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September 19, 2019

Living Memory

Appalachians keep the region’s history alive through storytelling

By Bennett Leckrone | Long-form editor

T he woman had just a month to find a new home for herself and her nine children.

Her husband was killed while working for a coal mining company. The company owned her house and would soon be forcing her out to make room for her spouse’s replacement.

It was the late 1920s, and the U.S. would soon be in the grips of the Great Depression. In the years that followed her husband’s death, the widow cleaned houses and washed clothes to keep food on her kids’ table. The family’s story is one of resilience, love and hope.

If it wasn’t for Suzi Whaples, however, all of those great and terrible memories might have been forgotten. Whaples is the widow’s granddaughter and has traveled the country recounting her family’s story. She’s part of a growing movement of storytelling in Appalachia.

“It’s slowly getting to the point where young people of today can’t relate to that kind of lifestyle at all ... but what they can relate to is the humanity of the story.”-Suzi Whaples, storyteller

“I can have you laughing one minute and wiping your tear the next,” Whaples said.

Almost all of Whaples’ stories center around her family. Her journey to storytelling began at a young age when her Aunt Louise told her about growing up in Depression-era West Virginia.

“Such poverty you’ve never seen,” Whaples recalled.

But her stories don’t focus on her family’s poverty. Instead, Whaples hones in on the human elements of their stories. One of the stories is about her grandmother sewing a patchwork coat for her Aunt Louise in order to keep warm as she walked to school.

The patchwork coat story deals with themes of love and bullying. After she told the story at a recent event in Chillicothe, children ran up to her to say how much they loved it. For Whaples, the stories are more than just her family’s history: She views her storytelling as a way to preserve and celebrate the region’s coal mining heritage.

Memories from the mountains

“Do you know what a coal tipple is?”

Whaples had mentioned the word as she told her family’s story. Her grandfather was killed on a coal tipple more than 90 years ago. Tipples were usually wooden structures that housed conveyor belts to load coal onto trains.

Those structures used to dot the landscape of Southeast Ohio and West Virginia, but as the region’s coal industry has disappeared, so have the tipples.

Whaples uses the word often in her stories. But as she told stories to a crowd at the Southern Ohio Storytelling Festival in Chillicothe, Whaples realized that many younger audience members didn’t know what she was talking about when she said “tipple.”

It was a reminder that the past is getting more and more distant, Whaples said. Still, she was happy to teach her audience more about the history of coal mining in the region.

“It’s slowly getting to the point where young people of today can’t relate to that kind of lifestyle at all,” Whaples said. “But what they can relate to is the humanity of the story.”

Preserving West Virginia’s coal mining heritage has always been one of Whaples’ goals with storytelling. She began her professional storytelling in the 1990s for a library she was working at in West Virginia. Her group, The Mountain Women, eventually won a national award in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

When her touring partner had to quit storytelling for personal reasons, Whaples realized she wasn’t ready to stop telling tales. That’s when she started recounting the stories her Aunt Louise told her.

“It’s a wonderful thing to do, especially if you’re sharing things of your own life,” she said.

Storytelling has been spreading throughout Appalachia in recent years, with festivals being held across the region. In Ohio, Chillicothe storyteller Thomas Burnett founded the Appalachian Ohio Storytelling Project to bring storytellers from around the area together.

While many storytellers have been recounting stories for many years, some have only recently discovered the craft. Mike Kubisek started telling stories after he met Burnett about five years ago.

Learning Appalachian tales has been an educational experience for Kusbisek. Although he lives in a rural part of Athens County, he’s originally from New England. Kubisek said storytelling has taught him about the region’s culture.

“I’ve learned a lot of stories that are Appalachian in nature,” Kubisek said. “There are old stories, and frequently I retell them or I add my own twists to them.”

Appalachian stories can sometimes offer surviving accounts of what life was like for coal miners in the region, Ohio University Political Science professor Barry Tadlock said. Tadlock, an expert on Appalachia, noted that there is often a lack of primary sources when it comes to everyday life in the region’s mining towns.

“Given the absence of a traditional journal, (storytelling) functions that way,” Tadlock said.

Tadlock noted that many Appalachian stories derive from the diverse cultures of the miners who came to the region for work. Those stories live on in the region and across the globe to this day.

A worldwide story

Judi Tarowski discovered storytelling when she was searching for a childhood pen pal. Tarowski had once visited her friend in Wales, but the two had lost touch as they grew older.

When Tarowski finally managed to contact her old friend, she found out the woman was now a touring storyteller in the United Kingdom. The exchanged emails eventually turned to in-person visits, and it was during one of those visits that her former pen pal encouraged her to become a storyteller.

Tarowski, who has lived in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia her entire life, has now been telling stories for nearly 11 years. As she learned Appalachia’s stories, she discovered many similarities with the Welsh stories her friend told.

Many Welsh immigrants came to the area around Gallipolis in the early 1800s, Tarowski said, and they brought their culture and stories with them to the area. Tarowski said stories like those are a way to preserve and celebrate culture for Welsh people across the globe.

“It’s a sharing of stories, and it’s a sharing of culture,” Tarowski said.

Storytelling is a universal form of communication. Tarowski pointed to various cultures across the globe with rich stories. The native people of Australia have designated storytellers to keep their history; Native Americans also passed down stories as a way to preserve their history.

“For centuries, us Lakota have carried our past through oral tradition, as we call it,” Tristan Picotte wrote for the Partnership With Native Americans. “These stories tell the origin of entire nations, why animals looked or acted the way they did, and where or how entire cultural traditions originated.”

As Kubisek has studied stories from Appalachia and across the globe, he, too, has found many parallels between cultures. He said many stories are similar in cultures that might seem distant, with little twists added based on geography and history.

For Kubisek, it’s evidence of the way humans communicated before writing and carving were widespread.

“Before we were writing things, we were telling stories,” Kubisek said. “That’s how we passed on our history and how we passed on our culture.”

‘Worth more to them than silver or gold’

The event in Chillicothe was a special one for Whaples. She was making a comeback after a hiatus to take care of her husband.

Telling her story is incredibly important to Whaples, and she encourages others to pass their stories on as well. Even if no one is willing to listen, Whaples said, people should record their stories for future generations.

“If you don’t do anything else, tell your story,” Whaples said. “Record it and save it. I promise you that someday your voice in that recording, telling a story about your life, will be worth more to (your family) than silver and gold.”

Kubisek has seen a growing community of young people getting involved with storytelling. He said he’s worked on storytelling with a boy who’s only about 12 years old and added that there are storytelling groups from Columbus comprised entirely of younger people.

He also stressed that anyone, regardless of their background, can become a storyteller.

“Anybody can tell stories,” Kubisek said. “It’s just making up your mind that you want to do it.”

“If you don’t do anything else, tell your story ... record it and save it. I promise you that someday your voice in that recording, telling a story about your life, will be worth more to (your family) than silver and gold.”-Suzi Whaples, storyteller

Whaples thinks that storytelling will continue regardless of technological changes or changes in society. While younger audiences might not be able to relate to the company town lifestyle her family lived so many years ago, she said they will always be able to relate to the love and humanity in her stories.

“How many of us would give everything we have to spend five more minutes with our grandparents and say ‘Please, tell me a story?’” Whaples asked. “I’m telling you, it’s eternal.”

AUTHOR: Bennett Leckrone
EDITOR: Laila Riaz
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger