Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Pa Carnes

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A group of loggers seen with cut down trees ready to be hauled away to saw mills by workers like Pa Carnes.


Pa Carnes was a farmer in the mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. He was also a subject of the Federal Writers' Project. [1]



Pa Carnes was born sometime in November of 1863 in Madison County, North Carolina, on a family farm in the Appalachian Mountains. From a young age Carnes began helping out around the farm hoeing corn, plowing fields, cutting wood, and carrying water. During his childhood, Carnes received little education and spent most of his time helping his stepfather around the farm. His real father had died three months before his birth fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. His stepfather had been one of his father’s close friends in the army, and went on to marry Carnes' mother. He took Carnes as his own son, although Carnes always thought that he was treated more strictly than his stepfather’s own children.

Early Professional Life[edit]

When Carnes was sixteen he got a job for a lumber company. He earned seventy-five cents a day hauling logs to the company's mill. According to Carnes, he worked harder than the other employees and the superintendent of the mill took a liking to him because of it. By the time he was nineteen, he had become a boss for the company. Despite his limited education, Carnes was naturally good with numbers and the superintendent again took notice of him. He taught Carnes how to estimate amounts and prices of timber, and by the time he was twenty-one he was traveling between states to estimate timber that the company wanted to buy. He earned two dollars and fifty cents a day doing this job.

Farming and Family Life[edit]

Eventually, he saved up enough money to marry a local girl named Ella. While Carnes kept saving up to buy his own farm, the couple lived with Ella's parents. Ella had fourteen children over the course of their marriage, but four of them died at a young age. In 1897, Carnes sold his farm in Madison County and moved his family across the Smoky Mountains into Emert’s Cove, Tennessee, where he bought a new farm and later on, a mill. However, after living at this location for five years, Ella forced Carnes to sell the mill and move the family again after the workers he employed at his mill began to supply him with alcohol, causing him to drink excessively. This time Carnes moved the family to a farm he purchased in Sevier County, less than a mile away from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Later Years[edit]

After many years of working this land with his family, Carnes' children began to marry and leave home. Without his children to help him with farm work in his old age, Carnes gave up farming. He and Ella started struggling to provide for themselves, and found they could not afford to move because of rising land prices and the expenses from Ella's medical treatment for cancer, which she was diagnosed with after moving to Sevier County. This was Carnes' last known place of residence. The date and location of his death is unknown.

Social Issues[edit]

Health Care[edit]

Access to good doctors and medicine was extremely rare in the late 1800's and early 1900's for rural Appalachian communities. Roads, which "were little more than dirt trails" kept farmers isolated from the large towns where the few doctors who had medical training had their offices.[2] Appalachia was one of the poorest regions in the country at the time, and doctors would only make trips to rural settlements in cases of emergency because farmers could rarely afford to pay the price for their treatment. Consequentially, being a doctor in Appalachia at this time was not a profitable occupation, and many doctors relied on other jobs and family connections for financial support.[3] With trained physicians unavailable, farming communities turned to home remedies, lay healers, and uneducated physicians for medical care. In the years before the Civil War, few significant developments were made in the field of medicine. This began to change in the 1880's and 1890's as new medicines were created and medical training became more common in Appalachia, increasing the amount of doctors in the region. In order to make money, this new wave of doctors "gained employment with railroads... or later acquired positions with coal or timber companies" to gain clients and finances for their practices.[3] This did little to make health care more available to rural communities because railroads and industrial factories were centered in the main towns out of the reach of farmers.


An example of a rural moonshine distillation system.

Alcoholism was a common problem in Appalachia because of moonshine. Farmers in particular drank large amounts of alcohol because the seclusion that the mountain terrain offered allowed them to make their own moonshine, a process known as distillation, without being noticed by law enforcement. Laws were made at the national and state levels of government against making moonshine, such as the National Prohibition Act in 1920, but neither these laws nor the temperance movement of the early 1900’s had much success at stopping alcohol production and consumption in rural communities.[4][5] This was because Prohibition made moonshine production a profitable occupation as alcohol "became a hot commodity on underground markets", causing "industrial stills [to start to pop] up in big cities to meet the high demand".[4]

Rise of Industry[edit]

At the end of the nineteenth century, Appalachia experienced a shift away from agriculture in favor of industry. This facilitated the growth of small towns as people moved to urban centers to work factory jobs. This migration in turn brought about an increase in land prices, making it difficult for farmers to sell and buy new fields. This difficulty was furthered by large land buyouts by the government and milling companies to provide resources for the new factories.[6]


  1. Folder 955: Newman, Dean (interviewer): Lived Too Long, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. “America on the Move: Transportation Infrastructure Videos.” http://amhistory.si.edu/onthemove/themes/story_47_1.html
  3. 3.0 3.1 Barney, Sandra Lee. Authorized to Heal. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/uncch/reader.action?docID=10041252&ppg=1
  4. 4.0 4.1 Blue Ridge Outdoors. “Moonshine in the Mountains.” Last modified June 1, 2008. http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/magazine/june-2008/moonshine-in-the-mountains/
  5. Stewart, Bruce E.. Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 10.5810/kentucky/9780813130002.001.0001
  6. John Solomon Otto. “The Decline of Forest Farming in Southern Appalachia.” Journal of Forest History 27, no. 1 (January 1983): 18-27, Journal Storage