Progress had taken America by the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. America’s railroads had carried it everywhere, changing America into a country of commerce and the average American into a consumer. In 1894, Richard Sears pioneered the concept of mail order merchandise with his Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalog, which could be considered the forerunner of today’s Amazon.com. So popular was the Sears catalog that it caused a midwesterner considerable embarrassment when the local parson paid a visit. You can imagine the man’s mortification when his boy brought in the Sears and Roebuck Catalog rather than the Bible after being asked to go fetch for the parson “the old book that the whole family loved so well.”
Unlike the rest of the country, the Smokies, isolated as they were from the stampede of progress brought elsewhere by the iron horse, remained pristine and primitive. These mountains were, as it was quipped, “A place forgotten by time.” As a result, the self-sufficient southern highlander became charactered in a most cartoonish manner by progressive Americans who neither knew nor understood him. For instance, his language, often ridiculed as backwoodsy, was actually more Chaucerian than that of the blue bloods of Boston. Still, as is often the case, ignorance gave rise to ridicule and the highlanders of the Smokies became the butt of jokes in America’s emerging high society.
When progress finally came to the Smokies riding on the rails of logging railroads like Little River, it came with an exorbitant price tag. It cost the mountaineer everything. His whole way of life was waylaid. Life, as he had always known it, was swiftly swept away by steam engines and speculators. No longer would he live in the solitude of the Smokies as a self-sufficient hardscrabble farmer, but with coworkers in sawmill towns, logging camp communities, and setoff houses—small shacks set along railroad tracks in what were called string towns. Homemade was replaced with store-bought. No longer did the mountaineer barter for basics at the country store, but bought most everything with his hard-earned company script at the company-owned mercantile. The Smokies highlanders, like the coalminers Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about in his hit song Sixteen Tons, sold their souls to the company store.
The “Helots,” as the Colonel warned Beany about in Frank Capri’s film, Meet John Doe, had come to the Smokies. “A whole lot of heels” crept up on the mountaineer and got a stranglehold on him by selling him things. The next thing the mountaineer knew his whole life was messed up by things that he owned. As one old mountaineer put it: “When I was a young man the traders never thought of bringing meal in here. If a man run out of meal, why he was out, and he had to live on ‘taters or somethin’ else. Nowadays we dress better, and live better, but some feller always has his hand in our pockets.”
Perhaps, no one better articulated the alteration of life brought by the iron horse to these Appalachian mountains than Horace Kephart. In his classic book, Our Southern Highlanders, Kephart wrote:
“Commercialism has discovered the mountains at last, and no sentiment, however honest, however hallowed, can keep it out. The transformation is swift. Suddenly the mountaineer is awakened from his eighteenth-century bed by the blare of stem whistles and the boom of dynamite. He sees his forests leveled and whisked away; his rivers dammed by concrete walls and shot into turbines that outpower all the horses in Appalachia. He is dazed by electric lights, nonplussed by speaking wires, awed by vast transfers of property, incensed by rude demands. Aroused, now, and wide-eyed, he realizes with sinking heart that here is a sudden end of that Old Dispensation under which he and his ancestors were born, the beginning of a New Order that heeds him and his neighbors not a whit.
All this insults his conservatism. The old way was the established order of the universe: to change it is fairly impious. What is the good of all this fuss and fury. That fifty-story building they tell about, in their big city—what is it but another Tower of Babel? And these silly stuck-up strangers who brag and brag about “modern improvements”—what are they, under their fine manners and fine clothes? Hirelings all. Shrewdly he observes them in their relations to each other. Each man is some man’s servant; every soul is by some other’s presence quite discrowned.
Proudly he contrast his ragged-self: he who never has acknowledged a superior, never has taken an order from living man, save as a patriot in time of war. And he turns up his heels.
Yet, before he can fairly credit it as a reality, the lands around his own home are bought up by corporations. All about him, slash, crash, go the devastating forces. His old neighbors vanish. New and unwelcome ones swarm in. He is crowded, but ignored. His hard-earned patrimony is robbed of all that made it precious: its home-like seclusion, independence, dignity. He sells out, and moves away to some uninvaded place where he [hopes] not be bothered.”