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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Rural life in the southern Appalachian region in the 1920s

In this excerpt, Arnow recalls what it was like to work as a school teacher in the back hills of Kentucky in 1926. Although Pulaski County was only fifteen miles from her hometown of Burnside, Kentucky, Arnow describes Pulaski County as a remote community with unique traditions and rituals that seemed to have been lost in time. Her description serves to illuminate and humanize the lives of those who lived in the hills of Appalachia in the early twentieth century. She was especially captivated by the language of the hill people she encountered there and notes that this was especially influential on her later literary descriptions of Appalachia.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
I think we're talking about when you were in Pulaski County, and you were talking about how it was the year that you learned the most in your life. Did you take notes at the time, some notes?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
No, I took no notes. I did, to practice writing, write some descriptions of scenes and things. You see, this was a remote place, a log house, and many of the things they used were much like those of the pioneers. For example, I had never seen a watering trough made of the hollowed-out trunk of a poplar tree.
MIMI CONWAY:
Oh, wow.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
And other things around. I was especially intrigued by their language. They were as definite as Shakespeare. For example, the children never said "tree"; they named the tree: white oak, black oak, post oak, poplar, they knew them all.
MIMI CONWAY:
Now this was in fact a place only fifteen miles from Burnside.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
That is right.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was it for you the first close contact you'd had with hill people?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Well, yes and no. My people were hill people, after a fashion, but I had never been in a community that was so remote. Though Burnside was only fifteen miles away, it was on the railway-this place was not-Burnside had also been served by steamboats since 1833. It was more or less in the world. Like at home, we had a daily newspaper and magazines and books and other things we could buy.
MIMI CONWAY:
Right. And also you had doctors and dentists, isn't that right?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
In Burnside, yes, but not these people. Most of them had never been to a physician or a dentist.
MIMI CONWAY:
Did people in Burnside travel to other places? I mean, it wasn't unusual for people from Burnside to go to other towns.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
No, they often went north. Well, everybody went to the county seat town of Somerset-that was a short distance-but many went to Lexington. The Southern Railway due north to Cincinnati or south to Chattanooga. It was interesting, among my people and in that town: their faces had, for over fifty years, been turned south to Nashville. That's where the steamboats went, where the steamboats came from. They could take a packet to Nashville and from there get another packet and go wherever they wished in the Mississippi Valley, even up to Pittsburgh.
MIMI CONWAY:
Now when you went to teach in the school in Pulaski County, what was the name of the town or the actual place?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Well, they called it Possum Trot School. I've forgotten if it had a better name; I don't know.
MIMI CONWAY:
Was that also the name of the place, Possum Trot?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Was it Hargis? No. Perhaps it was Hargis; I've forgotten. I should know, because there was a post office there, where the mail came three times each week in saddlebags on a mule. And rarely did one see a wagon, and my schoolchildren, most of them, had never at that time seen an automobile, the road was so rough. Most of the men, however, had. They'd go to Somerset. And they did most of what they called the "trading": they didn't use the word "shopping". They traded. This, I think, arose from the fact that they usually had something to sell. It was too far away for milk and butter, but they could, as I say, trade eggs at a small store across the river. Others dug ginseng-it was about all gone-dried it and sold it to a company in Burnside. Some dug yellow root and May apple root. There were few furbearing animals left, but several of the boys sold raccoon and opossum hides.
MIMI CONWAY:
How did these people feel about you coming in? Do you know how they reacted to you? Were you as unusual in your education and in coming from Burnside as if you had come from four or five hundred miles, from outside the whole culture?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I think they thought I was peculiar. On the other hand, I tried very hard. I stayed over many weekends. When they went to church, I went to church with them. We had a bit of trouble with speech sometimes. Most of the younger children used the word "ungen" for "onion" and other words which I had never heard and didn't have sense enough to know. I just thought, "Queer!" Like they'd say, "So-and-so carried his wagon to town to the railway," and it seemed queer to me, and then later I found the word "carry", meaning to go with or to take, in Shakespeare. Had I had an Oxford English Dictionary, unabridged, with me, I would have understood a great deal more and appreciated a great deal more.