Appalachia Profiles of Mountain People

Traditional Mountain Characteristics—Self-Reliance

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.

man and woman on couch

Commodore and Anna Lou Casada

Traditional Mountain Characteristics—Self-Reliance

Among the common sayings I heard frequently in my boyhood were three which went to the heart of a tried and true aspect of mountain character, self-reliance.  They were “make do with what you’ve got,” “waste not, want not,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” My parents not only preached that gospel of self-reliance when it came to life’s daily needs, they practiced it.

Both were young adults during the economic devastation of the Great Depression, and on top of that both had grown up as poor as Job’s turkey. Daddy came from a large family. My grandparents almost certainly never had a bank account and to them real money, as opposed to barter, was such a rarity that Grandpa Joe invariably referred to it as “cash money.” Even more striking was the fact that my paternal grandmother had been, as a child, “bound” (under indentured servitude).  Slavery may have ended in the 1860s but bondage remained legal in the U. S. until 1917, and she and her brother grew up in nearby Clay County under that status.

Momma, for her part, lost her mother when she was an infant and for whatever reason her father more or less abandoned her and an even younger sister to be raised, separately, by relatives. Hers was a troubled and unstable childhood, earmarked by constant moves and a paucity of love, although to her enduring credit as an adult she never allowed these things to affect her outlook on life. She was about as happy and optimistic a soul as you are likely to encounter, although her comment when she and Dad bought the home I grew up in shortly after they married was a telling one. She said, “I never want to move again.” Until the final weeks of her life when she had to move to a nursing home, she didn’t.

Those experiences translated to my parents being frugal almost to a fault, but they were in no way unusual in that regard in the world of the Smokies during much of the 20th century. They scrimped and saved with great care, threw nothing away, and sooner or later found a use for pretty much anything and everything. For Mom a jar of something bought from the store was destined to become a canning jar once the contents were used, and she simply could not abide food being wasted. Leftovers fed our hunting dogs, surplus garden vegetables were given to the needy or in some cases sold, and pretty much any non-food item which came her way was saved with the comment “I might find a use for that.”

Daddy was even more given to recycling, although in my youth that word almost certainly wasn’t in his vocabulary. He pulled, straightened, and saved nails. Any nut, bolt, or screw which came his way went into one of many jars according to size or other means he used for sorting. Indeed, virtually anything made of metal found a place in a jar or on a shelf in the basement. Those shelves, incidentally, were made of scrap lumber he had accumulated in various ways. He used the same tomato stakes made of locust for many decades, and when the bottoms gradually rotted away he just fastened two short stakes together to make one of suitable length. When he died there was a lifetime’s accumulation of what can only be termed “stuff” in the basement, but over the years there’s no telling how much money he saved simply by using carefully stored bits and pieces. He could figure out a way to engineer, repair, rework, or improve almost anything.

My parents’ mindsets fit squarely with those of most mountain folks of the first three-quarters of the last century. They “made do,” and did so in stellar fashion. Daddy absolutely hated to owe money, and other than the mortgage on the house and purchase of a couple of automobiles, he refused to borrow. If he wanted or even needed something, it just had to wait until he could scrape together enough funds to pay cash. That’s the way most other local people handled their finances.

On one occasion, when I was in the first grade, I got a never-to-be-forgotten lesson in both self-sufficiency and fiscal responsibility. It was common in the 1940s and 1950s for school classes to have some type of project where they raised funds for a good cause. It might be a national effort like the March of Dimes or merely a food drive to help the less fortunate on the local level. Students were asked to make a pledge to help.

Momma and Daddy were always highly supportive of such initiatives, but on this particular occasion I got a bad case of the big britches. It in turn landed me in serious trouble. When the teacher asked for pledges, most of my classmates said their parents would contribute a nickel or a dime. In a master stroke of idiocy, I said “My Daddy will give five dollars.”

 He lived up to that commitment, never mind that five dollars amounted to almost a week’s mortgage payment on the house ($25 a month), but the lecture I got about spending money I didn’t have lingers to this day. Since then I’ve always tried to abide by “make do with what you’ve got.” For his part, right up until his death at the age of 101, Daddy earned interest on my mistake by retelling the story and embarrassing the dickens out of me every time. Like his mountain contemporaries in general, he reckoned a man could and should make do with what he had.

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I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did. If you’d like to read more of Jim’s writings jump over to his website for a visit and browse through his newsletter archive.

Tipper

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 21, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    What kind of teacher would put a child on the spot like that? It only serves to drive the kids apart. To create classes? Instead of bringing them together to support a worthy cause it leaves some feeling inferior. And the others feeling they were somehow superior. At the time I was made to feel like I was of the inferior caste. We had plenty to eat, a warm place to sleep and a hundred acres on which to roam. But, we didn’t have money, cash money, greenbacks, liquid assets. We gave of our bounty to the needy but in a form that couldn’t be used for illicit purposes. Milk, eggs, meat and garden vegetables some fresh and some canned. When it came to school supported charities though Daddy struggled to give a little to each of his six children so we wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of our fellow students. At the time I presumed that was just the way the world was. As I got older I began to realize that something was wrong. The schools were using the children’s vulnerability to coerce money from their parents. That’s the only explanation.
    I would like to know the name of the teacher who put Mr. Cassada such a position. I had some of the same teachers he did. But they were high school. Maybe the teachers were under some kind of pressure too and were just passing it on to the children. That’s no excuse! Schools should be for the children and nobody else. Teachers should feel that they are working for those children’s parents. After all it is they are who really pay their salaries, not the state or the local school board.
    Sorry I went on such a rant but sometimes something just gets under my skin and I have to say something or explode. You wouldn’t want that. Or would you? tic tic tic tic tic

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    April 21, 2020 at 4:19 pm

    Tipper,
    I called Donna Lynn at our Christian Radio Station before she went off and requested two songs. One was “Cabin by the Side of the Road” by Ray and Pap. The other was by Chitter and Chatter, “River of Jordan”.

    About a year ago, you and Matt stopped by on the way back from Canton where Tony and his wife lived. You and Matt carried in a couple of boxes of things that youn’z canned and other things. I had the flu several times, it seems that every time I was over it, someone would drop by and give it to me all over. So, I’m now Thanking Youn’ze for the Supplies. They came in handy! …Ken

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    April 21, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Jim’s article could have been written about my parents, my dad’s father was killed in a logging accident when he was five leaving my grandmother to raise three sons through the depression. Dad had jars of anything that might be needed and my mom made the majority of our clothes. I remember buying my first new car and financing it, dad’s car was showing it’s age and I offered to let him use my new car but he refused and he and mom went to Asheville one day and returned with two new Volkswagens which I learned he had paid cash for, the same thing occurred when he bought their home. He believed if you couldn’t pay cash for something you did without until you could.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 21, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you Jim, they sound exactly like my grandparents. They were mountain folks and they worked hard all their lives feeding their family. These were honorable people, independent, and self reliant. They lived through the depression and knew what it was to be hungry so for the rest of their lives they worked very hard to make sure they were never hungry again. When my grandmother died there were hundreds of jars of home canned food in jars in their cellar and a large freezer full to the top with food.
    They had chickens, milk cows, and raised a pig or two every year. There were true country people.
    It was a time far removed from today!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    April 21, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    Tipper,
    And Jim,
    Everybody needs a Grandpa Joe. I remember my uncle Joe coming to our house on Tucker Branch, before we moved to the other side of the Rode, and below there a ways. He was Grandma Deliah’s Brother and Mama’s Uncle. I was about 3 but I remember him carrying a Banjo. You get him about half-drunk and he could really play that thang. He’d stair at the lights or skeetrs circulating around. He’d take requests and Mama told him to play, “Red Wing”. That’s the first time I ever remember hearing that tune and it stuck with me.

    I remember well when Jim and his brother Don came to my shop and that was the first time I was introduced to Moral Mushrooms. Jim cooked them cause I had never had any before. I fixed cornbread and White Runners and we had a good time.

    I still wonder if My Daddy and Commodore had ever met, cause Daddy never talked about him. They were both Born in 1910 and were of the Greatest Generation. …Ken

  • Reply
    InTheWoods
    April 21, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Self-sufficiency is a major asset, sometimes lost on folks who were not privileged to be raised with that need or mindset. What drives me crazy is, after mulling over what mighten I need with this or that particular item (used or empty or oddball or just plain old), and not concluding anything useful, tossing it into the trash or recycling… and lo and behold, a week later, I sure could’ve use it. Never fails. Now, as space allows, I try to save all kinds of unusual things. It’s my Ya Never Know Collection.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    April 21, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Wonderful story! Hope some good will come from this pandemic–people learning do-it-yourself skills as well as the great value of having a stocked pantry.

    I remember Granny & Mama cutting a newspaper pattern for clothes for me. I was tickled as I thought they were making me a paper dress! Mama dyed what she called domestic and covered our ragged couch–not pretty but clean & whole.

    Mama’s mother sewed and dyed work shirts for my Grandpapa and made clothes for 6 girls. They were able to order fabric bundles from Sears. I wonder if they got a choice of materials or took pot luck. I can remember when our Sears store sold yard goods in the store.

    I used to sew a lot–made most of my son’s shorts and shirts when he was little. A dollar fabric remnant would make a pair of shorts at that time. I have made more complicated stuff–a camo hunting outfit for my husband that has survived for over 20 yrs and now is worn by our son. I’ve lost dexterity with the years & don’t sew except for minor stuff like hemming.

  • Reply
    Jackie
    April 21, 2020 at 10:46 am

    A lot of Jim’s post is familiar to me. We had a basement and out buildings loaded with ‘stuff’. Dad did have a bank account once. He went to the bank and said he wanted to open an account. When asked what kind of account he said he wanted to save some money and if he had it in his pocket some of us would find a way to spend it. Later he wrote a check and it bounced. He went to the bank and was told they couldn’t find a checking account in his name. After some time of being accused of stealing his fifty dollars someone found his savings account. He got his money back and never had any use for banks again. When he bought a new truck on credit he gave mom cash every month and she wrote a check for the payment from her account

    I have been accused many times of being stingy but I call it being frugal. My wife says our garage is full of junk that we’ll never find a use for. I rarely have to go to the store when I need a special screw or certain size of nail. I only need to go to the garage and find it.

  • Reply
    Cynthia
    April 21, 2020 at 10:10 am

    I’ve enjoyed this post and the comments. Even though I was raised in the suburbs, my parents raised me to use it up and make do. We were reusing and re-purposing long before it became the big thing. Pill bottles used to be clear, and we’d use those to store sewing notions. Jelly jars made great glasses, especially the ones with cartoon designs. I remember when the elbows wore thin on my long-sleeved blouses, I’d cut off the sleeve just above the elbow and hem it for a short-sleeved blouse. I had a beautiful winter coat, but the lining wore out, so I carefully removed the old lining and used it as a pattern to cut a new lining, and relined my coat. The new lining lasted until the coat wore out. My husband is the king of leftovers. He can take odds and ends out of the refrigerator and create a fantastic new dish. Last week, we had leftover rice and asparagus, so he cooked some carrots and celery, added the rice, asparagus, a can of chicken, some broth, and made a fantastic soup. We rarely waste food, unless we cut into a bad potato or onion.

  • Reply
    Joe Mode
    April 21, 2020 at 10:02 am

    Great article and reminder of just how beneficial and crucial it is to be self-reliant and independent. As someone said, when you have these great Appalachian traits, and know how to fix what breaks and work with your hands, you won’t likely be beholden to anyone, especially government. My mother-in-law saved EVERYTHING, even egg shells and old aluminum foil. I know, I had to deal with it when she passed.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    April 21, 2020 at 9:55 am

    For whatever reason I thought of an old saying my Brother-in-Law uses. Poor people have poor ways. I don’t think of this saying in a negative way. I think of it as having an alternative way of doing things with less money and being self-reliant.
    Right now it looks like more people will become self-reliant. Investing the stimulus money in renewable food sources sounds like a better plan than buying gold to me.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    April 21, 2020 at 9:12 am

    Thanks to Jim for sharing his story about his wonderful parents and how he learned self reliance. My Mom would have jumped in and prepared for this present day calamity like a pro. She seemed to think if you had enough canned stuff and stocked up goods it would take you through anything. She was certain that Y2K thing might turn into a problem, and encouraged all of us to have a good stash of staples caught on sale. My dad cautioned often to learn everything possible because one never knew when one might need it. I am not particularly mechanically inclined, but have tried to override that little shortcoming by learning as much as possible. I have had a rough time getting a basement cleaned out recently that contains years of collecting. My Aunt asked me why I didn’t just hire a teen to do this for me. and my reply was that I have never once hired anybody to do anything I can do for myself. She was the baby, and my grandmother died when she was quite young, so I suppose nobody ever taught her self reliance or that “do or die” philosophy.

    One of my dear old neighbors has always taken care of so much, and I have watched him try to piddle around in a very feeble state doing his yard and garden work. I have also witnessed young men hire simple things done. Once a college class required us to get up and demonstrate or teach something useful to the classroom. One young man actually got up and told all the advantages of getting windows cleaned and being able to sit in the car while an attendant pumped his gas. I remain baffled today why that healthy young man thought that was useful. There was a short period of time in our history after service stations were pulling away from hiring attendants to pump the gas. One could pump their own as regular service or pay extra for full service. It would never have occurred to me to pay for full service even in below 0 weather. We tend to do as our parents taught us, and mine were all about independence.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    April 21, 2020 at 8:56 am

    My parents were not nearly as old as Commodore and Anna Lou, but Jim’s story could have been written about them. It’s no wonder we didn’t have sanitation departments back in those days, as I can’t recall ever having any household trash. Empty oatmeal containers served as a canister, Prince Albert cans were cut in strips and used to curl our hair and anything glass was repurposed. That generation of wonderful people wasted nothing.

  • Reply
    Colleen
    April 21, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    carol harrison
    April 21, 2020 at 8:25 am

    My parents lived and worked during the depression. I remember her taking old studio couch cushions apart and making pattern out of newspaper to make new ones. She could sew anything. My dad paid cash for everything. When he bought a car, paid cash and started to save for next one. We got 2 loads of coal each year. Paid for one, saved for next one. Lights out on leaving a room. Water turned off while brushing teeth. Saved string, paper bags, newspapers to wrap peelings in, etc. Waste not, want not. We need to return to those ways.

  • Reply
    gayle larson
    April 21, 2020 at 8:02 am

    we lived by all those sayings. Especially God helps those that help themselves. The worst, one which still haunts me, was “there is a poor child in India who would love to have the food you are throwing away”. Every time I clean out the fridge that one pops up in my mind.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    April 21, 2020 at 7:58 am

    What Jim describes as a way of life had the effect of independence. Independent people don’t have to be “beholdin to” anybody or afraid of how they can be pressured. If enough of us were that free we could sure get the attention of the powers that be.

    But lest I stray off into a commercial, I am reminded of a story about Alexander the Great and the Greek philosopher Diogenes (I think it was). Alexander hunted Diogenes up where he lived in a wooden tub on the street and asked him (from his status as a great man) if he could do anything for him. His shadow was falling over Diogenes who said, “Yes, you can get out of my light.”

    i’m sure I’ve posted it here before, but I am also reminded, again, of that Depression-era saying, “If I have land, they can’t starve me to death.” I have heard my Dad say that many times. His formula for success was land, hard work and faith. It was the old formula of the pioneers.

  • Reply
    Dee
    April 21, 2020 at 7:22 am

    I so enjoyed reading this post as memories of grandparents growing up in the hills of NE MS resonated with the same Self-Reliance. My parents also were great examples of Self-Reliance and I am so blessed to have watched and listened to all the stories of growing up with making do! I remember so very many projects my Daddy built to make do taking an old door to make a coffee table. If we needed a table and china cabinet – he built it. One summer someone gave my Mother an old umbrella for a picnic table. My Daddy had made the picnic table but the old umbrella’s fabric was torn and weather beaten. I was shocked one week when I returned home to find new fabric covering that old umbrella and it sitting in the picnic table open displaying the beauty of the fabric and the cooling protection from the sun. At first I thought my Mother had purchased a new umbrella but found out she had taken the old fabric off and carefully made a pattern. She had sewed new fabric together and fastened it back on the umbrella. It still blows my mind. She didn’t have UTube to use to see how to do it – she just figured it out herself. So many stories like that are in the store house of my mind.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    April 21, 2020 at 6:51 am

    What a wonderful story. My father tried to reuse everything. I remember removing the tindil froM m the tree to use next year. Myself I refuse to use it at all as an adult

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