A notable feature of Appalachian life during the 20th century was the so-called “Hillbilly Highway,” named for the large number of Appalachian workers who went north, many to Detroit to work in the automobile factories
Coal mining has been integral to the region and its economy. One feature of the Appalachian coal mines was the existence of company towns. In the company towns, the coal companies provided the “municipal” services, owned the homes and the stores, where the accepted currency was usually company scrip (despite laws in some states against it) and the prices were excessive. Some of these towns were described by the U.S. Coal Commission in 1922 as being in a state of disrepair “beyond the power of verbal description or even photographic illustration, since neither words nor pictures can portray the atmosphere of abandoned dejection or reproduce the smells.” Eventually union struggles occurred in these towns; in central Appalachia miners battled to unionize the mines from the 1890s to the 1940s and fought again from the late 1970s to 1999. Some company towns tried to become models of social welfare, in order to dissuade workers from unionizing. Nonetheless, “mine wars” erupted, strikes that turned into deadly battles when the company tried to protect strikebreakers, including in Matewan, West Virginia on May 19, 1920. The unionization of the Appalachian coal mines is a long and fascinating story, complex and spanning decades.
The decline of mining and the move northEdit
Given the instability of coal prices, particularly after WWI ended, and the ongoing union fights, many miners chose to leave the industry and migrate north for jobs, a migration that has come to be known as the Hillbilly Highway. Singer Steve Earle wrote a song titled Hillbilly Highway, recorded on his 1986 album Guitar Town:
My grandaddy was a miner, but he finally saw the light He didn't have much, just a beat-up truck and a dream about a better life Grandmama cried when she waved goodbye, never heard such a lonesome sound Pretty soon the dirt road turned into blacktop, Detroit City bound Down that hillbilly highway That hillbilly highway Hillbilly highway Goes on and on
The story of one "Hillbilly"Edit
One man, Allen Vires, moved frequently between Detroit and Kentucky for about 15 years, until he left his wife and stayed in Kentucky permanently, to work the coal mines. After crossing the border in 1937 to get married in Wise, Virginia, he and his bride headed to Detroit on Route 23, where Allen worked with Chrysler. A year or so later they went back to Kentucky, and Allen worked in the coal mines. In 1943 they went back to Detroit, had a son, and Allen worked for Chrysler for about a year. In late 1944 or early 1945, the family went back to Kentucky where Allen worked five years in union and non-union coal mines. In 1949, the family again went to Detroit where Allen again worked for Chrysler, until his marriage ended in 1953 and he went back home to Jackson, Kentucky, in Breathitt County. Once he settled again permanently, he resumed working in the mines. On their various trips north, they traveled by car, bus, and once by train. In those days, the 500 mile trip took about 16 hours by car. A lot of men and families did the same as Mr. Vires and his family.
As much so as coal mining, migration has been an important part of the Appalachian experience. Huge numbers of people migrated out of Appalacia. Between 1910 and 1960, millions of Southerners left their home states of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia. A large percentage of those leaving Kentucky, West Virigina, and Tennessee went north for jobs in the industrial sector.
Many West Virginians and Kentuckians especially migrated to the industrial cities of Ohio, for jobs in rubber and steel. Industrial towns in Southern Ohio, including Dayton and Cincinnati, were favorites for migrants from Eastern Kentucky because they remained close to home. Some Ohio companies (including Champion Paper Company, Lorillard Tobacco Company, and Armco Steel) reportedly recruited their labor force from specific counties in the mountains, and gave preference to employee’s family members when hiring new workers, making out-migration from rural Appalachia easier.
In a 1935 article in The Nation, Louis Adamic writes that the “hill-billies” were believed by Detroit auto manufacturing employers to be “safe” – that is, not inclined to unionize. Adamic reports that auto companies were recruiting during the early 30s with the belief that these rural people had not been poisoned by ideas of unionism. The article goes on to report that the hill-billies were looked down upon by almost everyone, due to their extremely low standard of living and lack of familiarity with modern plumbing, and because they were seen as taking away jobs from the old-time automotive workers. The advent of manufacturing meant that unskilled workers could perform ably on the assembly lines, so these unskilled mountain folk were adequate employees.
The Appalachians who migrated to Detroit (and in smaller numbers to Flint) in order to work in the automotive plants gained an identity distinct from that they possessed in their home state. In their home states, people saw themselves as distinct from those living in other parts of the state, or in a different part of the South. Once they migrated to Michigan, they were lumped together as southern white laborers, and a group consciousness based on that label emerged. Migrants from all over Appalachia began to feel a social solidarity with each other, preferring to work and live beside other Southerners than with Northerners. It was believed that the Appalachian migrants assimilated less rapidly than Northern rural migrants because of their group consciousness and the persistence of certain southern regional attitudes, and an acute awareness of the a difference between themselves and other native-born white Americans. Because the Appalachian migrants had no cultural context for situations they encountered in northern industrial cities, their reactions were dictated by their rural southern lives and attitudes. During holidays and lay-offs, most of the migrants went back to their old homes. During lay-offs in Flint, MI, as many as 35% of the migrants would return to their old homes.