Book excerpt: 'Depression of the spirit'

December 23, 2012 

Excerpted from Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill. Published in 1963 by Little, Brown & Co. Republished in 2001 by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. Used with permission of the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Editor's note: In Chapter 20, Caudill lists the problems facing Eastern Kentucky's broken land and people at the start of the 1960s.

The present crisis is compounded of many elements, human and material. They have produced what is probably the most seriously depressed region in the nation — and the adjective applies in much more than an economic sense. They have brought economic depression, to be sure, and it lies like a gray pall over the whole land. But a deeper tragedy lies in the depression of the spirit which has fallen upon so many of the people, making them, for the moment at least, listless, hopeless and without ambition.

The essential element of the plateau's economic malaise lies in the fact that for a hundred and thirty years it has exported its resources, all of which — timber, coal, and even crops — have had to be wrested violently from the earth. The nation has siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of its resources while returning little of lasting value. For all practical purposes the plateau has long constituted a colonial appendage of the industrial East and Middle West, rather than an integral part of the nation generally. The decades of exploitation have in large measure drained the region. Its timber wealth is exhausted and if its hillsides ever again produce arrow-straight white oaks, tulip poplars and hemlocks, new crops of trees will first have to be planted and allowed to mature. Hundreds of ridges which once bulged with thick seams of high-quality coal have been emptied of all that lay in their vitals, and their surfaces have been fragmented for the pitiful remnants of the outcrop. While billions of tons still remain undisturbed they lie in inferior seams and are of poorer quality. The magnificent veins through which Percheron horses once hauled strings of bank cars have been worked out.

Even more ruinous than the loss of its physical resources is the disappearance of the plateau's best human material. Most of the thousands who left were people who recognized the towering importance of education in the lives of their children and craved for them better schools than Kentucky afforded. Too many of those who remained were without interest in real education as distinguished from its trappings. If their children attended the neighborhood schools the parents had done their duty. Too often they were far less ambitious and such ambition as they possessed was to evaporate in the arms of Welfarism and in the face of repeated failures.

From the beginning, the coal and timber companies insisted on keeping all, or nearly all, the wealth they produced. They were unwilling to plow more than a tiny part of the money they earned back into schools, libraries, health facilities and other institutions essential to a balanced, pleasant, productive and civilized society. The knowledge and guile of their managers enabled them to corrupt and cozen all too many of the region's elected public officials and to thwart the legitimate aspirations of the people. The greed and cunning of the coal magnates left behind an agglomeration of misery for a people who can boast of few of the facilities deemed indispensable to life in more sophisticated areas, and even these few are inadequate and of inferior quality.

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