Melonie Baker

Melonie Baker, Dental Hygienist; Ramey Flats, Clintwood, Virginia:

“I am a registered Dental Hygienist. I was born and raised in Skeetrock, Virginia, here in the mountains. I lived in Wytheville, its a little flatter up there.

My papaw was a moonshiner, my father-in-law arrested him; I have all kinds of big tales. My granny said it kinda made my papaw real mad when he come in and dumped out all of her sugar, you know, lookin’ for the moonshine. My papaw said that it was real upsetting when he took his daddy’s truck. When he found out I was dating Seth that was a real big problem because that was the revenuer’s son, and know you just can’t be takin’ up with the revenuer’s son. ‘He took your great papaw’s truck and we didn’t have no other way to make a good honest livin’. [He made moonshine] all of his life, but it was only for celebratory occasions, good holidays. That was one of those Andy Griffith stories. He was a good honest moonshiner, like the sister’s on the Andy Griffith show. Just like them, that was it right there. 

My dad said it took him forever to understand why those men would sit beside the side of the road waiting on them in the same spot. My papaw would go up in the woods for a while, and then he would finally come back down. When they got about fourteen or fifteen years old they figured out that he must be going to get him something. But that was another time and another place. But it is a great place to live.

It is just heritage, gardening and canning and things you learn here that you just wouldn’t get in New York City and a lot of big time places. We are survivors I think, mostly. We are strong people, as far as you live off the land kinda culture. And I think that is true for Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee. You had to survive to make it. It’s a hard place to live in the winter but it’s pretty nice this time of year.

[If I could tell media] I’d tell them that some of us still had our teeth. As a dental hygienist, that’s my big thing right there. With RAM (Remote Area Medical) coming here, we get all of this; they’ve pulled 150,000 teeth this weekend in three days over there. People stood in line since 2 AM in the morning to get a number to get a set of dentures. It makes us look pathetic and just broken, and kinda’ pitiful. 

Everybody is not that way. There are some people really do try to do better, and need some help, and it is wonderful that they provide some help. Yet, it’s just a bad portrayal of Appalachian culture in general. I do appreciate what they do for health care and people that don’t have doctors, but there should be somewhere for people to go daily if you need a doctor. Not just a three day weekend. Go to the doctor or dentist if you need to. That just ain’t right. That’s just my opinion.

I think, in a way, we have a lot more intelligence than a lot of people ‘cause like I said, we can survive in a hard time when maybe somebody else may not be able to find something to eat. Or if you can’t go to the store to buy it you might have it in the dairy to go get and if you raise your own beef and cattle and farm. Most people do farm still and garden, I think that is important. That is a thing that a lot of people have lost because it’s too easy to go to Walmart and buy it out of a can.

Green beans and cornbread and country ham all of those good things and cracklin’ bread. It’s hard to find those kind of things. You can’t go to the city and buy that. That is something you have to raise and make stone ground corn meal. Used to, there was everywhere in the holler somebody had a grist mill. That is just not the way it is anymore. You have to hunt for those on the weekend, it’s just like RAM, somewhere a special weekend a year somebody will grind your corn meal for you. But it does make your fried fish and corn bread a lot better. 

[Traditions] Food and we’ll not say moonshinin’ but it could have been. Not so much anymore. My father-in law put a stop to that.

We like to horse ride and hunt and fish and we like to eat good and I think that’s the main things. We got a two and four-year-old, so we stay pretty busy with them. We used to horse ride a whole lot more. On a weekend we would ride fifteen or twenty miles a day, trail riding mainly. We used to horse show some but not a lot in the last few years.

They [children] are wild as bucks. They are Indians my husband says. We have a fifty-acre farm so they have a little bit of free reign. So we have a lot of fun. They helped me pick ten gallon of sweet peas this year so we‘ve done pretty good. I’m hoping that they’ll learn to be good workers and hay stackers when they get a little bigger, so we’ll see. [Their names] Rhett Corbett and Ryden Lee Baker.

I guess I am [a hillbilly]. I am proud to be that way, just an Appalachian. I think most people are proud to be. We talk a little different, but that’s ok. 

It’s looking bleak right at the moment with our coal mines shuttin’ down. I’m hoping that we will find some sort of new economy that’ll come in and pick up the pieces. Maybe we can get some fossil fuels going or something. And its lookin’ bad for younger generations, everybody is moving off. I am blessed my husband is an attorney. It’s unfortunate that we have a lot of outlaws, I guess, that keeps him in business.

I think that everybody is lookin’ for a job at the gas company or in the coal fields, and they are just not going to be here anymore. The gas lines are already ran through here and it’s already pumping out. So there’s just not really a whole lot more I don’t think that is just going to be [available], especially in the coal industry. My dad and grandfather were retired UMWA miners and it’s just unfortunate that there’s no more union jobs around in the county now at all.

My dad and my grandfather are both retired UMWA men. My grandad worked in Bethlehem Steele that was a big thing in Kentucky. He drove over to Kentucky every day and worked there at Benham. My dad is a disabled coal miner. He got crushed, rocks fell in on him and he got pinned in at thirty-nine years old and he was lucky to come out alive. That’s the hard thing about being a coal miner. Nobody wants to give anybody any money any more for being, well you risking your life daily. People are glad to have a job, so of course they don’t care to risk their lives to have a job. It’s unfortunate, especially underground mines; it is really a hard decision to make.

People are going to be moving out to find other jobs, so of course we are not going to have as many people. It’s going to be hard, you have schools and local sports and it’s going to affect everything. It’s just the local culture in general, if there is nobody here to support restaurants, and all kinds of local things it’s hard to keep anything going. I’m hoping it’s going to pick up.

My dad just renovated the White Star [Restaurant] in Clintwood, and he put a lot of time and effort into it. There are some people who are running it now that are doing a good job. It takes a lot of time and effort to run a restaurant. You’re looking at a fulltime job several days a week. I think that that’s a good thing, but it’s hard if people want to drive to Kingsport [Tennessee] to eat instead. People go there to eat and shop. If there’s no shopping here either, it’s hard to want to stay here to eat. 

[The restaurant] was my great-great uncle’s business, John Branham. He had it before it closed. It was a family type business before then, and we were really the only ones left to try to open it back up. That’s why my dad bought it. I like to say I am a good cook, but I am not the cook that my grandmothers were. One of my favorite things to do is to cook and eat, but it’s hard to cook and eat for a whole county. Maybe one day when my boys get back in school I’ll think about it, doing a little more with the restaurant.

To shop [you have to go out of Clintwood] to the Walmart or Sam’s Club. You have to drive all the way to Abingdon or Bristol. That’s a long way to go. It takes half a day to get anywhere from Clintwood. That’s just the truth. 

When we go over there we try to buy in so you don’t have to go back again for a while because it’s hard to get those things, and then to drive that far to get them. [You’re looking at a whole day trip] Just to get basic necessities; toilet paper and paper towels. You can get those things at Food City but if you are going to buy bulk and especially for a business, you have to go there to get enough to do for a few weeks. 

That is a big inconvenience of living here. Because everybody is like, ‘oh gosh, why do you want to stay here?’ My husband got an interview from NPR radio wanting to know ‘why did you stay here, you know, why would you want to be in such a down ridden area where there is nothing to do?’ 

Like he told them, we liked to horse ride, we like hunt we liked to fish, there are things here that you can’t do elsewhere. And people come from miles around to get to do that on deer hunting weekend or rafting at the Breaks. That’s another big thing we have that a lot people don’t ever think about. And we actually didn’t ever go rafting until a couple years ago. And it’s wonderful. We went from the spillway down to the Garden Hole at the Breaks and it was one of the best experiences we ever had outdoors. I think people need to take advantage of things we have here; local nature kind of things.

I think there is a lot of potential to get a lot of people in here. We got the Grand Canyon of the South right next door, you just have to drive over there. I think there is a few ideas with tourism. We have Birch Knob and the Towers. It’s beautiful up there. A lot hiking, things like that. Just depends on what you are looking for. 

I think we always thought big coal would always be here and there would be big mining and there would be big jobs and people would make it and then [they] they started shutting down. There used to be two hundred and some coal mines or maybe three hundred in the seventies and eighties and now there is like twenty in the whole county. So that is a lot of decline from the seventies, eighties to the late nineties. And now there’s not even maybe that many. I’m not really for sure exactly how many we have.

[Sad times] is when death comes to your family in general, like grandparents passing away. I guess I have been blessed; I have had a pretty good life so far. I am thirty-seven but Seth and I have had a good life. We have been married thirteen years, and dated five, so I am almost to the point I’ve been with him longer than when I’ve been without him, but I reckon he’s a keeper. I guess it just depends on the decisions you have made and choices and I have been blessed to have a good job in dentistry. 

I was actually a dental hygienist when Seth was in school, and he want to law school in Grundy. We have the law school in Grundy and we got an Optometry School and Pharmacy school over there. So there are reasons for people to come back to the coalfields or to stay in the coalfields to go to college. There are things for people to do to get a profession here. 

Raising my two boys, so far, would be my biggest accomplishment. My biggest triumph probably would be passing my dental hygiene boards and supporting Seth with his business, because he has had his own law business for ten years in Clintwood. And hopefully he will soon be our Commonwealth Attorney in Clintwood. He’s unopposed so I’m sure he is gonna be a winner. I think that is gonna be a good thing.

I’m just proud to be Appalachian and I think that we have a lot to offer. It’s a well- kept secret and I’m just satisfied to keep it that way. I think that’s the best way to be. If people want to move here and find out about it then that’ll be alright and if they don’t then they’ll just have to do without. I guess that’s all I have to say.”