Once in a blue moon someone comes along that so unexpectedly knocks your socks off that you really never even saw it coming. For me, Verna Mae Slone is that person. I’ve grown up in a land where Slone’s name is synonymous with Knott county, the border county to my native Perry. Known as the “Grandma Moses” of Appalachia, Slone has left a lasting impression on those from Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia and all over the world. I am proud to claim this strong, influential lady among the ranks of those of who are unabashedly proud of being from Eastern Kentucky, and who aren’t afraid to portray this region in a strong, and positive light. God knows we need more in the area like her.
Verna Mae Slone was a special brand of Appalachian hero. A strong and stout East Kentucky lady with endless wisdom and intelligence gained from years of experiences that could never be taught within the walls of any school room. A Knott county native, and advocate for the mountain people of her region, Slone’s enduring voice still echoes through the legacy she left, not only in her hometown, but through her first (and my favorite) book, “What My Heart Wants to Tell” The work debunks the myth of the barefooted hillbilly, allows insight into the grit and gall it took to survive the wilderness of Appalachia in the early days, and it gives all us hill folk something in which to take pride. It is a sweeping, sharp and heartfelt look back into the history of a way of life that is being forgotten, as well as the art, craft and traditions of those who paved the way for all of us. Slone’s book paints a vivid detail of the characteristics of our region and the importance we hang on family and community.
Born October 9, 1914, Verna Mae Slone spent her entire life in Pippa Passes, Kentucky. She was raised by her father, Kitteneye Slone, after her Mother died when Verna Mae was just six weeks old. A mother to five sons, as well as a quilter, doll-maker, and advocate for the preservation of Appalachian life and culture, Slone found her voice later in life, writing about her experiences in the mountains for her grandchildren. Never expecting much to come from her musings, Slone’s writing became popular among her relations and were passed around. Soon, she began receiving recognition and had the chance to publish her stories, thus was born her first book, What My Heart Wants to Tell. Slone’s sense of pride about being Appalachian, coupled with the simple and dignified way she expresses her admiration and love for her region and culture is second to none. East Kentucky lost one of the best in 2009 when at 94, Slone’s voice fell silent. Her efforts to put right the myths and injustices the outside world believe, and force upon those who were born and raised in the mountains, will make you feel proud to claim an individual who loved her land so much and made sure that everyone knew it.
“So many lies and half-truths have been written about us, the mountain people, that folks from other states have formed an image of a gun-totin’, “baccer” spitting, whiskey-drinking, barefooted, foolish hillbilly, who never existed, but was conceived and born in the minds of the people who have written such thinks as Stay on Stranger and the Beverly Hillbillies. And as lies seem to be more easily believed than truths, no matter what we do, we can’t make folks believe we are any different. These lies and half-truths have done our children more damage than anything else. They have taken more from us than the large coal and gas companies did by cheating our forefathers out of their minerals, for that was just money. These writers have taken our pride and dignity and have disgraced us in the eyes of the outside world. When our children go into the cities for work, or are drafted into the army, they are forced to deny their heritage change their way of talking, and pretend to be someone else, or be made to feel ashamed, when they really have something to be proud of.”
Slone is best remembered for her sense of pride in being Appalachian, for loving her family, maintaining mountain traditions and translating the beauty of her heritage and region through her crafts, and her six books. What My Heart Wants to Tell includes many bits of mountain lore and ceremony, including when to plow, plant and have babies. Tales of haunts, quilt making, moonshining, and “molassie stir offs” come to life in every page. One can not help but being lured into a powerful familiarity, feeling that they know Slone personally, as she shares personal histories of her family and continually tells of her respect for her home, and her neighbors on Caney Creek. You can feel the love in every word she writes to her grandchildren, so they can know the real truth about their heritage and mountain ways that will soon be forgotten. Her words are as much a call to arms for preservation as they are a written reflection of her time and place on earth. The message belongs to all her people, not just those connected to her by blood, but for all who are bound by those same cultural connections, in which she has such an amazing way of portraying. These words are for those who wish to take interest, so they too can know, love and cherish the culture and traditions.
I encourage everyone who reads this piece to find a copy of one of Ms. Slone’s works and give it a read. I have a personal fondness for her message. I am well aware that the time and place Verna Mae reflects upon is no longer in existence. The world has become a very small place within the last twenty years, and Appalachia is a modern region. I feel close to the central message of Appalachian preservation, but I sometimes believe that this idea is misunderstood, at least to the extent in which I promote it. Putting our feet in the ground and resisting modernization is not in the best interest of this area. In fact, we need to sturdy ourselves and push forward into the future. The strong will, character and general constitution of the regional people was forged by times gone by, but I do not suggest we revert to the socioeconomic climate. The message is to show outsiders, and local people who have forgotten, that what our ancestors built with the little opportunity they possessed was remarkable. Appalachian people were never presented with lucrative opportunity and squandered it. Instead, they were a people which survived and found happiness, despite the possibility of prosperity. The purpose is to show that it is what is on the inside that truly counts.
I do not write my own words in the hopes that you as the reader will simply just think back on what an amazing heritage we used to have. The same ideas, integrity and character that made our heritage great are still present. I believe that a great majority of it has been temporarily forgotten or dampened by outside forces and circumstances, but I believe it is still here. If anything I write, or in this case point you toward the words of another, can spark a value for those traits, I am happy. The opportunities we have today are vastly greater than those of our ancestors. I believe that a revival of the traits they needed to survive, coupled with the opportunity we have today would allow for this area to prosper. The burden is no longer our predecessors’, but ours.
God knew that it would take brave and sturdy people to survive in these beautiful but rugged hills. So he sent us HIS very strongest men and women, people who could enjoy life and search out the few pleasures that were contained in a life of hard work. They were an enduring people, who did not whimper and complain because their burdens were heavy. They loved each other and lived closer to God and nature than any folks anywhere. So with God’s help, I hope my brain can say to my hands what my heart wants to tell.”
Verna Mae Slone, 1978
Clink the link below to purchase What My Heart Wants to Tell by Verna Mae Slone