Back in the hills and hollows of the Southern Appalachians, before the railroad, before the convenience of highways and easy travel on paved roads, families tended to stick together and form communities based on mutual reliance. And it was within these groups that young men and women often found their mates.
Courting in the mountain areas up until the mid-1900s was a luxury that many young people couldn’t afford. Very often, young men and women, closer to teenagers actually, found each other at corn husking and taffy pulling events. They kissed, fell in love and got married — all in rapid succession. Sometimes, within weeks of the first kiss, a wedding took place in the home of the bride. Often the neighbors would share what they had to help the young couple set up housekeeping.
Father Knows Best
In Appalachian families in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the man was the absolute head of the household. The womenfolk bore the children, cleaned and cooked for the family. Fathers took special interest in marrying off their daughters as soon as they were of child-bearing age, usually around 14 or 15. Fathers also cut a courtship short when a young girl turned up pregnant before the nuptials. Some say the “shotgun wedding” has its origins in Appalachia.
In small, close-knit communities, the boys and girls were closely watched by fathers and allowed very few liberties when it came to courting. Two games popular with Appalachian teens were spin-the-bottle and post office. All led to harmless kissing, which quickly progressed to a quickie wedding. Another popular and acceptable courting ritual involved the dulcimer, a stringed instrument that was small enough to produce a somewhat quiet sound. Young men sang love songs while playing the dulcimer to their sweethearts, in front of a family gathering.
The Clash of Past and Present
The clash of past and present is never more present in Southern Appalachia than in the practices of courting and marriage. Often referred to as “yesterday’s people,” Appalachian natives still cling to family. The extended family and a staunch loyalty to kin are revered to this day.
Couples meet in church, at school, through community activities, sports and musical events. Close-knit families still expect the father of the bride’s approval prior to an engagement. Young couples may be found courting on a tailgate or dancing to a dulcimer. While modern technology providing access to the world certainly has invaded nearly every corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains, enough of the older generation still exists to carry on traditions and demand adherence to family and the respect it’s due.
Outsiders who have moved to Appalachia come to honor the traditions and embrace them, rather than try to change what makes this place special. While more weddings may take place in churches these days than in the home, love still begins at county fairs and contra dances. While young people wait until they are in their 20s to marry, the beauty of the Southern Appalachians still overshadows those first flirtations and the ensuing kisses.
As families gather at the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects, young lovers hold hands as they look to the future. They repeat the myths and superstitions of their elders, with dreams of forging new alliances built on a strong and resilient history. Love endures, as it must.
Appalachian Folklore on Love
“Name a fishing hook after the person you love. If you catch a fish with the hook, it means the love is true.”
“If two people put spoons in a cup at the same time, they will be married.”
“If your lips itch, it means you want to be kissed.”
“If you put a four-leaf clover in your shoe, you will marry the first person you meet.”