Appalachian Faces: Dave Tabler Reclaims “Hillbilly” Through History

Dave Tabler embraces the Halloween spirit. Photo courtesy Dave Tabler.

Dave Tabler has had one foot in and one foot out of Appalachia his whole life. He wasn’t born there — his parents had him during graduate school at the University of Illinois — and then they left the Midwest for Beltsville, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb where Tabler’s dad got a job.

Then, Tabler’s parents had twins, and he says his parents felt overwhelmed. They didn’t own a house, they didn’t have a lot of money, and they were trying to raise three babies.

“So I got shipped off to the grandparents in West Virginia until I started kindergarten,” Tabler said. “And then, of course, once I started kindergarten, we still went up there all the time.”

Tabler found himself “code-switching” throughout his childhood, turning his West Virginia accent on and off depending on which community he was in. And his dad, originally from West Virginia, didn’t like to talk to others about where he came from.

Over time, Tabler says he developed a love and appreciation for his West Virginia roots. However, he also internalized a certain amount of stigma and isolation he associated with being from the area. Those feelings were, in part, what motivated him to start his Appalachian History blog. The project became a way for Tabler and other people from the region to learn about their history.

A Tabler family photo. Courtesy of Dave Tabler.

Tabler decided to start his blog in the mid 2000s after living in New York for more than two decades. He was tired of hearing people dismiss the region as stagnant and forgettable, so he started profiling famous Appalachians like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

“That was kind of a way to prove to myself that yes, I did come from a place that’s worthy,” Tabler said. “There was a lot of lot of issues [with that mentality]. I don’t feel that way anymore…but back then, [the blog] was definitely kind of a crutch for myself.”

The blog was also a way for Tabler to publicize his dad’s autobiography, which Tabler said explores how his dad grew up dirt poor with an outhouse and no electricity until he was 10, then went on to become one of the first people to work with computers.

“He was born in 1926, so he’s very old school, and in his book he does not mention the word hillbilly once, and he does not mention the word moonshine once,” Tabler said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about that stuff. That’s the old news…we need to move on and talk about more positive things.’”

Tabler’s father and his autobiography. Photo courtesy Dave Tabler.

For Tabler, words like “hillbilly” and topics like moonshine are important parts of the area’s history, even if others have used them to stereotype Appalachia and create caricatures of people that are recycled repeatedly in the media.

“I’ve read New York Times and Washington Post reviews, and they are always the worst. They always looked down their noses, ‘Oh, Appalachia, so unsophisticated,” Tabler said.

Although Tabler, unlike his dad, believes reclaiming those words and histories are important, he also tried to complicate people’s understanding of what living in Appalachia is like, exploring topics like herbal remedies, family histories, and local phrases on his blog.

Tabler says he thinks blogs have seen their heyday.  Although his still gets about 25,000 monthly visitors, the Facebook group Appalachian Americans that he helps run is much more engaged: about 90,000 active members per day. Originally the group was mostly historical posts, but now it also sees a fair share of event postings and personal updates, like a baby’s first tooth. Tabler says a lot people who’ve moved away participate in the group, although most of the traffic is still from within the region. 

“Don’t think that homesickness is specific to Appalachia…although, let me stick an asterisk in there,” Tabler said. “Because the Appalachian culture puts so much emphasis on the home place and on family, I think the ease of getting homesick is probably far greater…I think we’re constantly coming back to the home place, and we’re constantly needing to rekindle with our roots.”

 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when Tabler moved to NYC. It has been updated for accuracy.