Underwood and Underwood: Appalachian Agricultural Folkways

Jeanette Underwood
, of LaFollette, has spent decades practicing increasingly rare Appalachian agricultural folkways at her homeplace in rural Campbell County. “I learned all of these skills through a combination of my mother, my grandparents, and specifically from my mother-in-law and father-in-law,” she explains. Jeanette’s knowledge is rich with time-tested agricultural ways and customs, including seed saving, planting by the signs, foraging, food preserving by canning and drying, cooking and baking, recipe saving, and preparing medicinal tonics. Jeanette understands well the importance of the experience she has attained. “A lot of people are used to the convenience of the store and don’t make things from scratch or grow their own food anymore. It’s becoming rare and needs preserving.”

In particular, Jeanette is known to be one of the few people in her area still saving seeds and cultivating the “Moss Ivey” bean, a rare variety she inherited from her in-laws. “You can’t buy these in stores. My mother-in-law saved the dried seeds back every year so that she’d have enough to plant the following spring. So, I’ve just always kept the seed. There have been a few times I thought I was going to lose the seed, but I always manage to have enough to get them started and grow them.”

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Jeanette is teaching daughter and apprentice Charlotte Underwood the full breadth of her agricultural skills. Charlotte has observed her mother and grandparents since she was a child. “I’ve been canning and gardening and foraging for about 28 years. My mother taught me and so did my grandparents some. I mushroom hunt, berry pick and can every year.” The Apprenticeship Program, however, provides an opportunity to go deeper into learning and documenting the skills she has long observed. “While my mother has taught me canning and foraging and growing, it is time to learn these more in depth in such a way to preserve my heritage and these important Appalachian ways of life,” Charlotte explains.

For her, the importance is plain and close to home. “Canning and gardening are very important in my family. It is how we survived when I was younger and how my mom fed us six kids. We gardened and farmed. With the ever-changing world, it’s important to pass these folk traditions on so the next generation learns and so heirloom seeds don’t die out, along with the Appalachian ways of life. It’s time to document the recipes, to learn more about planting by the signs and preserving the heritage heirloom seeds. If these ways are documented and preserved, they won’t get lost.”

*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.