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How one woman lost her label arriving at school on a different bus

May 20, 2014


Did you ever feel so different from your peers it affected your life? Were you or your kids made fun of at school, workplace, at church?

In this two-part post I’m reviewing the highlights of what is to me a fascinating book because for the past 45 years my feet have also straddled several worlds, as did those of author and sociologist Peggy Ann Shifflett growing up in mountain gap very near my home called Hopkins Gap, at the edge of Little North Mountain.

To be sure, her “gap” and straddled world is different than mine but we can usually learn something about ourselves when we delve into the experiences and culture of others.


A church friend, Beverly Silver gave me the book as she was thinning out her bookshelves. It is titled The Red Flannel Rag: Memories of an Appalachian Childhood, a self-published book in 2004. The front of the book has a photo of a typical Virginia home from the 1930s or 40s which grabbed me immediately. Had I seen that home?

Shifflett is a retired professor of sociology at Radford University in southern Virginia and former chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology there. For anyone interested in or living in western or southern Virginia, and parts of West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee, it is fascinating covering folk medicine, moonshining, education, dating and marriage, childhood, hog butchering, employment, hunting, superstitions, and much more. These were days of almost “living off the land” as hunters, gatherers of wild berries, gardeners, farmers, and wood cutters.

When I got to the chapter on hog butchering—which my husband-to-be introduced me to while we were barely engaged (and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to experience neat “olden” days still lived or quietly go puke somewhere), I was hooked. Shifflett’s book is memoir, family history, and Appalachian culture retrospective written by a woman with her doctorate, but with occasional extra words left in or completely missing, typical of a book not published by a major publisher. (As a book editor, these things just jump out.)

But this rich book of customs, folklore, “granny healers,” and growing up female in a family clan led by moonshine makers and runners, where any questions asked about the “why” of activities or behaviors received the response “that’s just the way it is,” helps me explore my own journey with this adopted Virginia culture. Reading that many families kept a fire burning year round—usually in a kitchen cookstove to keep warm water available helps me to understand why my neighbor’s woodstove still often burns into early summer and starts up again in late August—even though they and other homes have long since had hot water available at the turn of a handle.


If you want to know the particulars of making moonshine, this book pretty well covers it, short of a recipe, including why some brews could be lethal when the “mash” for the moonshine was run through car radiators or mixed in zinc-lined wash tubs. She describes how some moonshine makers kept their children out of school to help brew the stuff or to watch the roads for “revenuers” (the agents constantly seeking out the makers to arrest them), or the children watched from open windows at school for any strange or suspicious cars coming into the Gap. They’d leap out the schoolhouse window to dash on a secret path to tell their dads or uncles that a revenuer was on the way. And teachers, not having other recourse, would literally look the other way. Shifflett’s own father spent two terms in prison for his part in making and selling moonshine over the years. It was the way many families made a decent income.

P1050360My father-in-law plowing his garden.

Hog butchering

I was never close to any relatives ever involved in moonshine trade, but Shifflett’s description of hog butchering brought back memories of several times I helped butcher with my husband’s family and friends. My father-in-law, Hershal Davis, had a small patch of land where he raised a hog or two every year on the edge of Bridgewater, Va. But my first day of helping—including cutting up the “wiggly” portion of hog fat typically assigned to a newbie according to Shifflett—and wanting to plug my ears when the shots killing the hogs went off—were dead on accurate to my experience. I did learn to appreciate how every part of the hog is used up in this old fashioned processing system, but I was not sad when Hershal gave up butchering and I no longer had to help. I didn’t mind though when my husband brought home some fresh prime tenderloin “fish” pieces or a aluminum foil pan filled with ponhoss for a day’s work when he helped on hog butchering day at the homes of friends.


I loved Shifflett’s description of how the whole family would go into Harrisonburg to shop on Saturdays and the young people would meet up and pair off for dates or courting, and then ride back home with their families. Kids got married as young as 14 – 16 with many babies born but not necessarily all reared (dying in infancy, or in desperately poor families, raised by others). Shifflett’s own brother at 20 married a bride 14 years of age, and “Mom finished raising Hilda and taught her how to cook, clean, preserve food, bake bread, and do all the things a mountain wife did for her family.” (p. 21). Years later when Shifflett’s mother was on her deathbed and all of the family came to say their goodbyes, Hilda had been called away to care for her own father. But they were so close that when Hilda returned to her mother-in-law’s bed, the older woman finally let go and passed on.

Infant mortality

So many babies died in fact that Shifflett spends several portions of the book talking about “cry baby lane” where a woman’s still born babies were said to be buried. Still born infants were usually buried without a name or bonding with family and consequently the superstition was that these infants could be heard crying for their families when conditions were right in the gap. She talks about other children known as “field rabbits” because they pretty much fended for themselves wandering from farm to farm for whoever would feed them a meal, offer a place to sleep, and show a little love. Children living like that is unimaginable for most of us but not unusual in earlier times or in many places of the world even today.


Mountain medicine/superstitions

Shifflett’s area of professional research and expertise is Appalachian folk lore and she includes all kinds of healing arts, from medical “granny women” to whom many would go for medical needs to the “red flannel rag” to heal pneumonia or protect from colds and sore throats. In my family, growing up in Indiana, we did not wear red flannel rags to school but

P1050673What my mom put on us when we had a cold or sore throat.

I remember many a night when Mom would “Vicks” us—applying the commercial healing ointment by rubbing it into our necks and then tying one of Dad’s red handkerchiefs around it out of the belief that the cloth would not only keep Vicks from getting on our jammies but help it kind of “steam into” our necks—not so far off from the theory behind the red flannel rag, huh? One reviewer, Becky Mushko, notes Shifflett’s “red flannel rag” also appears in the book as a filter to cleanse the impurities from moonshine whiskey, to heal pneumonia, and tied to the mane of a mule to prevent a local “witch” from causing the animal to balk.


As people began to give up moonshining for a major income source apart from their hunting and gathering, many began to build chicken houses to supplement their income, or take jobs in the poultry or sewing factories in or around Harrisonburg when they quit school or graduated. Shifflett notes as this shift to factory work occurred, the new employees carefully wrangled to be able to take off extended time during hunting season as part of the condition of their employment, which now helps me understand the widespread custom of kids not attending school the first day or week of hunting season and everyone being pretty much ok with that.


When some of my own daughters were in middle school, they first ran into the tremendous cultural gap still felt in pockets of our Shenandoah Valley. Shifflett’s own feeling of being different came on the first cold day of school in first grade when her cousin had to wear a red flannel rag to school. When classmates asked why he was wearing it he answered that his mother put it on him because it was cold and it would help him from getting a sore throat or cold. Everyone laughed. “Virgil was silenced and humiliated, but he continued to wear his red flannel rag day after day because he trusted his mother’s opinion over the teacher’s” that colds came from germs. He “continued to tell the truth when his way of life was questioned …. And dropped out of school in the third grade.” (p. 9)

This is the tragedy of kids anywhere feeling so different from their peers they aren’t willing to put up with it, or fight back against this kind of prejudice. Early on, Shifflett decided she would never go to school with a red flannel rag around her neck. If her mother insisted she wear it, she took it off on the school bus before she got to school. Shifflett was born and raised in Appalachia, but went to school with “mainstream American children just a few miles outside that community.” (p. 9)

When three schools consolidated as she began high school, she got on her uncle’s old bus to ride out of the gap to Mt. Clinton Elementary school, and then transferred to another to ride to her new high school, Turner Ashby (where my husband went).

P1050674The Turner Ashby High School of the 70s (now replaced).

“I didn’t know it yet, but I immediately lost my label ‘gapper’ and didn’t realize it until much later,” (p. 250). After doing much the same quality of school work as she had done earlier, all of a sudden she had three A’s and two B’s. She thought there had to be a mistake. She was on the honor roll for the first time in her life. Kids on the honor roll got their name in the school paper. Kids thought she was smart. “When I was identified by the school bus as a ‘gapper,’ I earned C’s and D’s.” Now the teachers and the system regarded her without that label and rewarded her differently. Shifflett was at first scared, not knowing how much it would change the trajectory of her life. She went on to earn her doctorate but has always kept her feet in both worlds by becoming a professor of sociology just two hours away, and going home for holidays, special occasions, wedding and funerals and enjoying the stories, memories, and tales from her youth.

Next time I’ll tackle the interesting dynamics of the faith environment Shifflett grew up in where the closest church they attended was a small mountain Mennonite church, in whose cemetery many of her family and her parents are buried today.

Did you ever feel so different from your peers it affected your life path? How did you cope? Have you seen this with others?

You can read more of Dr. Shifflett’s work with links to two other books she’s written here.

You can sign up for a free e-mail subscription to my Another Way newspaper column at

  1. Fascinating, well-researched story, Melodie. You ask, Did you ever feel so different from your peers it affected your life? Well, I grew up Mennonite in Lancaster County and thus wore a prayer covering. But so did a few others in my class, so I was different but not alone. Yes, dressing plain is one thing that made me different, but more than that I was such a klutz in gym class. At my 50-year class reunion, one classmate, a former hockey player, came up to me and apologized for making fun of my lack of coordination. To be honest, it probably bothered me at the time, but I scarcely remember it now and it certainly didn’t have a negative affect on my life moving forward for some reason.

    Two other items in your review caught my attention too: The Vicks Vapor Rub treatment. I got it when I was less than a month old, and almost died – either from the pneumonia or the overly aggressive treatment of it. Mother has told me, “Every breath you took we thought would be your last.” The other item is hog-butchering. (Replace that with the butchering of steers.) In high school I worked at Baum’s Bologna Processing Plant in Elizabethtown, PA. As I operated the machine to wrap cellophane around the bologna packages I would hear the report of the gun and then a loud thump of the animal as it hit the ground. I dreaded Thursdays!

    Great post!

  2. I always think class reunions are interesting where some of those old barriers or relationships seem forgotten and that everyone has moved on. How nice the hockey player apologized! Regarding the Vicks Vapor Rub treatment, yes, Mom had a way of really rubbing that stuff in. You almost died of pneumonia and my mother was afraid I’d die of whooping cough, she actually took me to an Amish folk doctor. (Just remembered that–or the stories about it!) I felt your thump and report regarding steers as I read your comment. Vivid. Thanks, I think. 🙂

    • Marian B., this is weird. I worked at Hershey Meats in E-town, for a boss with a terrible temper. Wednesdays, I think, were the bologna days. The place STUNK–I didn’t hear shots, but big carts of unwanted (rotting?) animal parts stood in the processing room.

      (Oddly, despite what I saw there, I’m exceedingly fond of Lebanon bologna. What about you?)

      Melodie, why car radiators?!

  3. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler permalink

    My roots. Rural. Farming. Simple living. Homemade. Plain living. Mennonite. I am still out of step with my many of my urban friends, as the music and movies that were part of their roots mean little to me.

    Because I once lived in Kentucky and because I have many relatives in Harrisonburg, I find I want to dive into this book. Thank you for writing and interjecting how Ms Shifflet’s experiences dovetail with and inform your own. I look forward to Part 2.

    • You once lived in Kentucky–did you figure out that I did too, in VS for a year? Glad you found this and made a connection. I love your opening description. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and will share it with some of my friends as well

    The Vicks Vaporub treatment was also something I grew up with and did with my own family as well As I was a singer and often got laryngitis, many times when I was getting ready for a program , I would do the whole rubbing treatment on my throat and would wrap an old sock or small hand towel around my neck at bedtime..That smell will never be forgotten!

    As recent as a couple of weeks ago my husband was struggling with a cough and cold.
    I did not have any Vicks on hand, I brought some and gave him the treatment!
    However one thing I did notice, was that it no longer has the same smell as I remembered!
    As often happens these days with some of these old remedies, they change things . I think it still worked but I missed the smell as I knew it.
    Another old remedy that I always had on hand was Mecca Ointment
    It came in a small red container and would last for a long time.
    It was always good for skin infections.
    They removed it from the market a few years ago but did return it to the market last year.
    But…Guess what ???
    It no longer smelled like it used to and again it had had, a very distinctive odour .
    It still works though as I had a infected finger last week and with a little poultice with it on, I had it cleared up in no time

  5. I think I need to post one of those pictures on Facebook that goes “Remember this?” with a photo of Vicks and a handkerchief or towel etc. I don’t remember any other “poultice” type thing my mother used but the Red Flannel Rag book referred to numerous examples of poultice cures, including those using … manure. Can’t imagine. Now that would have smelled! Your memories of those ointments, and that they don’t smell the same anymore is interesting, I’ll have to check! I had not thought about it. Anyway, thanks for all your comments.

  6. My mother would slather us with Vicks and wrap our necks with one of Dad’s work sox. It was always scratchy. I don’t think we ever wore them to school, though. We moved from the west end of the city (Toronto) to a new subdivision in Scarborough, which was pretty remote at the time. We stood out from the rest of the school because of our old-fashioned clothes (a lot of hand-me-downs), and the fact that we came from a strict household. My mother was a school teacher, which, in those days, was being like a preacher’s kid. We didn’t get to try new fashions, but wore patched clothes and darned sox and tights, and plain navy tunics instead of cute dresses and skirts. We wore tunics or skirts, no matter what the weather, and many a winter’s day rendered our legs bright red and numb. We were poor, although we didn’t think of it that way. We just put it down to our parents being strict and penny pinchers. In those days, we didn’t wear boots like we wear nowadays. We had buckle-up galoshes which fit over our shoes, and if we got our boots wet on the inside, there was a spare pair that were so ugly, they looked like they were left over from the war. They got loaned out to the neighbourhood kids, too, when they got a soaker. How we hated them. I was a quiet student who was shunned at school by my peers because I was different. As I got older, they began to make fun of me because I had dark skin and dark hair, and I looked like a Native Aboriginal (we called ourselves Indians back then, even though we had very little of that in our heritage and were, for the most part, WASPs in a very WASPish community.) I was an okay student for a while, but just kind of gave up when I felt so utterly alone and friendless. That was actually a good thing, because I decided to repeat a year of high school, and that’s where I found my niche. And my future husband. That was my new start. No one knew me, and I didn’t bring any skeletons with me. I was challenged academically, and actually came out of high school with inspiration and a scholarship, which might never have happened if I had given up completely.

  7. Thanks for sharing your story, Margaret. I read pain here too–even though it wasn’t the mountain culture I was writing about, which goes to show these kinds of thing don’t really know boundaries. As I was reading your piece I recalled something else in the Red Flannel Rag book about Shifflett needing to wear flour sack dresses and underwear made out of flour sacks–which were scratchy and not pleasant. Your story of repeating a year of high school and THEN finding your niche (and husband) is remarkable, and encouraging! I love it.

    • Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

      I enjoyed reading your story too Margaret
      I have known Margaret as a personal friend from my church for over 30 years and never knew this aspect of her life
      Thanks Marg

      • I love it when readers know readers–or comment on the comments of others! I wondered if you knew Margaret and was heartened to find that you learned to know her even better from her comment. Bless you both!

      • Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

        Since we moved away two years ago, Margaret and I keep in touch almost daily by email.
        I have another friend from a Mennonite back ground , who is also a writer and I have shared these recent ones with her.
        She wrote me to day that she is enjoying them very much.
        Thanks again for your writings Melodie

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