My fellow Appalachians: Our region rocks
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Pennsylvanians generally don't think of themselves as being Appalachian, but the historian who wrote the book on the region would tell you that kind of thinking is itself Appalachian.
The A-word is "essentially a term imposed from the outside," historian John A. Williams said Friday to open the 35th annual Appalachian Studies Conference. Most people don't have the time to think like professors. Go anywhere up and down this mountain range and you'll find a hyper-local sense of place.
Appalachian people "think of themselves as being from Grassy Creek or 'the other side of the valley,' " Mr. Williams, author of "Appalachia: A History," said.
Nevertheless, about 700 academics assembled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania this weekend for the first Appalachian Studies Conference north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Mr. Williams, 73, drove northwest from his home in Washington, D.C., and I drove northeast from the heart of the largest metropolis in the region that dares not speak its name.
"It's an absolutely beautiful drive from Washington," he said, "as beautiful as I've seen anywhere else in the Appalachian region."
These hills and valleys still shape and inform us in ways we might not be able to articulate, but Mr. Williams wasn't there to talk current events. The retired director of Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., said as historians, "basically, we deal with dead behavior and dead people."
Take Market Square. Mr. Williams didn't mention it by name, but these kinds of central squares bisected by crossroads echo the "diamonds" of Northern Ireland and were replicated as far south as the mountain towns of North Carolina. Appalachia was settled overwhelmingly by Scots-Irish people who originally landed, or whose ancestors did, in the Delaware River Valley.
Many of these folks hooked a left and went south when they hit the mountains. Interstate 81 essentially follows the Native Americans' "Warriors Path," and Daniel Boone, whose family left Pennsylvania when he was 15, is the most famous early trekker of this route.
When the Industrial Revolution came, with extraction booms in lumber, coal and oil, Pennsylvania provided the capital and manufactured tools used throughout the region. Pennsylvanians were behind the region's railroads, too.
"Industrial Appalachia" was "Greater Pennsylvania," Mr. Williams said, and though the state's imprint on the region has grown fainter, it's still there.
No state has more land within the federally designated Appalachian Region than Pennsylvania, and in the lively question-and-answer session that followed Mr. Williams' speech, one enthusiast for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling opined that "Appalachia saved the whales and illuminated the United States" after Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in Titusville in 1859. The man saw history repeating itself with fresh fossil-fuel millionaires dotting the hills.
Mr. Williams made no claims for expertise in this area, warning that "historians are not professionally licensed to predict the future." But he expected fracking would end any question of whether Pennsylvania is within Appalachia: "The resemblance will be clear."
He warned against overly optimistic scenarios, though. During a coal boom in the 1970s, when Mr. Williams taught at West Virginia University, a distinguished economist there predicted that by 1990 the per capita income of West Virginia would surpass Connecticut's.
In fact, he said, the Appalachian region is still marked by higher percentages of entitlement checks than most of America.
It was a decidedly rambling presentation, but that suited a region that's far more nuanced than commonly realized -- if anyone would step back far enough to look. Mr. Williams said that, years ago, members of the Penn State geography department asked a bunch of questions in the territory of northern West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio -- and decided we had no regional identity at all.
Maybe they should have polled fans at a Steelers-Browns or a Pitt-WVU game. We couldn't care quite that much or quite that way if we didn't have so much in common.
First Published March 25, 2012 12:00 am