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BOOK REVIEW: Stinking Creek

stinking creek


Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community By John Fetterman    

(E.P Dutton, 1967)

There are two peoples whose journeys through the centuries have followed similar tortuous paths.
One group is called the Jews, and their history is one of bondage, struggle against oppression, wandering in the wilderness, suffering and discrimination. The Jews at length encountered a man named Hitler who espoused a “final solution” to the Jewish problem. It was neither final nor a solution.
Another group is called the hillbillies, and their history is one of bondage, struggle against oppression, wandering in the wilderness, suffering and discrimination. They came at length to the hollows of Appalachia, and now have encountered a solution. The solution is called The War on Poverty.”

Between 1964 and 1966, Congress passed dozens of pieces of anti-poverty legislation as part of LBJ’s Great Society vision. By 1965, much of the ammunition for the War on Poverty had found its way to Knox County, Kentucky.

In his book, Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community, John Fetterman uses the programs initiated by the legislation as a framework for his examination of the oft-caricatured hillbilly—a term he uses without apology or disparagement. Fetterman, a Pulitzer Prize winner for stories on Vietnam and strip mining, envisioned his profile as a non-judgmental portrayal of the face of Appalachian poverty, and took a year to get to know the people living in the remote area of eastern Kentucky. “These are the disappearing remnants of a people whose pride and independence are decaying, just as the hills about them are eroding and decaying, silting and poisoning their streams and destroying their sparse tillable land.” Despite warnings to avoid certain areas and certain clans, Fetterman finds all his subjects to be open and friendly once they are satisfied that he will give them a fair hearing. Though wary, the people of Stinking Creek want their story told.

By the time Fetterman arrived in Knox County, the people of Stinking Creek had become inured to reporters, because, as he points out, “Poverty is ‘hot.’ It is a subject rarely rejected by editors, and poverty stories and pictures are highly saleable...and easy to obtain. Naïve, curious, and trusting, gaunt mountain men and women pour out tales of suffering, hunger, and privation. Some are true; other only whining recitations offered in hopes that somehow it may increase the monthly welfare check.” 

The residents of the deep hollows that Fetterman visits are torn between trying to live like their forefathers and adapting to a quickly transforming world. One of the more notable issues, Fetterman points out, concerns the wheelbarrows of money being thrown at them courtesy of the fresh government attention. This, of course, is the elephant in the closet—through Fetterman’s interviews, we see that the governmental programs are perhaps doing more harm than good. Many of the residents of Stinking Creek tell Fetterman that what they really need is jobs, not money.

Beyond the politics of welfare, the portraits of the individuals and families stand on their own as snapshots of a time and place. There is eighty-one-year-old patriarch Henry Brown, married to his eighth wife, with six children at home aged seven to twenty, trying to count up all the Browns on Brown’s Branch of Stinking Creek (he figures around ninety-six). “The only thriving industry in Brown’s Hollow now is welfare. It keeps the Browns alive,” Fetterman says. “Commodities and welfare checks pour into Brown’s Hollow to replace timber that is gone, the game that is gone, and the topsoil that long ago was flushed down the creek.”

J. Harold Sizemore, seventeen, doesn’t attend church because he’s too busy. “Too busy” means sitting around in the woods, talking about his dogs, and watching the acid mine water run into Stinking Creek. When his dog corners a possum, which feigns death, J. Harold cuts off the possum’s ears.  

J. Harold’s thirteen-year-old sister, Virginia, will never cut her hair again “because she belongs to God.” She cries, thinking about how her father “took J. Harold to bad places where Christians are not supposed to go. To the wrestling in Knoxville.” Virginia waits patiently to see if she has the gift to handle snakes. “I wouldn’t be afraid if I had the gift,” she says.

J. Harold and Virginia’s father, who left their mother, Mary, after twenty-two years of marriage, sends seventy dollars a month to the family of nine. The family also receives government commodity food—cheese, peanut butter, rice, canned meat. “I went and signed up for welfare oncet,” Mary Sizemore says. “They said if I didn’t get the commodities I could get it. It don’t seem right.”

Whether colorful or commonplace, the stories intrigue, and regardless of the family’s plight or condition, all conversations, whether they began with breeding a hog or trading a horse, end with a discussion of their economic plight and what they are doing to survive. The difficulty lies not with getting work—there are no jobs, Fetterman explains. They struggle with whether to accept the welfare and commodities, try to scratch out a subsistence living, or move to a hillbilly ghetto, such as the one in uptown Chicago that Fetterman details.

Fetterman acknowledges those in the community who are successful, as well as the generation of young couples ambivalent about the thought of leaving and those who can’t wait to go.  Truman and Geraldine Messer have decided to make the best of what’s available. Truman works in the supply room of Pineville Community Hospital twenty miles away.  Truman: “I got a job once in Detroit when I was on vacation to see how it’d feel. W-h-o-o-e-e!...It was just too crowded.” Geraldine: “It makes him feel better, not on relief…You know you’re doing something when you’re not drawing a check.’” One of Truman’s goals is that his wife will never have to work.

Men such as Earl Broughton accept the economic challenges on their own terms. Earl works in a plant in Cincinnati earning $120 per week. He drives home every weekend, leaving at midnight after his shift and arriving home on the middle fork of Stinking Creek in the early morning hours. His seven children rise at 5am to welcome him. Earl: “Sometimes I wonder how the men do it and live with themselves … stay on welfare. I never mention it to none of them. I figure it’s none of my business.”

What won’t be found along Stinking Creek are the stereotypes of the proud mountaineer—then as now, nothing is so clear-cut. The dwellings are rickety log cabins, as often as not, but the sensibilities are contemporary. Modern media has shown residents what they are missing in the world, beyond the hollows, even if their news comes from a television bought with welfare money that receives only one channel. They know of the Vietnam War and the race to the moon. They know that they are part of the news themselves.

A lot can be learned from a forty-five-year-old, out-of-print book, because Stinking Creek offers its insight in retrospect. We see the birth of a welfare state, and can glean that had the War on Poverty been fought with more wisdom, it may have achieved its lofty goals. Perhaps even more enlightening would be to look at where the community stands in the new century, and unlike 1965, one doesn’t have to go to eastern Kentucky to see how things have changed. What didn’t work then doesn’t work today.

The only industry in the county in 1965 was a brassiere factory. While some light industry has since come to Knox County, administration of economic programs is the fourth largest growth industry, ahead of coal mining and behind retail grocery, individual and family services, and outpatient care centers. Instead of the factories for which the people yearned, welfare itself became the industry, perhaps, as Fetterman suggested in 1967, “the control of food can lead to the control of votes.” True, the roads have been paved, trailers have replaced cabins, and birth control has shrunk the size of the families. High school graduation rates have increased, and women work outside the home, bringing in more income. Yet the poverty rate remains three times the national level.  As Fetterman said in 1967: “Knox County is not primarily in the agricultural business, nor is it in the timber business or the coal business, or the brassiere business: Knox county, like all counties of Appalachia, is in the welfare business. And business is great.”


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