Sweet Gaventa! Grappling Over Appalachian Historiography in the Clear Fork Valley


Alexander Arthur Museum in Middlesboro, KY

Alexander Arthur Museum in Middlesboro, KY. Housed in the former office of the American Association, Ltd., built around 1890. Photo by Mark Persons, found on waymarking.com.

I don’t think I could have read two books about the same place that are so different like I did this past week. I delved into material that I hope will give me a better context for the Cumberland Gap area for my dissertation work and trying to determine what exactly was the National Park Service’s role in this particular area of Appalachia.

I began with the most recent publication: Natalie Sweet’s Cumberland Gap and Harrogate, a recent addition to Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. Sweet teaches history at Lincoln Memorial University and is currently a Research Fellow at the Lincoln Institute for Leadership and Public Policy.  These Arcadia books follow a formula that is pretty popular with public audiences. Local historians collect historic photographs and weave them together with minimum narrative. I enjoy Arcadia books because the pictures are usually very helpful and author’s provide the “essence” of place in a relatively short space. Sweet’s narrative touches on themes such as the influence of British corporations, the development of Lincoln Memorial University, and the rise of recreational tourism.

Next, I picked up John Gaventa’s 1980 classic political theory work, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Gaventa studies the same general area as Sweet—the Clear Fork Valley—including areas of Bell County, Kentucky and Claiborne County, Tennessee. It has been a while since I have had to wade through thick political theory, but Gaventa paints a much different picture of the Clear Fork Valley than Sweet—a region exploited and neglected by outside corporate interests. Similar to Sweet, his historical analysis begins with the arrival of a British corporation, American Association Ltd., which purchased much of the land in the area for industrial development (ie. coal). Industrial development radically reordered society in that area of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. The Company remained in power and established relationships with locals that became the local elite. Over time the Company and local elite exerted their power over the non-elite, which continued up through the 1970s when a group finally spoke out against strip mining practices that threatened their community. Spoiler alert: They lost.

Gaventa shows the various ways in which these non-elite could not work through regulatory powers (governmental or corporate) to have their issues addressed.  His work demonstrates that Appalachians themselves are not victims to their own fatalistic attitudes, but the real ways in which power prevents them from protesting.

Sweet’s book omits the American Association’s land grab of nearly 80,000 acres in the 1890s, instead playing up the personality of Alexander Arthur and the vision he had for the area being a respite for the British and American upper and middle class. Gaventa asserted that the Company and local elite developed an ideology in reinforcing the Company’s legitimacy for being in the area. If taken at full value, Gaventa’s indicate that Sweet’s public history book reinforces this ideology that continues today although I am not sure that is her intention.

Gaventa argued that much of the inequality in the area stemmed from land ownership. Not only did the American Association garble up most of the land in the area, but it refused to let anyone use it. Ever. In the 1970s, the Company still owned over 60,000 acres (about 75% of land in the Clear Fork Valley) and objected to any community project using its property, such as for a community center or health clinic to serve the most impoverished in the area. However, it did support development that helped the local middle-class elites, such as recreation and tourism.

This raises several difficult questions for my work. I should first point out that Gaventa did not consider the state and federal government’s own land acquisition during the twentieth century. During the New Deal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased 14,000 acres of land on Pine Mountain, causing hundreds of families to move. This was followed with the establishment of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park that now includes 24,000 acres. Did the government worsen the land use situation in the area by moving people off of land with nowhere to go in the local area? Did these projects work with or against the power structures of the Company and local elite? For example, my research shows that local boosters wanted the government to purchase most of the land between Pine and Cumberland Mountains for a recreational area, but some of that land certainly had to be owned by the Company. Were boosters trying to grab land back from the Company or would the recreation area serve existing power structures? Did the NPS serve or work against these structures later in the twentieth century? Does the national park serve those ideologies today? How did resentment of “outsiders” play into the wilderness movement in the 1960s? And finally, how did the Hensley family amass 500 acres during the early 1900s when so much land was owned by the American Association? More importantly—why?

These are some tough questions I need to grapple with. I suppose I need to go back to David Whisnant’s Modernizing the Mountaineer and Sara Gregg’s Managing the Mountains to see if they have anything to offer.  I also think I will have to stop by the Arthur Alexander Museum in Middlesboro in the former office of American Association Ltd. (listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1978) on one of my research trips this summer. If any Appalachian historians out there have any insight to offer, I would love to hear it!

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