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Reflections from the First-Ever Appalachian Retelling Storytelling Workshop

Updated: Jun 27

Photographs courtesy of Roger Strunk.

On July 8, 2023, a small group of people from around Eastern Kentucky gathered at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, KY for The Appalachian Retelling Project’s first-ever storytelling workshop. The theme of the event, broadly, was Appalachian culture. Participants were asked to bring a physical object that represents some aspect of Appalachian culture they had experienced in their lives, and then broke into small groups to share stories about their items and Appalachian culture at large. Participants ranged in age from their 30s to their 60s and spanned a variety of professions, interests, and experiences. Some had always lived in Eastern Kentucky, others had moved away for a while and later returned, and still others originally grew up in other regions of the country but had made Eastern Kentucky their permanent home.

Conversations were wide-ranging and included everything from discussions about community and family ties, connections to place, and the importance of land and nature in Appalachian culture, to topics like religion, labor movements, and Appalachian women. One participant even shared the story of his dad’s friends baptizing a goat!

Below, check out some of the topics discussed and read and hear excerpts from their conversations.

(Please note: Conversations were recorded using recording devices placed in the middle of the table and contain a lot of background noise.)

Family, Community, and Place

By far the most common subject of discussion was the connection many Appalachians feel to their communities, families, and the physical place of Appalachia, whether those places are just down the road or hundreds of miles away. 

“We’re place-based people,” said Rusty Justice, from Pikeville, KY. “That generational connectivity here that we carry with us…it’s important. It’s how we orient who we are. How I know who I am is my place and my people.”

For several participants, connection to the land was often tied to a connection to ancestors who had once been there. Greta Heintzelman Slone, from Prestonsburg, KY, shared about her connection to the land she lives on, once owned by her grandfather. 

“I envisioned my grandfather’s blood, sweat and tears, and his connection to it and the great lengths that he went to not to sell it,” she said. “That's our roots. It goes back to that extended family who have been so closely knit together…I'm on the mountain there and I'm looking down at 15 aunts and uncles, and it is intentional. And it doesn't matter their level of education, the level of how much money they're making. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with, they’re familiar. It has to do with the land.”

Others spoke directly about their close relationships with family members and the prevalence of intergenerational family structures in Appalachia. Mary Slone, from McDowell, KY, shared about the impact her grandmother, who lived beside her as a child, had on her life. 

“My grandmother has been one of the most seminal influences on my life,” she said. ”I spent every night with my Mamaw. And she made the world that had been gone for a long time, that she lived in, live. [...] I would not be who I am if it were not for her. Because she put storytelling, and why it is so important to connect with people and how stories do connect us - she wrote it in my DNA.”

Listen to Mary talk about her object, a recording of her Mamaw singing her a song, below. 

Greta, too, brought an object that symbolized her deep love for a grandparent - a letter she received from her Granny while away living in Greece. 

“I lived everywhere, and her letters would always find me. And just her persistence in letting me know that she was my person and I was hers, it was pretty incredible. She would always write, ‘You’re as nigh to me as my own.’ […] I’m back living [here] because of her.”

Kenny Schmidt, who moved from his home state of Texas to Pikeville, KY in 1988, shared his perspective on the intergenerational nature of many Appalachian families.

“Other places I’ve lived before don’t have that same connection with their grandparents. I mean, my grandparents, they’d come to visit for 30 minutes, or we’d go to their house and visit for an hour or two and leave. But here…when they go to the grocery, you know, the whole group. When they go to the doctor’s office, the whole group. There’s the baseball game, and it’s all the grandparents, the aunts and the uncles. […] You’re living very close by, so you’re very involved in your children’s lives and your grandchildren’s lives.”

Even those who had spent a significant amount of time living outside the region expressed a constant connection to home and an eventual desire to come back. 

“I left when I was 17, and then I was gone for 18 years,” said Jerrica King, who moved back to her hometown of Pikeville in 2023. “It’s interesting because I was gone longer than I had lived in Pikeville, but anytime someone would reference home, it was always Pikeville. Like, it’s just that root thing. It’s just instilled in you.”

Greta, who lived in various cities outside the region for nearly a decade before returning to Floyd County, KY in 2006, said she struggled with a narrative that made her feel as if coming home wasn’t an option. 

“My Granny would always tell me I was chasing ghosts,” she said. “I have had several careers, and one of them was in the theater in New York. And she would say, honey, your heart’s here. You’re a writer, and you’re just chasing ghosts. And I hated hearing that because she was right. […] My generation grew up to get out. We were taught to get out - don’t look back, never come back, there’s nothing here for you. And part of that was to go away to college and keep going, because that’s success. […] I had to come to terms with the fact that really, my happiness was here, and that it wasn’t failure.”

Language, Dialect, and Education

Another frequently discussed topic was the unique dialect and turns of phrase found throughout Appalachia.

“I think about the dialect that people use here,” said Rusty. “We still use it. I mean, my dad would always say, ‘It’s ugly enough to sprag lightning.’ You ever hear someone say sprag lightning? Or tree haints?”

“I was in an English class in one of my later college classes,” said Mary. “We were doing this poem, it was called ‘Carrion Comfort.’ And I’m just sitting there thinking about it…I went, oh my gosh, I’ve heard ‘You’re lazier than kyarn’ my whole life. I never knew what kyarn was. And I realized it’s carrion, which is dead stuff. ‘You’re lazier than roadkill.’”  

And while most attendees celebrated the Appalachian accent, some shared incidents in which they had encountered difficulties and even shame due to the way they spoke. Rebecca King, from Salyersville, KY, recounted an experience in which she was made fun of for how she pronounced her maiden name, Howard. 

“When I went away to college, I had this mean professor who made fun of me because I said that my name was Rebecca Haird - which, if you go to Salyersville, you will not find one living soul who will say Howard. […] He said, ‘How do you spell that?’ Of course, I spelled it H-O-W-A-R-D…and he said, ‘Well, that spells Howard, not Haird.’ And he tortured me my whole first semester of school. It brought him joy to torture me over how I pronounced my last name. And, you know, he really did make me feel bad about how I spoke.”

“I spent a large part of my teen years and into my early twenties trying to eradicate some of the things that I love most about me and my community,” said Mary. “I realized pretty early on that I cannot lose my accent, and I tried. […] I can say it with pride now, but I didn’t get here, to be able to have pride in all of this, easily. Because there are so many assumptions, as soon as I open my mouth, that I’m somehow less - that I’m going to be less intelligent, less informed, just less.”

Timothy Caldwell, who grew up in Georgia and moved to Harold, KY in 2017, said he wished more people recognized that these issues weren’t isolated to Appalachia and that they could take more pride in their accents.

“Every part of the country, no matter where you are, if you have a strong accent of any kind, people can make assumptions. […] I remember in Sweden meeting these guys from Iraq who were accomplished surgeons. But they couldn’t practice, so they were janitors. They had a strong accent, so people assumed that they didn’t know anything. What I see is that people forget that the problems here, maybe they’re unique in some ways, but they’re also common everywhere else.”

Closely related to themes of language and dialect were those of education, both traditional and nontraditional. Several attendees indicated that their ancestors had very little formal education, yet were highly skilled and knowledgeable in many other ways.

“One of the things I’ve become aware of is the difference between education and intelligence, and the value of common sense,” said Rusty. “Some of the smartest people I know - one of the guys I always seek advice from on major decisions can’t write his name. But he’s really smart.”

“I like to call it wisdom,” said Greta. “You know, innovation, problem solving skills, analytical minds, creative critical thinking where you solve your own problems.”

However, some participants discussed the pain that accompanied a lack of formal education. Rebecca told a story about the importance her grandparents placed on education, despite receiving very little formal education themselves.

“My entire life, anything that I said in the future, my Daddy always prefaced it with, ‘When you graduate from college.’ It was never if, it was always when you graduate from college. […] He would say to me all the time, you know, in this world, people get a lot of money and a lot of things, but that can all be gone tomorrow. But somebody can never take an education away from you.”

Rebecca discovered as a teenager that her Granny had never learned to read, but didn’t realize the emotional toll that had taken on her until soon before her grandmother’s passing.

“They [hospital staff] told her the social worker was going to be there, and she would be bringing paperwork. And she got all upset. And I said, ‘Granny, I’m going to be right here. I’ll take care of it. I’ll read everything for you, you don’t need to worry.’ And she said, ‘You don’t know what it feels like not to be able to read.’ […] Those words lived with me for the last 20 years.”

Listen to Rebecca’s full story below.

Despite difficulties around this topic, many participants agreed that the wisdom displayed in Appalachian culture outweighed any lack of education. Ruthie Caldwell, who moved from her home state of Texas to Harold, KY in 2017, acknowledged that many people throughout the country are beginning to see the wisdom in old traditions and ways of knowledge.

“A lot of folks outside of this region look at the region and think that they’re backwards, they’re not very wise. But now you look at after the pandemic and some of the things that have changed, and now people are wanting to go back to the old ways. And so this is a really big opportunity for us. […] If there was something that could show true people in Appalachia and the wisdom that’s here, it could redefine the way people view this area.”

Hard Topics: Violence, Stubbornness, etc.

“I think it's important that we acknowledge the less romantic side of who we are as a culture,” said Greta.

While most conversations focused on positive aspects of Appalachian life, some participants brought up what they felt were the more difficult and negative aspects of Appalachian culture. Many people mentioned the tendency of Appalachians to be independent to a fault.

“From what I’ve seen in this part of the world…they’re very independent people,” said Kenny. “They grew up in this holler…kind of clannish and very independent, so they don’t like anyone telling them what to do.”

“They’ll do anything you ask them and nothing you tell them,” said Rusty. “I had a guy that worked with me, and he summed it up: ‘Son, we’re fractious.’ And that’s a hillbilly word. And so that’s always how I describe us, we’re fractious.” 

Les Stapleton, who served as mayor of Prestonsburg, KY from 2014 to 2024, acknowledged that many Appalachians can be unfriendly and defensive when interacting with those from outside the region, but felt that they often had good reason.

“I was at a meeting recently with a bunch of mayors, and one of them said, ‘You know, I won’t go to Eastern Kentucky.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Well, someone will shoot me walking down the street.’ [...] People have this attitude toward us, and it puts us on the defensive. I mean, I got defensive in that meeting. We had words afterwards. That’s just, you know, I’m very defensive about it.”

A few participants brought up themes of violence in the region, including conflicts that occurred during the labor strikes of the 1970s and 1980s. Les told a story from his time working as a police officer in which a clash between strikers and police threatened to turn violent. 

“It’s 1988 and I’m a young trooper. I get called out about 4:15 in the morning…They said, ‘We have intelligence that there will be 600 pickets that will march across the bridge and take the processing plant out.’ [...] [There were] 600 people with baseball bats and everything else lined up. [...] And I’ll never forget the moment those boys started across the bridge, we started across the bridge. And the Captain came up behind me and said, ‘No matter what happens, you can’t fall. I don’t care if you break your leg, you better be able to hop.’ He said, ‘You don’t fall.’” 

Although Les didn’t support the violence, he said he understood why strikers felt so passionately about what they were doing. 

“People were fighting for better wages, safer working conditions, time off, a structured week,” he said. “That’s the reason the coal pickets were so violent - it’s fighting for a way of life.”

“It is the history of Appalachia,” he concluded. “You’re fighting against each other and you’re fighting for each other.”

Listen to Les’s full story below.

However, others felt it was important to acknowledge that violent incidents were not unique to Appalachia and that people generally got along in the region. 

“It’s amazing to me that yes, there is violence, but there’s violence in every place,” said Timothy. “But despite those differences, everyone has figured out how to generally get along with each other.”

Wrapping Up

The list of insights from these conversations far exceeds what we can cover in a single post, but it’s safe to say it was a productive and enlightening day for everyone involved. The Appalachian Retelling Project is grateful to everyone who participated in our first workshop and let us experiment with what works in a live format. We are also eternally grateful to the Mountain Arts Center, Prestonsburg Tourism, Bit Source, Alyssa McClanahan, and Roger Strunk for donating the time and resources that made this event possible. We hope to have more workshops like this in the future, so keep your eyes peeled for more!

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