Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Toledo 'immigrant' recalls why he's glad he's here

Toledo and Ohio are having a tough time right now. Both are dealing with a tepid economy, stubborn unemployment, and stagnant population. But many thousands, perhaps even millions, of transplants like me remember why we came here in the first place - to find a better life. To get good jobs, to get an education, to raise families. I have my gripes about the city and state, as we all do, but still I'm grateful for the opportunities. Here's one "immigrant's" story, excerpted and adapted from an article I wrote for The Blade's Toledo Magazine of May 21, 1978.

The rural Appalachian way of life I remember - mule-drawn plows, pine-plank floors, kerosene lamps, butter from the churn, and a one-room schoolhouse - was slipping away when my family left the hills. Now, it's all but gone.

My little corner of Applachia was on Hurricane Creek, way back up a holler on the Little Fork of the Little Sandy River in Elliott County, one of Kentucky's least populous. It was so remote we didn't get electricity until 1948, and the nearest town of any size was 20 miles away - Sandy Hook, population 500 then.

Elliott County was drained by the migration of families in the decades after World War II. There seemed to be no future in Appalachia. The three Rs were readin', ritin', and Route 23 to Columbus (or Toledo).

But for those of us who came from the hills, there are still memories:

Before electricity, nightfall meant lighting a lamp. In the winter it meant throwing a few more logs on the fire and more quilts on the beds. It meant sinking into a cornshuck mattress and fluffing up a feathertick pillow.

Sometimes after dark, Grandpa would take out his fiddle, rosin up the bow, and play "Billy in the Lowground," or "The Eighth of January," or "Orange Blossom Special," or any of the dozens of jigs, reels, and hornpipes he learned as a boy.

Company was welcome. There were no phones, so company was usually unannounced and certainly not discouraged. They were expected to "set a spell."

The nearest neighbor in one direction was a mile or so away. The nearest in the other direction was in the next county, several miles away by horse and wagon across two ridges, or 28 miles by car over the shortest road.

Hog-butchering time was something to remember. Nothing went to waste but the squeal. Fat was rendered into lard. The jowls and tongue became souse (head cheese), and the skin was turned into crisp cracklings for crackling bread.

We ate the tenderloins first because they wouldn't keep without refrigeration. Most of the rest of the hog went into sausage, which we canned for the winter. The hog's fat was mixed with lye to make soap.

Potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, and sassafras roots (for tea) went into the cellar. Cabbage went into brine-filled crocks for sauerkraut. And some of the grapes went into Grandpa's brandy crock (the rest went into jelly and jam). Some of the apples were dried for pies, and long green beans were dried into "leatherbritches."

We were almost self-sufficient. Grandpa had a blacksmith's forge, and he made his own tools and horseshoes and such things as hinges and hasps.

We had a gasoline-powered Maytag washing machine. And for an "icebox" we had a cave that supplied big icicles late enough in the year to allow us to make peach ice cream in a hand-cranked freezer.

The things we needed from the outside came from mail order (Sears & Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, or Spiegel) or from the general store a couple of miles down the dirt road that ended at our house.

The money to pay for these things came from selling tobacco at the annual auction in Maysville. At tobacco-cutting time, every able-bodied person had to pitch in to get the tobacco leaves into the curing barn, where they dried on long poles laid across the rafters.

But almost in an instant, everything changed. We got electricity, a new Norge refrigerator, and an electric radio to replace the old battery model.

Out went the gasoline washer, and in came an electric wringer-washer. Dad got a '36 Dodge, followed a couple of years later by a '39 Chevy. The lure of factory jobs in Columbus brought our family north in the early 1950s.

And before long, the sun setting over the hills, the whispering of pine trees at dusk, cries of whipporwills, and the pungent aromas of smokehouse, tobacco barn, and horse stables were just memories.

Everything is different now. The roads in that part of Appalachia are paved, homes have satellite TV dishes and computers connected to the Internet, and John Deere tractors do the physical work that mules once did.

But we came here for a better life, and we found it. There are no regrets.

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