Kentucky-born migrants Lizabelle and Scott Brandenberg in their home in the Shedtown neighborhood of Muncie, in 1937. This photograph originally appeared in Life magazine, where the accompanying caption identified Transappalachian migrants like the Brandenbergs as being “at the bottom of Muncie’s social strata.” (Via "Hillbilly Highway" by Max Fraser)

The United States is an awkward federation of regional cultures, a fact that has defined everything from our constitutional arrangements and partisan political geography to the existence of “red,” “blue,” and “purple” states that have been divided into rival sections since colonization. So when a huge number of people from one region suddenly migrate to another, it tends to cause friction and conflict in the short and middle term. The cultural mores, religious affiliations, and political attitudes of the newcomers often differ from those of their established neighbors, as can ideas about child-rearing, social conduct, freedom, liberty, and justice. The experience changes everyone.

Hillbilly Highway: The Transappalachian Migration and the Making of a White Working Class by Max Fraser Princeton University Press, 320 pp.

Scholars have rightly focused on two really big 20th-century examples: the Great Migration of African Americans from the Deep South to the cities of the Great Lakes region and from Tidewater to the Northeast (in which 6 million took part); and the Dust Bowl exodus, which saw at least 250,000 “Okies” abandon the southern Great Plains for Southern California. Both migrations had profound social and political effects for their homes, old and new.

A third 20th-century migration has received comparatively little attention despite being the largest of all: the movement of 8 million poor rural whites from the Upland South to the industrial cities of the Great Lakes between 1910 and 1969. These self-described “hillbillies,” driven from their home region by large-scale economic transformations and forced displacements by coal companies and federal dam projects, were seen as a scourge on the midwestern factory towns they poured into, depressing wages, disrupting the peace with drinking and boisterous church services, and letting their children run wild. Unlike the aforementioned migrants, they typically kept closely tied to their home region, migrating back and forth with the seasons of the year and resisting assimilation. And they may have played a role in the subsequent collapse of the New Deal order and Democratic electoral margins in the Midwest.

This Greater Appalachian migration is the subject of the historian Max Fraser’s debut book, Hillbilly Highway, a scholarly examination of the phenomenon from its origins at the turn of the 19th century to the transformation of the politics of its signature musical genre—country—by the turn of the 20th. Fraser, a scholar of American labor, cultural, and political history at the University of Miami, has delivered a readable and enlightening academic account that sympathizes with the migrants as the underdogs of the tale, a group he argues was misunderstood and unfairly maligned by both the midwesterners they’d moved in with and the Democratic Party they arrived supporting.

As Fraser writes, 

Scorned for their rural attachments and southern cultural identifications, stigmatized by the urban middle classes who increasingly came to dominate the worldview and policy agenda of the Democratic Party, these “hillbillies” had always represented something of a working-class “other” at the heart of the New Deal order. As that order began to decompose in the decades after the 1960s, long-standing divisions of class and culture etched into the terrain of the Transappalachian migration would prepare the ground for one of the most profound and far-reaching realignments of class politics in modern American history.

Maybe so, but Fraser’s account is framed too narrowly to allow him to conclusively prove this tantalizing thesis. 

Hillbilly Highway doggedly focuses on its core subjects, the rural migrants who moved from West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee; the western portions of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina; and the northern third of Georgia and Alabama to Chicago, Muncie, and key industrial cities in Ohio and Michigan during the first six decades of the 20th century. We learn about the push factors that kicked off the migration—the mechanization of agriculture and loss of small family farms to coal mining firms, timber operators, and the dams and artificial lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority—as well as the jobs, conditions, and challenges they faced in the unfamiliar urban environments of Detroit, Akron, and Cincinnati. Fraser interviewed dozens of surviving migrants, and their accounts help bring alive realities of long-distance interregional travel in the early and mid-20th century, life in company mining and timber towns in Appalachia, and tensions with rapacious employers north of the Ohio River.

But the story doesn’t really show us how these people came to be in Greater Appalachia in the first place, how and why their distinctive culture and associated values came to be, and why their resource-rich home states—often controlled by people from this same regional culture—were such awful places to make a living. If it had, a number of allegedly surprising discoveries that Fraser makes in the documentary and oral history evidence would have been anything but and the overall account would have been more powerful.

Fraser commences his analysis near 1900, when these distressed rural farming communities were almost entirely populated by the descendants of lowland Scots and Scots-Irish settlers who had colonized much of the Upland South and Ohio Valley in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Theirs was a culture that had formed in those war-torn borderlands of the British Isles where civic institutions were weak, governments were literally out to kill you, and you had to protect your kith and kin yourself. British North American colonial leaders and land barons often sought to recruit them to settle (and thereby guard) their frontiers from the Indigenous peoples whose land they were taking, just as Elizabeth I had done in her conquest of Ulster centuries earlier. This was—and is—a culture that prizes individual autonomy and personal freedom, and is skeptical of government, public institutions, and elites of all sorts. The dominant religious ethos focuses on the hereafter (not the depraved here and now), one’s personal relationship with the divine, and the oratorical gifts of unschooled, personally charismatic preachers presiding over extremely autonomous churches. It can also be pretty violent: At Nationhood Lab, a project I run at Salve Regina University, we recently showed that the region’s white gun homicide rate over the past decade is almost triple that of what I call “Yankeedom”—the northern tier of the Northeast that was first colonized by New Englanders and their descendants—and more than quadruple that of greater New York City (which was first colonized by the Dutch and has carried certain attributes common to Golden Age Amsterdam ever since). 

These values led, in policy terms, to a laissez-faire, deregulated environment in many of the states these white working-class migrants moved away from: West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and—with the laissez-faire-minded Deep South—the Gulf states and Arkansas. Taxes and wages were low, social services and environmental regulations were weak, and schools and clinics were poorly funded. (All of these things are still true.) It was a great place to be a rapacious company. Officials and legislators weren’t going to cause much fuss if you wanted to strip-mine the land, poison the water, and pay your workers badly or with scrip that could only be used at overpriced company stores in company towns. Thus the people of West Virginia and Kentucky could be desperately poor at the very time they were producing the lion’s share of a coal-dependent nation’s coal and the coal companies were making annual returns as high as 25 percent.

Fraser’s account does a great job of describing the on-the-ground consequences of all this. Land grabs by timber and coal companies or the TVA between 1900 and 1950 resulted in southern Appalachians going from more than 90 percent rural to just 30 percent. Even those who kept their farms had to rely on side gigs as poorly paid wage laborers in the mining towns, textile mill villages, and lumber camps that spread across the region. When those jobs began drying up—unsustainable forestry and mining practices wiped out the resources—migrants began looking north, which means most of them were already familiar with industrial labor, if not urban living. (In the coalfield regions, company towns—literally owned and controlled by a single company—outnumbered independent incorporated ones by a ratio of five to one.)

Much of Hillbilly Highway is about the tensions between the Transappalachian migrants and the midwesterners they settled among, but Fraser doesn’t show us who those people were, how their culture had evolved, and why their values might be at odds with those of the newcomers. It’s clear they loathed the “hillbillies.” The book is flooded with period quotes from police chiefs, mayors, newspaper reporters, sociologists, union leaders, and longtime residents showing that they found the newcomers raucous, wild, disruptive, and depraved. Their taverns were violent, their pastors emotional and taken to shouting, their “country” music backward and monotonous. “Education does not have importance to these people as it does to us,” a teacher observed. “Some don’t want modern facilities—if they have a bathtub, [they] don’t use it,” said a resident who worked among them. “They do not understand laws here, such as it being a felony to have sexual relations with a member of their own family or with a girl who consents [i.e., statutory rape],” said another. Public health workers reported that the migrants had a superstitious aversion to formal medicine. Police reported that they had a “code of the hills” giving license to “near biblical forms of retributive violence.” In 1951, a survey of Detroit residents asked who the city’s most “undesirable” group was. “Poor southern whites” came in at number two (just after “criminals”) with four times as many votes as “foreigners” and twice as many as African Americans.

These self-described “hillbillies,” driven from their home region by large-scale economic transformations and forced displacements by coal companies and federal dam projects, were seen as a scourge on the midwestern factory towns they poured into, depressing wages, disrupting the peace with drinking and boisterous church services, and letting their children run wild.

So who were these locals? In Fraser’s account they’re blurry representatives of a snooty, market-oriented mainstream “middle class” culture that just doesn’t like uncouth working people. But, of course, most of the people living in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Muncie, or Canton before the migrants showed up were also working class. And most of the locals weren’t mainstream Americans—whatever that means—but rather first- and second-generation European immigrants who, by dint of their Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Jewish backgrounds, were themselves seen as “others” by legacy Protestant America, probably more so than the “hillbillies,” who were English-speaking Protestants of British ancestry. On top of that, the “Midwest” is actually divided between three different regional cultures with different mores and attitudes toward immigration, assimilation, child-rearing, the role of government, and much else besides. Michigan and northern Ohio lay in a New England Yankee colonial space where migrants and immigrants were pressured to assimilate and Henry Ford had whole night schools set up to do just that. Canton and Peoria lay in a “Midland” space that was fine with people retaining their own cultures, languages, and practices—a mosaic. Chicago lay at the crossroads of both. The region around Cincinnati and Muncie was settled by, yes, the very same Scots-Irish and Scots settlement stream that colonized Kentucky, West Virginia, and the rest of Greater Appalachia, a fact the odious J. D. Vance popularized in his Hillbilly Elegy. This may explain why, at one point in Hillbilly Highway, various Cinci informants admit they have a hard time distinguishing between the rural southerners and “local” rural people. 

Fraser debunks the conventional wisdom that the Appalachian migrants were sheeplike and anti-union, but what he uncovers fits precisely with what one would expect after parsing the cultural origins of Greater Appalachia. They fought for independence, from both the “impersonal quasi police states” they toiled under in northern factories and the “emergent trade union bureaucracy” of the era. Many joined the Industrial Workers of the World precisely because of its “particular blend of non-doctrinal antiauthoritarianism and democratic control at the workplace.” Fraser notes the migrants had “greater faith in the efficacy of direct action on the shop floor than negotiations at the bargaining table” and were often “rebelling against any form of hierarchical command at the workplace, even when the orders were being issued by a worker-led organization like a union.” The migrant’s characteristics that drove midwestern labor activists nuts—being “stubbornly recalcitrant, too quick to act, prone to disruptive, violent, or otherwise anti-collectivist behavior”—were the very same ones their ancestors had that upset 18th-century New Englanders, the pacifistic Quaker elite of Revolutionary Philadelphia, and the Tidewater gentry.

Framing aside, however, Hillbilly Highway has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of a forgotten and consequential phenomenon in midwestern history, a movement of people across regions that transformed key midwestern cities in what would become the most coveted of swing states and may well have influenced the political evolution of the country.

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Colin Woodard is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and the author of six books of history, including American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of
North America.