Published for EH.NET (July 2001)
Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee, The Road to Poverty: The Making of
Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia. New York: Cambridge University Press,
2000. xiv + 434 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-65229-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by James Oberly, Department of History, University of
Wisconsin – Eau Claire.
Sociologists Dwight Billings (University of Kentucky) and Kathleen Blee
(University of Pittsburgh) have collaborated over the years on how historians
and social scientists can build on the work of ethnographic and folk studies
scholars who did so much in the mid-twentieth century to document rural
American life. Billings and Blee have together researched and written a fine
cultural and economic history of Clay County, Kentucky, focusing mainly on the
years from the county’s founding in 1806 up through the time it became
nationally famous around 1900 for a series of deadly family vendettas and
feuds. Clay County has been well-studied by social scientists throughout the
entire twentieth century, and Billings and Blee want to correct what they see
as a set of ahistorical biases in the sociological and ethnographical
literature. In their own way, the authors want to do for Clay County what
historian Stephan Thernstrom did for “Yankee City” (Newburyport,
Massachusetts) in an earlier correction of an ahistorical ethnographic study.
Billings and Blee are particularly interested in dismantling the two reigning
paradigms about the sources of poverty in rural Appalachia. The first they
label the “culture of poverty” hypothesis, which attributes the economic lag
of the mountaineers to their peculiar culture. The authors see this as a form
of blaming the victim. The second paradigm they reject is the “colonized
region” hypothesis, which holds that Appalachia was impoverished by the
workings of the coal market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century. Their choice of Clay County is, on the face of it, enough to reject
the second hypothesis because Clay was never a major part of Coal Country,
yet it was still one of the poorest counties in the entire United States up to
and after the 1960s War on Poverty.
If the mountaineers are not to blame, and the coal companies not relevant,
Billings and Blee turn back to the nineteenth century for answers. They
conduct a careful investigation of the economic and cultural history of Clay
County before and after the Civil War, and it is in the nineteenth century
that they locate their explanation for the roots of Appalachian poverty. Clay
County had an early growth period as a salt manufacturing center. The
salt-makers shipped their product downstream on the Kentucky River until their
industry went into crisis either immediately before or immediately after the
Civil War (the authors do not make the timing clear). Slave labor was an
important part of the salt manufacture and a few leading families emerged in
the antebellum period that came to dominate the politics and culture of Clay
County. The elite families controlled the best land, sometimes intermarried
with one another, but early on (the 1840s) engaged in some bitter personal and
political struggles. The authors see the origin of the 1890s feuds in the
rival manipulations of the first families of Clay County. After the Civil War,
subsistence agriculture supported most families, and as population grew
through natural increase, pressure on the land increased. Poverty and
immiseration, it seems, was due to the family strategies followed by Clay
County farmers. Eventually, in the twentieth century, Clay County solved some
of its problems through the export of its people, just as countless other
rural areas have done. Still, those left behind in Clay remained poor and came
to depend on wage labor to supplement their hard-scrabble farms.
Authors Billings and Blee do not have one simple hypothesis to explain Clay
County’s enduring rural poverty. Instead, they attempt to tie together three
causative factors that they think explain the history better than “culture of
poverty” or “King Coal.” Their alternative combines the workings of the
market, the use of state power, and the cultural strategies of the residents.
Separate chapters on these three areas of inquiry form the middle part of the
book. All have promise, but all have problems bearing the interpretive load
asked of them.
The history of the salt manufacture in Clay County represents the authors’
belief that markets arrived in the county early on, and that the workings of
the market poorly served the inhabitants. Here, in this reviewer’s opinion,
the authors needed to do some more theorizing about the types of manufacturing
in antebellum American and which types led to economic development, as well as
economic growth. Moreover, the authors’ own data on property-holding in Clay
County shows that it lagged far behind the Bluegrass counties in wealth
accumulation from the early nineteenth century onward. Clay County started
poor and never had a boom period.
The chapter on state power is the weakest in the book, again in this
reviewer’s opinion. “State power” consisted of the county courts, ruled by
justices of the peace appointed for life by the governor. The authors theorize
that state power was used for the benefit of the “ruffle-shirt” gentry and to
the detriment of most of the populace. In the conclusion, almost at the end of
the book, the authors parachute in sociologist Robert Putnam’s theory about
social capital and democracy as an explanation for the failures of state power
in Clay County. They take Putnam’s hypothesis about the late twentieth
century, retroject it back to the nineteenth and then apply it unevenly. They
might have better spent their time looking for Tocqueville-style civic society
in Clay outside the courtroom if they wanted to apply social capital theory.
Most telling is their omission of the effect of the Civil War and
Reconstruction on Clay County. How many men from the County served in the war
and on which side? To what extent were veterans’ pensions a part of the local
economy? How did the county emerge as a Republican Party stronghold in the
Cumberlands? How and why did the families of the region not take advantage of
their party ties to further economic development?
Finally, the authors modify E.P. Thompson’s “moral economy” argument about
early modern British rural society and apply it to late nineteenth century
Clay County. They find a patriarchal moral economy of subsistence agriculture
led to increasing poverty. This is different than a “culture of poverty” but
it does offer a local explanation for local poverty.
A great deal of work in the manuscript census and local court records supports
this book. The authors have certainly succeeded in bringing alive the
nineteenth-century economic and cultural history of Clay County. Less certain
is their attempt to offer a new theory about why Clay County in particular,
and Appalachia in general, became poor.
Note:  W. Lloyd Warner and Paul Lunt, The Social Life of a Modern
Community, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941; Stephan Thernstrom,
Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. An exception to the authors’
dislike of the ethnographic literature of Appalachia is James Brown’s Beech
Creek: The Social Organization of an Isolated Kentucky Mountain Region,
Berea, KY: Berea College Press, 1950, a book about Clay County mountaineers,
for which Billings and Blee have high regard.
James W. Oberly (Professor of History, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire)
is currently at work on a project, “The Mohicans of Wisconsin: Land,
Population, and Conflict in an Indian Homeland, 1820-1995.”