How do other places define their heritage?
May 13, 2010 1:52 PM   Subscribe

In the Appalachians, it's hip to be old-timey. Not so much other places. What's the deal?

In the Appalachians, the traditions of precolonial homesteaders have become an air-brushed part of the tourism culture, and lots of Appalachian states market their heritage and tradition self-consciously. But lots of other states have a similar past - in Florida and Georgia, there are 'crackers', but cracker is usually either an insult or a boastful self-identity - not something that can be adopted in the same way that young folks pick up banjos or learn murder ballads.

So why the split? I know that there's a lot that's pejorative about the Appalachians and its cultural stereotypes, but it seems like those practices have existed in most of the other parts of the states and aren't nearly as remarked upon. Or am I missing something?
posted by ajarbaday to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know...being old timey is awfully hip in Brooklyn. Having attended (and paid good money) for sold out hide tanning, lamb and hog butchering, lard rendering hunting, olde colonial recipes, and washboard playing workshops in the past year, I guess I'm kind of part of it. Either way, everyone here seems to want to learn how to play the banjo and cure their own hams. There is even a group called the Brooklyn Homesteaders than organizes things like sewing and beekeeping workshops.
posted by melissam at 2:00 PM on May 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is a really interesting question; thanks.

If the heritage industry in a place has (for whatever reason) been more successful at 'branding' that place as the Place of X, then I can imagine why another place would be reluctant to try to capitalize on whatever Xishness is in their history. They'll look for something that's unique to them, and which isn't already widely associated with a different place.

My guess is that what determines the success of particular heritage identities, in situations where more than one place has a claim to being the Place of X, is just a matter of who was first to promote themselves that way.
posted by Beardman at 2:07 PM on May 13, 2010

the ozarks, specifically northwest arkansas are still filled with sort of thing. before highway 540 opened up, highway 71 was lined with old timey cafes and souvenir shops from fayetteville to fort smith.

hot springs, ar still has the natural spring water pumped into the hotels and you can get public baths

oklahoma has a lot of the homesteader stuff, too

in fact, i'm sure i saw quite a bit of it in texas, as well.

maybe you aren't looking as hard in florida and georgia?

i mean, i was in georgia recently and it didn't seem to lack in the hand plow or hide tanning or any of that.
posted by nadawi at 2:09 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

A visual reference to what melissam is talking about perhaps
posted by gillianr at 2:11 PM on May 13, 2010

There is a whole culture of Living History. Everything from Renaissance to Wild West Shootists. There are sites across the country that celebrate everything from the Pilgrims landing to the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush.

I'm personally involved with a site in Northern Utah that covers the Mountain Man Trapper Era, Pioneer Settler, a Wild West Town, and a working 1917 farm. I've met people online who work at sites that deal with the Civil War in the South, Maritime History in the North East, Gold Rush in California, and the Oregon Trail in the North West. I also had friends in High School who were in a professional Wild West Troupe that would travel around putting on shows with an eye to being absolutely authentic.

I think that just about every part of the country has at least one of these Living History sites. They may be out of the way and they are probably poorly funded, but they are there.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:27 PM on May 13, 2010

It might have something to do with the fact that in much of Appalachia, life still really is old-timey --- and quite vulnerable. Between mountaintop removal and damn yankees moving in, Appalachia is seen as something pure and Americana that's at genuine risk of disappearing. So its relative hipness (or at least being on the hipster radar at all) may be related to its significance among the environmentally aware.
posted by headnsouth at 2:43 PM on May 13, 2010

It could be that in the Appalachians, the rural culture never died out or assimilated into another "stage" of land use/industrialization/urbanization. I mean this in very general terms, as I think that many rural areas in the states do define themselves in terms of their past, not just the Appalachians. But perhaps in the majority of other areas that were heavily settled in the past have multiple time periods and the attendant cultures to draw upon when forming an identity. For example, in the Northeast, take the Hudson Valley, which had a very early homesteading/settlement culture, but then a widespread agricultural culture, then heavy industrialization culture, then tourism (I'm thinking of the Catskills in particular), and so on... But in the Appalachians, they had the precolonial homesteaders, but not the dramatic changes that other areas did. Besides logging and mining, there certainly isn't the major industrialization and manufacturing that happened in the Northeast.

Just a thought - I could be way off on this.
posted by gyusan at 2:43 PM on May 13, 2010

I've noticed similar things in the Ozarks, in Colorado, in the Hill Country of Texas, so I'm not sure your assessment is really all that accurate. And "hip?" I don't think so, it's just a kind of marketing - younger people in Appalachia are at least as likely (probably much more likely) to listen to rap, drink gallons of Mountain Dew and operate meth labs than to pick up a banjo or learn murder ballads. Not to disparage the fine people of Appalachia; I'm just saying that they're as heritage-minded as the post would imply. When I came to America, I was very intrigued by Appalachia. Having visited there, I found that it's a repository of "old-timey" culture for the same reasons that some areas of Romania or Bosnia or anywhere else often are - poverty, lack of opportunity, a population that isn't as transient as the rest of America. I suspect what you see of "old-timey" culture is largely marketing, and a case of "sell what you've got" more than anything else.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:49 PM on May 13, 2010

Prosperity brings change (new people without the same traditions move in, old buildings get torn down for new, people start to live differently with new technology), so it makes sense that a place with less prosperity would have preserved more of its traditional culture.
posted by palliser at 2:50 PM on May 13, 2010

I think it's the difference between "who we are -- to you" and "who we are among ourselves."

Some identities can be appropriated and monetized, complete with Made in China kitsch, and others can't, or are kept from being so by a stubborn and closed local culture suspicious of offering itself to outsiders. Some, though, do both.

I am thinking of the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa., who have successfully split the difference between selling fabric Plain People dolls with no faces. They are savvy businesspeople when it comes to advertising their way of life to tourists. But at the end of the day, they go home to their farms and communities and live completely different and very private lives.

Meanwhile, their Pennsylvania German brethren elsewhere in the state (many of them Mennonites) continue to cane chairs, hunt, butcher pigs and venison, hook rugs and can the products of their gardens without fuss or the prying eyes of their lives and continuing their grandparents' traditions. Authenticity continues to exist, even when there's no hipster tourist in the woods to hear it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:11 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm probably the Left Coast equivalent of melissam above: I can hardly wait for the Los Angeles Old Time Social tomorrow night!

Among my social circle in southern California - mostly 40+ native Californians, with a few 20something youngin's scattered throughout - old-timey pursuits are pretty popular. We count among our ranks banjo players, fiddlers, Western Swing musicians, and a ukulele player (raises hand). We sing a lot of Carter Family songs. Folks who have the space for it are raising chickens and keeping bees and such.

But would a visitor to Los Angeles be aware that these things are going on? Probably not, because it's definitely overshadowed by the larger, homogenized culture that makes everything look the same (at least in the western states). And it's not likely good for tourism - people come here to see wealth and celebrities and the beach, so those things get the emphasis.
posted by chez shoes at 3:59 PM on May 13, 2010

If you are kind of poor and live in a poor rural area, especially if you are out in the mountains somewhere, it's good to know how to do a lot of things for yourself. You have to, nobody is going to do it for you. You might want to know how to sew and cook and grow food and hunt and fish and repair things and build things and chop wood for the fire and all, because that's what it takes to get by.
posted by citron at 5:06 PM on May 13, 2010

As a native Ozarker, I can say that the Ozarks have drastically changed over the last ten, twenty years. The "Ozarkland" shops that used to dot the highways are, for the most part, shuttered. Now there are XXX shops in their place. Northwest Arkansas has been commercialized. The old War Eagle Craft Fair outside Rogers, Arkansas, used to be geared toward native craftsmen, but now it's just the usual stuff you can find at any crafts fair across the country. Silver Dollar City in Branson is another example. When it first opened, it placed a a lot of emphasis on native craftsmen and Ozark culture, but now it's a bland, generalized theme park where you go for the rides. The highways around the Lake of the Ozarks used to have basket peddlers and potters selling their wares but they are long gone. The Ozark Folk Center in Mountain Home, Arkansas, may be closer to what you're looking for.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 7:40 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Florida actually has more of this than you expect. There's a variety of "Cracker" heritage type festivals throughout the year (I went to one in either Palatka or Crescent City a few years ago. It was... interesting), and in and around St. Augustine you also have a strain of Minorcan lineage from the area's Spanish colonial days, whose descendants bask in memories of their own pioneer spirit.

Now admittedly, it lacks the intensity that you find in Appalachia, but I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the "native" population of Florida has been vastly more watered down demographically than Western North Carolina's has.
posted by saladin at 6:10 AM on May 14, 2010

Maybe Appalachia is not mentally associated with any modern nearby places, but is imagined as a sort of cultural island where you don't have much opportunity to advance or escape, so it's not your fault if you're a hick, whereas Florida is mentally associated with Miami, Orlando, Cape Canaveral, etc., so a hick Floridian is a failed Floridian, someone who could have kept up but didn't.
posted by pracowity at 6:23 AM on May 14, 2010

Thanks, guys. I appreciate the variety of answers.

I've lived in both West Virginia and Florida, and I suppose I'm surprised by how powerful the Appalachian identity is in places like WV, PA, and NC, etc. I've met lots of folks who don't play a musical instrument and aspire to move out of the region as quickly as possible. Still, there's a common cultural background which means that most everyone knows something about canning, preservation, folk songs, even if they don't practice them. I realize there's lot of other folk movements across the United States, but they don't seem quite as focused in place or intensity as what I've encountered in Appalachian region.

Sorry this question is poorly worded - there just seems to be something different about the way people personally identify with heritage, place, culture and history in regions like the Appalachians. I guess this could have a lot to do, too, with the relative lack of diversity in those areas. I think pracowity and saladin got closest to answering my (kinda broad, and admittedly entirely subjective) question.

I'm not sure, but I think another part of this is the way that people from those regions have begun to define that tradition as a sort of rebellion against modernism (which headnsouth began to get at) - like Jedediah Purdy. I saw a documentary recently, Gas Nation, which was about the dangers of natural gas drilling - the documentary - maker was a major part of the movie, and kind of used his Pennsylvania roots and his banjo as part of his rebellion.

I guess there's going to be differences in how regions see themselves or attempt to market themselves everywhere, and I think probably isolation and / or lack of prosperity may have a lot to do with the strength and cohesiveness of that identity.
posted by ajarbaday at 1:51 PM on May 14, 2010

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