Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Place Called Home

The view from our back deck.
A little while ago. . .no, wait. . .on October 10 it will be 23 years ago that we moved to our current home in Chilhowie, Virginia.  It hardly seems possible that it was that long ago that we left West Virginia.  We knew only a handful of people in Chilhowie and were crazy with finding places for all our things in our new house on that chaotic day when Geneva Hostetter kindly brought pizzas to our new house for lunch.

In one way the move was easier because Smyth County is not that different from Bluefield, West Virginia.  The people in both places hold many of the same values, and most have gardens in their back yards.  Both are surrounded by a scenic backdrop of mountains.  And yet, many of the people here have some funny ideas about West Virginia.  It always makes me wonder if they've even been to West Virginia. 

As a matter of fact I've often wondered why the southern counties in West Virginia seceded from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1863, and our cousins in this land between Tennessee and Kentucky remained in the Commonwealth.  Are we not all cut from the same cloth?  It seems that way to me. 

The fissure between the west and the east in Virginia began long before 1863.  To begin with, the settlers who drifted westward were a different kind of people than those in Tidewater.  The western settlers were mostly Protestant (German Lutherans and Quakers from Pennsylvania and the Scots-Irish Presbyterians); Tidewater Protestants were mainly Anglicans.  It has been said that the people who settled in what is now West Virginia mainly just wanted to be left alone.  I believe that.

Issues of unfair tax liabilities and unequal representation in the legislature cropped up over and over for decades.  Slaves were taxed at a lower rate than land was taxed, and there were few slaves in the western counties.  Murmurs of secession from Virginia floated around in western Virginia long before 1863.  The people were unhappy for a long time.

The surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line between 1763 and 1767 by Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason was a major event in the development of West Virginia.  Dixon and Mason were asked to survey a border between the states of Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in an effort to diminish the disagreements among those states concerning their borders.  The line ran straight across the south of Pennsylvania, but about 36 miles from the end of the line at the Ohio River, Mason and Dixon were unable to continue the survey because of hostile Indians.  This left the northern panhandle, where Wheeling is located, jutting up into the western edge of Pennsylvania.  If Mason and Dixon had continued on with their surveying, the line would have extended to the Ohio River, and Wheeling would have been located in Pennsylvania.  If not for those hostile Indians, there probably would not have been a state of West Virginia. 

Contrary to what I learned in the eighth grade, the formation of West Virginia was not by popular consensus.  The idea of a new state was actually most popular in the northwestern counties, and the people who initiated the scheme to form West Virginia were from. . .you guessed it. . .Wheeling.  The idea was much less popular in the southeastern counties where most young men enlisted in the Confederate Army rather than the Union Army.  After a series of political maneuvers and questionable elections, West Virginia was formed.  The southeastern counties, such as Greenbrier, Monroe, and Mercer, were much more similar to the counties remaining with Virginia than to those counties along the Ohio River.  In my humble opinion there still remains a cultural divide between the northern part of West Virginia and the southern half. 

The southern counties were more or less hijacked into the new state.  There was a pretense of having elections on whether to be in the new state or not, but most of the counties in the southeast never had an election.  After the war, Virginia sued West Virginia to get some of the counties back because the elections were not credible.  Virginia lost.  The story of how counties were selected (military advantage, transportation infrastructure) is not a pretty one.

In the late 1850s a railroad was constructed from Lynchburg to Bristol in an effort to mollify the agitated folks of the southwest counties.  This not only increased communication and cultural transfer between Richmond and Bristol, it also opened up markets.  Southwestern farmers began growing cash crops (tobacco) which could be shipped to markets and ports in eastern Virginia.  These connections with Richmond were never realized in the counties included in West Virginia. 

So much alike, and yet so different.  After 23 years, we are considering leaving once again and moving to a place that really has no connection to home.  We would still be in the mountains, but in a place that has no history or traditions connected with either of the Virginias.  Do we stay or do we go? I don't know the answer to that question yet. 
The mountains of Smyth County, Virginia.