Mountain Talk: Head of Holler and Mouth of Holler

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Convicts and soldiers placed on a railroad train by striking miners and taken out of the Coal Creek Valley during the Coal Creek War in Anderson County, Tennessee, United States. The convicts had been brought into the valley by the mine owners to break a strike by free miners.

It was not until I was in college that I first realized that the word “hollow” is actually the same word myself and everyone I knew had been supposedly “mispronouncing” as “holler” my entire life.  This is true, though I still struggle with the idea of people who have never even set foot in the holler, let alone grown up in one, being an expert on how I should pronounce it; however, this is another story for another day!

My upbringing was one that is completely foreign to any American child who grew up in a city or even the suburbs — yet it is strangely similar to millions of folks who came of age in the mountains of Appalachia a generation or two ago.  We didn’t watch a lot of T.V., didn’t spend our summers playing hopscotch on a bustling city sidewalk and we sure didn’t have a nicely manicured lawn just outside our window.

Instead, many of us are products of a place we simply knew as “the holler”.  It could have been in East Tennessee, North Alabama, West Virginia, Western Carolina a thousand other little communities with funny names quietly tucked away in the hills of Appalachia.

Some of us had parents who were land rich and dollar poor, while others came from families which had neither dollar nor acreage, but we didn’t care, truthfully, we didn’t notice things like this.  The only thing we could see were the imposing mountains surrounding us and the winding narrow road and parallel small creek which meandered through valley creating our holler; a place that was as close to heaven for many of us as we could get.

Some hollers are more populated than others and it isn’t uncommon for as many as 300 people to live up a single holler, if “the bottoms” are land and wide enough for enough mobile homes, three story “fancy houses” and simple cinderblock homes — a fascinating patchwork I’ve seen only in the Appalachian Mountains where the haves and have nots coexist as equal neighbors.

Years ago, my great-great-grandparents purchased an entire holler in West Virginia and over the course of several generations, the land had been subdivided, willed, sold and given away so many times that an entire community sprang up.

With their house positioned near the entrance to this hollow, my family is fortunate enough to live at “the mouth of the holler”, while cousins and others who live closer to the end, farther up the creek live at the “head of the holler”.

Typically, some of the nicer homes can be spotted at the mouth of the holler, but this isn’t always true.  There is great convenience that comes with living at the mouth of the holler, however, but the trade off to convenience is privacy — the folks who lived at the head of the holler enjoyed being at the very end of the 1.5 mile road and there was absolutely no one who ever drove by.

Regardless of whether one is from the mouth or the head of a holler, it makes no difference — just as the folks from NYC feel a bond with people from their borough or various sections of a large city take pride in their hyper-local community folks from the same Appalachian holler do as well.

In addition to meaning that you rode the school bus together and are probably distantly related, being from the same holler means that you grew up together and shared life together.  The holler is probably the place you got your first kiss and shiner in a fist fight.  The holler is where the people just like you come from.  Here’s to all the holler babies out there — be proud of your holler!

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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