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Southern Appalachian People’s Responses to Socio-Economic Change–The New Deal, the War on Poverty, and the Rise of Tourism

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Gillespie, Jessica L. “‘Loved to Stayed On Like It Once Was’: Southern Appalachian People’s Responses to Socio-Economic Change–The New Deal, the War on Poverty, and the Rise of Tourism.” (Under the direction of Dr. Craig Thompson Friend.)

Over the course of the twentieth century, southern Appalachian residents have been defined and described primarily by outside observers: travel writers, benevolent workers, politicians, government bureaucrats, and historians. While these onlookers have filled volumes with accounts of mountain residents, their accounts are often stereotypical: the mountaineer as backward, isolated, fatalistic, acquiescent, atomistic, or poverty-stricken. In all of these portrayals, outsiders defined Appalachia as a region needing to change and fall into line with mainstream America. In order to achieve such change, major efforts to develop Appalachia began in the earliest decades of the twentieth century, comprised of both governmental programs and partnerships between government and private interests.

Government and private developers seldom considered residents’ thoughts or opinions and adopted the pervasive cultural stereotypes as fact, designing projects with such ideas of locals in mind. Historians, too, have often repeated these time-worn stereotypes or overlooked local sentiment on such widespread development efforts. Local residents have often been portrayed as passively adapting to events that affected their lives and as reticent to create or shape their own futures.

Southern Appalachian residents, however, did in fact possess and voice strong feelings on social and economic development programs. This thesis concentrates on the rich variety of local residents’ responses to two New Deal programs—the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority—as well as President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the tourism industry that developed over the past two centuries and continues to play a major role in southern Appalachian economics. Such development efforts reshaped the region, affecting individual lives, communities, and the mountain landscape itself.

Locals responded differently to each development effort, based on such variables as individual economic circumstances, social class, location, and occupation. They also voiced their reactions in a myriad of ways. In all instances, locals retained and defined their own identities and ideals through their reactions, openly declaring what was important to them: land and community. In their responses to the New Deal, War on Poverty, and the mountain tourism industry, southern Appalachian residents refuted pervasive stereotypes of the mountaineer while defending their own cultural values. Such engagement demonstrates how mountain residents actively preserved their traditions while shaping their own futures.

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