Experiential Learning: Blacksburg Farmer’s Market

The Blacksburg Farmer’s Market is a very exciting place to be. The market is held under a shelter structure designed by Virginia Tech’s architecture students and faculty. On weekends, there are kids playing in the grassy lawn next to the shelter, live musicians perform, and students relax on the benches.


For sale at the market is anything you can imagine, and some quite exotic goods. There are stands with people making pancakes, simple vegetable growers, high output industrialized farms selling their produce, and local people selling all kinds of organic drinks, sauces, and snacks.

The culture surrounding the market seems at first to be quite closed off or having its own subculture. Many of the vendors know each other, and know all of their regular customers. These regulars are generally middle aged parents, some bringing their children to the market. College students form a kind of different subset; they lurk around the edges, shyly approaching vendors to ask about their merchandise. I had to push myself to approach a few vendors and talk. They may say “hello, how are you?”, but they don’t press conversation. The customer is left to initiate discussion of actually purchasing the goods, which can be somewhat awkward or embarrassing when you are not familiar with the procedures.

Overall this makes the market somewhat hard to approach. But once you realize how friendly and helpful most of the vendors are, it becomes easy to talk with them. Many are willing to talk about almost anything, and answer any questions you may have. I even saw one vendor having a conversation about water quality, fertilizer usage, and pollution with a group of students, to help them with a project.

Most of the people at the market could be described as forward thinking and modern. They are eager adopters of any new organic food, and many show up with their own reusable grocery bags ready to fill. This is most likely a group of people unique to a college town. I imagine I would hear more accents and colloquialisms from the crowd at any other Appalachian farmer’s market. I also imagine this would be an even more difficult group to approach and become comfortable with.

We are lucky to have such a wonderful connection to local, forward thinking farmers. It would be good for every student to visit the market while they are attending Virginia Tech, as it has a fun atmosphere, it is a source for many delicious fruits, vegetables, snacks, and meats, and allows young people to interact with older adults and start becoming active members in society.


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Experiential Learning: Kayford Mountain

Kayford Mountain, located in West Virginia, is the site of ongoing mountaintop removal coal mining, which began in 1986. Throughout the process of mountaintop removal, a man named Larry Gibson has fought against the coal company, trying to preserve nature, and protect the health and safety of his family and neighbors. He has protested, fought, and been arrested over and over again to protect his home. Mountaintop removal poisons waterways with cancerous elements, causes flooding, and destroys wildlife habitats. Larry’s family was pushed farther and farther up to the peak of the mountain. Today, this peak has been turned into Stanley Heirs Park, which is protected from the destruction of coal mining.


I was part of a tour of the park and MTR site let by Paul Corbit Brown. He allowed everyone from all backgrounds and areas of the world to feel directly included in the fight against the coal companies. He started off mentioning that many protesters are labeled as conspirators against the coal company or government. He went on to unpack the word “conspire”. We generally think of this as a negative word, meaning to plot against. However, the original definition and the Latin root of the word means to “breathe together”; “con” meaning “with” and “spire” being found in “respirate” and “perspire”.This became a segue into the effects of coal mining on all of our lives. Mr. Brown described how the Earth will survive nearly any disaster, spill, or contamination. However, humans will not. We destroy habitats of certain animals and watch them go extinct; the same will happen if we destroy our own habitat or resources, like the air we breathe. Mr. Brown then had the entire group take a deep breath together; everyone conspired, against the coal company. The metaphor stuck with me and everyone else on the trip. We were all in the fight together, and made to feel each of us was individually important in working to preserve our home, planet Earth.

Although Larry Gibson has passed away (and is buried atop the mountain) the fight against mountaintop removal is still going strong. Stanley Heirs Park is open to all as a place to enjoy West Virginia, and to view the ruined land around it. Hard working, well spoken people such as Paul Corbit Brown regularly lead tours of the park and of the mountaintop removal sites. These tours are emotional and thought provoking, describing how we are all part something larger – larger than the coal company or even the federal government. We are inhabitants of the Earth. If we do not fight to protect our place on the Earth, we will be wiped from it, whether by mother nature or by coal companies seeking personal gains.


To discover more about Kayford Mountain, the fight against mountaintop removal, and the legacy of Larry Gibson, follow these links:




“Kayford Mountain.” Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. 15 Jun. 2005http://ohvec.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2005/06/83.jpg. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016

“We Want to Celebrate Larry in a Big Way.” Keeper of the Mountains. 4 Oct. 2012http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-FHY kbACLv0/UFnYua2tEYI/AAAAAAAAAXI/Ia5sBWtWqig/s1600/larry+memoriam.jpg. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016

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Eller and Lewis: Colonialism and the culture of Appalachia

Helen Lewis outlines two different models that explain the lack of technology, wealth, and sophistication in Appalachia. One is the “culture of poverty”, in which “The assumption is that middle class or dominant American values are not transmitted in Appalachia.” In other words, each generation does not move ahead of the last, or taught to try to, as the culture of the area does not favor any type of advancement or socioeconomic growth. On the other hand, there is the theory of Internal Colonialism.

“The people are not essentially passive; but these ‘subcultural’ traits of fatalism, passivity, etc, are adjustive techniques of the powerless. They are ways by which people protect their way of life from new economic models and the contaminant alien culture.” 

Lewis describes how internal colonization is a form of exploitation in which people are brought into, or exist inside of, an advanced society, and are used and controlled for the profit of those in power. If the exploited people hold resources, “human or natural”, this furthers their subjugation; the people themselves do not have the infrastructure to harness these resources for themselves. The colonizers, for their own profit, employ the subjugated people to harvest, process, or export the resources.

Eller describes the many programs put in place by the national government to try to normalize or advance impoverished Appalachian societies. Is it possible that these advancement programs are really just another form of internal colonialism? Are they a way to boost the image or situation of those helping, in effect using the shocking backwardness as a profitable or exploitable resource?


Gathering of the Overmountain Men
Lloyd Branson, Oil, © 1898 –1915

“In the fight for independence, most backcountry settlers pledged united support against the British.  The Cherokee, however, sided with the British, hoping a victory would drive the intruding frontiersmen away from their land.  Despite the constant danger of Cherokee attacks on their settlements, the frontier militia marched over the mountains to aid fellow patriots and earn fame at the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina.  The Overmountain Men also carried out retaliatory raids against Cherokee towns in Lower Tennessee. Some got their first glimpse of the fine lands of the lower valley during these forays and later returned to settle them.”


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Commercialization of culture: Appalachian Mountains and Charlottesville, VA.

In Charles Watkins’ Merchandising the Mountaineer, it is revealed that the depiction of Appalachian culture in books, starting from the 1920’s, is not representative of the actual population of the region. The residents are depicted as back woods hicks, living in cabins and drinking moonshine. While these people did and do exist, they are not the sole inhabitants of Appalachia. Their story, however, is much more thrilling and shocking to the public, than that of middle class, college educated families doing well for themselves.

Much like the middle or upper class, civilized, modern, intelligent citizens of Appalachia are forgotten in favor of the rough and wild cabin dwellers, the agricultural, small town heritage of Charlottesville, Virginia is overshadowed by the fame of Thomas Jefferson, and his University of Virginia. A stereotype exists that all of Charlottesville’s citizens are IMP Society fraternity brothers, plantation owners, or university professors.

This is simply not the case. Much of the population of Charlottesville and surrounding areas was, and still is working class people, who are forgotten in the shadow of the University. Nearly half of the city could be considered lower income, even “run down”. There is a large black community, with a culture all their own. The surrounding areas are still largely agricultural or timber lands. Trailer parks, abandoned hunting shacks, and cattle farms are common. Areas such as Scottsville, Palmyra, and Ruckersville are minutes from Charlottesville, yet are under-appreciated by locals and tourists. Charlottesville itself also has a strong Confederate past. Some of the finest equestrian sculpture in the world can be found Downtown, where the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson reside.holsinger_from_the_country

Photo from Holsinger’s Charlottesville: A Collection of Photographs. “County roads were unpaved when this photo was taken in March 1913, and many of those living outside the city relied on ox, not horses or mules, to pull their carts through the muddy roads to get to town.”


Statue of Stonewall Jackson, considered the finest equestrian sculpture in the nation at the time of its construction.


The Town of Scottesville, bypassed when the Kanawha Canal was replaced by railroad.


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The untold story of feuding in Kentucky

It is assumed by the general population of this country, and sadly by many of this country’s scholars, that the eastern mountainous region of Kentucky is a savage, uneducated area run by the last descendants of feuding Scotch-Irish tribes. This narrative is proved to be no more than a story created to fulfill media-consumers’ desire for drama, violence, and excitement. When we look at facts, the region’s history is quite the opposite of what we believed, yet just as exciting.

Clay County, Kentucky is the site of a famous feud, between the White and the Gerrard families, the Gerrards being descendants of French Huguenots. “Fearing a complete collapse of civil order, the county judge pleaded with the governor to dispatch state troops”. As is described in “Where ‘bloodshed is a pastime” by Blee and Billings, members of the two families ambushed each other, had gun fights in “the courthouse yard”, murdered the sheriff, and murdered of the murderer of the sheriff. But who the media of the day depicted as an “ill nourished lot, unkept and ignorant” were actually millionaire businessmen. The White and Gerrard families controlled the salt mining industry in the region. They were educated at the finest institutions, such as the University of Michigan, MIT, and the Sorbonne architecture school in paris. In addition, the Clay County region had plans to create a system of canals which would connect Kentucky to the Atlantic Ocean. Even though this was never implemented, it demonstrates the region’s affluence and modernity.

It’s important to remember how wrong seemingly well known stories and histories can be, and how they are used to oppress groups of people.

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Ghosts, Boundaries, and Names

John Alexander Williams’ “Ghosts, Boundaries, and Names” is a history told through a storyteller’s eyes. The entire region, he proposes, may be unified by nothing other than the idea of a place through outsider’s eyes.

Williams starts by identifying the “ghosts” as long forgotten landmarks. He mentions places and names which were once known to the inhabitants of the region, and tells their true histories This is a form of storytelling which he later identifies as one of the unique qualities of the inhabitants of Appalachia – raw, true to life stories that give us a glimpse into their actual lives. But the stories we know today are in fact stories created by outside historians and observers. For example, “the McGavoc House was not called that but was known by the name of its occupants, who did not own the house but had rented it for at least two generations.” McGovac had built the house, and it was his name which had been recorded in the history books. The name the house was known by, and the name of the inhabitants, is lost to history. It is one of Williams’ “ghosts”.

These ghostly places and names are the true identity of the region. The narratives created by outsiders, and “the interstate, the shopping mall, the gas stations, and other roadside services” which they have constructed in the region, are a bland, characterless shell of Appalachia.

We have to look at maps, talk to people, ask questions, and physically explore, in order to uncover the “ghosts” of Appalachia, and discover the true spirit of the region, as it seemed/seems to the actual inhabitants.

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cherokee_country_1900I am beginning my first course in Appalachian Studies. This is a kind of non-linear history; it will be a survey of culture, events, people, and place. I will read Robert Gipe’s Trampoline, and High Mountains Rising, by Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blethen. As a student at Virginia Tech, I feel obligated to understand the story I am becoming a part of.

According to C. Clifford Boyd Jr., “the Cherokees called themselves the Ani-Yunwia, or the ‘principal people’.” Indeed, the Cherokee were the original inhabitants of the Appalachian region. However, they were soon stripped of their land and culture, forced westward, driven into poverty, and lost all influence over the region. The Cherokee themselves would not directly alter the outcome of the future of Appalachia; instead, the ruination of their way of being, and their helplessness in the face of an outside power, would become a regional trend which has continued to the present day.

“During the frontier years absentee land-holders owned three-quarters of the region’s [Southern Appalachia’s] total acreage” -Boyd

“The region’s average and poor populace – those most dependent upon the soil for survival- owned very little land.” -Boyd

Image Credit: “The Cherokee Country by James Mooney 1900” from Nineteenth Annual Report of The Bureau of American Ethnology 1897-98, published 1900. University of Texas Libraries

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