Making A List: Five Little Known Facts About West Virginia

Honey from the Lion, Lookout’s debut novel, takes places in the West Virginia Alleghenies at the turn of the century, and tells the story of how the logging boom changed the landscape—and the lives of a group of people there—forever. In honor of the book, this edition of Making a List details some facts you might not know about West Virginia from one of its own, Lookout Intern Isabelle Shepherd.

#1: Origin of the term “redneck”

The first use of “redneck” appears in the seventeenth century, springing from the Scottish Covenanters, a Presbyterian independence movement. At the time, King Charles I attempted to bring Scotland’s Presbyterian church under his control; in response, the Scottish Presbyterians signed the National Covenant in 1638. The document, signed in blood, declared their allegiance to their religion over the King of England. To symbolize this oath, the Covenanters wore blood-red bandannas around their necks. Eventually, these “rednecks” immigrated to the American colonies and spread down to the Southern states.

Later, wealthy Southern plantation owners may have used the term to distinguish themselves from the poor, and so bestowed the name upon those white field laborers whose necks were turned red with sunburn.

And finally, the coal mining unions appropriated the term. Between 1912 and 1936, strikers in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania between 1912 and 1936 wore red bandannas to distinguish themselves as union men. The informal garment was a symbol of unity meant to cross racial divisions between white, black, and immigrant miners.

#2: Pepperoni rolls are a legacy of Italian immigrants


Those who are raised in West Virginia become quite puzzled once they venture out of the state’s boundaries. Where is the staple food—delicious dough wrapped around pepperoni and mozzarella? They can be dipped in marinara, but West Virginians love them just as well plain. And they can be found everywhere—high school bake sales, roadside convenience stores, donut shops, grocers, and even bars.

But where did this simple but perfect food originate? They’re a leftover from Italian immigrants. After all, you didn’t have to speak English to mine coal, and so the stamp of foreign influences tinges many Appalachian foods. At the turn of the twentieth century, West Virginia was home to more native-born citizens than any other state. But that quickly changed as coal attracted foreigners, particularly Italians, to the region. Indeed, by 1915, there were more Italian laborers than any of the other nationalities working the coalfields. The rolls they made were easy to take down into the mines, and they continue to be a reliable food to grab on the way to work.

In short, pepperoni rolls are cheap. They’re portable. And they taste of legacy.

#3: West Virginia is the third most heavily forested state in the U.S.

Maine and New Hampshire are the most forested. Of West Virginia’s 15.4 million acres, 78 percent (twelve million acres) are forested. Almost all of this forested land is classified as commercial forestland, which is available for timber production.

Despite the vast forests in West Virginia, only 263 acres remain of virgin timber in the state.

#4: Origin of the term “hillbilly”

The term “hillbilly” has an odd assortment of connotations. It can be derogatory, a term for the poor, the backward, the uncivilized. But it also hints of independence, of those who resist the ploys of modernization in favor of self-reliance.

That said, there are two origin stories for the term. The first relates to the dialect of the Scottish immigrants, who used “billy” to mean “comrade” or “companion.” Hillbilly, it seems, meant something akin to “friend of the hills.”

Another hypothesis is that the term derived during the Williamite War, when Protestant supporters of King William III were referred to as “Billy’s Boys.” Yet scholars resist this theory, due to the fact that the term “hillbilly” was first seen in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, about two hundred years after “Billy’s Boys” would have been relevant.

#5: The demise of the chestnut

At Christmas time, everyone sings of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But the nuts are harder to find than ever.

At one time, the Appalachian mountains were carpeted with chestnuts. Legend has it that a squirrel could jump from chestnut canopy to chestnut canopy, making its way from Georgia to Maine without ever coming down. Yet now they’re practically extinct from those hills.

For that, you can thank the chestnut blight, which arrived in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century on imported Asian chestnut trees. The blight resulted in the destruction of about four billion native hosts by 1955. To put that in perspective, that’s enough trees to coat 1,800 Yellowstone Parks.

The American chestnut trees still try. They sprout from the roots of dead trees, but they’re doomed to be killed by the fungus before they can flower.