To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of ┬áher slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

Appalachia Meets Midlands: My Kentucky & Indiana Family History

I spent this past week with my parents in Southern Indiana doing genealogy research on my mom’s side of the family. We were staying at Spring Mill State Park and doing some research in nearby Mitchell at the courthouse and the historical museum. Most of my time was spent in Lawrence County, although some of the cemeteries we visited were in Orange County as well.

This was the second genealogical trip I took with my parents. The last visit to Southern Indiana was just a year ago. I knew very little about my family at that time and now I know a lot. I find it fascinating, but I realize talking about family history is not dissimilar to telling someone about your dreams. Most people aren’t interested.

Anyway, let me explain why it fascinates me. I’ve been reading a lot of history in recent years. Most of it has been focused on the colonial and revolutionary eras of North America, but I’ve been studying all the history that led up to that and the larger context of events. On a smaller scale, I’m curious about my mom side of the family that is a mix of early immigrants who were mostly poor ethnic types (Germans, Scottish, Scots-Irish, etc). They weren’t English. They weren’t landed aristocracy. They were the desperate poor (mostly farmers, distillers, and laborers) who sought freedom and opportunity on the frontier as the frontier moved into Kentucky and then into Indiana.

Of course, someone of Native American ancestry or even of French ancestry would describe this very differently. My forefathers and foremothers took possession of land that was formerly occupied. And Indiana where my parents come from was the location of the last great battle where Native Americans tried to hold their ground. It’s a sad history all around, sad and fascinating.

My exploration of family history has been an exploration of my feelings about what it means to be an American. I’ve always identified as a Midwesterner which to me feels like ‘normal’, simply what America means. It’s the freaking Heartland. However, when I moved to South Carolina in 8th grade, I was sometimes jokingly referred to as a Yankee. I had no concept of what a Yankee was at that time. Even now living back in the Midwest for many years, I don’t think of myself as a Yankee. I’m a Midwesterner from the lower Midwest. This is the Midlands, the extension of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania. This isn’t Yankiedom of Puritan origins.

Many of the lower Midwestern states are split between Midlands and Appalachia, the two regions immigrants traveled to at great risk in order to escape the competing powers of Yankiedom and the Deep South. My mom’s maiden name is Clouse which is Germanic and most German immigrants found Midlands to be the most hospitable, but the Clouses on my mom’s side instead first came to Kentucky and then moved to Southern Indiana (Sarah Sally Walters who married William Jr. Fain, the grandfather of William Edward Clouse who was the second generation born in Kentucky, and Sarah Sally Walters was born in Kentucky in 1801; in that family line, the Clouses, Walters, Fains, Hawks, Stogsdills, Randalls, Waddles, Ashy’s, Welchs, and Hansfords were all in Kentucky in the early 1800s and some going back to the 1700; also, some of them were already in Southern Indiana before the War of 1812). My mom’s family has largely adopted the Scots-Irish culture and mentality of Appalachia. Both of my parents, however, grew up in Northern Indiana where Midlands culture is strong. I only knew of the Scots-Irish aspects of my mom’s family from visiting them since I was a child.

My time spent in South Carolina and North Carolina has given me some understanding of Scots-Irish culture. In SC, my high school best friend was a typical Scots-Irish redneck. In NC, a summer girlfriend was from a typical Scots-Irish fundamentalist hillbilly family, actually living in a trailer on a lonely country road nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My SC friend had Goff as his last name. I noticed that in early Kentucky records that there were many Goffs there. For what it is worth, the Scots-Irish are part of my family history and also part of my personal experience. I could judge that culture for all of its problems, but I do have a fondness for it that became most clear to me while living in NC. Besides, Appalachia is beautiful country, ticks aside.

In some ways, that culture is the complete opposite of Midlands culture and hence opposite of my Midwestern identity. On the other hand, there has been much mixing between the two cultures and they have shared the distinction of being the main battlegrounds of the American soul. I was thinking about this recently in terms of a radio show such as Coast to Coast AM which used to be hosted by Art Bell. You can hear all kinds of views on that show. Both my uncle Bob (my mom’s brother) and I have listened to it since the 1990s, yet we otherwise have little in common. He is a fundamentalist of Appalachian culture and I’m an agnostic of Midlands culture, but an interest in conspiracy theories and aliens creates a common ground. Coast to Coast AM is a show about alternative culture. The Midlands and Appalachia have always been regions of alternative culture. It is in these places that alternative religious and political communities often settled. That is what I loved about NC, the hidden pockets of odd alternative culture.

Visiting Southern Indiana brings all of this into focus. It is where my family shifted from Appalachia into the Midlands, always following where land and work could be found, generation after generation restlessly moving on in a drift Westward. All of my mom’s lines of family converged in Lawrence County (and the counties right around it, specifically Orange County and Dubois County). The Clouses and Hawks came separately and soon married, two of those marriages ending up in the Mitchell area right around or in Spring Mill back when it was still an operational mill, an infant of one of those marriages buried in the Hamer cemetery there (the Hamers being one of the rich families that moved into the area). At that time, Southern Indiana was attractive to alternative communities and many intellectuals, New Harmony being the most famous example (radical intellectuals from New Harmony would visit the pub at Spring Mill where some of my family lived and worked). It was this radical tradition of Southern Indiana that helped form the mind of Abraham Lincoln, specifically Lincoln’s being influenced by the alternative religion and politics (socialism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, etc) being promoted by people such as the Owens family of New Harmony.

This was the frontier, but not the frontier as you learned about in school. People came to frontier communities for all kinds of reasons. My family would have lived amidst great cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity.

My mom’s paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born at Spring Mill. The family was still poor and at that time they were squatters. The water mill slowly died because of engine-driven mills made them obsolete. Willie married Inez Rosemary Edwards.

On that other side of the family, two lines of Edwards married and there was also another line of Edwards a few generations back from that point. Inez’s maternal great grandmother was a Toliver who lived more than a century after having come to Mitchel as a young child as part of one of the first families to settle there. She was interviewed a few years before her death and she still remembered her childhood.

It was interesting to read about that era. The Edwards and Tolivers (along with the Way and Evans families), unlike the Clouses and Hawks, went straight from North Carolina to Indiana (some of the family on both sides — Henry Sr Waddle, Elizabeth Morris, William Fain jr, Elizabeth Whicker, Catherine Cox, and Benjamin Hansford — came from Virginia instead, although some of these families were moving back and forth between North Carolina and Virginia, and a few lines came from elsewhere — Sampson Hawk from New Jersey and one line, the Cox family as I recall, can be followed back to South Carolina; my mom’s maternal side of the family is similar, but there are several lines that in the early-to-mid 1800s went straight from the ship docks to Kentucky and Indiana).

All of this research has made history more tangible to me. Spring Mill, the home of my family that is of my mom’s maiden name, is now a preserved historical site. It’s strange to visit my great grandfather’s birth place as a visitor to a park; my mom also visited it as a child and had her grandfather point out the building he claimed to be born in. History gets turned into a theme park. The mill has been fixed back up and they grind corn as a demonstration. They even have an old lady working on a loom and a blacksmith doing his thing. To be truly accurate they’d need people to represent my family as distillers and squatters.

After a few generations of industrial growth, Southern Indiana has returned to its origin in poverty. The difference is that early pioneers had land and many opportunities to better themselves, but the poor people there now are simply getting by or trying to. Southern Indiana once was a place that attracted intellectuals and industry. People like the Owens family sought to create a better world. Later on, many famous socialists and labor organizers came out of Indiana. The tide, however, has turned. No one seems to remember Indiana for the hopes and dreams people living there had for generations. You can’t understand the conservatism and fundamentalism of places like Southern Indiana without understanding this history.

Indiana makes for a useful case history. It is a place where the effects of the past are still visible. It is a place that has been in between, split between Midlands and Appalachia. It is one of the main states where the Midwest first took form as a separate culture from the East Coast states.

Like the ancestors of both my mother’s and father’s families, my parents moved on from Indiana, although their movement no longer coincided with a Westward movement. As a kid, I was forced to move around; but as an adult, I’ve chosen to stay put here in the same Midwestern town I grew to love as a child. Most of my mom’s family, unlike her, chose also to stay in the area in which they grew up in. In this age of globalization, a sense of place is taking on new meaning in context of community and family. For the average person, there no longer is a better life to be sought elsewhere. There is no new frontier land to be settled.