Jennifer McDaniels

Jennifer McDaniels, Journalist/Photographer; Nolansburg, Kentucky:

“I went off to college for two years at Carson Newman, got my communications degree there and that’s the only time I’ve been away. 

Growing up for me in the mountains was both fun and exciting and scary. I’m forty. I’m lucky enough to be one of those who had a childhood outside. I lived outside, I loved being in nature and I loved being in the mountains. I had a sister who loved to read Harlequin romance novels and watch the soap operas, but I was always outside and just being in the mountains and hiking and riding my bike was fun for me. 

I was very imaginative as a kid. So I would climb up on a hillside and to make up stories in my mind of where I was on some kind of big adventure and I often think about that. If it was the wintertime, oh this is embarrassing; I’d think I was at a Colorado ski resort. A safari, I’ve thought about that, what I’d see on TV like Wild Kingdom; I would enact that, with my dogs and puppies. If I saw a movie or a show at that time that I liked on TV I would act that out. 

I had a cousin who was kinda wild and we liked to play the Dukes of Hazzard. We sold out our land which I regret, but it was a financial decision my mom made, but it’s all filled with houses now, but it was quite a bit of land and quite a bit of backroads, and so we played Dukes of Hazard a lot. 

I lost my father when I was eight. He died of heart failure when he was forty-two. It ran in the family, they keep a close watch on me and my sister, and so far we’re fine. They said just a few years later, he would have been an excellent candidate for a heart transplant, but that was at a point in time in the early eighties that it was just revolutionary. Losing my father, again where we lived kind of a big piece of land, my cousins were around, but they were like way down the road and we were like right under the mountains. Just that sense of protection was gone; feeling scared at night that daddy wasn’t around. In the long term it made me stronger, I think, and braver. 

I have a very strong mother ‘cause she was both mother and father to me. And then, I have a strong grandmother. My grandmother lost her husband when he was in his early forties. So she raised her kids on her own and my mom raised me and my sister on her own. I’m really thankful for that strong woman influence in my life. 

We had mountain land too, which eventually sold, there would be people that would go hunting there and not get permission. The powerful coal operators, they bought a chunk of our mountain land and their big house was up on the hill. It was scary sometimes ‘cause there was a couple of people tried to go up the mountain land to get to their house. So there was a couple of episodes that I experienced that as a kid. Just not having that father figure around I remember being scared some as a kid. 

[My grandmother’s name] is Foxy Roxy. Roxy Roland. She’s ninety-two, still alive, but she’s bedfast now. She was mowing her own grass till she was seventy-eight. Just in recent years she started slowing down; has a touch of Alzheimer's now, but she broke her back this past winter and she just didn’t recover from that. Me and mom are both taking care of her. We call her Foxy Roxy because she was kinda shy growing up and she lived in a time where just women weren't supposed to speak out and she didn’t, but the older she got, she did. 

It’s like she didn’t care anymore, she had a license to speak her mind, so a lot of my friends growing up would call her Foxy Roxy. She was a baker, she retired from A&P, the A&P store here in Harlan, that’s where she worked and she retired there, but she became a baker. She was kinda known for her wedding cakes and her stack cakes, old-fashioned fresh apple cakes and different things like that. 

My Mom is a baker, and I’m trying to do it now; but what I’ve done, I don’t know if you’ve seen it online or not, what I’ve done is kinda tweaked some of her recipes and added moonshine. I’ve got some candy, that kinda sells pretty good. I call it Foxy Roxy’s Moonshine Candy. Back when she was my age, she would have had a fit, but now she thinks it’s the neatest thing. 

[She raised her family] by working at the A&P. We was going through her house the other day, and saw all this A&P memorabilia and I was hoping to make a shadow box of her A&P stuff. She had my mom, her daughter, and an older son, Jerry. He left pretty early and went to the Navy just to leave to get out of Harlan. Then he ended up working for the railroad in Atlanta, Georgia. She knows how to pinch a penny. When we go through her house trying’ to organize everything it’s like they save everything. She utilized everything just by pinching pennies she raised them. 

My mom is a retired bookkeeper, she works part-time now with some local places now doing their books, but mom has always been pretty good with figures [and] pretty smart with budgets. That was her living. She’s retired now and still works part time. She raised us both [my older sister] on her own. She had opportunity [to marry again but didn’t]. Men didn’t chase her, but there were some that was pretty interested in her, and she said she didn’t have time for that. She had to work and raise two girls. Lately, she had a preacher from Virginia Beach interested in herm and he came in to see her and they went out some, but when he started talking about the thoughts of marriage she said she was too old and she wants to live an independent life now. 

I went to James A. Cawood High School. It’s funny because right there in Nolansburg, which is on 119, between Harlan and Cumberland, we lived right on the line. We could either go to Cumberland or Cawood. I went to Totz Elementary. I was a Totz Condor cheerleader. That was some of my happiest days at Totz. Small school, small community, spirit and pride. They didn’t have Junior High, so I went to Benham, but then mom got this inclination to put me in a Christian School, Woodland Hills Christian Academy. I went there for one year and hated it. No offense to them, but I was pulled out of my circle of friends. 

I should have went to Cumberland where a lot of my Totz and Benham friends were, but at that same time we changed churches, and I had a new youth group and I liked people in that youth group and they went to Cawood, so I went to Cawood. Wasn’t necessarily happy at Cawood though; I was lost during high school because I think a lot of artsy, creative people in my day, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was sports and I just didn’t fit the mold when I was in high school. I just always envisioned the ‘60’s and ‘70’s being more revolutionary.

[I] did two years at Southeast, and then I moved onto Carson Newman just because I was always interested in the Tennessee area and I’ll tell you why; my memories, my strongest and best memories of my father was at Norris Lake fishing, he loved to fish. That’s a lot of my memories of him was on the water, and I always said I’ll return to the lake one day. 

Tennessee, that area, has always fascinated me. I went to Carson Newman there and kinda started finding myself ‘cause even though it’s a Southern Baptist College it’s still higher education where people are different. And it had an active art scene, too. That’s where I found out I loved photography; I didn’t necessarily want to pursue photography, I was pursuing communications and like journalism ‘cause I’ve been a newspaper reporter for like over fifteen years now. But I took a photography class and he [the instructor] was hot, but I forget his name. 

That’s terrible, it was David something. He came to class on a Harley, he was very artsy and yeah, that’s what got me interested in photography, but he was good. I look back at some of my portfolios back then, some of the projects I did, and realized how terrible it was. ‘Cause I always thought, ooh I’m gonna impress him and get him interested in me and I thought now if he looked at my art work he wouldn’t. I think just by being involved with the paper over the years, where you just have to get out there, and then you try to capture a story, convey your story through photography, it just helps you to develop that eye more. 

I went to work at Harlan Daily. I wanted to stay in the Tennessee area, but that just wasn’t happening financially and everything. Tony Turner, from WYMT News, a funny story about him. My cousin, who I used to play Dukes of Hazzard with, was good friends with him, they’re about the same age and they would come in our big field and play like football and baseball.

I would get so mad as a kid because they wouldn’t ask us for permission, and I used to think, ‘Who does that Tony Turner think he is?’ Then, when he ended up as big as he is, you know, I thought well, he knew exactly who he was. 

Tony Turner called me up out of the blue and said I’ll put you to work as a morning news producer. I’d never worked; straight out of college, and I did it, and the first day scared me to death. You know how news is; and everything is so active. Tony Turner in the newsroom was different than Tony Turner, I mean he was all about business, which was good and shy little me just didn’t go back. 

I told him it wasn’t for me, which I always regretted to this day; that’s one of my missed opportunities I think, what could have happened, but then it wasn’t a few weeks till John Henson from the Enterprise asked me; he had heard about me and I was there. I tell people I pulled three tours of duty with the Enterprise. I’d stay with them a few years; get burnt out, get tired of it, get mad, leave and try something else, but I had three stints with them and a couple odd jobs here and there. 

I consider [Tony Turner] one of my mentors even though I didn’t allow myself to work with him, I always looked up to him even when I was at the Enterprise. He would send me some emails sometimes encouraging me about certain stories and maybe criticizing me about certain stories, but I do consider him one of my mentors. 

I’m trying to find work again, I’m getting ready to go to Grad school for communications. Thinking about getting back into journalism just to pay the bills through Grad school and just to get back. We’ve got a Harlan County Arts Council, and somehow I ended up as president of that, so that’s what I’m pushing here today, is the arts. [Staying here in this area] is a daily struggle. [I stayed because of] family and I know that a lot of people say that, but with me it’s the truth. I would be lost without them. I don’t know if that’s a weakness, or if that’s a strength to tell you the truth. I always told my mama if she’d pull up and go to Virginia Beach with me I would go. Family is important to me. That’s where me and my sister was different; she wanted to spread her wings and fly and try things on her own, but I feel like I have to be connected. 

I would feel lost without feeling that connection, and it’s not only family, it’s neighbors too. It’s the traditional things that you find not only in Appalachia, but I just think in rural areas. I need that, that nourishes me and I think I would be lost without that. Someone once said, it's not one of my quotes I wish it was, but Phila Sizemore at the Kentucky Coal Museum when I worked there, she said once that a lot of people here have ‘elastic roots’. You just bounce out there, but it kinda pulls you back and that’s how I feel. 

[Appalachian culture] To me, what makes it special helps us, but also maybe hinders us too and that’s isolation; which cannot be a good thing. It’s definitely hurt our youth to a degree, but like my mother and like my grandmother before me, you have to rely on yourself because of that isolation. There’s a certain innocence here because of that isolation. There are things of this world that’s not penetrated, I don’t think through these mountains yet. It’s a catch twenty-two, I guess. There’s some things I’d like to see penetrate through these mountains. In the process it’s kinda kept us an innocent place. 

[Things I’d like to see penetrate] more open-mindedness. I’m Appalachian, I’m Appalachian proud, I consider myself a country girl. I like to get in my camo and go four-wheelin’ but I don’t care to get in my camo and go four wheelin’ with somebody of a different sexual orientation. I’d like to see more open mindedness about that come. We’ve just taught our people I guess that anything different is wrong and that’s not the case. 

I would like to see diversification of economy here. I’m proud that my father was a coal miner, [but] he had to get disability though before he died because his heart one, but two, was he was in a near fatal accident, it was really close. They escaped, but he had nerve problems after that in the coalmines. It was a roof fall. It was a very close call that day, but they got out, but he had nerve problems from it and post traumatic stress.

I love coal, I know it’s our heritage, but I’m a big proponent [that] still I think we’re captive of the company store if you will; and of the operation itself. I think we don’t have a diversified economy here because that’s how the coal operators want it, ‘cause that’s how they get rich. I think we’re on the cutting edge here and it’s exciting times of people just now realizing the need for diversification. 

Not that we’re anti-coal mining; if it’s done responsibly and not greedy, then let it happen; but let there be other industries that come in here, too. I wish that would come here and penetrate these mountains is more forward thinking in terms of our economy and politics and that you don’t have to fit the certain mold of what mountain people are. We’re transgender, we’re gay, we’re black, we’re white, we’re Muslim, and they’re Appalachia and we just happen to be Appalachian, too. 

Yes [I’m a hillbilly]. [Hillbilly means] don’t put on airs, don’t feel like I have to impress anyone. There’s times I feel intimidated, but I’ve always made it a point to not try to impress anyone. It’s down home, it’s plain and raw, it’s simple living.

[Diane Sawyer report] I don’t know how long ago it came out, a few years, but basically it was reported about the poverty in Appalachia and it was overly sensationalized. That there was a Mountain Dew epidemic of kids drinking Mountain Dew and their teeth rotting out. What I have found out, where me, my mom, and grandmother do baking at festivals, and my mom makes the best fudge, one of the things I noticed was my mom makes the best fudge in the world, sugary stuff and when we try to sell that stuff, kids don’t want it. 

Kids are wanting apples and oranges. So I think we’re not as unhealthy here as people say that we are. We’ve got our problems, but so does everyone else. People are starting to diversify and farmer’s markets are on the rise. I was just talking to lady over here who heads up a farmer’s market in Perry County, she’s interesting and people are doing that. Things are changing and I just wish that people away from here would realize that and report THAT! 

I’ve had a dream since I was a child that I was gonna leave here, and I still dream that. I think in my mind I tell myself that, but in my heart and soul I don’t think it will ever happen.“