Homesteading in Appalachia

Karyn Sweet
20 Min Read

Rugged, self-sufficient, fiercely loyal – despite stereotypes to the contrary, the Appalachian mountaineers were, and are, an admirable people who developed a rich culture while learning to survive in the isolated coves and valleys of some of the oldest mountains on Earth.

History of Appalachian Settlement

There is some disagreement about what land constitutes Appalachia, but the Appalachian Regional Commission defined this region as the mountains stretching from southern New York to northern Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Appalachian region map

The vast majority of settlers that began to arrive in the 18th century were Scotch-Irish or “Scots-Irish”.  They were originally from the border counties of England and Scotland or from the lowland counties of Scotland.  Many were “Ulster Scots” who had been resettled in Ireland until they eventually migrated to America.  Another large ethnic group was the Germans.  Various factors led to the settlement of the mountains: a desire to escape the “elitism” of the lowlanders, the need for cheaper land, the discovery of the Cumberland Gap, which made traveling easier, the end of the French and Indian War, and the treaties conducted with the original inhabitants, the Cherokee.

The Homestead in Appalachia

Farming was the main occupation for the settlers, and so the homestead was built around the house and the necessary farm outbuildings.  Most homesteads had a chicken house to keep the chickens safe at night; chickens were usually allowed to range during the day.  These were small, simple affairs made with leftover lumber.  Prior to refrigeration, a springhouse was used to preserve food, especially fresh milk and butter.  The houses were built over or near a cold spring.  It was preferable to build at least the foundation with stone since the stone absorbed the natural coolness of the water without actually being rotted away by the water.

Another common outbuilding was the root cellar or food storage cellar. These were usually constructed of logs and often the majority of the building was dug out from the earth so that only the roof was above ground.  These cellars were used to store crops such as potatoes, turnips, and onions; they were effective at keeping the food cool in the summer but above freezing during the winter.

Smokehouses were used to store meat and were often constructed of rough lumber.  The floors were usually dirt, the roof was the only ceiling, and the sides were tightly enclosed to keep out insects.  Meat could be cured by salting it and placing it on shelves (which allowed for the best ventilation) or in boxes or barrels.  Once the weather got too warm, the meat would be removed from the salt, washed, and then treated with pepper and borax.  Sometimes meat would be smoked by running white oak splits through it and hanging it from the joists.  A fire of hickory, oak, or corncobs was built directly on the dirt floor and allowed to burn for two to six days until the meat took on a brown crust.

The barn was very often the largest building on the homestead, even larger than the house.  It was usually two stories; the lower level housed the animals and the upper level was used to store corn and hay.  A barn raising was a big community event, with families traveling from miles around, the women helping with the cooking and the men helping with the actual construction.  These raisings helped to keep the community strong and connected.

Less common outbuildings included the hog scalder(the place for removing hair from the butchered hogs), the cornhouse, and the sorghum furnace or mill, in which sugarcane was processed into syrup.

The settlers also brought the skills for constructing log cabins with them.  The most popular wood for cabins were chestnut, oak, poplar, and spruce.   Hewn logs were held in position at building corners by a system of notching.  Saddle or round notching was sometimes used with projecting corners and round logs; this was one of the most common forms of notching in Appalachia, because it was quick and relatively easy.  V-notching was characteristic of German houses and it found its way south to the mountains of Appalachia.  Each log was hewn with an inverted V on the edge and on the underside and these were fitted tightly together, forming a strong joint.

Appalachian Livestock

Unlike most current farmers, the homesteaders raised a variety of animals.  It wasn’t feasible to keep an animal purely as a pet; every animal had its specific purpose.  Cats had to earn their keep by keeping the rodent population down.  Hounds were (and still are) very popular and large packs were kept in sheds outside.  There were dogs for coon hunting, possum hunting, boar hunting, rabbit hunting and even snake dogs that were used to protect the hunters and their family from snakes (there seems to be a general overwhelming fear of snakes around these parts).  Some of the most common hound breeds were black and tan, brindle cur, red-bone, and blue-speckled.

Hogs were the most common meat animal.  People had a registered mark that they used on each piglet’s ear and then the animals were set free to roam the mountainsides.  This allowed the hogs to fatten up on acorns, chestnuts, and pine roots.  Most people fed the hogs corn and potatoes once or twice a week – partly to provide extra food for the hogs in the winter but also to keep the hogs from roaming too far or from turning feral.  Hogs were then butchered in the fall and the meat hung in the smokehouse all winter.

The homesteaders also kept poultry.  Chickens might be kept in a chicken house or they might be left to roam about.  They were considered very useful because they provided meat and eggs and they could be traded for other goods.  The difficulty, as it is today, is that there are so many predators around that enjoy the taste of chicken.  People kept guineas, which were known for prolific egg-laying, for sounding the alarm at any sign of danger, and for clearing the garden of any insect pests.  Ducks and geese were also raised but oddly enough it seems that many people did not like to eat the eggs or meat – they were kept mostly for their feathers, which were plucked about once a month for use in pillows and mattresses.  Few families had turkeys; turkeys were considered too “fussy” and wild turkeys were always available for hunting.

The mule (a cross between a male donkey and a female horse) was a popular work animal used for carrying and plowing.  Since most homesteads were on smaller mountain plots, the larger draft horses weren’t necessary.  Mules ate less and were considered hardier and easier to train than horses.  If a family had enough land, they might grow hay for the mules but generally, the mules were fed fodder from corn and some wheat and rye.

Gardening in Appalachia

Often, the greatest difficulty in gardening this land was preparing the plot.  The land had to be cleared of timber, plowed with animal power, and cleared of rocks and stones (and there are a lot of rocks and stones here).  Remember, too, that the settlers couldn’t just go to the store and buy fertilizers – enrichment for the soil came from the homestead itself in the form of animal manure, scraps, and ashes.  There were also no pesticides but old-timers reported that there used to be less of an insect problem.  Some antidotes for dealing with insects were companion planting, dusting with ashes or sulphur, and just plain hand-picking.  Apparently, animals presented a greater problem but these were usually dealt with by keeping a good hunting cat and dog(s), or using a gun or hoe to rid oneself of the pilfering creature.  Another significant difference is that no seed catalogs arrived in the mail; seeds had to be carefully gathered and saved if the family was to garden the next year.

One gardening eccentricity held by many homesteaders was the necessity of “planting by the signs”.  They believed it was important to plant seeds during the correct phase of the moon and that the moon should be in the correct astrological sign for that particular plant.  For instance, root plants such as potatoes and onions were to be planted during the dark half of the moon’s cycle but corn was planted on the full moon so it would grow short but with full ears.  Some signs such as Virgo were considered barren signs while others such as Gemini were considered fertile.  Days of the week would also be taken into consideration – Sunday was a barren day because it was too dry and hot since it was the “sun’s day”.

Corn was one of the important crops both for people and animals.  It was eaten fresh and used dried in foods such as cornmeal, popcorn, parched corn, grits, and hominy.  Sprouted corn could be used to make moonshine while the leaves (fodder) were fed to the animals.  Since the settlers let nothing go to waste, even the shucks were used to make items such as mats, scrub brushes, and hats.

Another well-known crop of the South is tobacco.  Generally, the homesteaders grew a tobacco patch for their own consumption and to share with neighbors.  Most farmers were very particular about cultivating their patch and didn’t share the job with others.  Tobacco is a picky crop that requires lots of fertilization, well-worked soil, and careful tending.  The farmer had to be sure not to bruise the plants by plowing too closely, frequently pinch the little suckers that grew from the stalk, and to keep a close look-out for worms.

Sugar cane was also grown.  It was considered an easy crop to grow; planted in June or even July, it didn’t require fertilization, tolerated clay soil (which dominates here), wasn’t prone to pests, and was generally left alone for sixty days.  The main difficulty with growing cane was turning the cane into syrup since most people couldn’t afford the equipment for a mill and had to pay a neighbor to process the cane.

Other Appalachian “Occupations”

Talk of southern culture would not be complete without a discussion of moonshine.  The Scots-Irish learned the fine art of moonshining (and it was considered a fine art) when they relocated to Ireland.  When they immigrated to America, they brought the skill with them – and a hatred for the excise tax the English, and then the American government, imposed on whiskey.

Appalachian moonshiners
Appalachian moonshiners

Moonshine was not manufactured just to have something to drink at a party.  Most Appalachian farms provided enough for the family to eat but moonshine provided actual money for items that could not be produced on the homestead, such as gunpowder and sugar.  When whiskey was taxed, a family lost any profit from its manufacture and often did not have another way to procure cash.  Moonshine was also important for home remedies as it was used in the preservation of medicinal herbs.

At first, local law officers were expected to enforce the whiskey laws.  Of course, these officers had grown up with the moonshiners and knew how important whiskey production was for supporting a family; oftentimes, they would look the other way.  Other times, when they were pushed to capture a still, the law officers would tell the moonshiner to come visit the jailhouse within the week and pay the fine – and a reputable moonshiner would do just that, in order to preserve his reputation and his “working relationship” with the officers.

The homesteaders also practiced beekeeping, of course, without the fancy equipment.  Oftentimes, they would watch the bees travel from water holes back to the nest.  They would then cut a crosshatch of the tree and bring it back to the homestead, setting it up as a “bee-gum”.  Even today you frequently see the white hives sitting in backyards and sourwood honey is prescribed for everything from a sore throat or a nasty cough to a burn.

Homesteaders also supplemented their food supply and their cash supply with hunting.  Most people had dogs for various prey, as mentioned above.  Nights could be spent hiking up and down the mountains in pursuit of a raccoon.  Meat was not wasted; settlers would eat and use nearly all parts of a raccoon, possum, squirrel, etc.  Pelts were often sold in order to bring some cash into the household.

Appalachian Spiritual Life

The vast majority of settlers fell into the Protestant camp.  This meant that the churches focused on the authority of the Bible, the sermon as the central feature of the service, the importance of “faith alone” and strong individual morality and piety.  Because of geographical isolation, churches maintained a strong sense of autonomy and small churches could be founded by traveling evangelists or by lay preachers.  This autonomy also lead to many divisions within the church which can still be seen in the number of different Baptists – Southern, Missionary,

Appalachian cabin
Appalachian cabin

Certain characteristics and activities were unique to Appalachian Protestantism.  First was the popularity of revivals, which are well-attended to this day.  The services were full of charismatic preaching, exuberant singing, and emotional enthusiasm.  Participants might be filled with the Holy Spirit and begin talking in tongues.  The goal of these revivals was personal salvation – people were moved to confess their sins or to be “born again” in Jesus Christ.  The revivals might also include foot washing or snake-handling.

Fundamentalism was another characteristic of the Southern churches, again, due largely to geographical isolation and autonomy.  Churches clung fiercely to their interpretation of the scriptures and anyone deviating from that interpretation would be going straight to hell after death.  The various churches did not agree on interpretations but most did agree on certain essential doctrines such as the inerrancy of the Bible (preferably the King James version), the accuracy of the account offered in Genesis, Adam and Eve as our true parents, Mary’s virgin pregnancy, the necessity in finding salvation through Jesus alone, the resurrection of Jesus, and the literal second coming.

Among the elders, there were well-known faith healers.  Faith healing, as the name implies, required that the healer was strong in his or her faith.  All made use of a verse from the Old Testament; if the verse was overheard, the healer immediately lost his or her ability to heal.  Healers were able to heal one or more of three certain ailments: burns, bleeding, and thrush.  It was believed that if a burn was not healed, it would continue to flame within the wound until it reached the bone; the fire had to be “blown out” or “drawn”.  “Thrash”, as it was called, is the childhood ailment we know as thrush, which creates painful nursing for the infant and for the mother if she becomes infected.  Remember that the settlers did not have the option of buying formula if nursing was interrupted.  It was believed that if thrush was not cured, the blisters could infect the entire digestive system and kill the infant.

Homesteading in Appalachia Today

Today, there is a strong “buy local” movement in the mountains and many are working hard to maintain what little farmland is left.  There is an interesting mix of the “old ways” combined with new ideas that the college-educated younger generation brings back to the family farm.  Many young people have visited the “big cities” and have returned to reclaim the beautiful heritage of their families.

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