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What the History of Salt, Slaves & Coal Can Teach us about Appalachia's Future

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Roger May
Kanawha River

This week on Inside Appalachia, we travel to Cedar Grove, West Virginia, home of renowned novelist Mary Lee Settle. On this episode, we explore surprising, hidden histories through the work of Settle and the voices of women from Cedar Grove.

Settle, who passed away in 2005, spent three decades on a series of books called the Beulah Quintet. The five books are each set in a different moment in West Virginia's history when a revolutionary change was at stake. Today's economic uncertainty here in Appalachia has many people wondering whether we are also living in the midst of a transition. 

"There's just kind of a feeling in the air, right now, in central Appalachia, that we have reached a moment, or a crossroads, where we're gonna have to choose a path for our future,” said Catherine Moore, whose hour-long radio documentary called Cedar Grove is featured in this week's episode of Inside Appalachia. “When I discovered that aspect of Mary Lee Settle's work, it really resonated with me, as we face the projected long-term decline of coal.”

Settle is the author of 21 books, including The Beulah Quintet, which spans two continents and 300 years of Appalachian history. Beulah Land is a fictional place grounded in the reality of Settle’s family homeplace at Cedar Grove, a town in West Virginia struggling amid coal industry decline. West Virginia native Catherine Moore visits Cedar Grove and interviews the “real” residents of Beulah Land, searching for stories of survival and resiliency in the face of enormous challenges.

The scenes and characters that emerge take us through wilderness, Underground Railroad operations, the coal mine wars of the early 20th century, and John F. Kennedy’s visit to Cedar Grove in 1960.

We’d love to hear from you. Send us tweet @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright.Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

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Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Catherine Venable Moore is a writer and producer based in Ansted, West Virginia. She serves as one of the editors of the WVPB show Inside Appalachia. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Literature, she earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of Montana. Her nonfiction, poetry, and radio stories have been featured in Best American Essays, Oxford American, VICE, public radio stations across the U.S., and on the BBC. She is the co-founder of several public history projects, including the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. Her current projects include two works of narrative nonfiction set in Appalachia, to be published by Random House.