When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
For me, it was Western North Carolina. There were and are plenty of dead and forgotten towns there, too. Among these was Dimmette, NC, where my great-great-grandfather was postmaster. Another was Triplett, NC, where my grandfather loved taking us on special trips. There was only one building there, with a store and post office below the house and entered from the back. My grandfather would pick up hams, jams, and the best sourwood honey I have ever had. I would search through the store’s change drawer for buffalo nickels and play with the old-fashioned Coke dispenser. The bottles were kept cool by water and, occasionally, ice. To get one, you slid it along a track to the end where the deposit of a nickel (not one of my cherished buffalos) allowed its release.
Like Dimmette, Triplett is gone now. My uncle in Wilkes County says it is now a highway off-ramp.
I am reminded of this, and of John Prine’s song, by a story in today’s The New York Times. It’s about Lindytown, West Virginia, but it might as well be about Prine’s Paradise (once a real town):
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
Paradise wasn’t victim of mountaintop removal, as Lindytown is, but strip mining strangled it before the TVA and a coal-fired power plant demolished it. It was the victim of coal as much as any of today’s West Virginia ghost towns.
Dimmette and Triplett didn’t die because of coal, but their deaths were part of the slow death of Appalachian culture that has been going on, now, for a century. It’s a process only exacerbated by coal. The Ohio River town where my father was born is dying as surely as Lindytown, though more slowly. That’s my great-grandmother in the picture. Her house, behind her, was still standing when last I was in Gallipolis, about twenty years ago, but had become the office for a motel built in the back. Where she is standing would be, I think, the drive to it. Off to her right and across the road would still be the Ohio River itself.
Appalachia has always had a pull for its dispersed children, a pull I have felt my whole life. It has always been a land of nostalgia and loss, for it was always a hard land settled by tough and often despised “borderers” who had been removed from the Scottish lowlands to Ulster Plantation in Ireland, who had left there for Pennsylvania only to head south, skirting the lowlands of Virginia where the English dwelt, settling in the mountains where few others (mainly Irish and German outcasts) were willing to join them. Outsiders, even in colonial times, they were generally looked down upon, as the English preacher Charles Woodmason did. Their descendants, though, still look back to the mountains as home, as the better place that it never was.
Though I know how tough it was, I join in the idealized vision of life in the hills. I can’t help it any more than anyone else with an American Scots-Irish ancestry in the mountains can.
Though I live, today, in New York City and am quite in love with my Brooklyn, there’s a part of me that can never be taken from Western North Carolina. That part, when it reads stories like that one in today’s newspaper, just wants to cry. West Virigina, Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, East Kentucky, Southern Ohio and more… these are the past, the family history for millions of Americans, but are a past fast becoming no more than fading stories. Soon, the present will contain not even a sign of what was.