Jean Ritchie, Appalachian Music Pioneer

Written by Grady Mauney, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


Jean Ritchie was a folk music singer, songwriter, and dulcimer player from the small town of Viper, Kentucky. Born into a musical family, Jean, her fourteen siblings, and parents all enjoyed hymns and Appalachian folk tunes. They would often have concerts at their home where they would invite people from their town over and perform for them. Ritchie left Kentucky for New York following college, and quickly emerged as a rising star in the post-World War II folk revival. Ritchie was a pioneer in her work with the Appalachian dulcimer. She led a long, successful career that included traveling to Ireland and recording with folk artists there, writing numerous books, and helping to establish the Newport Folk Festival. Even into her old age, Ritchie and her husband supported folk artists by joining online message boards dedicated to the folk music scene. For her lifetime achievements, she was awarded numerous awards such as the Folk Alliances Lifetime Achievement Award. Jean Ritchie passed away in 2015 at the age of 92.

Basket Weaving

Written by Briana Herring, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


Basket making is a tradition among southern Appalachian women, including members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian. It not only has its roots in southern Appalachia, but it continues to be something that is kept alive and revived even today. The materials that are used are important because they provide weavers with a link to their traditions and forebearers. The techniques that are used are also important because they not only help determine how sturdy the baskets are, but they also create different patterns like the “Noonday Sun” pattern or the “Serpent” pattern. Preparing these materials is also important because it determines whether they are useable or not. These techniques are things that are passed down through the generations from women like Eastern Band of Cherokee member Lottie Queen Stamper, who not only taught her niece, Eva Wolfe, but also took her skills to local schools and instructed children how to weave.. From grandmother, to mother, to daughter, basketmaking is an important skill that also provides some income. The process of basket making hasn’t just been appreciated by the Cherokee, but also the Appalachian communities around them. Not only have Appalachian women found a way to keep these traditions alive, but they have also been able to sell their baskets and teach others to appreciate their traditions.

Gee’s Bend Quilting

Written by Kari Gardo, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


The women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama use the handicraft of quilting to create beautifully prosaic objects that served the practical purpose of keeping family warm in the winter. However, they became an overnight phenomenon that swept the nation that became enamored of African American southern vernacular traditions. In the small, economically depressed town of Gee’s Bend, these women turned to their hands to generate profit for their community. What began as a community quilting bee, quickly turned into an art phenomenon for collectors, viewers, and critics alike. Using fabric from old clothes, within the quilts the viewer can see the years of hard labor embedded in the worn scraps of working clothes. When the quilts caught the public eye, they were first largely dismissed as a craft to keep women busy. However, it’s implementation into museums by a determined preacher, the women of Gee’s Bend were able to change the foundations of art history and forge a space for Black creators within elite art spaces. These quilts went on to be reproduced at famous department stores and made into stamps by the United States Postal Service, labeled as an “American Treasure.” The women of Gee’s Bend took the art world on a journey through the home, public eye, and community, in order to find if quilts are meant to be practical or if they are meant to be in a gallery. They have transcended the traditional critique of art and have turned it towards the direction of cultural appreciation with something that originally held no artistic value to them.

Loretta Lynn’s Representation of Appalachian Women

Written by Brooke Williams, a Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


Loretta Lynn once said, “To make it in this business, you either have to be first, great or different, and I was the first to ever go into Nashville, singin’ it like the women lived it.” Loretta Lynn, born Loretta Webb on April 14, 1932 in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, grew up in a poor coal mining community of the Appalachians. Throughout childhood she experienced poverty and hardships that many women throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains did. Being born during The Great Depression, growing up in a small coal mining town, meeting and marrying her husband and learning to have her own voice makes her representative of many Appalachian women in the twentieth century. As Appalachian scholar Sara Webb-Sunderhaus states, Appalachian women are usually seen as “long-suffering victims of poverty, illiteracy and violence who survive through a combination of pluck and down-home wisdom.” When speaking on poverty, Lynn said, “I think maybe it’s worse today, because people know they’re poor from watching television news and stuff. Back then, we didn’t know we were poor, and people were more proud then.” Loretta’s father worked most nights in a dangerous line of work where at any minute a mine could blow, as they often did. She believed that he “kept his family alive by breaking his own body down.” According to Lynn, “Holler people are just different than everybody else. They live high up in the hills, one day at a time. There’s probably a few who don’t know who the president is, and there have been times when they were better off that way.” Some people have said that men are bound to “run around a little bit” but Lynn’s stance is that she “don’t believe in double standards, where men can get away with things that women can’t. In God’s eyes, there’s no double standard. That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to say in my songs.” Lynn made a point in her songs to speak about the way she believed women should be treated by their husbands. One of the greatest influences she had was her father. “He wasn’t one of those men who was gone half the time, either—he didn’t have no bad habits…the nice way he treated [Loretta’s Mother] gave me ideas about the way I wanted to be treated. I make that point clear in my songs, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Doing things her way has always been a hallmark of Lynn’s music and personality. “It’s like in 1972,” said Lynn when she was nominated for the Best Female Singer and about to accept the award on national television, “Charley Pride was going to present the award. People warned me not to kiss Charley (an African American country artist) in case I won, because it would hurt my popularity with country fans. Well, Charley Pride is one of my favorite people in country music,” declared Lynn, “I got so mad that when I won, I made sure I gave him a big old hug and kiss right on camera.” Lynn’s popularity was not hurt by detractors, and—she mentions, “If they had, fine, I’d have gone home to my babies and canned some string beans and the heck with them all.” Lynn’s past can be seen as one of the many pasts that southern Appalachian Women have had. While she might not have the same struggles as many women today do, she knows them. Loretta Lynn, on the last page of her autobiography says, on country music, “When you hear country music, you know it. Country music takes me right back to those strawberry fields. Or further back, to that little house in the holler where Momma sang to me.” She has been and continues to be a representative voice for many southern
Appalachian woman.

Southern Appalachian Foodways

Written by Jillian MacKinnon, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


Two of the most important aspects of defining a community is how and what it eats over time. Throughout history, Southern Appalachia has been viewed by many as a largely isolated and culturally distinct region of the United States. While this may be true in some regards, the food and foodways of Southern Appalachia show that the region became increasingly integrated in the larger nation during the mid-twentieth century. Additionally, the Appalachian women who crafted and followed these foodways were largely responsible for this positive cultural integration overtime. By utilizing Jackson County, North Carolina as a case study, it is possible to see how southern Appalachian foodways mirrored those of the nation and aided in integrating the region with the United States. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the citizens of Jackson County, Southern Appalachia, and the entire United States all experienced many of the same culinary trends and foodways. Poverty caused by the Great Depression, federally mandated rationing in World War II, and an increase in processed, name-brand convenience foods effected women across all these regions in very similar ways, providing evidence that southern Appalachia was not always as isolated as previously thought.

Appalachian Midwives

Written by Ginni Leeman, Senior Honors Student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


Before 1925, the United States did not have widespread health services for pregnant women and young children. Mary Breckinridge, born in 1881, was a woman dedicated to creating a service for American women and children beginning in Leslie County Kentucky. As a child, Breckinridge travelled around the world which influenced her to later receive an education in England for midwifery in 1925. When Breckinridge returned to the United States, she established the Committee for Mothers and Babies, which eventually developed into the Frontier Nursing Service. The Frontier Nursing Service provided midwifery along with public health services to Leslie County and the surrounding area. The Frontier Nursing Service went through one final transformation into the Frontier Nursing University to teach midwifery in Hyden, Kentucky. Breckinridge had a lasting impact not only on the local community of Leslie County, Kentucky, but on the rest of the United States as well, by creating and operating the first school for midwifery in the United States while revolutionizing rural health care.

Mary Breckinridge (far left) along with other nurse-midwives in the Frontier Nursing Service

LGBTQ+ Appalachia

Written by Danny Woomer, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


My project focused on LGBTQ+ Appalachian women, highlighting Jill Ellern and Dawn

Neatherly of Sylva, North Carolina. “Coming out” narratives are a common theme Queer Appalachian histories. One excerpt from Jill Ellern’s interview reads, “And she was just, their first year of college. And so, we spent a lot of time together. And when I went away to college, when I came back, we went ‘you know’, so I had to tell my mother that her roommate and I were seeing each other. So, it was a very strange, but my mother was real cool with it. She knew what was going on, not a big deal.” (Ellern, 2021) Activism and local history are tied in the solidarity and collective experiences they can represent. One example is found in an article Dawn Neatherly wrote in the Western Carolinian in 1988. This article dispels myths about homosexuality that may have spread around campus. One myth reads, “All homosexuals are effeminate men and masculine women, and thus easily identified,” which is corrected with, “There are just as many different types of homosexuals as there are heterosexuals. No one set of characteristics identifies a gay man or lesbian.”

Figure 1HL_WesternCarolinianClipping_1988-11-17_Vol54_No14_04-05_01

The Political Life of Gertrude Dills McKee

Written by Craig Cook, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


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Gertrude Dills McKee was born in Dillsboro, North Carolina in 1885. Growing up, McKee sought to better herself through education. She attended Grace College, where she became class president and graduated with first honors with a teaching degree. As a young adult, McKee taught school in Dillsboro, where she met her husband, Ernest Lyndon McKee, a businessman from Sylva. After her wedding, McKee started to get involved in local civic organizations. Throughout the 1920s, McKee would lead many of these organizations. She was president of the Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Daughters of the Confederacy. She would also be appointed to the Board of Trustees of Western Carolina College and the Education Commission. Her speeches would attract hundreds of women from across the south to come and listen. McKee’s most impressive accomplishment would come in 1931 when she was elected as the first female state senator in North Carolina. McKee would serve three terms in the General Assembly.

McKee would also be elected for a 4th time, but she never took office as she passed away from a heart attack three months before taking office. When she took office for the first time, McKee showed that she could hold her own and helped many of her constituents. With each term McKee served, she showed that she held Progressive Era ideals. McKee fought for women’s rights in the workforce and gave speeches to encourage young women to get into politics and into the workforce. She fought to reform child labor laws in hopes that children would get better educational opportunities. She fought for education by introducing bills that would raise the school systems to a new level that can still be felt to this day. Unlike some politicians, she truly cared and listened to her constituents by aiding them in any way that she could.

Women’s Roles in the Shelton Laurel Massacre

Written by James Reinemann, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


During the American Civil War, one of the most heinous and controversial events happened in Western North Carolina. In 1863, thirteen Union sympathizers were murdered in Madison County, North Carolina, including a thirteen-year-old boy. Although it can be difficult to find the roles women played during the Shelton Laurel Massacre it does not diminish their impact on the event. Women on both sides of the conflict had considerable influence and insight into how life happened in not just the Shelton Laurel Valley but the whole of Madison County during the Civil War. Some of these women would have encouraged the initial raid on Marshall that caused the 64th North Carolina Infantry to return to the region, while others may have simply pleaded with the Confederate authorities to do something about the growing threat of Unionist guerillas in the region. Regardless of sides, the women of Madison County were trying to survive and protect their families during very turbulent times for not only the region, but the entire country. These women saw their men be conscripted, some saw their men desert and return home only to go into hiding, while others still saw their men return to Madison County as the perpetrators of a massacre. The women of Madison County showed considerable endurance in the face of this hardship and their unique experiences deserve to be remembered.

Women Chefs and the Resurgence of Appalachian Cuisine

Written by Nick Ragusa, Senior Honors student at Western Carolina University.

The following is an abstract of a longer research paper written for Robert Ferguson’s History class. If you would like more information please email him at rhferguson@email.wcu.edu.


The culture of Appalachia is immensely unique in its form, especially from any other recognizable culture. This uniqueness that exemplifies Appalachian culture is largely due to how the Appalachian culture was formed. Through the combination of many cultures from around the globe coming together and sharing ideas, traditions, and lifestyles, they formed what is now the multiethnic culture of Appalachia. Along with these traditions came a rich culture of food introduced into Appalachia, which was formed not only from this collection of multiple cultures blending together, but from what the local region could provide to the people living in Appalachia, and dating to Native American agricultural and culinary practices in the region. With time and the influx of modern culture and social changes, several notable female chefs have taken charge in powering the resurgence of interest in Appalachian cuisine. Chefs like Ashleigh Shanti, Katie Button, Shelley Cooper, and Rosetta Baun, to name a few, have been feeding the culinary interests of all who seek to engage in Appalachian culture through food. Using intricate dishes and ingredients, these female chefs have captivated an audience who cannot get enough of the foodie experience that they have to offer, and they truly live for it. These chefs seek to spread interest in Appalachia to all who show curiosity in it through the best way they know how; through their food.