Moonshine and Mountaineers

A Scene from the Visitor's Center

A Scene from the Visitor's Center

by ben vega

The accompanying image poses an interesting and unique contradiction for Cades Cove, the truth of its people and history, and how it and the rest of Appalachia is perceived by outsiders. Being one of the primary themes of Appalachian studies, Appalachian “otherness” is the idea that the region’s populations and culture(s) are somehow isolated, unique, and alien to the general societal trends of the rest of America. Although Appalachia certainly has unique aspects of its history and culture, it is still encompassed within the United States, thus making it impossible to remain completely isolated and without influence from external stimuli. As we have discussed in class as well as on our trip to the cove, the perception of Appalachian identity, and subsequently that of Cades Cove, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have generally been one that the people of Appalachia are backward, uncivilized hillbillies that spend their lives farming, distilling and drinking moonshine, and living in unfettered poverty. Much of this narrative has been the result of decades of color writers, outsider reflections on the region, and political attention.

Although there have certainly been individuals who would fit those descriptions, the true identity of Cades Cove residents, and by extension Appalachians, is far more complex. The rough and unforgiving geography of Appalachia had historically made the region extremely difficult to penetrate, cultivate, and survive in. These factors garnered a remoteness, not isolation, that acted as a formidable obstacle for economic, social, and technological development in comparison to the rest of America. Years of rural life and self-sustenance forged the people into rugged survivalists that knew how to live off the land, because often times the land was all that they had. This meant that the Cove people were industrious and creative in addressing their needs, creating and building things like aquifers, mills, and smith forges to accomplish tasks and provide for each other. Historically, the political trends of the cove also suggest a connection to the whole of America. Throughout the Civil War, Cades Cove generally held strong Union sentiments and even had a disproportionate abolitionist presence in comparison to the rest of the South, even serving as a causeway for the Underground Railroad. Cades Cove also had strong social coordination and structure in the form of the church and religion. Dunn (1988) notes that “the Baptist church, its ideas and doctrine, represented a kind of ‘invisible government’ monitoring the lives of cove dwellers almost from the beginning of the community” (99). All of these facets of society, industry, and culture rebuke the generalizing stereotypes of mountain country bums, and rather, reinforces the truth of a society shaped by its environment and hardships.

The image itself is interesting because it was taken in the gift shop near the cove camp grounds. As an integral and heavily trafficked part of the Great Smokey Mountains national park, one would think that in the spirit of historical preservation, the national park would do its best to truthfully display and represent the history of Cades Cove and its people. And yet, in what is likely the most trafficked subsidiary attraction in the park, the gift shop was littered with novelty items and cheap gifts that continued to push the stereotypical narrative of backward mountain hillbillies. As is seen in the photo, the two items depicted consist of language, images, and rhetoric involving alcohol, moonshine, hillbillies, etc. The shot glass that says, “hillbilly shot glass”, being made from a branch, seems to suggest and reference the “connection to nature” and alcohol in equal parts while the “moonshine jelly” shows a clearly stereotypical image of a “typical hillbilly” with nothing but a jug of moonshine, his coveralls, and his single tooth. This image raises questions of how the national park system should be representing the people, lands, and cultures that they have been tasked with preserving, and what role they play in shaping the historical narrative.