Student Submission: Lost Appalachian Culture
Growing up and living in Appalachia is a unique experience. The culture here is unlike any other when it comes to food, family traditions, and dialect, just to mention a few. However, as time goes on, many of the traditions or ways of living that so many of us have heard about or experienced are slowly fading away. Three of those that we don’t see or hear about these days are swinging bridges, snake-handling churches, and wakes for the deceased.
Swinging bridges became one of the earliest ways to connect communities that were divided by various creeks and streams in our area. They were relatively cheap and easy to construct using wood, metal, and rope, and were mostly immune to high water. Many people had to build homes close to water and swinging bridges allowed them to come and go when needed. Swinging bridges date back to the late 1700s and were along routes that were traveled by Daniel Boone. As time has passed, people have moved on and found alternative ways to navigate living in the mountains. Improvements to infrastructure have created more practical and sturdy bridges to allow access to these once isolated areas. While swinging bridges are not used out of necessity now, there are several remaining bridges located in various parts of Kentucky and are typically visited as historic attractions. The Breaks Interstate Park has actually received a grant to construct the longest pedestrian swinging bridge in the United States being 750 feet long that will connect parts of Kentucky and Virginia on the Pine Mountain Trail. The photo below shows why many people from other areas would want to visit these attractions as these bridges are usually in a location surrounded by beautiful mountains.
My mother had a childhood friend that still had a swinging bridge on their property and it was always a highlight to be invited over to her home to play. She fondly remembers playing on the bridge and even wondering if it was a safe idea.
A second example of a cultural practice that originated in Appalachia but has been illegal since 1940 was the handling of snakes during religious services. Snake handling in churches gained popularity in the early 1900’s as pastors used the book of Mark in the Bible to claim that God commanded them to “take up serpents” according to USA Today. People who participated in these services didn’t assume they wouldn’t get bitten, but did believe that if they did, they would be healed if their beliefs were strong enough. This phenomenon became so popular that by the 1940’s many state legislatures banned the practice because there had been a rash of deaths prior to that.
Although snake handling has been banned for 80 years, people continue to perform this religious practice in Appalachia. A Kentucky pastor from Middlesboro made national headlines when he died after being bitten. The article in USA Today states that the pastor had been bitten eight times before the fatal bite occurred.
A final example of a lost Appalachian practice is holding wakes for the deceased.
While many places in the south would hold celebration of life ceremonies, it was more common in rural areas of Appalachia to have social gatherings at their homes when someone in the family passed away. Funeral homes were not convenient or used as they are now, so loved ones of the dead would stay up with the body. Caskets were usually homemade with a homemade quilt covering part of the body. People tended to eat and have very long visits in their homes. This tended to last over the period of one night or up to several days. My grandfather tells stories of “setting up with the body” and how he clearly remembers visiting several homes in the holler he grew up in where this happened. One of the reasons families would do this is because of superstition. Many believed that the soul didn’t leave the body until twenty-four hours had passed after death. They believed the body should be watched to keep the devil from stealing the soul. These wakes were also often seen as a sign of respect to loved ones that had passed on.
As time passes and people get older, ways of living tend to change in certain areas, and that can definitely be said for many Appalachian traditions. It is hard to imagine a time when swinging bridges were a primary way to reach your home, snake handling was taking place in many churches, or people didn’t gather at funeral homes but inside personal homes to pay respect to the deceased. These pieces of our Appalachian culture are now mostly forgotten and can only be experienced through the memories and stories told to us by our older friends and relatives.
This essay was submitted as part of a collaboration with the Digital Media class at Letcher Central High School in Letcher County, KY.
Harrison Addington is a freshman at Letcher County Central. He is a member of the Digital Media Class where he created this essay. Harrison enjoys playing basketball and reading. He plans on continuing high school and figuring out what he wants to do.