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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Visiting The Urban Appalachians-Kendallville, IN

My wife, Candice, and I have just returned from a long weekend of visiting some of my urban Appalachian relatives in Kendallville, Indiana.  Specifically, we went to visit my 96 year old half sister, Lucy Hicks Moore, who lives with her daughter and son-in-law, Ollie and Jeannie Shepherd.  Lucy is recuperating from her second broken hip in the past several years. That, in and of itself, is amazing in a person of such advanced age.  She is back home, not walking, but doing some physical therapy, managing to crack a few jokes, and complaining about not being able to do any work.  And for those of you who ask what work  can a woman that age do, she spent much of last winter tacking about a dozen homemade quilts to give to various members of her family. She didn't sew the quilts.  Jeannie did the sewing and Lucy put the string tacking in all of them.  She also did a few small lap quilts for what she referred to as "the old people in the nursing home". 

While I was there, I also got to see my niece, Doris "Sissie" Hicks Lawson, from Sturgis, Michigan, who gave me a copy of the 2010 Minutes of the Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists.  I was particularly glad to see this copy since it contains one of the finest comments about the influence of Appalachian culture on the industrial north and one particular individual that I have ever seen.  In the obituary of Doy Riffle, the author, whose name I cannot determine, makes the following disclosure about his personal response to Appalachian culture:

I came here from Rhode Island 27 years ago and drove the road outside this very church on my first trip to Ohio as I started the courtship of my wife, one of Uncle Doy's nieces Samantha.  I walked into a new relationship, a new family, very different people, and a very new culture to me...And a whole new life that over the years has continued to broaden my understanding of people, family relationships, and love.  Sam and I married 25 years ago this July 28th in this very church and I married not only the love of my life but into a family, history and culture that I now treasure as my very own. (Obituary of Doy Riffel-Author Unknown--Minutes of the Fifty-Third Session of the Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptist of Jesus Christ--2010)
I have noticed for many years the influences Appalachian culture has had on individuals, family, communities, and institutions in the industrial north in the geographic area of the Appalachian migration which followed World War II.  Obviously, the best literary depiction of this phenomenon is "The Dollmaker" by Harriette Arnow.  But others have written about it and continue to do so.  Loyal Jones makes brief mention of it in his classic work, "Appalachian Values".  He speaks of how northern plant managers struggled to deal with the close knit nature of Appalachian families at times when plant workers would take time off to come back home for the funerals of relatives other than first level kin. 



Photo of Highway Signs Pointed North Out of Appalachia

In the area of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, the Northern New Salem Association has more than 20 churches and about 550 members.  They also have one church each in northern Kentucky and Florida. Additionally, a few of the churches in the New Salem Association also are in northern states.  As with any other area in which the Old Regular Baptists practice, the circle of cultural and religious influence is much wider than the reported membership numbers.  Most members do not join the church until they are at least middle aged and in most Old Regular Baptist families one person might be a baptized member of the church while several more attend services on at least an irregular basis without ever being baptized or joining the church.  This leads to a significant expansion of the area of cultural and religious influence.  It is also worthy of note that it was communion weekend at the Little Flossie Church of the Old Regular Baptists that weekend.  This was the reason my niece had driven from Sturgis to Kendallville.  I did not attend church services that weekend and was unaware that it was communion at the church which was actually co-founded by and named for another of my half-sisters, Flossie Hicks Wicker, who passed away about forty years ago.  The experience of attending communion services in an Old Regular Baptist Church is well worth the time for anyone who is interested in Appalachian culture and religion. The Old Regular Baptists practice closed communion, meaning the actual communion event is open only to baptized members of the church.  But anyone is always welcome at an Old Regular Baptist service.  I would recommend that attendees who have never been in an Old Regular Baptist church dress conservatively with women wearing dresses and men in shirts with sleeves although they don't have to be long sleeves. The communion service will include the distribution of the bread and non-alcoholic grape juice since Old Regular Baptists never consume alcohol.  It will also include foot washing which rarely occurs in churches today.  Male members wash the feet of other male members and female members wash the feet of other female members.  Everyone whom I have heard talk of participating in foot washing describes it as a humbling experience. Its purpose is generally conceded to be an attempt to teach humility and to bring the believers closer to understanding the state of mind of Jesus and the apostles just prior to the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Even for an observer, the practice of foot washing is a moving experience.

The last time I actually attended an Old Regular Baptist service was at Little Bethlehem Church on Carr Creek in Knott County about three years ago.  I was doing research for a staff training I was scheduled to provide for a human services organization in Marietta, Ohio, and Rev. Bob Amburgey was the moderator of that church  at the time.  He graciously invited me to come to church on the evening they were baking the bread for their communion service the next day and also loaned me a large collection of Minutes from several different Regular Baptist Associations.  The service was brief but very moving and included the blessing of the ingredients to make the bread. That kind of welcoming kindness is what I expect when I go to an Old Regular Baptist Church. I wish I had known in advance it was communion at the Little Flossie while I was in Kendallville.  For those of you who know nothing about the Old Regular Baptists, Howard Dorgan wrote a very good book about them called "The Old Regular Baptists of Central Appalachia: Brothers And Sisters In Hope".  He also wrote about them in another book called "Giving Glory To God In Appalachia: Worship Practices Of Six Baptist Subdenominations". Any of his books on Appalachian Religion are well worth reading. 

There are also churches in several other primarily Appalachian denominations such as the United Baptists, Primitive Baptists, and other less prominent denominations in the industrial north. I know of at least three serpent handling congregations in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area which were founded and are now primarily attended by members of the displaced Appalachian community.  At least one of the founders of the largest of those churches was also a significant political force in the Fort Wayne area for many years.  He owned several businesses in the city and often acted as a negotiator or go between in interactions between Appalachians and city hall.  This type of influence in the community as a whole is exercised on a regular basis throughout the industrial north.  Very rarely today, do displaced Appalachians take the quiet, shadowed existence characterized by Gertie Nevels in "The Dollmaker". 

Photo of Old Regular Baptist Church Sign In Sturgis, Michigan


On a regular basis when I visit native Appalachians in the industrial north, I see them practicing beliefs, folkways, and cultural traditions which sprang up in the hills and valleys of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas.  I know hundreds of displaced Appalachians who tend a garden every year even if it is a corner of a small yard in the middle of a city. Or it might be one stand of bees on top of a garage. They hunt, fish, can, freeze, and dry their catches.  They make and sell quilts, homemade chairs, honey, sorghum, and dozens of other products whose roots are in Appalachia. They often keep bees and raise their own pork and beef.  They practice self sufficiency to a degree that is uncommon in the dominant industrial culture. Very few minority cultures manage to resist total assimilation when they are exposed for decades to a dominant local culture. In general, minority cultures might manage to hang on to a few key elements of their cultural life but assimilate to a degree that individuals are nearly impossible to differentiate from citizens of the dominant culture.  But in many of the factory towns of the north, the Appalachian culture has thriven and nearly become dominant. 

A few years ago, I was in Kendallville for the funeral of my sister-in-law, Hattie Hicks, and stopped in the South Side Market for a Coke and a snack.  I still had my suit on from the church service and the clerk, with a pronounced local, northern Indiana accent said, "I bet you just came from Hattie's funeral."  Even though her ancestry for several generations was rooted in Indiana, she had been influenced enough by Appalachian culture that she paid attention to her Appalachian neighbors and knew who was being buried that day.  Appalachian accents are accepted in much of the north and many Appalachians refuse to lose theirs.  More noteworthy is the fact that they do not seem to face a great deal of pressure to conform and alter their accent.  Churches spring up and survive of the same denominations and beliefs that stand in Appalachia.  Funeral directors have made adjustments to adhere to idiosyncrasies of Appalachian burial practices.  Foods, folkways, folk songs, bluegrass music, Southern Gospel, gravelling for catfish, and dozens of other primarily Appalachian practices survive in the towns where Appalachians work. 

Ollie Shepherd, his daughter Tiffany, two of her friends, and me all went on Saturday morning to the Wolf Swap Meet just north of Albion, Indiana.  I saw people from all over Appalachia mixed in with the local Amish population.  They were trading knives, hunting dogs, produce, and livestock in a manner very similar to that at the Paintsville Livestock Market or the Bull Creek Flea Market. I was wearing a University of Kentucky basketball shirt and a vendor commented that if  "he is a Kentucky fan he must be all right." It turned out he was from Morehead, Kentucky.  I noticed that for many of the vendors and customers it was a time to socialize and catch up on recent events.  People interacted to a degree that is generally uncommon in the north.  I felt at home and, I am sure, so did most of them.  These kinds of events happen on nearly a daily basis in towns all over the Midwest and industrial north wherever Appalachians have congregated.  It was also common in the early days of the Great Migration for natives of a particular area to induce their relatives and friends to move to the same town and, often, to work in the same factory.  Many small towns in the industrial north have Appalachian populations which are primarily rooted in one county or small geographic area in Appalachia. 

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