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I, the only passenger for that station, alighted from the train at noon.
I asked the hack driver whether I could ride over to Salyersville
with him, but he replied that because the roads had got so bad,
he had come on horseback and therefore could not accommodate
me. I tried to get a conveyance or hire a horse but none was to be
foimd. After posting my bag — ^for which the driver didn't thank



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408 The American Child

me as it meant that he would have to cany it and wotildn't receive
any more for his day^s work — I started out to walk. It was then
I learned that the distance was 18 miles instead of the nine or ten
it appeared to be on paper. As the hack driver started out with a
big load — mostly mail-order-house stuff — ^he said, "If yer a good
walker you kin walk along with me and FU show you the way.
I see yer a stranger in these parts, and the road is jist a leetle hard
to follow." Realizing that it was either a forced march or a mighty
good chance of getting lost, I decided upon the former and kept
pace with the mule for 11 miles, to the home of the hack driver's
boss — the man who had the contract for carrying the mail, arriving
just at dark. Here the driver "picked up the hack and carried it,"
as he put it, on into Salyersville. Needless to say I welcomed this
chance to ride, uncomfortable though the hack was.

The 11-mile walk had somewhat dulled my senses so that at
the time I could not fully appreciate the sight of the driver fre-
quently hanging out over the side of the hack to keep it from
toppling over into the "branch" below and flaying the mules with a
heavy stick to keep from getting stuck in the mud. Three times he
asked me to get out and walk up the hill as it was too steep, rough,
and stony in some places, muddy in others, for the mules to pull
more than the hack and mail, and even then it took much persuasion
from the stick to get to the top.

As one travels over such roads — although they don't deserve
the name of roads — ^he can easily understand of what great import-
ance means of commtmication is to any people. Here every rod
of travel at best entails a tremendous expenditiu-e of human energy.
No wonder schools are poor or lacking in many places, chtu*ch
services infrequent, and for over half the year a complete absence
of any kind of community life. There is not much incentive for a
family to raise more than it can consume, for there is no way of dis-
posing of a surplus. Barter of necessity is largely the means of
exchange. In the winter the father's chief recreation is in going
to the store for a few groceries — and they are few indeed — or in taking
the com to the mill to be grotmd.

Much of the time he must walk, for the roads are in such a state
that venturing out on a horse is too great a risk. At the mill and
the store he meets his neighbors and kin, but his wife and children
have no opportunity to leam the news, save as he brings it in. Some-



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The Onion Workers 409

times a "killin' " occurs and then the whole neighborhood is wrought
up. Sides are taken and excitement runs high. Those on the side
of the slain seek to kill the slayer, while the latter's friends make
haste to raise a purse and get him out of the country imtil the feeling
against him subsides. And here we have the reason why those
workers on "the marsh" were so "ignorant" of the place from whence
they came. If the matter gets to court the fugitive may have to
stay away three or four years, but sooner or later he will return.

But to get back to my story. I arrived at Salyersville about
9:30 that night. The driver had started on his trip at 4 o'clock
that morning — that was his daily stint for which he was paid $1.50
a day. He had told me there were two hotels in the town — one just
as good as the other — ^and that he never **drummed" for either one
or 'the other, for both of the proprietors were his friends — a sense
of fairness characteristic of the moimtaineer — ^and no amoimt of
questioning would get him to say one word that might give either of
them the least advantage. Before I had got my bag from the post
oflSce, the proprietor of the hotel opposite came in and greeting
one with the familiar expression of the moimtaineer, "Howdy,"
inquired whether I wanted a room. I replied that I did, and supper
too, for I was himgry. I followed him across — I was going to say
the "street" but "trail" would be more accurate — ^with a sort of
misgiving in my heart, for I recalled the advice always given to those
who venture into the mountains: "Carry concentrated foods with
you." And this is sound advice as ninety-nine out of every one
himdred meals offered to one in this region will show, but, as every
rule has its exceptions so has this advice and here was the exception.
The good wife had quickly prepared a meal the like of which I had
seen but once before in Kentucky — those who know the state will
recall "The Old Inn," at Greenville. After supper the proprietor,
who had looked askance at me several times in passing through the
dining room — for a stranger even in a hotel is looked upon with more
or less suspicion tmtil he and particularly his business are known —
informed me gruffly that he would show me to my room. It was
spotlessly clean and reasonably comfortable. In the grate was
a cheery gas fire. This luxury was so out of keeping with the other
appointments that I was curious to know how they came to have it,
and from mine host I learned the story. Many years ago, long
before the town of Salyersville was even thought of, some travellers



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410 The American Child

camping nearby noticed the water in the creek bubbling and giving oflF
a peculiar odor. A torch was applied and a burning resulted. They
didn't know what it was but they called the creek "Burning Fork."
Recently there has been considerable development of the local oil
and gas resoiu'ces, and now most of the families in the town have
the gas piped into their homes.

After a good night's rest I heard a knock on my door and the
proprietor announced, '^Breakfast in twenty minutes." It seemed
as though I had been in bed only a short time and it was still dark,
but, remembering the evening meal, I decided to take no chances
and was at the table on time. When one has his health, fried
chicken in the early morning is not to be withstood.

After breakfast I started out to see the town and some of the
leading citizens. That didn't take long for the town is small and
contains not more than 50 families. Nobody seemed to know much
about the onion workers, except that they lived over on Puncheon.
The county officials would furnish no information. In my conver-
sations with them and other citizens, always courteous, I could
instinctively sense their unspoken questions: **Who are you?
What is your real business? Are you here to swindle our people
out of more of their coal, timber, oil and gas lands? Are you a
revenue officer? Why are you really so concerned about the school
question — ^no one else has ever been!"

At last in my wanderings about the town, I chanced upon a
family on the outskirts who had been to the Ohio onion fields. I
carefully explained my purpose to the head of this family and for
the simple reason that he had been outside he had come to know
that not everybody need be looked upon with suspicion, and soon
began to talk of his experiences. He had been to Ohio the year
before, but had not returned this year because, as he said, "I
learned a few things up thar last year and I wanted to try 'em out."
He owns a small farm with some rather futile land along the creek,
and had brought back with him and sown some onion seed, following
very carefully — even religiously — the methods of cultivation used
in Ohio. He planted a small plot of grotmd and had raised something
like 50 bushels of onions which he had sold at a nice profit. He
had also cultivated other vegetables as he had seen done in the other
state. His com would make 75 bushels to the acre. When I
asked him why his crops were so much better than his neighbors',



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The Onion Workers 411

he replied, *WalI, 111 tell you, I^ heard the folks talkin' 'bout
what a wonderful place that war, so I jist decided Fd go an' see fer
meself. You know Fd been bomed an' raised here an' never been
away so I jist rented my farm an' thought I'd try it fer a year. I
got along all right — ^made good money, although I wasn't rich when
I left in the fall, but I kept me eyes open an' watched jist how they
did things. When I come back I jist decided I was agoin' to try
it down here. Folks said I was a fool, that I wouldn't raise nuthin'
and was jist a-wastin' my money an' time, but I showed 'em what
I could do. Now if I only had a way to git to market with what
I could raise. You know our people are good folks an' all that but
they don't know how to do things. We ain't had no one to tell
us what to do or how to farm. Oh, if we only had schools and roads
like they got in Ohio! Why, do you know up thar they kin go any
time o' year an' they don't have to go horseback neither, an' they
kin haul jist as big a load as they want to. They make the kids
go to school, too. If they ain't thar every day they send somebody
after 'em an' they ain't no monkey-business neither. We ain't
agoin' to be no better off until we git better roads an' schools and
some one to tell us how to farm an' I do hope you're agoin' to help
us git these things." I went away with the feeling that one didn't
have to go very far to see that what he said was so and that help
was badly needed.

He then told me how to get to Puncheon Creek where the
majority of the onion workers were living. This creek is toward
Ivyton, which is about 7 miles from Salyersville. He told me to
look up Mr. Ham Logan (the name is fictitious) as he was **fixed"
to accommodate strangers and warned me not to miss the place,
as otherwise I would find it **pretty hard to make out." So at
about 3 o'clock I left the **01d Inn" of Magoffin County and started
on my way, arriving at Mr. Logan's place about 6 o'clock. He
was not at home when I arrived but his wife told me I could stay
over night and invited me to go around and sit on the front porch.
The flies being somewhat annoying, I decided to walk about and
wandered over to the garden where Mose, the yoimgest and only
son at home, and a neighbor were digging sweet potatoes. They
had about 75 bushels of fine potatoes and were putting them upstairs
in the spare bedroom to dry out. Later on, they were to be put
down in sand, as there was no cellar.



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412 The American Child

In a few minutes Mr. Logan came and a finer type of man
one would not meet in many a day^s travel. He greeted me cor-
dially, and, as is customary in these parts, inquired about my business.
He readily grasped the purpose for which I had come and was very
much interested. His people had emigrated from Ireland in the
early part of the 19th century and had settled in the mountains.
He was tall, keen, erect and showed but little his 70 years; im-
lettered in so far as books go, yet he had a wealth of practical knowl-
edge and experience, and was intelligently interested in a wide
variety of subjects. Bom in MagoflBn County, he had married
after having fought in the Civil War and settled down on this farm
of some 300 or 400 acres. He and his wife, two years his jtmior,
had cleared it with their own hands, and had endured untold hard-
ships and privations to get it paid for. They have 13 children —
all living and scattered about over the hills. Of their 41 grand-
children, and 8 great-grandchildren, all are living but three grand-
children. **Many a time," he said, "we didn*t have anything
to eat but combread an* even that at times run very low." He
took me over in the bam-lot and showed me a black walnut stimip
over foiu" feet across, saying: "That tree was as straight as a die
an' 40 feet to the first limb, an' one day a man come along
an' offered me $5 for it. I knowed it was wuth more'n that,
but I needed the money an' what could I do but sell it? That's
the way I sold all my timber. Last year," he added, "they come
around an' wanted to lease my land fer oil. I didn't think there
was much to it an' they was fine talkers an' got me to lease it
for a dollar an acre. The other day they struck oil on the
Burning Fork an' if I had my lease back now I could git $25 an acre.
Oh, well, maybe come day they'll drill a well on my place an' if
they git oil, I'll git an eighth of it. That'll be enough fer me an'
Mary, 'cause you see we're gittin' old now an' ain't agoin' to live
long." He was dreaming and the dreams in the evening of his
life were indeed sweet to him for he still has hopes of a fortune.
The story of this man's timber and oil rights could be told over
and over again for the majority of the mountain families, illiterate
and isolated as they are. They didn't know its value and the
little ready cash offered by the astute wildcat promoter was too
much for them to resist. So has their patrimony slipped from their



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The Onion Workers 413

hands, while in their hearts there has come a sense of doubt and
suspicion toward all strangers.

After supper he brought in some wood and kindled a fire in
the grate, for the evening was cool, and we sat and talked until
midnight. Very frankly he asked me a great number of questions
ranging from what was taking place relative to the peace treaty
to matters concerning my own personal life and family. He was
keenly interested in the welfare of his own moimtain people,
especially in schools for the children. He remarked, "they say this
country is poor, an' it is if you consider the taxes we pay, but jist
look at all this timber, coal, oil an' gas that's goin' out o' here —
then 'look at our schoolhouses. Us fanners ain't gittin' it, an'
in a very few years the country will be poor an' then we won't be
able to build any schoolhouses at all. Some of the mountain
folks," he added, **ain't a-deservin' of nuthin' better; now you take
some of them folks that lives over on Stony Crick — not all of 'em,
but most of 'em — they're lazy, triflin' an' good-fer-nuthin'. They
won't work much or save nuthin'. They've all got sore eyes, jist
because they're too lazy to clean up. They marry their own kin-
folks, and are always a-gettin' in trouble. Then you folks from the
outside say we're all bad people, but most of them folks that goes
to the onion fields up in Ohio are good, honest, hard-workin' people."
I later visited Stony Creek and saw that what he had said about
a real sltmi district out here in the mountains was absolutely true.
It lies in the ever-widening area from which the onion workers are
recruited. Going about over this area I foimd some of the people
"good-fer-nuthin'," as he had described them but on the other hand
the majority are good people, ignorant and retarded, yet honest and
making the best they can out of their narrow and isolated lives.

Daily I went from Mr. Logan's house into the section where the
onion workers live and verified from many sources the story he had
told me of how they happened to go to "the marsh." It came
about in this way: some 13 years ago a young mountaineer in his
twenties was said to have committed some offence for which he
was compelled to leave the county. He didn't have much money
but he and his wife started out with what they had and went north-
wards, coming at last into central Ohio. Here they counted their
funds — less than two dollars — and asking the ticket agent to sell
them tickets to whatever place it would take them, they got on the



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414 The American Child

train again and alighted at Algers — a small town '*on the marsh."
Here they saw great level fields dotted here and there with groups
of people stooping over, doing some kind of work. Never having
seen an onion field before, or even as much as thought that onions
were ever grown in other than a small garden patch, they of course
didn't know what the workers were doing. When they were told
they inquired whether they could get a job, and starting at it,
both worked very diligently the entire season. They made what
to them was big money. They spent the first winter "on the
marsh" and when spring opened the moimtaineer told the operators
he could go to Kentucky and get any amount of labor for them.
Being ever on the alert for cheap labor, the offer appealed to them
and giving him several hundred dollars to pay transportation they
sent him back to Kentucky among kin and friends to recruit labor
for their fields. He did this for a couple of years after which time
the people came of their own accord and have kept it up for the
last decade. Almost all these families come from the one section
in and about this young man's home. The area has been constantly
widening and the number of families gradually increasing. Fully
nine-tenths of the 400 families living in Ptmcheon, Wheatly, Salt
Lick, Middle, Btiming Fork, Johnson, and Gim Creeks, and Good-
low and State Road Forks of Middle Creek have at one time or
another been to "the marsh." A few families came from the Big
Sandy and the Trace Fork of the Licking River in another cotmty,
so that in all something like 400 families have for one or more years
gone to the onion fields. The annual migration embraces about
100 families. I located and interviewed 25 families having 85
children of school age, and seciu*ed the names of 39 others said to
have 113 children of school age, all of whom had been to "the
marsh" in the season of 1919.

Not more than one-third of all these families own any land.
Only a very few of the land owners — ^perhaps not more than a half
dozen — have piu'chased their holdings with money earned in the
onion fields, although frequently, especially when the season is
good, the total net family income is such as would enable them to
make a substantial payment on the purchase price if they would
so apply it. They have not however had any training in thrift,
consequently their year's income is gone before they know it. The
majority of them barely have enough money left in the spring



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The Onion Workers 415

to get back to the onion fields. Those who own or lease land
in the mountains, rent or sublet it in the spring, usually to some
of their kinsmen who will raise enough com to "bread the whole
clan" during the winter. When the workers return they either
move into a shack or cabin on the place or, as is more likely to be
the case, live in their own homes with the other families already
there, or they may "winter" with relatives. Those who stay at
home one year are very likely to be foimd in the onion fields the
next year because, as one man explained when asked why they
always returned to Kentucky in the fall, "Y* see it's like this —
we kin live so much cheaper back here. Y' know oiu- com for
bread don't cost much, an' we kin fatten our own meat, an' we
kin go to the bank and dig out what little coal we need." Add
to this their clannishness and desire to be with their own folks and
among familiar scenes, and one probably has the sum total of their
reason for going back and forth. There are a few families, how-
ever, — ^not those previously referred to as being compelled to stay
away — who have purchased land "on the marsh" or homes in a
village thereabouts and thus have become permanent residents
of Ohio.

The housing conditions both "on the marsh" and in Kentucky
are extremely bad. In Kentucky most of the houses are built of
logs, and usually contain only two rooms. Some of them are built of
sawed lumber, thus having a more comfortable outward appearance.
The interior decorations consist of newspapers pasted on the walls.
There are no floor coverings and all have open fire places. Much
of the furniture is crudely hand-made out of packing boxes. None
of the houses have screens and none have toilets. Most of the
drinking water is taken from the polluted creeks as the houses are
nearly always located in the hollows. The houses "on the marsh"
are for the most part just boarded up. A few, however, are
plastered on the inside. Taking into consideration the difference
in temperature, they are not as comfortable in the winter time as
the houses in Kentucky. They are heated with stoves. The
furniture is somewhat more greatly improvised than in the Kentucky
homes. Very few of the houses have screens. The water is from
drilled wells and is said to be good although there were several cases
of typhoid fever "on the marsh" last stimmer. Not being accus-
tomed to toilets in Kentucky, the moimtaineers have little respect



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416 The American Child

for them in Ohio. The toilets are foul, ill-smelling and a constant
attraction for flies. The ground "on the marsh" being so level,
the question of sewage and garbage disposal is serious and is not
being solved in a healthful way. In rainy seasons particularly,
the yards become veritable mud holes.

As in Kentucky, several families often live in the same house.
The houses being small, there is practically no chance to observe
common privacies of single-family life. In fact, privacy is almost
tmknown to them. This condition has given rise to severe criticism
by the native people living "on the marsh" who denounce the Ken-
tucky families as immoral. I am convinced that except for the few
degenerate families previously referred to, they are not so much
immoral as immoral — a condition almost entirely due to ignorance.

The worst phase of this whole situation concerns the schools.
It is really tragic to think that such a condition actually exists in
•any American commtuiity. Three schoolhouses in Kentucky
where the majority of the children of these migrant moimtaineers
should attend, have been deserted. I visited one of them and the
two others were said to be in an equally deplorable state. The
one I saw is on Jake's Creek, a branch of Pimcheon. As I walked
up Pimcheon to where Jake's Creek comes in and thence up the latter
about a hundred yards, I saw a scene I shall never forget. On
either side of this little creek, and rising from its very bed, the hills
loomed high. The sim was just sinking behind the mountains
beyond and was in such a position that it shone straight down the
little valley. A few steps farther and it was hidden by what looked
to be an abandoned shed but as I drew nearer I saw the sun's rays
coming through what appeared to be window openings. The build-
ing was located on a beautiful grass plot about a half acre in size
and perfectly level. It was leaning and apparently in the last stages
of decay, and yet there was something so indescribably beautiful
about the whole scene, that one could scarcely realize its tragedy
was as great as its beauty, for it was the neighborhood schoolhouse
and the lesson hour had not yet passed, but there were no children
to recite and here in this lovely spot by the mountain brook the
hills no longer echoed their laughter while at play. The silence
of desertion was oppressive.

There were no doors, windows, sash or glass. The floor was
made of pimcheon, fully one-third of which had been torn away,



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The Onion Workers 417

thixs exposing the hewn sleepers. The benches were hand-made,
straight-backed and had no place on which to write or place the
books. There was no blackboard. One's hand could be thrust
through the cracks between the boards in the wall, and light came
through holes in the clapboard roof.

As I came around to the front of the building I saw, much
to my surprise, a man sitting in the doorway. He was dressed in
the ordinary garb of the mountain people and the expression on his
face betrayed his feelings. As I later learned, he was the teacher,
and was fulfilling his part of the contract by coming to the school-
house even though he knew no children would be there. When I
asked him why they didn't come, he said, "You know the onion
workers leave here about April 1st and don't get back until about
the middle of November. Our schools start here July 15th and
close by Christmas. When the families get back it takes them some
little time to get settled and then they say the time's so short it's
no use to start them. So we can't have any school. It would
be no use to try to force them to come for so short a time, and besides
just look at this building!"

The teacher invited me to his home over on Jenny's Creek



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