Fifty Years of Night

Chapter 3: The world comes to Whitesburg to take Harry Caudill’s ‘poverty tour’

Harry Caudill talked with Robert Kennedy when the then-senator from New York visited Eastern Kentucky in February 1968. Kennedy, who toured ­Appalachia to study its poverty, soon would declare himself a candidate for president. He was assassinated that June. Photo provided
Harry Caudill talked with Robert Kennedy when the then-senator from New York visited Eastern Kentucky in February 1968. Kennedy, who toured ­Appalachia to study its poverty, soon would declare himself a candidate for president. He was assassinated that June. Photo provided

More from the series

50 Years of Night

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” which shone a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader launched a yearlong look at the region’s struggles since Night was published.

Expand All

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, which shined a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader examines the man behind the book.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area was published on July 9, 1963. U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall wrote the introduction, calling it “a story of land failure and the failure of men.” The book established author Harry Caudill, then 41, as the voice of the beleaguered mountain people.

Caudill did not shrink from the role. Over the ensuing years, he would write scores of magazine and newspaper essays and eight more books, go on television, give countless interviews, lecture to universities and civic groups, and testify to Congress — all while he supported a family with his one-man law practice in Whitesburg.

Commercially, Night was a modest success. It earned positive reviews across the United States and immediately sold several thousand copies. A Hollywood filmmaker paid $500 for the movie option, although nothing came of it.

Culturally, Night was a bombshell, with an impact far beyond mere sales.

No Kentucky book ever brought the state more attention or more firmly established its image in the eyes of outsiders. It was a story of exploitation — of outside corporations buying Appalachian timber and coal for chump change from unwitting natives, extracting everything of value from the Cumberland Plateau and leaving a ravaged landscape and a penniless people.

“Tens of thousands of acres,” Caudill wrote in its pages, “fell to the exploiters, from a people who, though they might fight each other with medieval brutality, at a business negotiation were as guileless as infants.”For better or for worse, it made Appalachia look pitiful.

“The book was a pivotal moment. Harry articulately and openly challenged the system,” said Ronald Eller, an Appalachian historian at the University of Kentucky. “The fact that so much about Night still rings true today is quite an indictment of the political culture of the commonwealth.”

Night struck a chord with President John F. Kennedy, a rich man’s son who was shocked by West Virginia poverty while campaigning there in 1960. Kennedy ordered his aides to read the book and plan a federal aid response. Although nothing in his life could have prepared him for the national spotlight, Caudill was not overwhelmed. He had hoped to start something big.

“If a man has a foremost duty, it is to pass this land and culture on to his child in better condition than he found it because the unborn can’t defend themselves,” Caudill told The Courier-Journal in Louisville about the time Night was published. “The waste in Eastern Kentucky is immoral. In a sense, we’re destroying the home of people yet unborn.”

‘Ugly’ Appalachia

In the optimistic, vigorous New Frontier of the early 1960s, Americans believed they could pay any price, bear any burden and meet any hardship. Other books were warning about environmental calamity (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) and poverty amid plenty (Michael Harrington’s The Other America). Night Comes to the Cumberlands slipped neatly onto the concerned citizen’s bookshelf.

By fall 1963, the whole world was coming to Whitesburg to share a meal with Harry and Anne Caudill in their modest, book-lined home and take his “poverty tour” of shattered mountains and shantytowns. Harry Caudill, an outdoorsman, also loved to take visitors hiking through the Lilley Cornett Woods, a rare old-growth forest in Letcher County. The woods — about 450 acres — had been bought and protected by a cantankerous coal miner who slammed his door in the faces of timber buyers waving money at him, Caudill said.

The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, CBS News and others sent reporters to document conditions, all of them finding things as bad as Caudill described. Academics, church groups and government officials followed to study the problems and offer aid. College students arrived in search of a cause to which they could devote their energy.

“There was a constant stream of people coming in and out of our home, which was a great joy, but it certainly made it a busy time in our lives,” Anne Frye Caudill recalled in an interview this year. Many thousands of people signed their guest book, she said.

Word spread of “ugly, poverty-ridden” Appalachia, as The New York Times’s book review of Night put it. Harry Caudill wryly described the response: Americans cleaned out their closets and shipped tons of old clothes to Eastern Kentucky; threadbare suits cut for 1940s fashions dominated the mountains for years. A charitable wholesaler sent 12,000 pairs of children’s shoes.Other donations were less thoughtful.

“The town of Harlan was blessed with an entire carload of cabbages for several days on a side track while the cargo rotted, and the Louisville and Nashville — which touts itself as ‘Old Reliable’ — promptly discarded it on a riverbank,” Caudill wrote. “The ten tons of decaying vegetables sent an odoriferous pall to plague the county seat and raise serious doubts about the whole idea of Christian charity.”Many Americans contacted Caudill directly, having read about him in news stories. Marie Swope of Lathrop, Mo., asked for his help adopting an Appalachian baby girl so she could give the child a decent home. “Those children of Kentucky need a chance to survive,” Swope wrote.

A frustrated Olga Nagy of Belmont, Mass., wrote Caudill because donated cartons of household goods kept getting returned to her by the post office. Nagy mailed them to vague addresses based on names she saw in news reports. She sent one to “Dr. Fox, Woman Doctor of Leslie County, Kentuckey.” It didn’t get to whoever that was.

“They sure are lazy in Kentucky, even the postal clerks, just waiting for a handout as usual and find it a little difficult to go beyond the call of duty,” Nagy complained. Caudill graciously thanked Nagy for her generosity and gave her the exact postal address of a religious charity in the area for which he could vouch.

In early November 1963, President Kennedy told incoming Gov. Edward “Ned” Breathitt that he was arranging a visit to Eastern Kentucky to announce aid for the impoverished region, Breathitt said in a 1998 oral-history interview.

The New York Times — required reading at the White House — had just published a series of front-page stories from Appalachia that confirmed Caudill’s descriptions in Night. In fact, Caudill had befriended the Times reporter and escorted him around.

Then history interceded: Kennedy was shot to death Nov. 22 in Dallas. But his successor, Lyndon Johnson, assumed Kennedy’s agenda as his own. In 1964, Johnson took the tour Kennedy planned, dropping into Martin County by helicopter to declare his War on Poverty and shake the hands of startled mountaineers on their front porches.

Billions of dollars

Caudill welcomed federal intervention. The last chapter of Night called for a Southern Mountain Authority, based on the Tennessee Valley Authority that brought electricity to much of the rural South during the 1930s.Caudill wanted counties consolidated; entrenched political bosses swept from office; most of the scattered rural population relocated to a few built-up towns or pushed out of the plateau entirely, to outside cities where they could find employment; and a huge public investment made in education and infrastructure, such as dams and lakes to provide recreation, tourism jobs and cheap hydroelectric power.

More than anything, he said, Appalachia needed employers independent of coal.

It was a hugely ambitious agenda. And it didn’t happen.

Instead, Congress established the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, in 1965 as a fairly traditional public works project. Billions of dollars in federal aid would go to counties designated as “Appalachia,” predominantly for road construction, with other projects sharing smaller sums.

Appalachia ended up much bigger than Caudill imagined. Thirteen states would share in the ARC’s munificence, from New York to Mississippi. (In Kentucky, Appalachia as Congress defines it extends through Lexington’s suburbs to just outside Bowling Green in the western half of the state.) That sprawling map satisfied pork-hungry members of Congress whose districts could cash in while siphoning resources from the area Caudill intended: West Virginia and rugged, adjoining sections of Kentucky and Virginia.

Caudill dismissed the ARC as an uncoordinated boondoggle. He said it didn’t end the region’s dependence on coal, improve schools or break up political cliques. By 1985, it had spent $656 million in Kentucky, two-thirds of it on roads that — Caudill said — swiftly were pounded into dust by overweight coal trucks no governor would allow the state police to ticket, for fear of antagonizing coal operators.”I think the ARC ought to be put to work or abolished,” he told Forbes magazine.

Caudill never got his rural revolution, said Loyal Jones, former director of Berea College’s Appalachian Center.

“None of these agencies would do exactly what Caudill wanted them to do, what he thought they should do, so he got disgusted with them,” Jones said.

“Some of his ideas were terribly ambitious, but they weren’t going to happen,” Jones said. “Things like nationalization of the coal industry — that wasn’t going to happen. There was just too much wealth against it. You couldn’t do that even during the liberal years.”

Mixed reviews

Caudill gave mixed reviews to other federal efforts.

He traveled to Washington at President Jimmy Carter’s invitation for the signing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. It was the first major step toward regulating strip mining. Caudill liked the law but said Kentucky governors undermined it with lax enforcement at the state level to appease their donors in the coal industry.

Medicare and Medicaid, created by Johnson, provided health care for the old and poor, which was much of Appalachia. That was good, Caudill said. On the other hand, each new handout encouraged malingering by the lazy, he said. Free access to medicine let pill addicts claim “bad nerves” and stay doped up all day — a prescient criticism given the prescription drug abuse currently afflicting Eastern Kentucky.

Caudill was impressed by activists who moved to Appalachia to improve things, often as part of federal programs. But he wrote in his 1976 book The Watches of the Night that these young people were tolerated only when they busied themselves with harmless tasks — painting old schools, picking up trash. More militant activists who registered voters or protested strip-mining were seen as a threat by coal operators and county officials, so they were harassed until they fled.

For example, in 1967, the Pike County sheriff raided the home of Joe and Karen Mulloy of the Appalachian Volunteers, which organized poor people against strip mining. The county prosecutor charged the Mulloys with sedition — plotting “the violent and forceful overthrow of the government of Pike County.” The Mulloys spent years fighting the case in court. Meanwhile, the Appalachian Volunteers was defunded and shut down.By the late 1970s, when a young Atlanta woman asked Caudill about jobs in Appalachia that would let her help people, he warned her: “The Appalachian Mountains have worn out generations of people who have wanted to be helpful. It is increasingly difficult to find a suitable situation.”

‘Get to work’

Not everyone walked away discouraged.

Bill Richardson, a graduate student in architecture at Yale University, first came to Eastern Kentucky in 1966 with a passion to tackle the region’s poverty.

Richardson was inspired by Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Getting to meet Caudill was thrilling, he said recently.

“He was a true visionary,” Richardson said. “He thought of big things. He thought of things that could really make a difference.”

Richardson and partners designed a community center and affordable housing. Later, Richardson got a grant to set up the Appalachian Film Workshop in Whitesburg, Caudill’s town, as a non-profit media center that would train local residents to make movies and create their own images of their home.

The name soon changed to Appalshop. Forty years on, it is a wide-ranging arts and education center that includes a radio station, record company, theater troupe, gallery, annual music festival and classes on how to produce many kinds of media. In 2011, Appalshop reported $1.7 million in revenue and 32 employees, making it a significant economic force in Letcher County.

Caudill “made us feel more able to do anything,” Richardson said, “and that we should get to work, start doing something.”

Chapter 4: Disillusioned, Harry Caudill blames ‘genetic decline’ in Eastern Kentucky

Follow more of our reporting on Fifty Years of Night

See all 10 stories
Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader