Hillbilly Highway is an American metaphoric term referring to the out-migration of residents of the Appalachian Mountains to industrial cities in northern, midwestern, and western states, primarily in the years following World War II. The word hillbilly refers to a negative stereotype of people from the Appalachians.
Many of these Appalachian migrants went to major industrial centers such as Detroit, Cleveland or Chicago, while others traveled west to California. While most often used in this metaphoric sense, the term is sometimes used to refer to specific stretches of roadway, such as U.S. Route 23, or Interstate 75.
Appalachia includes the whole of West Virginia, and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that currently focuses on economic and infrastructure development, was created in the 1960s to address poverty and unemployment in the region. In FY 2007, the Appalachian Regional Commission designated 78 counties in 9 states as distressed, based on low per-capita income and high rates of poverty and unemployment ≠ (of 410 counties in 13 states included as Appalachian). The ARC notes that some severely distressed areas still lack basic infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems. The 1990 Census indicated that the poverty rate in central rural Appalachia was 27 percent. In West Virginia, the 2000 poverty rate statewide was 17.9%; in nine counties more than a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line, with percentages as high as 37.7%. Un- and under-employment rates are higher than the nation’s average. Breathitt County, Kentucky had a 9.9% unemployment rate averaged over 2001-2003, a 33.2% poverty rate in 2000 (down from a twenty-year high of 39.5% in 1990), and only 57.5% of adults had high school diplomas in 2000.
Coal mining has been integral to the region and its economy. One feature of the Appalachian coal mines was the existence of company towns. In the company towns, the coal companies provided the “municipal” services, owned the homes and the stores, where the accepted currency was usually company scrip (despite laws in some states against it ) and the prices were excessive. Some of these towns were described by the U.S. Coal Commission in 1922 as being in a state of disrepair “beyond the power of verbal description or even photographic illustration, since neither words nor pictures can portray the atmosphere of abandoned dejection or reproduce the smells.” Eventually union struggles occurred in these towns; in central Appalachia miners battled to unionize the mines from the 1890s to the 1940s and fought again from the late 1970s to 1999. Some company towns tried to become models of social welfare, in order to dissuade workers from unionizing. Nonetheless, “mine wars” erupted, strikes that turned into deadly battles when the company tried to protect strikebreakers, including in Matewan, West Virginia on May 19, 1920. The unionization of the Appalachian coal mines is a long, complex story, spanning decades.
The decline of mining and the move north
Given the instability of coal prices, particularly after WWI ended, and the ongoing union fights, many miners chose to leave the industry and migrate north for jobs, a migration that has come to be known as the Hillbilly Highway. Singer Steve Earle wrote a song titled "Hillbilly Highway", recorded on his 1986 album Guitar Town.
As much so as coal mining, migration has been an important part of the Appalachian experience. Huge numbers of people migrated out of Appalachia. Between 1910 and 1960, millions of Southerners left their home states of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia. A large percentage of those leaving Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee went north for jobs in the industrial sector.
Many West Virginians and Kentuckians (e.g., from Magoffin County) migrated to the industrial cities of Ohio, for jobs in rubber and steel. Industrial towns in Southern Ohio, including Dayton and Cincinnati, were favorites for migrants from Eastern Kentucky because they remained close to home. Some Ohio companies (including Champion Paper Company, Lorillard Tobacco Company, and Armco Steel) reportedly recruited their labor force from specific counties in the mountains, and gave preference to employee’s family members when hiring new workers, making out-migration from rural Appalachia easier.
In a 1935 article in The Nation, Louis Adamic writes that the “hill-billies” were believed by Detroit auto manufacturing employers to be “safe” – that is, not inclined to unionize. Adamic reports that auto companies were recruiting during the early 30s with the belief that these rural people had not been poisoned by ideas of unionism. The article goes on to report that the hill-billies were looked down upon by almost everyone, due to their extremely low standard of living and lack of familiarity with modern plumbing, and because they were seen as taking away jobs from the old-time automotive workers. The advent of manufacturing meant that unskilled workers could perform ably on the assembly lines, so these unskilled mountain folk were adequate employees.
The Appalachian people who migrated to Detroit (and in smaller numbers to Flint) in order to work in the automotive plants gained an identity distinct from the one that they possessed in their home state. In their home states, people saw themselves as distinct from those living in other parts of the state, or in a different part of the South. Once they migrated to Michigan, they were lumped together as southern white laborers, and a group consciousness based on that label emerged. Migrants from all over Appalachia began to feel a social solidarity with each other, preferring to work and live beside other Southerners than with Northerners. It was believed that the Appalachian migrants assimilated less rapidly than Northern rural migrants because of their group consciousness and the persistence of certain southern regional attitudes, and an acute awareness of the difference between themselves and other native-born white Americans. Because the Appalachian migrants had no cultural context for situations they encountered in northern industrial cities, their reactions were dictated by their rural southern lives and attitudes. During holidays and lay-offs, most of the migrants went back to their old homes. During lay-offs in Flint, MI, as many as 35% of the migrants would return to their old homes.
- Ruy Teixeira, Red, Blue, & Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics, Brookings Institution Press (September 2008), Pg 53.
- Roger Guy, From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants in Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970, Lexington Books (July 15, 2009), pg 14.
- Patrick Hook, Harley Davidson: The Complete History, PRC Publishing (April 28, 2003), pg 6.
- Howard Dorgan, In the Hands of a Happy God: the "No-Hellers" of Central Appalachia, University of Tennessee Press; 1 edition (April 23, 1997), pg 164.
- Loretta Lynn & George Vecsey, Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner's Daughter, Vintage (September 21, 2010), Ch 4.
- According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, see http://www.arc.gov/index.do?nodeId=2
- ARC | ARC Designated-Distressed Counties, Fiscal Year 2007
- ARC | Economic Overview
- Poverty Rates in Appalachia, 2000: West Virginia.
- ARC Regional Data Results, Socioeconomic Data: Breathitt County, Kentucky.
- Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History University of North Carolina Press 2002
- Boyd, Lawrence. The Company Town, available at http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/boyd.company.town
- Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History, University of North Carolina Press 2002, p. 259-260
- Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History, University of North Carolina Press 2002, p. 259.
- Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History, University of North Carolina Press 2002, p. 260.
- A Brief History of the UMWA, available at http://www.umwa.org/history/hist1.shtml and Williams, Appalachia: A History, University of North Carolina Press 2002, pp. 266-67.
- Kirby, Jack Temple, The Southern Exodus, 1910-1960: A Primer for Historians, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, Nov. 1983, p. 585.
- Kirby, Jack Temple. The Southern Exodus, 1910-1960: A Primer for Historians, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, Nov. 1983, p. 598.
- Adamic, Louis. The Hill-Billies Come to Detroit, The Nation, February 13, 1935, p. 177.
- Benyon, Erdmann Doane. The Southern White Laborer Migrates to Michigan, American Sociological Review 3 (1938), p. 334.
- Id. at 335.
- Id. at 337