Updated: Apr 3, 2020
By: Robin Pyatt Bellamy, Mountaineer News Contributor
Posted: March 29, 2020 | 08:11AM EST
We’re going to make it through this virus thing. How do I know? I know West Virginians survive.
It started over 200 years ago. When people started to move west, they did it largely through our state. The first really large flow of settlers across the Appalachians came in the twenty years right after the Revolution. Pockets of homesteaders chose land that was good for farming and provided plenty of fresh water and timber. Despite the rugged hills, we offered a plethora of both. The rivers made it even more attractive because they provided easier transportation. The east was starting to get crowded, so the new generation of folks born on what was by then US soil moved on. They did it as directly west as possible. The Cumberland Gap, the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, and even native trails provided a way.
Migrating was hard. It was physical work, deprivation, and aching loneliness for those who left family behind. This is the stock we are either born from or joined when we moved to the area decades later. People often joke about Southerners, or Hillbillies, but the truth is, that with our faults, we are amazing survivors.
Starting with the obvious, we survived work crisis in abundance. The danger in coal mining, construction, and transportation were significant. A study by the AFL-CIO from 2012 listed West Virginia as the most dangerous state for workers. Accidents and workplace violence were not the only threat. Many occupations left lifelong injuries like cancer, emphysema, and birth defects in children. We got through it, and we still do. Mountaineers are resilient. We kept working, we learned new skills as needed, and we took on new jobs.
We survived poverty. We still are. Few of us have an income beyond living paycheck to paycheck. That’s true in most of the US, but even more so in our state. One quarter of West Virginia children live in poverty. So do ten percent of our seniors. We gladly accept help from federal and state programs, churches and food banks, but we have also learned to live with less. We know how to keep kids happy if we can’t afford cable, and we know how to survive without a phone. Accepting life with less as we move through the COVID-19 crisis is a huge asset.
We survived political unrest. We still are. We all know about becoming a state carved from Virginia during the Civil War era. Some of our folks were happy with that, others not so much. Historically, WV Governors have gone back and forth between Democrat and Republican. The current governor (Jim Justice) was elected as a Democrat and changed to Republican a few months after he took office. Frequently, our state leaders are the opposite party of our federal leaders. In 2016, about 68% of West Virginians voted for Donald Trump. His approval rating has dropped pretty consistently since then, although overall as of January he had only lost 8%. This year’s election should prove to be very interesting.
We survived pandemics. We still are. The cholera pandemic in 1830 affected the mountainous areas fairly lightly, although the more populous river towns had bigger numbers of deaths. With the exception of the influenza outbreak in the early 1900’s, we’ve weathered these storms pretty well. West Virginia was the last state in the US to report a case of Covid-19, and we remain, as of this writing, in the lowest numbers of outbreaks overall.
How did we survive all this? The answers may not all be obvious. Because much of our state is rural, most of our residents know the survival basics. We can locate and dig water wells. We can maintain outhouses. We can chop wood, build houses, and communicate through handwritten letters. If you are fortunate enough to not have to do that anymore, this might be a good time to refresh your skills. For those too young to remember when we did those things, learn it. It may come in handy in the coming days (years?) of crisis.
We can cook from scratch, even without a microwave (or range). Storms, poverty, and entertainment have taught us over the years how to do everything from boiling water for coffee to making pancakes over a campfire. Those eggs taste magnificent, too. Because stores were often some distance away, we learned how to keep “store bought” things like sugar and flour, and learned to grow many of our own vegetables. Then we made things like pickles and applesauce and “put it up” for much later use in mason jars. My adult daughters and I can still do these things, and it looks like it won’t be too long before we have to.
We can nurse our own. I guarantee every grandma in the state can nurse a child back to health. She learned that and much more from grandmothers before her that knew how to use things found in the forest for medications. Lavender for sleeping. Gargling salt water for a sore throat. Ginger for nausea. Honey for coughs. Teabags for an infected tooth. If you have never heard of these things, go find a native West Virginia grandmother and have her teach you. Most of us have had poison ivy and know how to treat it with clay (Calamine Lotion). Most of us can brace a broken finger well enough to at least get to the hospital at a reasonable speed.
We can entertain ourselves. Aside from those who can make moonshine, or more commonly, have a homebrew setup in the garage, we know how to party. Way, way back, we used to have things called hootenannies. We all got together and made music, danced, and laughed. We have them still; the annual hootenanny in the hills is a fundraiser for the Pinch, WV fire department. For a small fee, attendees can even go mudding!
The most important thing is we can help each other. When someone is sick, we bring them homemade soup. If there’s a death you can count on more casseroles than you can eat in a month of Sundays. Speaking of Sundays, on any given Sunday you can find a feast guaranteed to involve egg salad, potato salad and home-made baked beans. We return animals that stray, and help search for those that are missing. We check on each other.
These are the things that will get us through the coming days. Even after the virus is vanquished, times are going to be tough.
Robin Pyatt Bellamy was born in Point Pleasant, WV in 1961 and grew up in Ravenswood. She is a professional paranormal researcher, family history researcher, and author. Currently living in Toronto, Canada she is the mother of three adult children, grandma to two littles, and a modern day “southern belle”.