I’m beginning to understand my paternal grandfather more without gaining any concrete knowledge about his life before he met my grandmother. I’ve been researching the hints that he gave me about his heritage and in the process my understanding of what life may have been like for him has become clearer. At the same time I’ve learned more about life in the United States in the part of the world where he grew up as a boy. By following the tiny red thread of comments that he left I see a picture of the influences that touched him both as a boy and a young man.
He always insisted that he was Scotch Irish which always seemed to be an oxymoron until I learned about the people from southeastern Scotland who journeyed on a odyssey that took them first to Ireland and eventually to the hills of Virginia and Kentucky in search of a home where they might be free to live and think without rancor. In the woods and secluded areas of what we now call Appalachia they found a way to be left alone, at least for a time. Just as my grandfather described they lived far from towns and cities in isolation among the forests and in the shadow of the mountains. They mostly farmed and kept to themselves often retaining the distinctive accents that they had brought from across the ocean.
The Civil War changed things for the entire country and the people in western Virginia were particularly affected by the strive and divisions that were literally tearing the nation and whole families apart. In choosing sides brother sometimes turned against brother and hard feelings, combined with the violence of war, left a lasting impact on the people who had always wanted little more than to live their lives without interference. With the end of the war the feuding that had disrupted routines often continued and as shown in a recent episode of American Experience on PBS it sometimes reached epic proportions as in the violent rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys.
By the waning years of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the United States and few were entirely immune to its effects. In the parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky near where my grandfather spent his boyhood businesses from the northeast came in search of coal to drive the industries that depended on that black substance from the earth. The land on which my grandfather lived was filled with it. In fact he told vivid stories of his grandmother owning a small coal mine on her property.
With the mines came railroads and strangers whose interests had little to do with the people in their way. The once pastoral land was stripped of trees and filled instead with mining operations including barracks style housing for the workers. Sometimes the labor of digging into the earth imposed itself on the land of the farmers. Where people and animals had once roamed free there were now restrictions on where passage was afforded.
Those with enough gumption to leave generally did better than those who decided to keep their families intact by staying. Once my grandfather lost the woman who had raised him (his grandmother) he had little reason to remain on the land. He was barely thirteen at the time and mostly on his own although he stuck around long enough to help out his father for a time. As soon as he was able, however, he struck a blow for freedom traveling in search of an acceptable way of life just as his Scotch Irish ancestors had done before him. He only returned to his boyhood home once and learned that there was nothing to keep him there.
My grandfather often spoke of the hardships of his youth and the intelligence of his grandmother in keeping both of them fed and safe. She was a rather amazing woman, living alone with a child and commanding respect from the community. She was light years ahead of the general customs of the time with her independent spirit and folksy knowledge of medicine. She owned rights to a coal mine on her property and kept her farm going without the aid of any man other than a boy. From what I can tell she was somewhat like the other hardscrabble women in that part of the country where shrinking violets never made it very well.
Grandpa entered the twentieth century ready to be part of the great move of progress that defined the United States throughout that era. He was part of the building boom that created iconic structures from sea to shining sea. He was on the move not so much to hide away but to experience the modernization of the country. He was proud of the work he did and the inventiveness of the United States. He saw his life from the promise of the windshield and not from the nostalgia of the rearview mirror. His philosophy was to embrace progress and to build a better future. I suppose that’s why he said little about his world back in the hills of Virginia. The past didn’t matter to him as much as the present and what was still to come. Perhaps he understood that standing still and looking back leads to stagnation and stagnation leaves one without hope.
The world is ever changing and my grandfather taught me not to be afraid of letting go of the past. He believed that the good old days are always ahead of us, not behind. We can treasure our history but it would be foolish to be mired in it. Progress marches on and the wise know when its time to join the future.