East Tennessee History: Hillbillies Part 2
Look up the term “hillbilly” in most dictionaries, and it will tell you it is a term for someone who is “backward, uncouth and illiterate.” It is someone who does not fit in modern society.
This definition could not be further from the truth. In reality the term “hillbilly” began in the Appalachian Mountains when people wanted to distinguish between people who lived in the valley and those who lived back in the hill country.
The word “Billy” is a Scottish word that means “fellow.” So, a hillbilly is a mountain fellow.
After the Civil War, outsiders began seeing the people of the Appalachian Mountains as backward and violent. The Hatfield and McCoy feud played a big part in perpetuating this idea.
They were also isolated because of the building of the country’s railroads. With some exceptions, the railroads were not built into the more remote areas until later in the century, and so as the country progressed, the mountain people did not.
Then came the television shows and movies that stereotyped mountain people. These shows always depicted the people in the mountains with a variety of stereotypes not the least of which was the gun toting, lazy moonshiner.
To begin with, it was a fact that most of these mountain households did own and use guns. Also, many hillbillies did make moonshine but were and are some of the hardest working people in society.
I grew up around moonshine, and I am the first generation of my family not to make moonshine. My grandfather made it, my uncles made it and my dad made it, and any moonshiner will tell you it is one of the hardest jobs you will ever do. In truth a lazy man could never be a moonshiner.
People in these mountains became moonshiners out of necessity. Many of the settlers brought the alcohol making tradition with them from Scotland and Ireland. When they got into the mountains, they learned how to grow corn and saw that corn was a crop that grew easily in the rocky soil of the mountains.
They started planting corn and selling it. Soon they discovered that they could get more out of the corn if it was turned into a liquid form than if they sold it by the ear. Overnight the making of corn liquor was born, and we got the reputation of making some of the best alcohol in the nation.
Also, another trait emerged about the hillbilly in that they did not trust outsiders. A true hillbilly was someone who was very proud and did not like to take charity from anyone. Also, they usually harbored a mistrust of anyone who moved to the mountains from the north, and for good reasons.
Starting with the Carpetbaggers after the Civil War, some people came into the South to take advantage of the Southern poverty. Land was cheap, and coal and iron ore were just below the surface of the ground just waiting for someone to dig it up and make a considerable profit on it. Most mountain people did not know what they had until they sold it to someone else.
Even today, I have watched as land has skyrocketed in price because of the demands of people from other parts of the country. We have taken for granted the beauty, the peacefulness and the simplicity of our mountain home, and now others are wanting to buy land to have what we have always had.
As I stated in last week’s column, I am proud to be a hillbilly and accept that badge with honor. Just remember that the origin of the name and the stereotypes associated with the name are not what you have always been taught.
Next week, we will finish this series on mountain hillbillies by discussing some of the language of the mountains.