“Haven’t you heard there are only 45 states left in the Union?” a Harper’s magazine writer joked in 1944. “Kentucky and Tennessee have gone to Indiana and Indiana has gone to hell.”
People moving from the South to Northern states for jobs is a story older than the modern industrial age. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns detailed what’s been called the Great Migration, with a particular focus on Black Americans who left the repressive and dangerous South from the early 1900s to the middle of the 20th century.
For Black and white people in the South, migration often meant leaving rural homeplaces for Northern industrial cities like Detroit, Chicago, Youngstown, Ohio, and my own home city of Muncie, Indiana.
At one point, a study estimated that 8% of Muncie’s population was made up of people who had moved here from Appalachia. Author and East Tennessee State University professor Margaret Ripley Wolfe wrote a paper, “Appalachians in Muncie: A Case Study of an American Exodus,” in 1992.
Wolfe cited that Harper’s jibe and noted a 1939 editorial in The Muncie Star newspaper wherein the writer said that many of those moving to Indiana were looking to cash in on “Indiana’s higher welfare benefits.”
My parents and their families weren’t looking for welfare. They were looking for work.
In my mother’s case, her parents and their eight children moved from Jamestown, Tennessee, to Muncie in the 1940s. At about the same time, my father settled in Muncie rather than back home in Jamestown after he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1946.
When they were still living in Fentress County, Tennessee, my mother’s family was desperately poor. To some, they were probably considered poor white trash. My mother never forgot how she and her sisters found and dug up plants for middlemen to sell to Bayer and other drugmakers. They were paid a few pennies per burlap sack full – and happy to get it.
Decades later, my mother and her sisters could laugh about how hardscrabble their life in Tennessee was. They fondly recalled the rare occasion of eating baloney from a small grocery store or the sisters fighting over the one nice dress they had among them. Eventually, a younger sister cut several inches off the dress so she could wear it, in the process ruining it for the older, taller girls.
Being poor in Muncie wasn’t much easier than being poor in Jamestown had been. They worked in glass plants, where temperatures were routinely 30 degrees hotter inside than the temperature outdoors. This might have felt good in harsh Indiana winters but was decidedly uncomfortable every summer.
But jobs, a way to make a living and build a household and family, were easier to find in the North.
“I didn’t leave anything behind in Tennessee,” my mother would sometimes say, dismissively, of her home state.
Yet she and the family – like many, many people who moved to the North – had left something behind: their homeplace. That explains why they would pile into their old Buick or the back of a truck almost every Friday after work and head south to see family members still down there. Then they started back on Sunday, to get back in time to go to the job on Monday.
Muncie’s factories – Ball Brothers, American Lawnmower, Delco Battery, Westinghouse, and the transmission plants of Warner Gear and Chevrolet – were the beating heart of the city. At its peak in the 1950s, the Warner Gear plant employed 6,000 men and women. That was three times the population of Jamestown.
But in the decades since my parents made those weekend trips home, both Muncie and Jamestown have struggled. Thousands of jobs went away. Chevrolet and Warner Gear in Muncie shut down in the 2000s. Nothing but rubble remains on their sites.
The story is the same in Jamestown, Fentress County Executive Jimmy Johnson told me recently.
“About 3,000 people worked at the shirt factories,” Johnson said. “We had seven or eight shirt manufacturers. You could see three of them from the courthouse.
“But when NAFTA took over, everything went to Mexico,” Johnson said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was implemented in 1994.
Although Jamestown has lost its share of good jobs – and its only hospital – many of those people from Muncie are making their way back to Jamestown and the Cumberland Plateau. They’re still visiting and some of them are retiring there, not far from where they knew hard times.
‘Yeah, You Hillbillies!’
The moment sticks with me, all these decades later. My family, my parents, and aunts, uncles, and cousins, walking down the midway at the Delaware County Fair here in Muncie.
The bozo – if you’re not familiar, the bozo is a carnival tradition, the guy in the dunk tank who irritates and aggravates people until they come over and pay to throw softballs at a target to try to dump him in a tank of brackish water – spotted us right away.
“Hey, come over here,” the bozo called out. “Yeah, you hillbillies! Everybody, look at the hillbillies. You can tell they’re from the hills because this is their first time walking on flat ground!”
Nobody in our group took the bait, and we just kept walking. Now if one of my aunts in particular had been there, she would have pitched a ball or two at the bozo. She hated the word “hillbilly.” Tiny and sweet but possessed of a fiery temper, she probably would have dunked the guy, but good.
I was born here in Indiana, but my parents and their siblings were born in Jamestown. It’s a town of about 2,000 people in Fentress County, pretty much East Tennessee but not as far east as Knoxville and the gateway to the Smokies.
Jamestown is probably best known as the home of World War I hero Alvin York. A local school is named after him. Mark Twain’s parents lived there for a while before he was born. For years, there was a hotel named after Twain downtown.
Jamestown has had its losses in recent decades. Industries departed and with them a lot of good-paying jobs. Jamestown is better known recently as a place whose population struggled with opioid abuse and crime.
Heather Mullinix is the editor of the Crossville Chronicle, the weekly newspaper in Crossville, about 30 miles from Jamestown. Crossville’s population of about 12,000 makes it more than five times the size of Jamestown.
Crossville calls itself “The Golf Capitol of Tennessee” and offers golf courses with expensive homes built along the course. The community of Fairfield Glade boasts of five championship courses. Fairfield Glade gets its own weekly newspaper, also edited by Mullinix.
“We’re growing faster than Fentress,” she said. Crossville is served by Interstate 40, which not only brings tourists looking for a golf vacation but people from Indiana and other northern states – many of whom left East Tennessee for the jobs in the North – who want to retire to a Tennessee golf course home or a cabin on Dale Hollow Lake, on the Kentucky state line about an hour from Jamestown.
Johnson, the county executive, said he has family members who moved to Muncie and moved back. Mullinix too.
“I had great aunts and uncles up in Muncie,” she said. “Uncle Bob and Aunt Em, they were excited to get back here.”
Crossville, with its golf course communities, does seem like a boomtown compared to Jamestown. Or Muncie, for that matter.
“We had 9% growth in the last census,” Mullinix said about Crossville and Cumberland County. “We have a lot of logistics companies because of I-40.
“Fentress has really been trying to build their tourism,” added Mullinix, who is from Jamestown but lives in Crossville now. “The biggest problem with Fentress (County) is that you can’t get there from here.”
Fentress County officials are trying to change that. Mullinix said a project is in the works to widen U.S. Highway 127 from Interstate 40 to the town of Clarkrange, a town in Fentress County not far from Jamestown.
Highway 127 already boasts a lot of traffic: Once a year, every August, 700 miles of 127 from Michigan to Alabama is the scene of the 127 Yard Sale, known as the World’s Longest Yard Sale.
Mullinix isn’t expressing skepticism when she noted, “They’ve been talking about that project since I was in middle school.”
Digging out of a Hole
There’s a lot of hope for Jamestown and its part of Tennessee. But the community is digging its way out of a hole.
“One of the big issues facing Fentress County right now is that their hospital closed in 2019,” said Mullinix, the Jamestown native. “That’s been really tough on that community. Pretty much everyone is being sent out of the county (for medical treatment).”
Jamestown officials are working with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to get a freestanding emergency room opened in Fentress County, Mullinix and Johnson noted.
“We’ve worked with UT Med at Knoxville to get an emergency room here, and it should open in August,” Johnson said. “We’re pretty proud of it. And it will change rural hospitals across the United States.”
Johnson added that a state senator is requesting $25 million in funding for a permanent community college.
“We’re the only county around here, of all the surrounding counties, that doesn’t have one,” Johnson said. “Vocational training is the big thing in education now. A lot of people graduate high school, they want to do what mom and dad did. Your quickest way to money is through vocational school and training.”
My parents and their families and all the folks who came up from Jamestown and Oneida, Tennessee, and Albany, Kentucky, and points between received the kind of welcome in Muncie they undoubtedly expected. Sentiment toward the people moving up from the South was not loving.
In other words, being called hillbillies by the carnival bozo was nothing new, and those past insults probably explained why they could shrug off the jibes. Insults didn’t deter them. Neither did hard work in the Ball canning jar factory or the American Lawnmower factory or any of the glass plants.
Those seemed like golden opportunities compared to digging in the dirt for scraggly plants and roots.
In later years, years before they passed away, my mom and dad tried to get down to Jamestown at least a couple of times each summer. I’d go too and we’d stay at a little motel on the outskirts of town or at the home of my Aunt Versie. She and my Uncle Arnold – on my dad’s side – went to bed early, so I’d lie in bed and read the comic books I’d brought along or bought at the grocery store down the street.
It’s the last time I remember nights that quiet.
Maybe I’m more nostalgic the older I get. Maybe, like my mom, I did leave something in Tennessee.
Keith Roysdon is a lifelong writer who retired in 2019 from a 40-year career as an Indiana newspaper reporter and editor. He won dozens of state and national awards for his reporting. He’s the co-author of three true crime books and his first novel, “Seven Angels,” about a woman who goes back to her small Tennessee hometown and confronts murder, police corruption, opioid abuse, and human trafficking, won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for Best Unpublished Novel from the Mystery Writers of American Midwest Chapter. He writes news and pop culture articles for several sites. He’s active on Twitter but isn’t always happy about that.