- Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll
"They created a devastation and called it 'progress.'" With due apologies to Tacitus, this statement describes Steven Stoll's new book, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia. It presents modernization's dark side by covering Appalachia's transition from an agricultural frontier, composed of self-sufficient small free-holders, to an extension of the market-based industrial economy. Under this regime, not only has the region's ecology been assaulted by the extraction of coal and timber, but its people have, at different times, been cheated, exploited, and abandoned.
Central to Stoll's analysis is dispossession starting with enclosure in England. In this rendering, the common lands used by the local peasantry to supplement their incomes were seized by the nobility and organized into large estates. According to Stoll, the idea of private property regarding land originated at this time. Prior, there had been a complex system of rights and tenures that regulated how land was used and who used it (50). While this method functioned effectively within feudal society, that society was brought down by the Great Plague, paving the way for capitalism. Thus, enclosure, and peasant dispossession along with it, was a function of the new reality, [End Page 422] justified in the name of economic growth and progress. Stoll flatly rejects this model of inevitable and necessary injustice in the service of progress, as well as the analysis it has produced over the years. Arguably, this is the book's overarching theme: the dispossession of the British peasantry, or any rural people for that matter, was neither inevitable nor necessary.
Shifting to Appalachia, Stoll describes a "make-shift economy" that arose when the region was settled (67, 189, 275). Agricultural in nature, it followed a pattern similar to England's peasantry prior to enclosure. People had homes and some land under cultivation, but they also gathered from the forest while also hunting and fishing. While these settlers may have been cash poor, they were by no means destitute. They farmed for their subsistence and enjoyed some measure of plenty. As such, they were peripheral to America's urban/eastern cash-based economy. However, they did participate in that economy by selling certain goods, or using these goods as a means of exchange, notably whiskey.
In terms of their agriculture, how Appalachians prepared the ground for cultivation involved burning a part of the forest, then farming the land that had been cleared. Referred to as "swidden," this method has been used by other agricultural societies and figured in studies done of those societies by such scholars as Harold C. Conklin and Carl Sauer (251). Through this technique, the portion of land under cultivation would shift, while land that had been planted before would be allowed to return to forest. Thus, far from being destructive, this method proved to be highly effective and ecologically friendly.
The upshot is that the makeshift economy worked well for Appalachia and its people. From the outside, however, the view was that the region and its people needed to be fully integrated into the American nation. This meant somehow coercing the region into America's capitalist-based cash economy and thereby civilizing it. This was the rationale behind Alexander Hamilton's whiskey tax. Stoll does not say so directly, but taxing whiskey was, as noted in many textbooks, tantamount to taxing money for the region's people and was thereby resisted. The Whiskey Rebellion was the first major insurrection against federal authority, and although it was put down, it was not a failure since Hamilton's tax was rescinded. It would be a long time before the whiskey tax would be reimposed.
Far more difficult to resist, however, was industrialization. This, for Stoll, was the game changer. In the course of this process Appalachia and its people lost control of their mineral rights, lost control of the forest, and ultimately [End Page 423] lost control over their own lives. The small mountain farm gave way to the...