“To explain [the Appalachian connection with the land] I think would be to probably delve too close into your soul. How much do you really want to know about yourself? Just know that the evidence is there and you can be romantic about it, but it’s caused a lot of hardship, that connection to the land. It’s created a lot of anxiety in people’s lives by just trying to hold onto it.”
Larry Pierson, Broom Maker; Natural Tunnel, Virginia:
“Well, I’m going to tell you what I did. My 60th birthday, I was going up to visit my friends in Berea. Except I missed the turn to go to Hyden, and I went dang near to Cumberland. I said this is perfect for my 60th birthday; I took a wrong turn that ended up being a 60-mile detour!
I live in Natural Tunnel, Virginia. I have [lived here all my life]. Growing up here was kind of like (it) would have been like the 1880s in a lot of other places. We still had mules; some tractors and some farm implements were slowly, begrudgingly coming in. It had to do with whoever had a better job in say one of the defense industries in Kingsport or some other place, or a good earning job, and then they would have tractors. Most of us were still in the 1880s and all the livestock was still pretty much like the 1880s. Wasn’t a lot of difference and then, in the late 70s, the 50s hit!
We were allowed to have some childhood. We played and made most of our own toys and our own games. Did the whole cowboy and Indian sort of thing. We created our own amusements. We also were shown the business end of hoes and that sort of utensil. Around six or so we had milking and responsibilities that we had to take on. Now, we had free time too, but it was very limited. You were allowed to go out and make your own money after your own folks’ needs were finished. You’d go off and work for other people here. I grew up on what was then Highway 23. We had a couple of industries that moved in right about the time I was born. But we were still primarily agricultural.
My grandparents and my great uncles, they were all still involved in tobacco and just preserving their foodstuffs. There was a little bit of subsistence farming ingrained here. We had the automobile culture because you had Highway 23 right across the bridge from my home. We seen all sorts of that ‘north south’ exodus in the 50s and 60s from people going to the mill town jobs up north, and then returning after they become homesick, with their mattresses and their kids hanging out the windows with their trunks open and tied down.
I’ve seen Model A’s go down that road with three or four kids and all the utensils hanging out a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies. I’ve seen people stopping and asking for donations or for food [and my] mother feeding them. They’d ask to work, but we gave them a meal. I’ve learned my folks are just like everybody else. It wasn’t all good, and it wasn’t all bad, but they were somewhere in the middle. No matter how you think of them as saints, they may not quite be saints.
And if [the people coming through] had some need, they’d go to the church and get a donation and gas and they’d stop by our churches on prayer meeting Friday or Saturday night, folks coming through with kids. People that had sometimes very little extra themselves would make a donation to get them around.
To explain [the Appalachian connection with the land] I think would be to probably delve too close into your soul. How much do you really want to know about yourself? Just know that the evidence is there and you can be romantic about it, but it’s caused a lot of hardship, that connection to the land. It’s a lot of anxiety in people’s lives by just trying to hold onto it..
It has brought people back from the mill towns up north as I’ve said. I’ve seen them come back on Highway 23 when it was a two lane passing by my home. I’ve seen those people coming back homesick. They were coming back home whether it was the Alleghenies or on down into the border between Georgia and North Carolina. Most of my association I guess is with the mountains. But I also saw people who had that same connection with land I don’t think wouldn’t attract me much. There’s families that I can remember coming from Macon, Georgia [who had] been up in, can’t remember exactly where, may have gone as far over as into Windsor, Canada.
They came back through in an old black ’39 Oldsmobile. All they had in this world was in that car. There were like three or four kids, can’t remember exactly how many, but they were sitting on their clothes in the back seat of that car and everything on the floorboard was packed in there and everything was between them up front. I don’t think police would let them travel through [like that] these days if they saw them!
It’s just that whole thing about going back to the land. There’s that whole, ‘do I do it for the cash money, or do I go and think that I can achieve a bunch of cash money and come back?’ I understand in Chicago, in what they call the ghetto in Chicago, it was a mixture of a lot of southern blacks and a lot of southern whites and Appalachian whites. The one disservice they did was that they never invested in where they were. They took the money because that was never going to be home. It ended up being home, and they failed to buy homes, something that was a basic investment. Now, certain generations back in the 50s that have returned home did that. They went up and they invested in property and they invested in a home and some side businesses and so when they did decide to come home (which they seem to drift back all the time now), they had some underpinning so they can come back. And daggone if they don’t just go right back on into agriculture and lose it all!
I decided I might want a little further education [after high school]. Just after high school I got accepted to a few colleges, which surprised me. I ended up going to Berea College in Central Kentucky, which was one of the best moves of my life. While I was there and starting to be a better student than I ever had been in my life, I got a draft notice. It was next to the last draft. Vietnam was still going on. That kind of rearranged some of my strategic planning. It was one of those big question marks that made me decide that I’d prepared so far, but then the end result was probably not going to be just what I’d planned on.
[On being in the military] It was good. It was disciplined, but the farm was already providing discipline. It was just another example of learning what the system is, and making it your friend instead of fighting it. Going along with [the flow] like the river. Just swim with it, let it take you, and eventually you’ll get out on the bank somewhere, you know? I never saw action, but a lot of my mentors were there and had seen a lot of military action. That also changed my whole attitude about militarism and about young lives being ended for [a] militarily industrial complex benefit and darker political gains.
We were all still very loyal to our country, which was never even a question. But it sold me into understanding the Civil Rights Movement. It expanded me, I think, into being more observant and a better thinker on issues. Just being there and seeing people who had faced their imminent demise, and having a good, solid, brotherly relationship was what has changed my whole attitude about the benefit of militarism and just how it should be used, or shouldn’t be used. I was in artillery, and later I was [a] parts clerk. That was my MOS training, to actually tell them where the big guns were supposed to be pointing and how far! If you’ve ever pulled a lanyard on an 8-inch Howitzer…I kind of got all that romanticism about heavy firepower out of my system real quick. It doesn’t take long! I’ve never looked at weapons as being anything more now than just tools.
After the military experience, and being in the reserves for several years, I ended up becoming a broom maker and a farmer. I started becoming more interested in art and history and the survival techniques of [how] my family had lived. We were never poor; we just didn’t have any money! I think Berea taught me that there was such a thing as education, and it’s an ethereal thing. It’s practical and it’s ethereal too. Once you learn ‘this’ is education, your mind is forever changed and you don’t have to send rockets to the moon, but you’re always aware of things. And you soak up some things. My problem is now I think I know everything, but I can’t remember it!
Both grandmothers on both sides were broom-makers. The first broom I ever saw made was [by] my grandmother on my mother’s side, Grandma Jessie. She had copper wire and after one broom was gone, she would reuse it on another one. You would sit in a ladder back chair on the porch turned away from her and that wire would be wrapped around the leg. As she would wet the material and wind it, your job as her helper was she would give you indication that she wanted you to scoot the chair or stop. Scoot the chair toward her, and she’d take up a little more wire, add another layer. They’d probably do three or four of those a year. They’d take some little needle, or just with her fingers, run [the wire] through the outer layers and make these little loops and then the last one they’d run all the other thread back through the loops, and then they’d pull it tight and all the loops would tighten up an tie it. Everything was used again and again.
In the mountains, almost everyone had someone who ‘tied brooms,’ as they would say. There were all sorts of different ways they would do the broom tying. Everybody to this day talks about [how] they had a grandparent that grew, some called it, broom sage. They would grow it and hang it in the barn, and it was generally a female that was responsible for tying these things up. They used a variety of things from linen to copper to stitch it up.
Berea College has a broom craft industry. It’s associated with all the other industries they had at the time, woodcraft and weaving, needlework; they had farms at one time. They’re moving back to more of that right now, actually. They’ve opened their farms to put students back into being part of the labor force, which means by and large, when you leave there, and you participate in their programs, your student debt is nothing. There is no student debt. At one time they were growing broom corn back in the 20s, but they weren’t doing that when I was there.
I was a braider, a weaver, at the time. We wove the handles, so that’s where I started with looking at [broom making] as a form for something different.
It’s a connection with my grandparents, my great grandparents, in that one element. My generation consisted of quite a few cousins, and I’m the only one that has that connection with something I physically, actually saw and participated in with my grandparents when I was a boy.
[On broom making] I’ve done some historical research and I’ve also used it as a form to do weaving and to encourage people a lot more talented than I am. I look at it as a focus of sculpting and also tying back to a history of it. There’s a good platform; it has the basic elements of nature and natural materials, so it’s not really tied in too much to the contemporary, in a way. It’s actually not very contemporary. I think that’s probably what makes it a little more eccentric is the fact that it’s not a contemporary thing but there’s also a history. It ties in with several avenues—everywhere from Benjamin Franklin to the Shakers—a celibate sect that existed. The remnants of their settlements are from New England through Pennsylvania into Kentucky where there was one of the most famous ones—Shakertown, Kentucky.
[They were] furniture makers and box makers, and whatever they did they brought a sort of ingenuity to it. They were the ones who actually invented the broom. Until then, there had been besoms. A biblical term, the besom is round. [The Shakers] invented the broom, which is flat. They also adapted using wire to wind the broom corn fibers. Benjamin Franklin was the one who encouraged the production of the material he called ‘broom corn’. It’s a sorghum from Africa, and he’d seen a lady on a stoop on the docks of Philadelphia with what he called a ‘hand of whisk.’ And it was broom corn. It was African extraction and he encouraged it. Ben Franklin got credit for a lot of stuff! He encouraged the growth of a lot of visionary things.
Most broom corn is now grown in Mexico, but there were different varieties along the way. It changed a lot because it was cultivated like things are cultivated. It was a really irritating process—it has a dust and a pollen on it that’s highly irritating, I can vouch to that!
I sometimes think I was on vacation the first 20 years of my life and now I’m having to work. But that’s what I did and I’m back home. My dad became sick, he had cancer and I came back and took care of Mom and the farm and I still continued to travel and do art shows for 17 years. I did art shows from Bay Harbor, Maine to Miami, Florida…all over the Eastern United States. That’s what I did for a living; I guess you’d say.
Someone once said that one of the better legacies for an artist was that he went totally worthless before he died. And so I’m trying to do that. I sort of understand what they’re saying, it’s like well do I make a functional broom or one that has absolutely no function whatsoever? Do you create worthless art? I’m just wondering if maybe before I die I should just become totally worthless.
My dad was a deacon of the church and he wasn’t afraid to speak. He told me whether you’re right or you're wrong, you stand up straight and look them right in the eye. I always tried to follow that.
I was always outspoken. I’ve been sitting around a table at events that have been sponsored by Dupont, the Fords, the Rockefellers and other philanthropists and I spoke my mind, whether I wanted to be the center of attention or not. You have somebody there like J, Rockefeller that knows that lesson well. He devoted his life to the service of the mountain people, and he’s not from here. People like that give me the strength [and] the sheer gall to [speak up].
So, I don’t think I take a great deal of offense in it [people making fun of Appalachian culture]. I kind of have used that myself. It’s humorous because I know how it’s really not real. I know that it could be in some places, it’s not entirely false; it’s however you interpret your existence. I know of other people who have had some terrible lives here in the mountains and had some terrible family situations and my God it boggles my mind to think of some of the things they have had to endure.
My family went through the boom and bust. I had uncles, they never did anything different. When there were boom times they lived off all their income. When they were bust, they would be loading up off the farm here. Hog meat, canned goods, shoes, clothing, anything that we could scrounge. Boom time comes back again and they’d be working full blast. What’d they do? Spent it. They’d have all the kids and the goods loaded up in the latest Mercury they’d purchased.
I’ve seen that in my own family. They were complicated people, but I think they thought the same way. They never intended to live their life in a coal camp. They never intended to buy a home anywhere over in Harlan County or Letcher County or Pikeville. They never intended to do that. It was difficult for them to seize the future. I don’t think they were dumb and ignorant, I just think they just really weren’t as educated as they probably should have been. Knowing that you’re ignorant is a good thing, if you know the meaning of it. If you know the fact that ‘hey, I’m ignorant about that.’ Do I want to change that? Do I want to dig into it so I’m less ignorant? We’re always going to be ignorant on some issue. do I want to become less ignorant on how to work some kind of a computerized press so I can have a job making some advancement in some kind of automobile industry? Or tool or dye manufacturer? Do I want to not be ignorant so I can look at these new skills and be in the future? Do I do that?
The media] think that we have a lack of character. There are people with a lack of character, but you’ll find them everywhere. I think it’s just easy because we had the war on poverty and we didn’t think nothing about going barefoot when we were kids. As a matter of fact, supposedly our feet were in better shape than everybody else that was wearing shoes! We had healthier feet! I don’t take any of those [stereotypes] to heart anymore. If I had to have one little trigger point, it would be… this is pronounced ‘App-ah-la-cha.’ This is not ‘App-uh-lay-cha’ or ‘App-uh-lay-chi-uh.’ This is my trigger point. I’m sorry but it’s just a little hair trigger.
Other than that, they can talk about inbreeding which may of happened, but it’s not my family. They had too many strong women! My family made sure you didn’t go there! They wanted to know if you went to the hayloft, just how long you’d been there and they wanted to make sure you didn’t have time to take your clothes off and it was nobody closer than a fourth cousin. They applied that vigorously! They knew where you were at all times.
The big thing now is the diminishing of the coal industry, which has a lot of people on edge. But we had a culture and an economy before they ever found coal. To me, we ought to go with our strong suit. There was a lot of ingenuity, natural engineers, people who had a natural inclination for knowing how to make things, how to change things, how to make things easier to work with. I think there probably will be a future for coal somewhat, but I think it’s going to have to really rely on a lot of advance technology and the changing of what it is into something that it’s not. The basic element is there.
Coal is just a diamond that hasn’t formed yet. So I see it as being something that may have a future if the technology will keep up with the needs other than just purely as taking a mineral that will create heat and burn. We need to take it to some other level. It’s a bit of romance on my part, but I think we’re forgetting that we had a culture and we had trade and we had industry before then. It just depends on how the generations decide to do it. [With] My parents and my grandparents and my great, great grandparents, increasing the population was beneficial. I don’t think at this point that’s necessary now. You don’t need all those hands on a farm. The labor requirements are not there. We have people going into other things.
[On what makes Appalachian culture special] To me, it’s freedom, but I think that it takes a long time for that desire for freedom to morph itself and change itself around. The mountains have offered an opportunity for an agriculture-based society; we had foodstuffs, wood, trees for homes and cabins. We game and streams and we were enjoying everything that the Native Americans had had. But we were coming from a different culture. We weren’t coming from the village, we were coming from the vassalized nature of Europe and other countries, and that control was from the top down.
I think we got here and we saw the ability to control our own lives and decide. I think that’s a difference in the culture. During the Civil War, there were really no parts of my family that fought in the Civil War. Actually my great, great grandmother had runaway slaves in her root cellar. She was sort of a part of the Underground Railroad. My family particularly, they were rabbles and they were rebels.
I think they were just resisting control, that they were strong individuals and they wanted to control their own lives and I think that’s what kept us out of [the] Civil War. I think we were more Union sympathizers. My folks to this day are still of the party of Lincoln. My grandmother and grandfather, they were in their 80s when I was a young boy and I got to spend a lot of time with them. They were a lot more intimately acquainted [with] some of the history of where they came from or how they got here. I think it was basically just they mistrusted all the government and they figured the best thing [and] most important thing for them wasn’t anything more than their family. And they were trying to do their own village, I mean like the natives. The roots just go deep, man. Roots just are deep.
I admire the Native Americans, and that concept of village. To me, it’s something we’ve lost here. We don’t help each other like we used to. My dad’s generation, I remember other people were coming and whether it was simple as getting your hay in because it was going to rain or your tobacco or whatever worked off, your crops or whatever it meant as far as your sustaining your life here, everybody would jump. It thrills me when I have an opportunity to help somebody. That’s a neighbor. All of a sudden something goes wrong, and I’m there and I can sit and I can do something about it right there. And that’s the way I grew up around my dad and my folks. That’s the way it was. It was a broader village.
[Appalachia today] like everywhere else in the world is in transition. I think somebody will take it on. [In ten to twenty years] we’ll still have young people that are taking after our traditions in music. They’re also firmly planted in the century that I’ll never be a part of, but it’s the future. I think there’s a lot of sense to resist it and I just don’t see the romance over there across that divide.
Economically, I’m not sure. I think it will continue to be looked at as a natural resource. Our colleges and universities in the Appalachian Mountains attract a lot of attention from other parts—they [students] really want to come here, there’s something that they want to have happen to their children here too. There is the Appalachian romance. I don’t think that we’re quite as maybe ethnically as pure or divided as some other more urban areas seem to be. I just see transitions. I see hope.
I’ve been an organic farmer for about 16 years now. You take your things and you go to the market and you try to expand into something else where it’s like mushrooms and various other niche crops that weren’t really here. But there are always resources out here, and when someone remembers a lesson and everybody else forgets it, that’s sort of a source of power there, isn’t it?
I want to touch somebody’s life somehow or another. I want to make something better. The thing I’ll probably regret is the times I’ve gone and seen somebody that needed help, and I didn’t take time to do it, that’s probably the regret.
For us here in the mountains, would you really know if you passed Jesus needing help on the road? Would you really know that you’d just passed Him up to go on with your own petty things? So I think about that very often. Dang… I should have turned around and went back. I should have stopped. And I have stopped; I just don’t do it every time. I guess everybody’s going to have regrets. I don’t think any of us is going to be perfect.
I cancelled a lot of my bucket list early in my life, so I don’t really don’t have a great big bucket list now. It’s kind of [like] everything I thought I wanted to do back then, I’ve been able to experience those things. I’d like to see Alaska once. Never been to Alaska.
I did a different bucket list, and some of it was I wanted to go snow ski, I wanted to go to Southern Highlands games, I want to lay on the beach in Miami next to somebody famous. Female. A famous female.
In my early years I wanted to go see the cathedrals. The cathedrals were a common effort whether building them was forced on you, or you were paid to do it. I always thought [about] the sheer numbers and skills that it took to erect those cathedrals. The craftsmanship, the different craftsmen across everything, all the different metal, wood, stone and yes, creating new tools and methods and skills to create those. It wasn’t an easy thing, of course. A lot of them died from their endeavors, whether it was stone dust or timbers falling or stone falling, or just sheer hard life.
You’ve got glassmakers, you've got people that work in metal, you’ve got people who refine metals. You’re bringing things from basic lead. You’re creating colors in glass, you’re creating a whole base industry just by creating a place that’s theoretically supposed to be a place for worship.
Of course, we all know it was also a political power and had a lot of darker elements to it. But I’m just [talking] about those basic craftsmen, those basic human beings that advanced at the same time they were being exploited. You always had to have a patron or somebody forcing you to work or forcing you to leave your family or take your family. There was a lot of force there, a lot of subtle threat or subtle insistence.
But how many people went underground in the mines for almost nothing? Because that’s the only thing they had. That was it. And they didn’t know anything else. You took your family, got paid the script, company store, that whole legacy.”