Building a Future for Who We Are

Building a Future for Who We Are
As I’ve said before, I’m a Cincinnati boy, born and bred (actually I was born in Norwood, but in my day no decent person wanted to claim Norwood as his birthright; it was then the armpit of Cincinnati). The Hilly-Billys and Ridge-Runners lived just across the river where there were gambling joints, and (it was whispered) prostitutes. They were not our people.
My dad was born in Titusville PA, where Drake had drilled the very first oil well in this country; but he was raised a little south of there in Rouseville. Mom was born in Newcastle, about thirty miles north of Pittsburgh where she grew up a grand-daughter in the house of John Slayton, Eugene V. Debs’ right hand man in the Socialist Party. Leftist leanings are in my blood. They married and bounced around eventually settling in Cincy for a couple of decades.

Wasn’t until some sixty years later I learned that, while I had been taught to look down my nose at those Hill-Billys and Ridge-Runners, I was actually one of them. I had been serving a church in Cambridge OH for eight years when in a sudden flash of brilliant insight I realized that Cambridge is in Appalachia, which explained the odd communal emotions I’d been experiencing and puzzling about: unprovoked anger, resentment, the sense of having been used or abused or even raped, a feeling of waiting to be screwed over yet again.

      That small city seemed to be crouched like a trapped victim, awaiting its next victimization. “Oh,” I realized, “I’m in Appalachia. That’s why it feels that way around here. Appalachia’s been screwed over for two centuries. Those are legit feelings.” Some years later, after I retired, I was filling in at a church in Chillicothe OH, and experiencing those same feelings in that community, I recognized that this, too, was in Appalachia. I suggested that to the folks of that failing congregation, and they turned up their noses just as I had as a kid at those Ridge-Runners across the river. Not a suggestion acceptable to the folks in that Chillicothe congregation.

      I called in an expert on Appalachia from our Episcopal diocesan office in Cincy, Ernie Minot, an Appalachian himself, to talk to the congregation. They were gracious toward him, as decent folks treat any guest. But they weren’t buying any of it. As rich a culture as he made it sound, they wanted no part of acknowledging that they might be Appalachian. I, on the other hand, got my eyes opened.

      My dad grew up in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania which Ernie explained is in the northern reaches of Appalachia. And my mother, raised in Pittsburgh, well that’s within the northern parts of Appalachia too. And my city, Cincinnati, well that’s a mix, but still well within the influence of Appalachia. So I, it turns out, am quite Appalachian myself, born and bred.

And then Nancy and I retired from Cambridge to Lancaster. And here I experienced some of those same communal feelings, witnessed some of that same screwed-overness. Yep, Appalachian. A former neighbor across the street had an accent so thick and hard to understand that I thought he had come here from the deep hills of Tennessee or farther south; I asked him of his roots. He’s from here in Ohio, a little south-east of here. A born-and-bred Ridge-Runner if I’ve ever met one.

I expect folks in Lancaster don’t think of themselves as Appalachian. Some will be offended when I suggest that. And that’s too bad. But I’m sure we are Appalachian. The difference is, I don’t think of that as something bad, or negative. Appalachian culture is rich with some admirable strengths, positives to be built on. A solid foundation, if we’re willing to embrace it and build on it. One of its core values is that Appalachians tend to take care of each other, look out for each other . . . a deep sense of family and community, a community that loves all its members. Oh, yes, Appalachia does have its down-sides. We tend to be feisty, independent, andf clannish. We inherited that from our Scots and Irish forebears. That and the on-going feuds.

It seems to me that as we go about building the future of Lancaster, we might want to take our Appalachian-ness into account. It has some strong aspects to build on. It also seems to me that the Democratic party, the party that used to embrace such as the Appalachians, is the party that could be most prepared to build that future. (We’re not locked into Lancaster’s past.) And if, when wew begin to build our future, we don’t, that might be a formula for building ourselves into a failing future.

But we need to keep in mind as we build that the northern reaches of Fairfield County are probably only vaguely Appalachian. Old Pickerington was likely somewhat Appalachian, but in the last decades it’s grown into exurbia, part of the greater Columbus culture, more urban and urbane than Lancaster. We Appalachians used to be the center and core of Fairfield County. I think it’s now more realistic to say that now we’re the southern part of the county. And maybe the two parts need to learn to work together building two different futures, somehow under one governmental roof.
Jack Bowers


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