Hillbilly identity and the WVU Mountaineer


Rosemary Hathaway is associate professor of English at West Virginia University. She’s writing a book about the idea of the Mountaineer in West Virginia history and folklore, which will be published by WVU Press. Here’s an early look at her work-in-progress.

Although a number of students had informally dressed up as the Mountaineer for sporting events as early as 1927, when Clay Crouse volunteered for the position, the first “official” Mountaineer, selected by Mountain Honorary – as it still is today – was Lawson Hill, in 1934. Notably, this was the same year that witnessed the advent of comic strip characters L’il Abner, The Mountain Boys, and Snuffy Smith. Kentucky Moonshine, the big-screen vehicle for the comic-strip Mountain Boys, would come out in 1938, a year after Mountain formalized its selection process for the Mountaineer, choosing “Slim” Arnold for the position, a role he would perform for three years.

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Rosemary Hathaway

The enormous popularity of the hillbilly image in the 1930s offered both a model and a target for West Virginia University students as they considered what it meant to be a Mountaineer on a much broader and more complex cultural stage. During World War II, in fact, servicemen were mailed a free paperback collection of Webb’s “Mountain Boys” comics, and “jug bands” were a popular form of entertainment that troops organized among themselves. So it is no surprise that the post-War period would be one ripe for the reinvention of WVU’s Mountaineer, as veterans returned to campus immersed in the pop-culture iconography of the hillbilly, and fresh from experiences outside the state and the nation that enabled them to think about their cultural heritage in a larger context.

Postwar WVU was exponentially larger than it had been before and during the war: in the fall of 1946, when the G. I. Bill kicked in, “enrollment skyrocketed to a [then] record high of 6,010,” and sixty percent of the incoming class were veterans. By the fall of 1948, enrollment was up to 8,000 students. To meet the heavy demand both for housing and classroom space, “Classes met from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Saturday . . . . Students crowded into apartments and residence halls, government-surplus barracks and trailers, and homes of Morgantown families; five veterans lived on the second floor of the president’s house with the family of President Irvin Stewart.”

UntitledAmong those six thousand students who enrolled at WVU in Fall 1946 was my father, David Barr Hathaway, a native of Calhoun County, who had recently been discharged from the Army after serving in the infantry in North Africa and Italy. Like the other returning vets, he scrambled to find housing, and eventually got a reference from a friend to live in Trinity Hall, a rooming house owned and managed by the Episcopal Church “for indigent Episcopal men.” My father was neither indigent nor an Episcopalian, and neither were most of the men who lived on the three floors of the house, which had in fact been condemned, but was allowed to remain open temporarily to address the housing shortage. My father lived there for four years, until the building was finally demolished around 1950. And, as a photo of him in his room at Trinity Hall indicates, he self-identified as a “hillbilly” and was “proud of it.”

My father’s claiming of a “hillbilly” identity was his way of rejecting and declaring his independence from the traditional Greek culture that dominated campus social life. That was a sentiment shared by all the men living in Trinity Hall, who prided themselves on being “GDIs,” “God-damned independents,” not members of a fraternity. The fact is that many of the men living in Trinity Hall would not have been admitted to any fraternity at that time, since many of them were from Italian, Armenian, Polish, and other ethnic communities, sons of immigrants who worked in West Virginia’s coal mines and steel mills.

It wasn’t just the men of Trinity Hall who were invested in defining the Mountaineer image for themselves at this time, however. The fall of 1947 witnessed the first “Mountaineer Day” at WVU, a rowdy, informal, student-organized event that evolved into the far more formal and staid Mountaineer Week celebration of today. On the first Mountaineer Day, male students were encouraged to dress like hillbillies in order to rally student support for the team (women, of course, were still expected to wear skirts, hose, and heels, as they were required to for all football games). Apparently, this effort was quite a success, and most of the jugs the “Mountain Boys” carried were not only filled with real booze, but it was all drained during and after the game, as a spirit of misrule took hold of the campus. In some ways, the administration’s greatest fears about the returning vets’ lack of control were realized on that first Mountaineer Day, since my father enjoyed telling a story about one of his professor’s reactions to the event afterward; as he wrote in a 2007 e-mail,

At the time I was enrolled in an American Literature class taught by James Paul Brawner…Head of the English Department….[O]n the Monday following Mountaineer Day he came to the class visually disturbed. He gave us a dissertation for about fifteen minutes on the thin veneer of civilization. He felt that what he had observed on Saturday might set university life back several decades….Needless to say the event was a great success for the student body.

Such a success, in fact, that it continues to be celebrated 70 years later.

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