the Baptists the best example, often forming sub-denominations. “Appalachian religious diversity, however, does not stop wit the Baptists. Their tendency to splinter is rivaled by the Pentecostals….” (1286).

My own experience, growing up in the northeastern section of Pennsylvania, illustrate the dividing nature of the groups. I attended what was at that time a Bible Protestant Church, which had split off from the Methodist Protestant group, which had once been the Methodist Episcopal Church. Later the Bible Protestant Church (or BP as it was known) became the Bible Church and now it is radically conservative. We were fighters by nature.

There were, in fact, two churches in our small farming community of perhaps 75 people, spread out along two roads of perhaps 4 miles. The ‘other’ church was the Methodist Church, reserved for the ‘true’ Methodists in the area. The BP and Methodist Churches had little to do with each other. My mother used to leave my siblings and me off at the BP Church and continue to the Methodist Church, where her sister and other siblings attended.


The Encyclopedia of Appalachia is a collaborative work by a rich litany of scholars. It demonstrates the profound influence this area of America has had in its history.

There are numerous photographs in every chapter that illustrate the topic at hand or, in some cases, the individual that has contributed to Appalachia. Countless references are in each section of the book as well.

As the Foreword so aptly says, “The Encyclopedia of Appalachia is truly a feast of information about its region.” I too grew up in its “steep hills and dark hollers” and suffer the consequences of its culture. I did not realize that “mountain folk were romanticized as thoroughly noble pioneers, in others ridiculed as inbred, violent, and barely civilized, but in any case socially and physically isolated from the rest of America and different from other Americans” (ix). I just thought that there were a lot of hillbillies living around me!

Karl J Franklin
October, 2014