Ballard Jones: Summer in the Clearfork Valley

Ballard Jones is a senior majoring in history.  He participated in the 2010 spring semester course Practicum in Liberal Arts: Building Community in Appalachia, and he returned to Eagan, TN for a six-week summer internship with the Clearfork Community Institute.

Ballard Jones, Michelle Mockbee, and Rachel Naftel

For the past month or so I’ve been interning at the Clearfork Community Institute in Eagan, Tennessee. CCI is a community center with an emphasis on community development education and local research, as well as being an outreach center for the surrounding Clearfork Valley. The valley is in the Appalachian coalfields and comprised of twelve unincorporated towns, four counties, and straddles the Tennessee-Kentucky boarder. I had previously been here when the College of Liberal Arts offered a class on community development and visited here during Spring Break. At the end of our trip Carol Judy, one of CCI’s board members, approached me and asked if I would like to spend my summer in Eagan.  I told her this sounded like a great idea and that I would see what kind of help I could get from Auburn in terms of pay and other assorted details. As it turned out, Auburn was only able to send me back to Eagan for six weeks as opposed to the whole summer. This was perfectly fine with me because the World Cup was this summer. I’ve been waiting for four years, and there was no way on Earth that I was about to miss the world’s greatest ever sporting event (please don’t argue this; it’s a proven fact). So it was decided that I would spend the last six weeks of the summer in Eagan, interning at CCI and working on the land study that I had worked on in the spring.

Michelle and Randall's Garden

On the day that I arrived back in the Eagan, it was a drizzly, nasty afternoon. This made the drive over Pine Mountain an especially terrifying one, seeing as there are only about two, hundred foot long guardrails along a stretch of highway that would make travelers of the Camino de las Yungas want to cry. The fact that there is only one switchback that is called Dead Man’s Curve baffles me. It would make way more sense if all the turns on Highway 90 were called Dead Man’s Curve, and then assigned a number accordingly. All of that aside, I eventually made it into Rose’s Creek, the hollow (hall-er) in which I now reside. I was greeted by Michelle, my current boss-lady/roommate/maker of excellent dinners, who showed me my room. Funnily enough my “room” also happens to house the washer and dryer.

Following the perfunctory tour of my new home, Michelle, myself, and Rachel (the other Auburn intern) traveled back down the mountain to Morley, home of Michelle’s friends Henry and Eda Mae. If you were going to travel through the Clearfork Valley and only had time to stop once, then you would need to stop at Henry and Eda Mae’s home. These two individuals and their family are the most self-sufficient, giving, fun loving, hilarious people I have ever met. They exemplify what it is to live around these parts, and I think they give you a truer since of what it means to be Appalachian, as opposed to modern media portrayals. For instance, aside from being a talented musician, Henry is a mechanic and wine maker as well. I’ve never seen or heard of so many different types of wine. There were more types of wine than types of shrimp that Bubba from Forrest Gump could name.  Henry’s wife Eda Mae has two daughters, Debbie and Missy, both of whom recently moved down to Tennessee from Connecticut (oddly enough, there are quite a lot of people here who have relocated from the north). Even though Debbie and Missy have outrageous northern accents, no one gives them too much stick or holds it against them. Missy though, does love to give me my fair share of flak. Down the street from Henry and Eda Mae’s is “The Stop,” a sort of convenient store and/or garage that they own.  Not only is the stop a place of business, but also the home of one Earl Willis, a man of unlimited catch phrases, most of which I can’t repeat in polite company.  As well as being an extremely funny man, Earl’s knowledge of automobiles is boundless; he has total recall of all things with four wheels.

In just my first night I met all of these people and was quickly able to realize that the preconceived notions and stereotypes about this place, while not completely baseless, are very misleading.  Yes, you will still find families who really dislike each other and “feud” to this day, there are still moon shiners, and there are plenty of people who LOVE to go off-roading (I kid you not, the preferred mode of transportation after five o’clock at night is a four-wheeler). However, what the stereotypes fail to acknowledge is the resilience and giving nature of the people that I have met in the Clearfork Valley of Appalachia. They truly have made my work here all the more worthwhile.

Speaking of work, because I have been doing some of that; it hasn’t just been four-wheeling and wine tasting.  The task I was assigned was to help complete a land study of the Woodland Community Land Trust, the organization from which CCI was born.  The land study is part of a larger pilot study that is being put together in order to help CCI earn grant money.  It has involved a lot of surveying and a whole lot more data entry. It can be rather tedious, especially when students from other universities who had previously worked on the same project had zero organizational skill. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that a lot of the Clearfork Valley is loosely defined. That is to say that what one person defines as the town of Eagan, someone else may define as the town of Anthras, just down the highway from Eagan. None of these towns are incorporated so there are no recorded town limits or jurisdictions. I stopped looking at maps of the area altogether, since they had only served to confuse me even more.

Although this mapping project has been, at times, frustrating and confusing, it has helped me to build friendships and get to know the people who live here with a little more intimacy. A case in point would be Randall Hatfield. I already knew Randall before I mapped his property, but just by walking around his homestead with him, I got to glimpse into his world for a little bit. Randall makes most of his living as a carpenter, making things like frames, cabinets, boxes, pipes, chairs, etc. After Randall and I mapped his property, we sat and fed his goats and chickens while we whittled on some blanks that he intended to make into pipes. At a point when our conversation was at a lull, Randall broke the silence by exclaiming, “Hey, look how hard that goat’s head is,” and then bopped the goat on the head. The goat stood there just the same, as Randall and I chuckled to ourselves.

If it weren’t for this mapping project I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet and befriend people like Randall. I’d really like to make a point of these friendships because in some cases I believe that other volunteers and visitors to the area view the residents of this valley as museum exhibits as opposed to being actual people. Recently I read an article by a student from over twenty years ago who spent a week in the very hollow that I live in now.  The way he wrote and the tone he used seemed to imply that he thought Appalachian people weren’t people, but objects to be gawked at. This really irritated me because I’ve made so many new friends in the time that I’ve been here. These people are nothing to be gawked at; if anything they are people that need to be held in awe and reverence. If you don’t believe me, then I invite you to come spend some time up here; I can almost guarantee it will change the way you perceive others and the world around you.

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2 responses to “Ballard Jones: Summer in the Clearfork Valley

  1. you are such a wonderful writer.. thank you

  2. I liked how this piece works against prevailing stereotypes of Appalachia by replacing them with factual vignettes that show quite a different reality. Thank you Ballard for your summer of service and for your respect of local people and traditions.

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