WYETH COUNTY, Va, ― Dave Tabler is a rare man with a love for Appalachia that goes far beyond the pride of his regional identity as a “hillbilly.” Although Tabler attended school in the Washington D.C. area, his early childhood spent with his grandparents in Martinsburg, W.Va. led to his adaptation of the dialect and mindset that is uniquely Appalachian.
For many it takes a lifetime to embrace their Appalachian heritage rather than hide it, and Tabler was no different in his struggle to come to terms with his heritage. It was only after helping his West Virginia born father edit his coming of age memoir that Tabler realized Appalachia is not only unique, but has a history unlike any region in this country, and one worth sharing.
Lisa King: What was your motivation for creating your website Appalachianhistory.net?
Dave Tabler: I spent 8 to 10 years helping my dad edit a memoir about his growing up in Depression era Martinsburg, W.Va. As we were working on his book together, I was continually haunted by the larger question of “How did we get from America admiring such Appalachian heroes as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett to this predicament of being scorned as hillbillies?”
And so I began the Appalachian History site as a way of working through that question for myself. It has since morphed in a very different, much more journalistic/reportage direction, but initially the site was a personal journey to untangle my own feelings about my roots.
L.K.: Calling on your considerable knowledge of Appalachia, from a historical perspective what has been the biggest problem for the region to overcome in its quest for economic sustainability?
D. T: In its current state, Appalachia is viewed by global business as a resource colony, much the same as South Africa is viewed for its diamond deposits. Global business looks at the percentage of coal, timber and other raw resources to be extracted without any concern for the inhabitants of the land.
One of the greatest strengths of the Appalachian character (and a major contribution to the best of the American character) is the willingness to tackle it oneself, no matter how difficult the task. It’s this trait, not a “war on poverty” directed from faraway bureaucrats in Washington, that will present answers to Appalachia’s thorniest issues.
Our frontier forebears faced unknown dangers we can barely imagine, yet they knew they had to get the job done on their own, and they did. Learning our own history can point us back to their courageous examples and help guide us when our morale flags and our efforts fail.
L.K.: Appalachia has a history of boom/bust economies. Are there any lessons to be learned from this history that can be applied to the current state of economic decline in the region?
D.T.: Studying history gives one a different perspective on these questions. In general people tend to see the trends surrounding them currently and simply extend those trends out into the future without making radical changes. History teaches us that this may in fact occur for periods, but then suddenly there are tectonic shifts — the harnessing of electricity, the invention of the automobile, the rise of the internet — that completely reinvent our view of issues and hence their best solutions.
In addition to technology shifts, drastic political shifts compound this effect. The activities of Appalachia’s late 19th century timber barons are a good example of the latter. They stripped a large percentage of the region’s virgin forests bare with their thoughtless clear cutting techniques. The appalling results produced a ferocious backlash (akin to the social movement we see today against mountain top removal coal mining), which resulted in the early 20th century in the establishment of the national forests and parks we have today to protect the land.
If you take the short view, it’s easy to despair. History offers a good corrective!
It is so easy to look for people to blame for Appalachia’s current state because the region has been treated like a Third World country for so long. But Dave Tabler reminds us that every Appalachian has a rich family history of getting by on little and overcoming incredible obstacles.
There are no simple answers to pulling Appalachia out of its current state of decline. One thing is certain, if people of the region depend on anyone other than themselves for solutions, they will have a long wait.
Whether we’re discussing the past, present or future, Appalachians figure out a way to persevere. With that in mind, we need to recognize the fact that the region has so many people who are doing something every single day to elevate Appalachia.
Dave Tabler is just one of thousands of Appalachian Americans who consider their heritage a source of pride, and something worth preserving.
Because of these people and the resilience of Appalachian Americans throughout history, there will always be hope for Appalachia.
This article originally published July 25, 2013