[Still] Life on the Allegheny Front
Fiber: fortitude, grit, backbone
Fiber: thread, filament
The Allegheny Front is the major escarpment in the Allegheny Mountains. It forms the boundary between the Appalachian Plateau to the west and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians to the east. It extends from south central Pennsylvania to western Maryland and West Virginia. In most places, the Allegheny front is along the Eastern Continental Divide. The mountains are rugged and awe inspiring. The climate harsh. It is not uncommon to see snow at any time between October and May. But it is the years with no summer that are the hardest. In order to survive and thrive here settlers had to have grit, fortitude, and backbone.
I fell in love with the mountains of the Allegheny Front as a little girl. Frequent trips to the Laurel Highlands and Deep Creek Lake started the infatuation. The more time I spend here the deeper I fall in love. The rugged landscape, the ephemeral plants that signal spring, the grit and fortitude of the people who call this place home, all speak deeply to me. Appalachian Fiber is a tribute to this special place.
Thomas WV was initially a hunting and logging camp. After prospectors found a nearby coal seam, the Davis Coal and Coke Company built, supported, and entertained the town more or less as it is today. The town of Thomas was an enticing advertisement when recruiting immigrants, from Italy, Ireland, Poland, Lithuania, Wales, etc.
In the Allegheny Mountains company towns have somewhat of a dark history. All buildings and businesses were owned by the coal companies. The remoteness and lack of transportation prevented workers from leaving for other jobs or to buy from independent merchants. In some cases, companies paid employees with a scrip, “company dollars”, that was only good at company stores. Without external competition, housing costs and groceries in company towns could become exorbitant, and the workers built up large debts that they were required to pay off before leaving.
Thomas was a booming town from its inception in 1884 until the 1920s. More recently, Thomas has had a revitalization and is now a thriving town of wonderful restaurants, independent artists, and musicians.
Farming in the Allegheny Mountains is not for the faint of heart. With steep rugged slopes and a climate more like Maine or even southern Canada it takes fortitude, perseverance, and optimism to grow food in such a place.
The Allegheny Front is one of the windiest regions east of the Mississippi River. In recent years this has lead to the development of numerous wind farms.
Song and Dance
Those who immigrated to the Allegheny Mountains brought music with them. The harsh unforgiving landscape and lack of transportation meant that many of the isolated rural mountain communities were able to develop their own distinct folk music tradition. They often used plucked or stringed instruments. Lyrics often expressed the loneliness and struggles of everyday mountain life as well as themes of love, death, religion and celebration of folk figures.
Mountain clogging, or flatfoot dancing, is another tradition that evolved in isolated rural Appalachian communities. Flatfooting is lighter than clogging with no set steps. It is usually danced solo, often on a board or platform. Dancers keep their feet close to the floor and do not make much noise. “The music just goes in your ear, down through your soul, and comes out through your feet.” – High Mountains, Flatfeet: The History of Clogging in Appalachia
From the Garden
With few roads and railroads historically crossing the Allegheny Front, growing and preserving food has been historically necessary for survival. Today refrigeration and shipping has made food more accessible but most of the region could be considered a food desert. Many people still grow large gardens and “put food by for winter”. Personally, I find growing food extremely satisfying and far tastier than what can be found in the store.
Spring in the Alleghenies is a fickle mistress. Late winter weather can last well into May. The first signs of new life in early spring are celebrated. Many of these ephemeral spring plants were important food sources before there was refrigeration and transportation.
Lady Slipper Orchids are an orchid that can grow in cold terrestrial climates. They flower from early to mid-spring. Wide spread collection, attempts at transplantation, habitat loss, and special growing requirements have lead to a drastic reduction in their numbers. Some species are critically imperiled. It is illegal to pick or dig Lady Slipper Orchids on federal land.
Though not edible the Trillium is an important spring ephemeral plant in the Alleghenies. It is one of the first woodland plants to bloom, even before the trees have leaves. Trillium are very fragile, picking parts off of a trillium can kill it even if the rhizome is left undisturbed. Some species are listed as threatened or endangered.
Mountain Laurel is a native, shade loving relative of the rhododendron. It is ubiquitous in entire Appalachian region and can be found from Florida to southern Quebec. The Mountain Laurel bloom, which is lovely in a small year and absolutely stunning in a big year, signals the end of spring and beginning of summer. It is as if the queen of the fairies had decorated the forest for Mid-Summer’s Night Eve.
Dandelions have been used by humans for food and medicine for most of recorded history. The entire plant is edible. Its bitter taste stimulates digestion. The greens contain high amounts of vitamins A, C, and K. The flower petals are used to make wine and jellies and the root is one of the ingredients of root beer.
Ramps (allium tricoccum) are a pungent wild leek that is among the first green thing to pop up in the spring. They prefer high altitude and low light and are ephemeral – they disappear after the few quick weeks of their reproductive cycle. Historically, ramps were thought of as a “spring tonic” that would rejuvenate a person after a long stagnant winter. This was such an important food source that ramp festivals exist all over the Appalachians to this day. Recently Ramps have become a trendy menu item in cities. With restaurants paying high prices for Ramps they have become a revenue source for foragers and are also placing them at risk for over harvesting.
Ferns first appear in the fossil record about 360 million years ago. The furled fronds, or fiddlehead, of the Ostrich Fern are harvested for use as a vegetable. Fiddleheads have antioxidant properties, are a source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and are high in iron and fiber. Not all ferns are edible! Some are even carcinogenic.
Hunting for Morel Mushrooms (Morchella) is a time-honored tradition. They are loaded with minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. They are also very tasty. Many families return to the same areas year after year to look for morels – keeping their spot secret. Morels are such a prized food that it can be considered offensive to ask a forager where their secret spot is located.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is native to eastern North America. It is an herb commonly used in traditional medicine. Ginseng has been harvested as a cash crop for at least 200 years. State laws regulate the harvest of Ginseng. Digging on state forest land is prohibited. The plant must have at least three prongs and no fewer than 15 leaflets. The berries of the plant must be red, indicating the plant is mature. Roots may only be harvested from September 1st through November 30th and diggers must have roots weigh-receipted at a Division of Forestry weigh station.