Industrialization and Appalachia
The Industrial revolution did not “skip over” Appalachia but the native mountain people did not benefit from the effects of industrialization and were left in a worse situation. The stereotype of the Appalachian people that was formed prior to the industrialization era was that mountain people were noble, savage, independent, proud, rugged, dirty and uneducated. The industrialists to promote economic development and industrialization of Appalachia used this backward image of the Appalachian people. They believed that the native Appalachian people were incapable of developing the Appalachian Mountains natural resources on their own. However in trying to keep up with the modern world during the industrial revolution the people of Appalachia were doomed to their pre-industrial image. Until the era of industrialization Appalachia was a region of small, open-country communities, concentrated in valleys, coves and hollows. Each community of farms was self-sufficient socially and economically. The focus of a self-sufficient farmer was that of survival by working in their own crops and hunting or raising livestock for food.
They tended to have large families to help with all the demands of the farm. After the Civil War northerners came into the southern Appalachian Mountains, and many were surprised by what they found. They found a multitude of mineral and timber wealth as well as a romantic beauty of the mountain landscape. Capitalists responded to this discovery and began to industrialize the Appalachian Mountains for their own profit. Capitalists believed that the Appalachian people were too backward to know that they were sitting on an abundance of resources so they manipulated the mountaineers into selling large amounts of land for basically nothing. As Eller wrote in his book Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers, “some sold entire mountains for a mule, horse or rifle”. Industrialization depended first upon the building of an adequate transportation system into, out of, and within the mountain regions of the South. The railroad was built and it opened the doors to the full exploitation of the mountains natural resources. Coal and timber extraction were the primary resources that drove the Industrial Revolution in Appalachia. The extraction of these resources required the employment of the Appalachian farmer.
The mountaineer left their farms for wage employment and became dependent on that. The uncontrolled flow of the coal and timber industry took up huge plots of farmland and forced families to move to the mining towns. With the presence of the coal and timber companies in place, the mountaineer could not hope to be more than barely self-sufficient. The area industrialized without developing sufficient infrastructure to sustain itself, dooming the mountain people to poverty. The average mountaineer had been an independent sort of person, running his own farm, raising a family and building his own future. When brought into coal, timber, and textile towns, he was at the mercy of his employer. The mountaineer became totally dependent on his employer and was forced into terrible conditions. Besides this dependence to his employer the mountaineer could not go back to his old home place and farm again because the cutting of timber ruined agriculture.
“One of the most important results of industrialization in Appalachia has been the negative impact it has had on the long-term economic health of the region. None of the industries in Appalachia, and especially not the coal industry, encouraged rival or spin-off economic development during their boom years. The effect has been sporadic economic growth without real economic development” (A Handbook to Appalachia, 15). In Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers, Eller’s thesis was that while Appalachia had undergone industrialization, the region itself failed to modernize.
He argues that during and after the industrialization process mountain people lost their independence and self-determination of their ancestors, without becoming full participants in the benefits of the modern world. The mountain people found that the growing prosperity had bred greater dependence on the system beyond their control. Worst of all, none of the wealth the industrialists stripped from the mountains remained there. The industrial revolution was not properly development in Appalachia and it left the Appalachian people poor and barely able to care for themselves. So it is obvious that, in trying to keep up with the modern world, the people of Appalachia were doomed to their pre-industrial image or stereotype.
1. A Handbook to Appalachia, an introduction to the region; edited by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, Ricky L. Cox Copyright 2006 by the
University of Tennessee Pres/Knoxville. 2. Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers. The University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
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