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Appalachian Family - 1933

 

Homesteading in Appalachia

by Karyn Sweet

 

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 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.  

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 were 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 

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 left over lumber.  Prior to refrigeration, a springhouse was used to preserve food, especially fresh milk and butter.  The houses was 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 to help with the cooking and the men to help with the actual construction.  These raisings helped to keep the community strong and connected.

 

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