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Tradition so Rich, so Fragile, so Sweet



A hand-painted sign at the mouth of Tenney’s driveway welcomes guests during sorghum season. Photo by Mike Costello.

Gone from most kitchen pantries, sorghum keeps connections strong in some rural communities.

Just a few miles down a narrow, winding road from Buckhannon, the seat of Upshur County, West Virginia, a carved wooden sign welcomes visitors to Tallmansville. At first glance, there’s not much to the rural village of around 400 residents, but I’ve spent enough time in these hills to know what little first glance says about a place.

The weathered, gray sign is curiously positioned, on an exposed hilltop just before the road slopes downward into a hardwood forest one might expect to see when leaving town, not upon arrival. Before long, the grade flattens and the tree cover clears, giving way to a brief straight stretch through a slightly open valley. I pass a white church tucked away on the left, a handful of homes and the volunteer fire department on the right. Then, I notice a small structure adorned by mounted steel type that reads “Tallmansville, West Virginia 26237.”

“You’ll see it when you get to the Tallmansville post office,” I recalled from directions relayed to me over the phone.

The plain brick postal building stands alone, under a towering flagpole, between Tallmansville Road and a meadow bisected by the trickling waters of Grassy Run. I immediately see part of what I’d come looking for: patches of tall leafy stalks whose tops have bronzed with autumn’s arrival.

To a passerby, the fields on Donnie Tenney’s farm look identical to the ubiquitous plots of late-season corn grown on roadside farms throughout West Virginia. But a closer look reveals a plant that’s strikingly similar, yet more slender, taller, and, most notably, free of ears containing kernels, silks or husks. This is sorghum cane, the raw matter responsible for one of Appalachia’s most storied pantry staples.

It’s a cool late-September afternoon when I first arrive in Tallmansville. Tenney and his wife, Lorelei, are in the field stripping long, narrow leaves off the towering sorghum stalks by hand. Neighbors, friends and relatives have stopped by to help. At one point, nearly a dozen people are on site, some hidden deep in the cane thicket, detectable only by a steady, audible cadence of leaves being snapped and pulled, then tossed to the ground.

A former Upshur County Commissioner, Tenney converses among guests with a sharp sense of humor and a friendly swagger one might expect from a small town politician. There’s plenty of jovial conversation, yet everyone is hard at work, each playing a vital role in a local pastime that’s always been a communal endeavor.

The sorghum stalks must be stripped completely of their leaves before harvesting. Tenney’s friend and neighbor, Gene Hornbeck, reaches to bundle fully stripped canes, making it easier to harvest several plants at once, by cutting the plants at the base. Photo by Mike Costello.

Throughout the day, piles of dark green leaves accumulate between rows. The barren stalks are finally severed from their bases a few inches from the ground, then carried to a tow-behind utility trailer. There, Tenney’s sister, Bonnie Kelley, and his mother-in-law, Liz Villegas, stack them neatly in preparation for the last steps in making sorghum syrup, a viscous, dark amber substance with a strong history in Appalachian kitchens.

“I remember when I was a kid, this was the highlight of the fall,” said Tenney, invoking memories of sorghum gatherings decades ago. In addition to harvesting cane, responsibilities at the time might entail leading work horses around the mill, cutting firewood for boiling, or roasting chickens for dinner after a long day’s work. “Everybody got together. People came in just like they do here.”

Though sorghum isn’t new to me or my cupboard, this is my initiation to its harvest. As a cook, I’m drawn to ingredients with depth and complexity. Sorghum syrup—sometimes referred to as sorghum molasses or simply molasses, despite a clear distinction from the sugarcane-based common molasses—certainly has that going for it. Its taste can be described as mostly sweet, slightly sour, with bitter, sometimes even smoky, notes. Its versatile flavor profile makes it perfectly suited for use in sweet and savory dishes alike, but sorghum’s complexity extends far beyond an interplay of tastes.

At one time, long after the first seed varieties were imported on slave ships from Africa, West Virginia sorghum operations were a dime a dozen. Sorghum syrup was a product born of necessity, from a time when sugar was prohibitively expensive. First triggered when the Civil War crippled the deep south’s sugar industry, sorghum gained prominence as an easily accessible sweetener. A nationwide sorghum boom extended through the Great Depression, even longer in isolated rural areas. By the mid-20th century, as the cost of sugar fell, and homesteading tradition bearers passed on, sorghum production in the Mountain State largely fizzled out.

I’ve often lamented that, despite the historical significance of sorghum in West Virginia, my own use has generally been limited to products from Kentucky and Tennessee, where its use is more common, and production occurs on a far greater scale. I knew of a small sorghum festival in Calhoun County, and occasionally read about non-commercial hobby operations scattered about. But I’d yet to notice a single jar of West Virginia sorghum on the shelves of local food retailers. This all changed last spring, when I was tipped off about two farmers producing, and selling, sorghum syrup in Upshur County.

Photo by Mike Costello.

In late spring I finally met Charlie Radabaugh. A lifelong farmer whose rugged hands alone tell the story of his hardscrabble work ethic, Radabaugh never drifted from his agrarian roots. Decades ago, he found steady work making ceramic fire bricks in a Buckhannon factory, but remained tied to his family’s pastoral homeplace. He eventually retired there, where he follows in his parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps, producing vegetables, maple syrup and, of course, sorghum.

Our first encounter came at the farmers market in Bridgeport, where this year Radabaugh began making the hour-plus drive to sell his goods each Sunday from May through October. We met on the third market week of the season. Over the previous two weeks, he’d all but struck out seeking customers who knew what sorghum was, much less who wanted to buy it.

Radabaugh was baffled to have met someone familiar with the contents of the pint-sized tan jugs arranged neatly beside his modest display of early-season produce. It helped when he found out I was looking to buy more sorghum than it seemed he might sell all summer. The feeling was mutual, though. I was ecstatic to cross paths with the local sorghum producer who, until that moment, existed only as a figment of my wishful imagination.

We talked at length as he shared photos of the boiling process and told me of the mill on Tenney’s farm. He asked how I put sorghum to use, so I described some of my favorite recipes: a glaze for charred venison, a dressing for a wilted greens salad, desserts galore.

“You just put sorghum on everything,” Radabaugh joked. “But, you know, not many people here know what this stuff is.”

What Radabaugh said is generally true, but not just in Bridgeport. Perhaps in one of the state’s few enclaves of affluence—a place relatively unexposed to the insolvent, seclusive conditions that extended sorghum’s importance in a place like Tallmansville—unfamiliarity with sorghum shouldn’t come as a surprise. But, by and large, in West Virginia’s rural, urban, wealthy and distressed communities alike, sorghum’s glory days have come and gone.

Since I like to delve into the stories behind heritage-rich ingredients on my menus, I asked if I could visit in the fall, when processing season arrives. Without hesitation, Radabaugh urged me to do so. We’d keep in touch about it for months, all the way through mid-September, when he called to give me directions to Tenney’s farm.

Radabaugh and Tenney are longtime close friends. During sorghum season, they’re also business partners. Each grows several plots of cane, all of which is processed through an antique cast iron mill Tenney inherited from his father. Multiple growers, one central mill, all hands on deck. That’s how sorghum was typically produced in Appalachian farm communities, and it’s no different in Tallmansville today.

An iron sorghum mill, Donnie Tenney inherited from his father, crushes whole canes with drum-like vertical cylinders before depositing the plants’ fibrous remains. Photo by Mike Costello.

“It seems like just about every community had somebody that had a mill,” Tenney says. “A lot of times different people would plant it and bring it into one place, and they’d all work together.”

Just before evening, Radabaugh, who’s been at Tenney’s farm since early morning, drives a bright red pickup truck, hauling the trailer of stripped canes, to the processing site. Beside a dark wooden shed, he unloads them onto a long, narrow table where Villegas sits, ready to lead the milling process traditionally known as “squeezing”.

Charlie Radabaugh reaches for recently harvested sorghum canes, which will soon be milled in a process traditionally known as “squeezing.” Photo by Mike Costello.

Once everything is in place, Tenney starts the engine of his green John Deere tractor. A sturdy canvas belt connecting the tractor’s back wheel to the mill sets a series of gears and cogs into motion. Villegas picks up the canes from the pile, one-by-one. She moves them horizontally, from right to left, across her lap, feeding them through a boxed-off iron contraption that’s maybe two feet wide, just over a foot tall, elevated a couple feet off the ground. The mill’s robust vertical cylinders operate almost like those of an old wringer washing machine. They turn inward, crushing the cane before slowly spitting out the plants’ ribbon-like fibrous remains out the other side, onto a rapidly growing pile.

The fresh sap, a bright green liquid, trickles into a bucket under the mill before being transferred to a shallow, metal evaporator under the shed’s awning. Here, late-arriving company continues to gather. Among the guests is Delmuth Kelley, a neighbor, who, like several in attendance, comes from just up the road.

With an enthusiastic tone, Kelley describes frugal contraptions his father built long ago—a tractor system to mechanize the previously horse-powered milling process, a wood-fired evaporator so powerful it took six people just to skim the ash from the syrup as it rapidly cooked down.

“When he boiled it, he boiled it hard,” Kelley exclaims. “A real big rolling boil!”

Liz Villegas and Lorelei Tenney work to skim a light foam from the surface of the sorghum juice as it slowly boils, reducing into a thick, amber syrup. Photo by Mike Costello.

Kelley talks about his parents’ use of sorghum during the Depression and both World Wars. He recalls farm families like his own raising meat, vegetables and grains, then collaborating with others to produce sorghum, since, as he says, “they’d need sugar every now and then.” As he recounts memories of hardship, thrift and ingenuity, the conversation returns to the way the sorghum syrup’s labor-intensive process has always been a symbol of cohesion among area residents.

“It was a family thing,” he says, pausing briefly as Tenney’s tractor growls behind him. “Well actually it was a little more than family, it was kind of a community thing, because, you know, years ago they didn’t have this thing where’d they’d just send messages by moving their thumbs.”

Put simply, before the age of iPhones and emails, more people talked to each other face to face. Spread out over hollows and ridgetops, they did so to get by. And while modern conveniences may have brought about greater ease to certain aspects of life, personal interaction, even in places like rural Upshur County, has diminished as a result.

“It was a big deal. When somebody was making molasses, the community came together,” Kelley says. “It was just like the Sunday school picnic.”

After the boiling process, Lorelei Tenney pours fresh sorghum syrup into pint-size jugs. Photo by Mike Costello.

I know exactly what he means. I’m no man of God, but I’ve been to my fair share of Sunday school picnics. I’ve experienced a comfort derived not from prayer, fried chicken or half-runner casseroles, but rather an intermittent reprieve from everyday rural isolation. I appreciate what my ancestors gleaned weekly over rhubarb pie at a whitewashed chapel in the woods of Braxton County, an unspoken reminder that when, not if, neighbors must pull together for celebration, grieving or mere survival, they undoubtedly will.

“Today the Sunday school picnic doesn’t mean much, because just a few attend,” Kelley says, his voice tinged with subtle lament. “But years ago, that was a big day.”

I, too, long for a familiar sense of community, a trademark of the mountains that seems to have slightly eroded in recent years—a trend I attribute to several factors, including divisive election cycles and the rise of media-driven us vs. them narratives surrounding Coal Country or Trump Country, USA. It’s something I grew to appreciate as a youngster on a small farm, in a disaster-prone town on the banks of the Elk River. There, the need for apolitical coalescence never ends. (Last year, the town of Elkview, along with nearby Clendenin, was hit with widespread property loss, permanent destruction of my alma mater, Herbert Hoover High School, and deaths of several residents in the infamous flood of June 23, 2016.) When Kelley, Tenney and Radabaugh speak of maintaining, building and losing community, I understand. Though I sometimes feel my own sentiments teetering on the verge of cliché—“Appalachians may not have much, but at least they have community,” I can almost imagine hearing in the latest national newscast reporting the region’s peril—shrugging off a togetherness that shaped my affinity for place would be dishonest at best.

Of course, it’s merely idealistic to think rural locales are, or ever were, immune from internal strife. But at a time of polarizing discourse, I’m reminded of my reverence for foodways as means to preserve what sense of community remains. I hold close the idea that finding time to gather, especially in the field or around the dinner table, safeguards the unique bond between mountain neighbors who, despite stark differences, will in some way always rely on each other to subsist. In my years in the kitchen and a decade working in the public policy arena, I’ve witnessed communal acts of making and enjoying food transcend political demarcation. Food is, indeed, no social panacea—as a mark of culture and class, what we eat can be polarizing in its own regard—but I’ve rarely left a hog roast, cider pressing or ramp supper contemplating ideological division over common threads in a cloth from which we’ve all been cut.

As Kelley heads back to the field to strip more leaves and harvest more cane before nightfall, cookbooks with sorghum recipes are passed around. Early 20th century newspaper ads, shown on screens of modern smartphones, depict mills similar to the machine turning steadily just a few feet away. The conversation is one about sorghum’s value, but not in terms of culinary use or monetary considerations. To those at Tenney’s farm, the sweet sticky syrup reducing before them represents a century’s worth of history, heritage and fellowship.

“It all kind of weaves together. It’s interesting, at one time, you know 75 or 100 years ago, you had a community that was tight-knit,” Tenney says. “There’s a social aspect of it that’s missing today.”

A plot of mature sorghum cane, grown on land owned by Donnie Tenney’s family for over two centuries, is ready for autumn harvest. Photo by Mike Costello.

As long as the cane grows behind the post office and the mill turns beside the shed, sorghum’s social value will live on, at least in Tallmansville. Tenney and Radabaugh have no plans to cease production anytime soon, but as they age, both know the future is not guaranteed. They’ve seen family sorghum boils and Sunday school picnics come and go. They understand the inescapable fragility of tradition.

“We want to carry the tradition on to our kids and our grandkids so they can understand what Appalachian heritage is all about,” Tenney says, Radabaugh nodding slowly in agreement.

As for the future of his own mill, Tenney says with a chuckle, “Well, my mother died when she was 100, so that means I have 32 years left to make sorghum.”

Radabaugh responds, looking towards Tenney with shrugged shoulders, raised eyebrows and a wide grin, “We’ll just keep on working until we’re too old to do it.”

Nearly two weeks later, when I return to Tallmansville, a hand-painted sign reading “Welcome, Cane Boiling TODAY” sits at the mouth of Tenney’s driveway for the final time this year. Only a small pile of canes sits on the table near the shed. Villegas makes quick work of them, and before long, the mill sees its last turn of the season.

After hours of heating by gas burners’ intense blue flames, the syrup in the evaporator maintains a slow, steady boil. Hanging fluorescent lamps illuminate the space under the shed’s awning as dusk turns to dark. A bubbly foam is scraped from the steaming liquid surface, and the syrup drips from handheld skimmers at a markedly slow pace. It’s a sign. 2017’s final batch of sorghum syrup is ready for bottling.

Donnie Tenney (far left) and his wife, Lorelei (far right), work with friends and neighbors to bottle sorghum syrup from a gas-heated steel evaporator at Tenney’s farm in Tallmansville, W. Va. Photo by Mike Costello.

In assembly line fashion, several dozen pint and quart-size jugs are lined up and filled from a spout attached to the evaporator. They’re momentarily set aside, then capped with black plastic lids. When the bottling is finished, a thin layer of syrup covers the bottom of the evaporator. Lorelei brings out a plate of yeast rolls from the kitchen, passing them out to those gathered around — eight of us in total. I go after the prized scrapings with a spoon grasped firmly in my right hand, smearing the soft, light bread held gently in my left.

We continue to dredge the evaporator, like the giddiest of children, scraping cake batter from a mixing bowl in my grandmother’s kitchen. With processing finally done for the year, we drift back into a conversation initiated weeks earlier, one about sorghum’s future, the outlook for farming and for the region as a whole.

Radabaugh and Tenney express hope for a younger generation of chefs and farmers to pick up interest in sorghum, their optimism bolstered by a recent encounter with celebrity chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain, who, during a visit to West Virginia, told them Appalachian sorghum might soon be trending nationwide.

“I want it to expand. I hope it keeps on growing,” Radabaugh says. “Nobody knows what the jobs situation is going to be in this part of West Virginia. If there are some people that could continue this on and maybe make a living, you know, I think it’s wide open.”

With his pitchfork in hand, Charlie Radabaugh prepares the crushed sorghum fibers for transportation to a compost heap on Donnie Tenney’s farm. Photo by Mike Costello.

I’m a firm believer in small-scale agriculture’s potential to help shape the region’s transition away from dwindling extractive industries, but I’m keenly aware of the harsh realities associated with farming. Will sorghum production be part of West Virginia’s economic future? I’m not certain, but I share Radabaugh and Tenney’s desires.

I hope sorghum takes off once more. I hope this time-honored ingredient again sees widespread use in both home and professional kitchens throughout the Mountain State. I hope young farmers step up so Radabaugh and Tenney can one day walk away on their own terms, knowing sorghum still keeps communities like Tallmansville stronger than first glance reveals.

Mostly, though, I hope future generations will tap into their shared food heritage as one way to rise above divisive times and maintain community, whether at sorghum boils, Sunday school picnics or any other occasion that allows neighbors to seek common ground while breaking bread. If such proverbial crumb ends up smeared with a spoonful of that sweet, slightly bitter syrup once so common in the mountains, a couple farmers I know surely won’t complain.

Contributing editor Mike Costello ( @costellowv ‏ ) is a chef, farmer and storyteller at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.


Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020



Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?



Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Documentary ‘hillbilly’ Is Now Challenging Stereotypes for a National Audience on Hulu



In April 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County, Kentucky to rally support for his War on Poverty. The Poverty Tours culminated in August of 1964 with the signing of the Anti-Poverty Bill. Photo courtesy of National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library

It was somewhat of a homecoming when Los Angeles filmmakers Ashley York and Sally Rubin came to Appalachia to film the documentary hillbilly.

York was born in Kentucky, studied journalism at the University of Kentucky, and was always looking for the right opportunity to document modern Appalachian culture. Rubin was born in Massachusetts but her mother was from Tennessee, and much of her documentary work has focused on Appalachia.  

In 2010, York saw Rubin’s film Deep Down about mountaintop removal and reached out, looking, perhaps, for an opportunity to collaborate. 

“She thought I’d depicted Appalachian people as honorable and dignified,” Rubin said.    

Filmmakers Ashely York, left, and Sally Rubin, right. Photo: Provided

“We were kindred spirits with the topic of demonization and discrimination that has been so pervasively depicted about Appalachia,” York added.

In 2013, they began work on hillbilly. It started as an exploration of the term and the portrayal of the stereotype in all types of media.   

“The film seeks to elevate the stories and perspectives of a wide range of people living and working in Appalachia,” York told 100 Days one week before hillbilly’s debut at the Nashville Film Festival in the spring of 2018. 

“I’ve thought about media representation for a long time, and I would say this has not been an easy story to tell at all. We are definitely trying to use the film to abolish stereotypes about the region and to show alternative voices,” Rubin said. “At the same time, we are committed to complex, multi-dimensional portraits of this region. Those aren’t one-sided, and they’re not easy to paint.”

The picture they delivered is a vivid and nuanced portrait of a region. Where Coal Miner’s Daughter and Harlan County USA focused on the industry of the place, the story of hillbilly is told by the people who have spent their lives in the region, as well as the artists, poets, activists, musicians, who express what it is to be Appalachian.      

The widespread fanfare and critical acclaim that has followed has been astounding.In October, after a long tour on the film festival circuit, Hulu acquired hillbilly, bringing it to a mainstream, national audience.

Hart Fowler spoke with York and Rubin after the Hulu acquisition, about the two years since the release.   

HF: When you started this project, it was really supposed to be focused on the historical and contemporary portrayal of rural people and the term “hillbilly” in the media, but the 2016 presidential election became a significant part of the documentary. I imagine you weren’t prepared for the timing or the scale of that election when you began the project.

SR: We’d already been filming for three years when Trump and the election happened. That was never on our radar in the production of the film, and then we had to play catch to figure out how this story was going to play nationally and how [the election] would play into our movie. 

AY: We were looking for things to unify our cast and Trump was starting to become a thing. My grandma went to a rally and I was like, ‘what?’ I was very surprised by that. That was about the time we started to think there was something meaningful here. Both of us as lifelong democrats.

HF: That was a somewhat touching scene where you, Ashley, mention living your Granny’s dream of leaving Kentucky. Two years after the documentary and three years into the Trump Administration, have you noticed any changes in your family’s political views, or of their opinions on the current administration?

AY: My granny has a lot of great stories I’ve been recording, mostly in audio but also in interviews on camera too. It was kind of a natural progression for us to end up there, that November. I see them a lot, every time I fly in or out, I go through [Pike County] because it is close to the Cincinnati airport. So, I have a long relationship with them, sitting around the kitchen table, sharing stories. That’s just the way we operate and have for a very long time, so I think that’s why it feels so natural and organic– ‘cause it is.

There’s only a few people who we spoke with intimately in the movie who voted for Trump. Most everybody else is progressive and voted for Hillary, but we just don’t talk politics with them. My granny and her Uncle Bobby [the two Trump supporters in the film], from what I understand, are still enthusiastic for Donald Trump. 

We will see how things evolve as we get closer to the convention next summer. Let’s say somebody like Joe Biden became the [Democratic] nominee. I wonder if he would be interesting to them. He certainly wouldn’t have at any other point in their lives, and Donald Trump is not a shining star by any means.

Their point of view these days is very similar to what it was during the election. I would say ask them because we usually don’t talk politics. 

HF: Hulu acquired hillbilly this fall, but won’t release the total number of views or streams on their platform so far. But it is a big distribution deal and now much larger audiences are able to see the film. Can you talk about some of the feedback you have received since the Hulu deal?

SR: In January 2019, [hillbilly] went live on Amazon and Youtube for purchase, but this Hulu release was the first on [a subscription-based] streaming platform. The biggest response to me from the people that view it has come from writing in to our page. Even internationally, where it comes up on their Hulu, they talk about how it changed their lives and changed their views. That is really gratifying.  

AY: I’ve definitely been getting a lot of responses, a lot of emails, most saying, ‘I stumbled upon this movie and wasn’t looking for it. It kind of found me.’ People overwhelmingly have been moved by it and relate to it in a way, many with shared experiences with people in the film talking about being marginalized or discriminated against, people really relate to that.

HF: One of those marginalized people you show in the film is Billy Redden, who famously played the small boy in Deliverance that plays Dueling Banjos. He shares in the film that he felt taken advantage of by the film and his portrayal in it, and has struggled financially since. How did he react to your film?

SR: I would say 100 percent of the cast and crew loved the movie and were behind it. [Billy] loved the movie and felt that it did his story justice. He came on the road with us to a couple of festivals. 

AY: We did a crowdfunding campaign to bring him to Los Angeles when we brought the movie to the Los Angeles Film Festival. In hillbilly, Billy told us, “I was hoping I’d get to Los Angeles someday.” But that didn’t happen after Deliverance.  

We had sold-out performances at the festival, including at the Arc Light which is one of the most premier cinemas in the world. It was a great experience, with the red carpet and all that.  

SR: It was our second premiere in the heart of Hollywood and at the Warner Brothers studio that had made Deliverance. It was incredible, [Billy] got a standing ovation. He was paid $500 for Deliverance. We had a very generous donor at the film release that called in to donate $7,000 to him for his instability we showed in [our] story. 

HF: In addition to discussions of Deliverance in your film, director Michael Apted’s film Coal Miner’s Daughter is referenced and he is also a source, sitting to speak to you all about Appalachian culture portrayed in film. He also spoke at some of your screenings.  What was it like meeting and working with Apted, such a highly regarded and prolific filmmaker, in this project and the screenings of the film after?

SR: He came to our first screening in Nashville and everyone hooted and hollered [for him]. Our run here in L.A. was similar, where he had a long introduction and discussion with the audience. He was very supportive of the film, which was very gratifying after our five years of [work].

AY: It was great to spend time with Michael. We talked a lot together about Coal Miner’s Daughter, another film that was always on when I was growing up. I love that movie and it is such quality cinema. My dad and mom love that movie, my sister loves that movie; it was meaningful to talk with him and hear about his experience showing the film [all over the country]. 

HF: Sally mentioned you premiered the film in Nashville, a city that’s quickly changing and growing now, but is still the heart of Country Music, or historically hillbilly music. What was it like having this film show for the first time in that city?

AY: That was in 2018. The first screening sold out so we added a second screening. They had a red-carpet and we were the largest red-carpet of the [Nashville Film Festival] and a lot of the cast was there. It was really tremendous. Dolly Parton saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so it was great to have her blessing and kind words going into the festival. 

SR: The premiere was really something. That’s when we first spoke with The Orchard (an entertainment distribution company) and they made an offer and we negotiated for months eventually leading to Hulu buying the film. 

HF: Did you expect that coming in? I imagine the debut was a tense moment.

AY: Yes, [but] the movie was made with such loving care, I wasn’t worried that we were going to offend people or have a negative response. There were certainly people who don’t like the movie and have called it liberal garbage and who aren’t sensitive to our point of view and that’s fine. 

Most people appreciate the movie and learned something from it. I think people are very compassionate about story-telling and I felt good about that. 

HF: What’s next for the two of you?  Do you have any future plans to work together or are you moving on to personal projects now? 

AY: I’ve a long long list of ideas of projects I’d love to get made. Working on some developments with HBO and an Apple series this year, and some documentary developments that I’m doing, exploring all kinds.  

I would like to spend a lot of time making projects in Appalachia and Kentucky, absolutely.  AndI’m heading to New York tomorrow to go to work on a project on Broadway that I can’t talk about quite yet.  

SR: I’m working on a short, personal, animated documentary called Mama Has a Mustache  about being gender nonconforming and pregnant.

I am interested in working on a project in the future about queer Appalachia. I’d love to continue to work with folks from hillbilly and Deep Down, such as Silas House, Jason Howard and others with whom I’ve had a deep personal and creative connection over the years. It’d be amazing to align my two favorite communities in one film; the LGBT community and Appalachia. 

Hart Fowler is a freelance journalist and former publisher of 16 Blocks Magazine who has written for The Roanoke Times, C-Ville Weekly, Raleigh Magazine, Smokey Mountain Living, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.

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