The Jacksons A Study of One Appalachian Family's Folklore

About the Project

I began this project with a very general idea of collecting information about heritage skills. Preserving cultural sustainability, if you will. Gradually it became clear I was not only documenting the skills I valued so highly, but the lives and stories of a family I adore. Having been around the Jacksons for a few years now, I had noticed that they continued to employ many of the traditions I had come to associate with Appalachian heritage skills. I began asking a few questions here and there, of my husband initially, but of other family members as the project progressed. I arranged meetings to interview various family members to better understand why and how they used these skills and how they passed them on to the younger generations. The beautiful story of an Appalachian family began to develop.

Below you'll have the pleasure of meeting James Jackson, the family patriarch and his wife Clara, their two sons Bud, the elder and Rob, the baby of the family - also my husband. Their daughter and eldest child, Theresa and her family do not participate in the particular heritage skills I was documenting and were often unavailable due to work schedules. Rob has an 8 year old biological son and a 14 year old step-son. Theresa has a 21 year old son. These children are the last remaining boys to carry on the Jackson traditions and name across all branches of the family.

The significance

Many of the traditions used by the Jackson family are losing position in Appalachian life. Only with the airing of overly dramatized TV shows like Appalachian Outlaws and Moonshiners do people even consider learning the skills this family continues to live by today.

Rob and his father, James, swap stories on the front porch.

The Folklore

The Jackson family as a folk group was insightful to study. I thought I knew them well prior to this experience, but over time and a lot of one on one conversations, I began to pick up on nuances I had previously missed. I noticed how certain sayings had a specific meaning within the family and the reasons for rehashing stories my family would have considered too sad for discussion. The family folklore, passed down orally and actively from generation to generation, was strong and interesting.

Top Left: RJ and Joey on a squirrel hunting trip; Top Right: Bacon wrapped ramps and ramp burgers ready for the grill; Bottom Left: Collards made to Clara's specifications; Bottom Right: Rob on a fishing trip with Bud.

I learned that while the Jacksons have sustained this legacy of Appalachian heritage skills - including hunting and fishing for food, foraging for wild edibles, medicinals, and profit, gardening, food preservation, and in the past, moonshining - for more than four generations, spanning over 100 years, it is likely to die out over the next two to three generations. Between a lack of children to carry on the family name, the Appalachian drug epidemic and economic downturn causing some family members to lead semi-reclusive lifestyles, and a general disinterest from the younger generation to learn anything not on a screen, the family's traditions may not survive the next 100 years. By documenting the family and their traditions, I hope to preserve the traditions for anyone who may have interest to learn and pass these skills on to their own children, in respect of the Jacksons and their love for their Appalachian heritage.

Artistry in skill

There's an art to what the Jacksons do. As Rob says, turkey hunting is patience, you learn by mistake, and you have to have a knowledge of the land. Calling a turkey in requires skill gained through hours of practice and listening to live turkeys to mimic the calls they make and know how a gobbler will react to certain hen calls, much like a musician hones their craft, so does a turkey caller. When digging ginseng, it means seeking out places most people wouldn't be able to reach, using your body as your instrument to climb down rough and rocky slopes to reach the North and East facing slopes, which tend to be the damp side of the mountain. With his brother and father, over the years they've learned that the rockier the soil, the odder the root, making it more desirable to buyers for a much higher price. When Clara taught me how to can hot pepper mustard, she explained that her mother-in-law, Mary Katherine taught her by using certain types of peppers you can improve the color to make the jars more visually appealing, while using others to provide a fuller flavor profile. These are skills and an understanding only earned through years of practice and love of the folkcraft.

Top: Mary Katherine and Jonah still holding hands; Bottom left: Clara helped me learn to can peppers from the garden Rob grew the way Mary Katherine taught her; Bottom right: Bud mean mugs with his bag full of ramps

The Folk Side of the Lore

When James tells stories about hunting as a young boy in the hills of Kanawha County, he tells of the people who made him who he is today. He chuckles as tells of his father, Jonah, and how he adored Rob, but could never quite get his name right, always calling him Walter Dale - after his employer - rather than Robert Dale. He talks of a teenager in the neighborhood nicknamed Baby Bear, both for his dark complexion and his burly physique, who good-naturedly teased Bud about wearing his James' hunting clothes when he was only about 7 years old. He always speaks fondly of the Reverend Frank Brown, who even in his 80s is a fixture on the mountainside, can often be found hunting and fishing with the family as often as his preaching schedule at the local Pentecostal church will allow. But perhaps my favorite story from James about growing up in Morris Drive, the one where he finds a dead man on the mountain...I'll just let him tell it himself.

Top: The Rev. Frank Brown on a Jackson fishing trip with RJ; Bottom Left: James' garden early in the season; Bottom Right: Joey with his first gobbler in 2017

For years I've heard stories about how Rob's grandfather ran a moonshine still up in the mountains behind their home after the prohibition when liquor was still at a premium in the hills. After several successful runs, Jonah got caught by the authorities which led to him shutting down the operation. While there is no intent to reboot that old family business, the now decrepit still remains hidden in an old mine shaft somewhere in the hills around the family homestead. Once, when Jonah was in his 60s, long after he'd shut the still down, a friend handed him what he thought was a glass of water. After taking a long, deep swig of it, Jonah looked up without a hint to indicate what he'd just drank and said, "If you're gonna run this, at least run the good shit."

Humanity through Heritage

Bud with Bolo, ready for squirrel season

The stories and skills the Jackson family passes down carries within the family history; who they are, who they were, how they survived, and why some of them didn't. Throughout the interview process I noticed that Clara often interjected tidbits about family members who had passed on, typically including details about who, how, and when. It puzzled me for days before I came to realize, through discussion with Rob, that it was her way of preserving their memory in her own mind and ensuring they are not forgotten by the rest of the family. When James recounts a story, he's sharing the bits that made him happy over the years, choosing not to recount the harder times. Bud prefers to talk about experiences and how he views them in conjunction with what he's learning through oral history and online research. Rob alternates between good memories and bad, often recounting without inflection, only adding his point of view once the story is done. The one thing they all share is a love of passing on the traditions to the next generation, using the methods they were taught by James' parents.

Each year, Rob and James take RJ on a hunt for the perfect fishing spot during Spring Break.

Each year, the Jackson men load up their vehicles with hunting paraphernalia- blaze orange vests, camouflage coveralls, temporary hunting blinds, snacks, scent killer, doe urine, decoys, and guns - and head off into the woods for turkey, deer, squirrel, and bear. For the younger boys, electronic games are downloaded to occupy those long hours of waiting for their prey to make an appearance. The children have been going with the men since they were too small to hold a weapon. During this time, they learn what trees are which, since all hunting to some degree, is based around food sources for the prey, according to Rob.

When they're not in the woods, the children are practicing their weapon safety and aim. These lessons never stop. They learn the laws about when and where hunting is permitted, and how track prey. The learn the signs of specific prey and what they mean, like deer rubs and turkey roosts. They watch the men skin and butcher the animals and take them to the processing shops. Eventually, as the children get older and more capable of handling a weapon safely, they are encouraged to take a shot usually during the more exciting trips for squirrel hunting, with the adults watching encouragingly. Hunts are arranged specifically in locations and seasons that will elicit positive hunting experiences for the children to help them "catch the hunting bug," as the Jacksons say. This year, RJ, age 8, killed his first deer.

RJ and Rob with RJ's first doe, 2017

Why Does It Matter?

The kind of skills honed by the Jacksons are simultaneously experiencing a decline in public use and a marked increase in interest among Appalachian cultural heritage aficionados and cultural tourists. While the general public is moving away from hunting, fishing, and gardening for subsistence; seeing canning as a form of food preservation, instead using canning jars as decor; and foraging as something done only by a select few with connections to high end restaurateurs to supply cities with "delicacies" we've grown up eating as necessity - there are pockets of people who view these things as artistry that must be saved. Davis and Elkins College hosts the annual Augusta Heritage Festival and workshops to teach these dying arts to anyone willing to attend the sessions and pay the fee. The Hindman Settlement, Appalshop, Pine Mountain Settlement School, and Berea College in Kentucky both seek to share this knowledge with as many people as possible through in-person education and social media, both private and public, to provide a means of subsistence for people in a deeply impoverished part of the country. In Georgia, the Foxfire Museum promotes these skills through educational offerings and a popular series of books as survival methods important to anyone who may be scared by our technologically dependent world. By documenting the Jackson family folklore, I hope to join these groups working to preserve important skills to meet the needs of my own family and many others who prefer a more simple way of life.

Top: James after a successful day of morel hunting; Bottom Left: James, Theresa, and RJ support Rob as he left to serve overseas in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He continued the long-standing Jackson tradition of military service; Bottom Right: The garlic patch planted by Jonah, passed down from James' grandfather.

What I learned

I thought I knew the Jacksons well - their stories, their likes and dislikes, their family background. It turns out, I was only scratching the surface. Over the course of this semester, I interviewed my in-laws, often without my husband present, asking questions about them and their lives in a way I hadn't done before. It was very interesting to me that they were always willing to answer my questions, even if I asked a question they didn't really know the answer to, like where the family came from prior to West Virginia. Over the years, this information has been lost to the collective memory, but the ties that bind the family together are as strong as ever and pride in the family name remains.

Left: James standing beneath the pear tree he planted nearly 40 years ago; Right: RJ learning to shoot

I learned that folklore isn't just about fairy tales and made up stories. Prior to undertaking this project, my view of folklore consisted of false stories passed down through cultures. After completion of this project, I've come to realize that folklore is so much more, encompassing the stories that make us human passed from one person to another to ensure the survival of traditions we hold dear.

Rob and RJ during squirrel season

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this semester-long project tracing the Jackson family's traditions and would like to learn more about Appalachian cultural heritage, please click the link below to visit my blog.

Created By
Jamie Lyn Jackson
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Jamie Lyn Jackson

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