|The myth of the hillbilly|
Milepost 6: Harold Keowenhoven passes in the view of a small window cut out of the main cabin at Humpback Rocks. Most of the home's original windows were removed by the parkway. This one was added later and, as the guidebook explains, was "strategically located where the farmer can keep a sharp watch for both two-legged and four-legged marauders around the outbuildings."
Story by TIM THORNTON and ISAK HOWELL
Photos by JOSH MELTZER
See the interactive presentation
HUMPBACK ROCKS, Milepost 5 Two hundred years ago, the Appalachian Mountains marked America's western frontier. Mythology holds that the pioneers who pushed farther west bypassed the mountaineers in more ways than one. Waves of modernization swept across the nation, cresting far below the highlanders' rustic farmsteads.
Humpback Rocks, the northernmost visitor center, illustrates how the parkway created its mythical Appalachia. "We actually kind of manipulate present tense history in ways," said Gordon Wissinger, the parkway’s chief ranger. "We created a cultural landscape that wasn’t naturally there. Humpback Rocks is a classic example. We would never do that now. We see that as wrong."
Humpback Rocks offers trails, picnic tables and a mountain farm museum. The museum guidebook admits that the lifestyle depicted there represents "the more colorful aspects of regional life." Buildings were dismantled, moved as much as 45 miles, then reassembled — though not exactly as they had been before.
"When the house was brought in, they eliminated the windows because they thought it portrayed a more poor, desolate condition," Wissinger said. "They wanted to show this as the hillbilly culture."
The windows weren’t completely eliminated, though. The guidebook explains: "You will note there is only one small window, and this is strategically located where the farmer can keep a sharp watch for both two- and four-legged marauders around the outbuildings."
The guidebook makes interchangeable references to "pioneers" and "mountain folk" as it explains how things were "in the old days." It says people in the southern Appalachians still use hemlock bark to dye cloth, and still build fires under large copper kettles in their yards to make the apple butter they "safely put away in crocks."
The sign outside the visitor center says the exhibit "represents a typical mountain farm."
"Isolated by rugged highlands," the sign says, "mountain homesteads changed little from pioneer days to the twentieth century."
The parkway has tried to make amends. An exhibit inside the visitor center explains that people living in the area weren’t all that isolated. By the 1840s, peddlers, local stores and mail-order catalogs brought them goods from beyond the mountains. A railroad and a turnpike came through in the 1850s. There was a Humpback Schoolhouse. By the 1930s, mountaineers were listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on their radios, just as the rest of the country did.
It's not clear how successfully that message is competing against the old story still being told by the contrived farmstead and its guidebook.
Tom and Regina McCarter rode part of the parkway on their way from the Outer Banks back home to Ohio. Regina said Humpback Rocks was their favorite spot so far. "Education is always a big part of any visit for Tom and I," she said.
Neither of them remembered much about the indoor exhibit except the reproduction of an old Montgomery Ward catalog. But they did notice the farmstead guidebook, with its mythical version of mountain life, for sale near the door.
Fiction becomes history
After nearly 70 years, Stanley Abbott's "managed museum of the American countryside" has become part of Appalachia’s history. That complicates any effort to tell a more accurate picture of pre-parkway life in the mountains.
"That thrust is not always compatible with having these beautiful scenes that we all love and treasure and take pictures of our family in front of and all that," Whisnant said. "And so I think the parkway has to struggle internally between those two impulses and thrusts and what the public wants."
Gary Johnson, the parkway's current landscape architect, is in the middle of that struggle. He agrees that inaccurate history needs to be corrected, but he’s not willing to destroy all the old exhibits to accomplish that.
"Some people have said we ought to tear it down, not interpret this contrived landscape," Johnson said. But that contrived landscape has a historical weight of its own. "This is kind of an artifact of the design of the parkway."
Whisnant believes that telling the parkway’s story would improve the parkway’s telling of Appalachian history.
"The Park Service has got to realize that the parkway itself has a history and is part of that history and has interacted with that history," she said.
"You’ve got to tell the story not only of those pioneer farmers out there doing whatever they were doing. You’ve got to tell the story of how in the 1930s this project was proposed and the park service came and the state came and this land was bought and this site was rearranged."
She doesn’t understand the park service’s reluctance to do that. "It’s almost like they want the parkway to remain concealed in some strange way."
Next story: Balancing hordes of visitors with some of the rarest mountain habitat in the Southeast.
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