|Coonskin caps were warm accessories in the cold southern mountains. The raccoon’s tail, hanging down one’s back, might have been a fashion statement.|
Along the road outside the cave, a couple of unkempt entrepreneurs had set up a table from which they were selling “authentic hillbilly goods”: moonshine jugs, fake buck teeth, goober-pea (peanut) pies, toy long guns and coonskin caps of the kind actor Fess Parker wore in an old television show about frontiersman Davy Crockett. Crockett was from Tennessee, two states away, but to these fellows, one hick with a raccoon tail hanging down his back was as good as another.
|Grand Ole Opry superstar Minnie Pearl exaggerated her hick-ness for comic effect. Note her trademark store-bought hat with its dangling price tag still attached|
“They’re smart guys from good families,” the guide told me. “They do better with this than they’d do at a factory job in town.”
Those were the days when a frumpy woman who called herself Minnie Pearl strode onto the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in Nashville, Tennessee, attired in a dime-store dress, sagging socks, cloddish shoes and a floral hat with fake flowers and a $1.98 price tag still attached. “Howdeeeee,” she would screech.
|In this CBS-TV series, Jed Clampett strikes oil in the Ozark Mountains, then moves his “hillbilly” family to posh Beverly Hills, California.|
Enough Cornpone, Already
This Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-hick eruption really galled West Virginians, whose natural isolation already fed the mythology about their backwardness. Like many others who ventured there, I remember endless ordeals following coal trucks -- the hillbilly comics would have said they were turnip wagons -- as they inched their way up narrow, corkscrew mountain roads. West Virginia was so remote that it was said, believably, that no whites had yet stepped on many of its ridges long after Daniel Boone and other explorers had broken through the Appalachians and fully settled the flatlands to the west.
|A coal miner’s statue stands outside the courthouse in Madison, West Virginia, in the heart of “coal country.” But the number of mining jobs in the state has dwindled from 120,000 to fewer than 15,000.|
“The voters of Appalachia (a) are hicks (b) are hillbillies (c) are rednecks (d) don’t appreciate where you’re going with this,” read the headline on Tuttle’s piece. It’s clear where he came down on the matter, taking to task even U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney for his remark at a fundraiser that there were Cheneys on both sides of his family, “and we don’t even live in West Virginia.” Another incest joke. And Cheney’s not the only standup comedian still twanging the backwoods banjo. In books, and on audio and television, Jeff Foxworthy, a college graduate from Georgia, fashioned a lucrative career around one incomplete line: “You might be a redneck if . . .”
One answer: “. . . if your parents met at a family reunion.”
You’re Where, Exactly?
|Fascinated with the work of the 18th-century engineers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, civil engineer Robert Doan Hutton Sr. found and photographed many of the Mason-Dixon Line’s stone mile markers, including this one. |
So most West Virginians simply say they live “in the mountains,” about midway along the Appalachian Trail that runs from northern Georgia all the way up to Maine. West Virginia is officially “The Mountain State,” and the sports teams of its big state university are “Mountaineers.” Those mountain images are brisk and bracing, but they also stir the old hillbilly pot. To the dismay of many, West Virginia University’s mascot is a fellow in a fringed buckskin outfit with the requisite coonskin cap. And we told you where the Davy Crockett image got the state.
The Good Life
|This 1894 Victorian house, called “Highspire,” is one of many beautiful homes and shops in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, also home to the nation’s first hot-springs spa.|
The state’s long-serving, and thus powerful, Washington congressional contingent -- notably Senator Robert C. Byrd, affectionately known as the “King of Pork” -- steered billions of federal public-works dollars West Virginia’s way. The state went from near-impenetrable to one of the easiest and most pleasant places in which to drive.“Yuppified” antique shops, bed-and-breakfast inns, and trendy restaurants turned little towns like Berkeley Springs and Shepherdstown into tourist attractions.
|West Virginia is a fall paradise, as the photo, taken from Seneca Rocks in the Monongahela National Forest, attests.|
All in all these days, West Virginians have a lot more to sell than peanut pies.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Bumpkin. Another disparaging word for an unsophisticated, dimwitted backwoodsman, often written as “country bumpkin.” Apparently the term originated with British settlers as a derisive term for the Dutch, for whom they had low regard. Boomken in Dutch means “a little tree.”
Cornpone. A colorful synonym for cornbread, a simple bread made from cornmeal in a hot skillet. Poor mountaineers often had little beyond cornpone and a bit of bacon to eat. Lard or pork drippings served as the skillet oil. Because cornpone was associated with humble people living back in the “hills and hollows,” the term became yet another unflattering adjective, as in “cornpone humor.”
Frumpy. Decidedly unfashionable, even shabby. But people who look frumpy are not slovenly or unkempt, just drab and old-fashioned, almost amusingly “clueless” about their appearance. They are the opposite of “fashion statements.”
Moonshine. Home-recipe distilled alcohol, concocted in secret apparatuses called “stills” back in the woods, hidden from federal agents or “revenuers.” Batches of this potent drink are often produced at night, illuminated only by the moon. According to some accounts, moonshine more often approaches the quality of paint thinner than elixir, and such stories as losing one’s hair after consuming impure moonshine are not exaggerated.
Pork. In a political context, pork or “pork barrel” appropriations are a slice of fat off the government hog, directed specifically to a single state or congressional district. Shrewd members of Congress are skilled at directing projects such as new highways, bridges, and factories their constituents’ way. The pork is often quietly appended to totally unrelated bills that are so popular that they easily pass. Either the pork goes unnoticed or nobody says anything, since “everybody does it.” (Not really, but to critics, it seems that way.)
Yuppified. Appealing to “yuppies,” or young, “power suit”-wearing, Gucci-briefcase-carrying, upwardly mobile urban professionals. Yuppies were idealized in what is often looked back upon as the self-centered “me” decade of the 1980s. The term became widespread with the 1983 publication of The Yuppie Handbook, a sort of guide to conspicuous consumption and wealth. To say that a community has become “yuppified” is to observe that it has gone trendy, with upscale shops, restaurants, and spas.
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