Coal-Mining in Appalachia and Growing Wheat in Kansas: Reconnecting a Family Tree

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Emma Jane Wright James, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.


I am just wondering if anyone in your area (the older ones) knew of my maternal grandfather and his family. My Grandfather, Ari Lee Smyth, married a woman named Emma Tritt in their home town of Appalachia,Va. After she died, he married her sister, Lula Brown, and they moved to a wheat farm in Cawker City, (or Beloit), Kan., leaving his Appalachian home to my parents, Maurine Ada and C.J. Wright, Jr., and their baby daughters. My Grandfather, and his son Roland Keith Smyth, moved back to Appalachia in the 1950s after Lula died.

As a young girl, I drove with my parents and brother (when he was still in diapers) to my grandfather’s farm in Kansas. Such flat land, I remember we ran to their storm cellar after a tornado alert. My brother returned to sell the property years later, I think to a neighbor who sharecropped. My brother brought back some wheat heads and pictures of a funnel which traveled up the highway alongside him for a few miles, he returned home with white hair!

Grandfather’s son, Keith, converted a small lot across from our house in Appalachia, as well as the upper-yard, into to a productive garden. Prior to that, neighborhood boys had erected a “sand lot” basketball court in the lower part of the lot. Mom always knew where I was in the afternoons-shooting hoops. The two gardens, plus assorted fruit trees, kept the eight of us well-fed. Keith also fished, hunted and brought home nuts and berries. We had five freezers and a large storage shed full of the food that mom canned and Keith provided.

We lived on the fringe of Jefferson National Forest in Wise County, a coal mining area in the south-west tip of Virginia. Mom frequently took us three girls on picnis and nature hikes on the dirt road that led to our reservoir. The dozens of beautiful wild birds are only a memory now, houses and condos are on the dirt road, our water and air polluted from coal dust, our mountains disappearing from cheaper, faster “mountaintop removal,” population down from 20,000 to 2,000, our high school consolidated, and then closed.  Main Street is full of empty buildings. I’m 73 years old and miss the “good ‘ole days” of growing up here: homegrown veggies, the birds, mom’s flowers, our hikes and feeling safe.

I found your magazine in a stack of freebies, and loved it! I’ve lived in an apartment for 14 years and am no longer able to dabble in gardening. I was just writing to reminisce, and see if any of your staff or readers might have known of my mom’s family in Kansas. Keep up the good work!

Photo by Fotolia/Pictureguy32

Please send email submissions to Letters@MotherEarthNews.comwith the subject line “Elder Wisdom” or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609