Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear, other half cat
Wild as a mink, but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that
– Rocky Top, As performed by the Osborne Brothers
Rise and Fall
This is a story that dates back over a billion years. To the Proterozoic Era. If you can stretch your mind to consider how long ago that was you can understand how sedimentary rock is formed and how it bonds you over eons to the natural world.
Over hundreds of millions of years, clay, silt, sand, and gravel, with some calcium carbonate, collected in deposits on the ocean bottom along the ancient margin of the North American continent. Over time, these sediments cemented together and formed into layers of sedimentary rock over nine miles thick.
As the African tectonic plate pushed against the edge of the North American plate, the original horizontal layers of rocks were bent and folded upward. This cycle of force created the Appalachian Mountain chain from Newfound-land, Canada, to Alabama.
Huge masses of older, deeply buried rocks were pushed northwest, and up and over younger rocks along a large, nearly flat-lying thrust fault, known as the Great Smoky Fault. Fossils of small shells of crustaceans that lived in the waters of the ancient continental shelf over 450 million years ago can still be found in limestone rocks in Cades Cove, in the Smoky Mountains.
The Appalachian Mountains are speculated to have once had peaks as high as those in the modern zone of continental collision. This includes the Himalayas, whose highest peak, Mount Everest, is over 29,000 feet above sea-level.
Though nothing lasts forever. With every rise comes an inevitable fall. Today these mountains are a shadow of their former self, with the highest peak just over 6,680 feet. Geologists estimate the mountains are being eroded about two inches every thousand years.
What remains, if you’ve never been there, is absolutely majestic.
The Southern Appalachian region is better defined by the ancient mountain landscape than the lines on a map of political jurisdictions. Though, for general orientation we’ll refer to the U.S. Forest Service, which defines Southern Appalachia as including West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, western North and South Carolina, northern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama.
The early old-world settlers to Appalachia, as colonial America made its initial push into the western frontier in the 18th century, were Scots-Irish. These people, with origins from Lowland Scotland, were two-time rejects.
First, they were used as pawns by King James I of England in the early 1600s to displace the Irish population in Ulster. Several generations later, fleeing a British rule that had placed severe restrictions on their Presbyterian faith, they sailed to America.
By the 1770s, it is estimated that over 250,000 Scots-Irish lived in the American colonies. Many made their way to the hills and modest mountains of Southern Appalachia. They brought their fiddle music and dance, and know-how for distilling whiskey. Mark Sohn, in his book, “Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes,” wrote:
“For the Scots-Irish, whiskey-making was linked to freedom. They came to Appalachia in search of freedom, and they brought not only their whiskey-making knowledge but also their worms and stills.”
Moreover, this freedom was something they were willing to fight for. On October 7, 1780, the Overmountain Men, who’d hiked over 330 miles from Sycamore Shoals, near what is today, Johnson City, Tennessee, routed British loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina.
To the British, the rag-tag militia were “more savage than the Indians.”
Life in rural Appalachia continued as it had in the 18th century well into the 20th century. Large bands of the area were left behind by the economic development and growth many other parts of America experienced.
That’s not to say there was no industry at all. There were coal mining and commercial logging booms and busts that altered the mountain landscape and character of the region. However, the wealth these abundant natural resources provided did not bring widespread prosperity to the region.
Towns and hollers were fragmented by the hills. Communities were isolated. The extension of modern roads and infrastructure was sporadic.
By 1960, the coal industry was losing jobs. Other economic opportunities were limited. Writing in the Washington Post at the time, Julius Duscha observed that the lack of infrastructure had “left the mountain areas in the backwash of modern civilization.”
Descendants of America’s early pioneers, with a history of fierce independence, were derided as hillbillies. Backwards. Uneducated. Violent. Inbred.
Perhaps there’s some truth to these stereotypes. Perhaps they use too broad a brush to paint an entire region.
But with misconceptions come rewards. Over time, like the uplifting of sedimentary rock, being backwards becomes being forwards. So, too, being forwards becomes being backwards.
For example, many of America’s big coastal cities have destroyed themselves over the last 30 or more years. Applying the cutting edge in social engineering and social justice, they’ve managed to tie themselves in knots with out-of-control regulations, encumbrances, and absolute idiocy.
By striving to be forward, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seatle, Philadelphia, D.C., and others, have produced extreme wealth stratification, a flagging middle class, high crime, and an easily triggered rage culture. These big cities have become the backwaters.
Camp Hillbilly, by comparison, is now a much more civilized, sane, and pleasant place to be.
Just Another American Story
These days, like most places in America, the early defining culture of Southern Appalachia has diminished. Things change. Cycles turn over.
The largest percentage of Scots-Irish ancestry of any state is North Carolina, where 2.9 percent of the population claim the heritage. South Carolina and Tennessee follow at 2.4 percent.
Or course, everyone has their own American story to tell.
Your lowly editor, for instance, was born and raised in San Diego with lineage extending to central Kansas, and possibly back to Presbyterian Scotland. His fetching wife was born in Mexico City and raised in Los Angeles (eastside), with lineage extending back to Pre-Columbian Aztecs.
Our kids were born in Long Beach and transplanted at middle-school and high school age to the East Tennessee hills of Southern Appalachia. To Scruffy City, USA.
This, however, is merely geography. It is what’s in the places from where the stories come which really matters the most.
America, remember, as envisioned by the founding fathers, is more of an idea than it is a place. And, alas, the liberty that Americans had enjoyed largely disappeared from the North American continent over 100-years ago.
Though in some isolated pockets, in the supposed backwaters, some remnants persist. At least in attitude and a defining historical cultural imprint, if not always in practice.
Thanksgiving, being a uniquely American holiday, offers a respite of cup and contemplation, and served as the motivation for the words herein.
“How many things there are that I do not want,” remarked Socrates, circa 425 B.C.
Here at the Economic Prism, we’re certainly thankful for the many blessings our Creator has provided. But more so, it is the things He has taken away that we’re truly grateful for.
[Editor’s note: Today, more than ever, unconventional investing ideas are needed. Discover how to protect your wealth and financial privacy, using the Financial First Aid Kit.]
for Economic Prism