On being a Latter-Day Borderlander: Michael’s sojourns here and there

I read David Hackett Fischer’s description of the regional culture of the Borderlanders (“Greater Appalachia”) with interest as well as the awareness that the storyline is just a bit forced at times. Even so, I cannot help but think that it is an odd coincidence that I have lived in so many borderland spaces over the course of my lifetime.  As a child, my family  lived in several communities in northern Arkansas that were quite close to the Missouri state line (Mammoth Spring and Viola to name but two of the places along Hwy 62 that runs east and west across Arkansas from Mountain Home to Eureka Springs and beyond).

Later, my family “moved back” to Fort Smith area (twice) where I went to High School. My mother bought a home in 1975 in the community of Barling. She lives just below the crest of a hill that is less than two miles from the Arkansas River (Lock & Dam 13). In the 1970s, Oklahoma still retained some of its reputation for being a lawless area. I was a miserable failure as a would-be “red-neck,” but I did spend a lot of time running around the backroads of Muldrow and Sallisaw, Oklahoma with my buddy “Jimmy Don”. . .

For a time, my wife, Mary,  and I lived in extreme southwest corner of North Carolina in Hayesville. On a clear day, we could see the shoreline of the community of Hiwassee in addition to seeing the dome of Brasstown Bald Mountain in Northern, Georgia.

Later, I would pastor a church in the northcentral section of North Carolina that was located in the northernmost corner of Vance County in the little community of Townsville. Many of the people in the congregation had friends and relatives who lived across the state line in Virginia in the communities of Boydton and Clarksville.

From 1988 to 1996, we lived in Western Pennsylvania very within an hour’s drive of Ohio to the West and not much more than that to Jamestown, New York. If we drove one direction, we found ourselves traveling through an area of the country that felt very much like the Midwest. But if we drove south, we found ourselves in the Appalachian Mountains. At times, I would find myself in conversations with people who seemed very much like the folks I had met during the summer of 1977 when I worked in Middlesboro, Kentucky, as a member of the staff of the Appalachia Service Project.

To be sure, I have not always lived close to borders. Certainly, we have not lived in border areas since moving to Indiana in 1996. But on the other hand, with the exception of the Ohio River on the southern side of the state the borders of Indiana are famously artificial. Indianapolis is also a city that is inscribed with a contested identity. From very early on, the area south of Hwy 40 “The National Road” was described as uncultured like the people in Kentucky. In his recent book, American Nations, Colin Woodard describes what happened in the wake of the creation of the National Road, now called U.S. 40, one of the earliest US highways, which cut across Ohio and Indiana in the 19th century.

“Nineteenth century visitors often remarked on the areas north and south of the National Road. . . .North of the road, houses were said to be substantial and well maintained, with well-fed livestock outside and literate, well-schooled inhabitants within. Village greens, white church steeples, town hall belfries, and green-shuttered houses were the norm. South of the road, farm buildings were unpainted, the people were poor and less educated, and the better homes were built with brick in Greco-Roman style. . . . The place we call the Midwest is actually divided into east-west cultural bands running all the way out the Mississippi River and beyond.” (178)

For people who do not live in the vicinity of Indianapolis, this circumstance may seem farfetched, but the fact of the matter is that even in the 21st century many people in the city of Indianapolis perceive Washington Street (the name of the National Road within Marian County) to be a cultural dividing line. Indeed, the University of Indianapolis continues to suffer the effects of this kind of displaced identity. Thus, even in the 21st century, you can get into a pretty good argument with some people over whether Indianapolis is best described as the “southernmost Northern city,” or the “Northernmost southern city.”

We now live in Brown County, Indiana, which is a very hilly terrain not unlike Scott County, Arkansas, that was created in 1836 when it was carved out of other county jurisdictions. The congregation of Nashville United Methodist Church that my wife pastors was once part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MEC,S). That may not be the absolute northernmost location of an MEC,S congregation, but I think it is probably a viable claim for that title!

Explanations for the significance of borders are endless. And the list of reasons why something ends up being viewed as a line of division may not be infinite, but such a list is much longer than most people might think!

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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2 Responses to On being a Latter-Day Borderlander: Michael’s sojourns here and there

  1. Paul cartwright says:

    Loved this post. At least one cousin whom I wrote to has viewed your blog…


  2. Hannah Cartwright says:

    Thought this post on borders was really interesting!


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