“A history of American homes is necessarily a history of American life.” — Ernest Pickering
Long before mountain communities had large halls, newspapers, or even barbershops, the front porch of every home became a stage. Every evening, as long as the weather cooperated, the family would gather on the front porch to enjoy the view, the breeze, and father’s stories. Before air conditioning allowed everyone to move inside, the front porch was the center of family life from spring to autumn.
Over the years, guests came ‘round to entertain and be entertained. The art of storytelling was refined on the front porch. Fiddles and banjos joined mandolins and upright bass guitars as musicians of all levels cut their teeth in front porch jam sessions (although they weren’t called that back then). Mother might have gone to the fence to gossip with the neighbor women, but father presided over the front porch.
History of the American Front Porch
Most Appalachian settlers came from Great Britain and northern Europe, where front porches were all but unknown. The concept was common in Africa, however, so it’s likely African immigrants, first as slaves and then as free citizens, introduced America to the social advantages of a front porch. By the 1850s, the front porch had gained acceptance as a welcoming appendage to the house and as a place to enjoy nature.
And it was a desire to admire nature and yet conquer it — a truly American contradiction — that provided the social pushes that make front porches ubiquitous throughout the mountains. The view from the front porch was often the best of the whole house, houses being single-story dwellings back then. A family naturally migrated outside to cool off and catch up with each other.
Front porches eventually brought small communities together, as an evening stroll could turn into a visit with several neighbors. Front porch gatherings evolved from these humble beginnings. Back when everyone could play an instrument or sing, music became the background accompaniment to storytelling and then the main entertainment in and of itself.
The Front Porch Today
Many Appalachian homes still have a front porch, but inexpensive air conditioning has moved families indoors. When the living room replaced the front porch as the family gathering spot, America lost its community-oriented focus. When the television set replaced the neighborhood elder as the primary storyteller, America took a step away from its roots.
If you’re of a certain age, say that of a Baby Boomer or older, you might feel a nostalgic twinge whenever you see or read about a front porch. Just the words “front porch” can elicit a warm glow of memories. People long for the connection to others that the front porch enabled. That’s why you see some mountain restaurants that have front-porch seating.
But if you travel to Fletcher, North Carolina — 188 St. John Road, to be precise, right behind the fabric store — you can rediscover the charms of front porch life. Baabal’s Ice Cream & Coffee Shoppe offers a wide front porch with places to sit and enjoy lunch or dessert. As owner Roy Dickerson says, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy ice cream, and that’s almost the same thing.”
And that truly captures the spirit of America’s front porch.
Photo credits: johntharding.me, diyonthecheap.com