Friday, May 11, 2001

Hearts in the hills

Mountain migrants celebrate culture

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If you were born in Cincinnati, you might be one.

        There are an estimated 250,000 in and around the Queen City and they have roots in Ireland, Scotland, Central Europe and West Africa. They are white as well as black.

        They aren't a racial group, but they're protected in the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

        They are Appalachians, Cincinnati's hidden minority.

[photo] Sisters with a knack for cornhusk crafts, Geneva Perl (left) of Yoder, Ind., and Lena Beckley of Florence will be at the festival.
(Mike Simons photos)
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        As folks from Lower Price Hill and Camp Washington to Belleview and Covington meet this weekend at Coney Island for the 32nd annual Appalachian Festival, they will celebrate a shared heritage.

        Professional storytellers will spin mountain tales while re-enactors display pre-1840s crafts and skills. Headlining the event will be Hazel Dickens, a traditional singer.

        The event is the one time every year when people bring back the front-porch-pickin', old-time-recipe-cookin', story-tellin' style that is as much a part of Cincinnati as it is the hills of Kentucky.

        “It's tradition,” said Jackie Miller, who moved to this area and now lives in Elsmere. “It's the family values: that the family was to survive no matter what the conditions.

        “You take tradition away from Appalachians and we are nothing.”

Rich history
        Appalachia is a 200,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of twelve other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

[photo] Pam Ziermaier of Milford sets up her stained glass booth Thursday.
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        About 22 million people live in the 406 counties of the Appalachian Region and are from varied backgrounds. Despite the white hillbilly stereotype, many Appalachians are African-American.

        Some are famous, such as singer Loretta Lynn, African-American studies leader Henry Louis Gates Jr. and author Thomas Wolfe.

        On these three festive days, folks will remember how hard times, economics and proximity over the years brought Appalachians to the Queen City.

        In a fiddler's tune you may hear the tale of Cincinnati's Appalachian past, the roots of which have run from the farms and coal mines of West Virginia and East Tennessee to the promise of better jobs in Cincinnati as far back as the 1920s.

        Just as Mr. Miller found a strong Appalachian connection in Price Hill when he moved here in the 1980s, so have generations of Appalachians before him.

        “We've been migrating here during the whole 20th century,” said Michael Maloney, an Appalachian advocate, social researcher and founding director of the Urban Appalachian Council.

        “Between Newport and Xenia, Ohio is one of the most important concentrations of Appalachian people in the country.

   • Cultural celebration: 32nd annual Appalachian Festival
   • When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
   • Where: Coney Island, Route 50, California
   • Tickets: General admission, $6; senior citizens, $3; children under 12, $1
   • Parking: $3
   • Festival Web site:
        “The whole Appalachian section of Kentucky doesn't have as many Appalachians as we have in the Cincinnati/Dayton axis,” Mr. Maloney said.

Economic migrants

        Though the mountains may be miles away, the recipes for corn bread and butter beans are still around in local mom-and-pop diners.

        They may have come from the parents and grandparents of those who traveled to Cincinnati decades ago when the soil of Eastern Kentucky was wearing out, the population was growing and the mines were becoming automated. A large concentration of Appalachians left their homes for the factories of the industrial Midwest from 1940 to 1970.

        “The economy in the Midwest, including Cincinnati, was booming and they needed workers to make the automobiles and the refrigerators, to install the air conditioning units and to build the bridges and roadways,” Mr. Maloney said.

        They brought with them to neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and Lower Price Hill the music of their guitars, mandolins and fiddles — a kind of art that's still strong in Cincinnati today.

        Over the decades, though, the Appalachian population spread across Greater Cincinnati.

        Maureen Sullivan, executive director of the Urban Appalachian Council, estimates there are about 250,000 first- and second-generation Appalachians in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

        They now live in neighborhoods like Covington and Newport, Northside, South Fairmount and Oakley. The Cincinnati connection to Appalachia is so strong, in fact, they have their own monthly newspaper, The Appalachian Connection. It helps them keep a close eye on home and issues that might affect their community.

Ethnic identity
        The Appalachian culture has sustained itself over the years for a variety of reasons, Mr. Maloney said. It is one of the most distinctive — with its music, dance and story telling — compared to cultures in other regions such as the South and New England.

        “It was also partly out of necessity,” Mr. Maloney said. “And partly out of choice that Appalachians clustered together in blue-collar enclaves. And what happens is you have an ethnic neighborhood.

        “That slows down assimilation.”

        Keeping traditions alive is itself a value important to many Appalachians. To know the story of your roots and to tell it for generations is to have a connection to home — not just the land but the people who worked it.

        That's true for Lena Beckley, a 52-year-old first generation Appalachian from Letcher County, Ky., who now lives in Florence.

        “My grandfather, Thomas Jent, bought the whole mountain and it's called Jent Mountain,” she said of the place she was born in Carcassonne, Ky., about 20 miles from Hazard. “He was a Baptist minister and a coal miner.”

        She was one of 15 brothers and sisters.

        “We grew up poor but we was rich in the Lord,” she said. “We didn't waste anything.”

        That's why her mother taught her to make cornhusk dolls and why she sells them at the Appalachian Festival.

        “I made her a promise I'd continue to do this,” she said. “We need to show people that the old-fashioned way is the best way. You don't have to have the finer things in life to appreciate beauty.”

        But she knows beauty, the kind that's on her grandfather's mountain. And she'll tell the story to anyone who will listen.

        “I love where I'm from and I'm not a bit ashamed of it,” she said. “I'm glad to be a coal miner's daughter and a hillbilly.

        “It's a good feeling to see I did grow up the right way and learn the right values: to appreciate nature and to love God.

        “That way you'll live a happy and rewarding life.”


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