Kim Johnston

“I feel a kinship here. I love to visit other places and see the landscape differences and all the different things, but this is home. This is where I like the seasons, and the people. It’s just peacefulness, especially if you’ve been in some of the very flat places, like in Florida or up north. Like I said, it’s nice to see and experience different places, but this is just peace and home.”

Kim Johnston, Nurse, Civil War Re-Enactor; Riner, Virginia: 

“Riner, Virginia, is about halfway between Christiansburg and Floyd. We’re a wide spot in the road, but we’re growing. I grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia [and] in the surrounding area there’s plenty mountains.

[As a child] I had fake tea parties with rocks and leaves, and rode my bike, and mostly it was outside things. Back then, thankfully, we didn’t have a lot of TV, and so we were out and about, and running and playing. 

My grandmother on my father’s side passed away when I was about seven, so I don’t have a lot of memory of her. His father was already passed away before I was born. My mother’s father passed away when I was a month old, so I don’t remember him. But my grandmother that lived here in West Virginia, she was a very quiet lady. We would go spend holidays and weekends, and different times with her. 

She was the one that would can over three hundred cans of food in the winter, to make sure they could eat. She would make clothing out of feed sacks and crochet. I have items that she crocheted at home that she made me. She was a wonderful cook. I have her wood stove at my house that she cooked on, because I remember when she still used the wood stove. [She] didn’t have a bathroom in the house, but we still had an outhouse to go to

I don’t know that I thought about it as much when I grew up, [but] as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate my roots, and my history. My family has been in the Blacksburg area since the 1700’s. One of my relatives, I can’t remember how many greats back; his will was the first one recorded in Montgomery County. I’ve done a lot of genealogical research in the last year, and I have started to appreciate more of the handcrafts, the roots. I have coal mining family from this area, too. I appreciate how hard they worked, growing gardens and canning, making their clothing, and all that. That’s some of the things that I’ve tried to learn how to do myself; I can, and I sew and different things to carry that tradition along.

I first went to Virginia Tech for two years, and then transferred to Radford to get my Nursing Degree, and I’ve worked as a nurse since then. I worked in a hospital for twenty-eight years. There’s tons of nursing stories; anything from people crawling out of bed, to supposedly the ghost of where the hospital was built on. Some of them were heartwarming stories of the wedding we threw at the hospital that was put together in six hours so a lady who was terminally could be part of her daughter’s wedding, or the concert we threw for a terminally ill patients who loved to play music, so he could have friends in and have a jam. 

I’m still in nursing, [but I] went to work in April for a school system, working with Middle School kids. I love it, just the kids that come in that we get to care for them, because they sometimes don’t get that at home. Also, I get to share a little bit of history, because I have some of the historical stuff in my office and I tell them I’m a re-enactor. 

[Those who perpetuate the Appalachian stereotype] are people that probably have not visited Appalachian people, and don’t always understand the way of life [and] they probably don’t have an appreciation for things that are handmade, or homemade, and making your own way. 

Part of [the culture] is the ‘use what you have’ and the ‘make do with what you have’ spirit. Being self-sufficient. There’s a determination in the Appalachian people because, through history, so many of them had to overcome so many obstacles just to survive. 

I would like to think I am somewhat of [a hillbilly]. This summer we made wattle fences for around where we planted our garden, and I made trellises out of sticks in the yard so I didn’t have to go buy something else. It’s a pride in your roots and background. Where you came from.

I feel a kinship here. I love to visit other places and see the landscape differences and all the different things, but this is home. This is where I like the seasons, and the people. It’s just peacefulness, especially if you’ve been in some of the very flat places, like in Florida or up north. Like I said, it’s nice to see and experience different places, but this is just peace and home.

When I got married, and of course, the birth of my children and some of the adventures I’ve had with my camera, I think are [some of my happiest times]. [But] one of the most fulfilling times was finding my re-enactment group. They’re like an adopted family.

I do photography on the side and I’ve always loved history, so a friend of mine who dresses as a solider, said, ‘Come take pictures of me at the re-enactment.’ I went with her, took pictures, and started making some friends, and then I ended up meeting Debbie by accident, and volunteered to man the artifact table at Cloyd’s Mountain, the 150th. 

I was there for school kids’ days, and one of the little boys that went by, there were some things that they could pick up and touch. He had freckles and blue eyes, and he said, ‘I got to touch it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you got to touch history. To me, that’s what it’s all about. 

I travel with Debbie, who has ‘Traveling Tara.’ We have a home that’s like the 1860’s, a Civil War house, and we explain about life in the Civil War on the home front. We’re in a bigger group, called ‘Ladies’ Victorian.’ I have also started doing a studio where I educate about women that were running photography studios during the time period. 

As early as 1850, there are women advertising themselves as daguerreotypists, and they would work with the men, and some of the aspects of the industry they would do was as the colorist for pictures, because any picture you see that has coloring on it, it was all by hand. Some of the women who were more proficient at that could make up to $25 a month, which was a very high salary for anyone, especially women. 

You also had women who a receptionist in a photography studio. The women would help pose and all that, because social rules were different then as to who would be able to adjust someone’s clothing versus who wouldn’t. [Women] would help put together daguerreotype boxes. If they had worked together with their husband, or their father, or whoever, and something happened to them, they would take over the studio. 

1850 is the earliest female photographer I have seen. The photography industry really started in the late 1830’s when Jacques Daguerre took his daguerreotype, and then it became an immediate hit in the U.S. There’s articles that say there were as many as fifty studios in New York City alone, [nearly] one on every corner. They would have articles on what to wear for your sitting, how to fix your hair, and all this kind of thing. I collect antique photos, and have some of that information. I collect books about photography I bring with me so that people can get an idea, and look at it. And they’ll say, ‘Oh! I have a picture like that at home!’

[Also in our group] we have a seamstress and a laundress, who also portray Sally Tompkins, a nurse. We have another lady who portrays a local woman from Pulaski County, Virginia, who dressed as a soldier and went in and fought the battles.

If you can get someone engaged in the history, hopefully that can get them interested in something that has a promise of a different way of life. 

Right out of high school, I had a very inexpensive, small 35mm camera. I went to college, and the first thing I bought out of college was a Minolta film camera. I would take pictures with that, and everyone would tell me I had a good eye. And then, I took pictures of my children as they grew up and didn’t get as involved [in photography] until they became a little bit older. 

My youngest is eighteen now, almost nineteen, so now I can develop my own interests. I joined a photography club [and] we’ve done all kinds of crazy things. Went out in the middle of the night to the waterfalls, took star pictures, and came up here to Hinton to Sandstone Falls in the middle of the night, when it’s freezing cold. I’ve learned to do a lot by hanging out with those guys. I’ve taken a picture of everything, from people, to animals, to landscape, to nature, but some of my favorites are landscape and nature. 

One thing I have to say with my photography is I have met so many neat people through it. You take their picture, and if they find it on Facebook, or they see you in person…I’ve met so many people through the camera that I probably would never have talked to.

[I hope people remember] that I made them smile. That’s important. If you can make somebody smile, you’ve added to their day.”