Cincinnati's Appalachian migrants have left an indelible mark on the city — but often feel forgotten

For decades starting in the 1940s, thousands of people streamed into Cincinnati from the roughly 420 counties that make up Appalachia. Many came with very little and continue to face challenges today.

click to enlarge Dave Offenbacker outside his Lower Price Hill home. - Hailey Bollinger
Hailey Bollinger
Dave Offenbacker outside his Lower Price Hill home.

Eight-year-old Dave Offenbacker was playing alongside the mill-darkened waters of the Jackson River near Covington, Virginia one morning in 1958 when his mother called to him to tell him to run and get his grandfather because his father had died.

The loss of the family’s breadwinner triggered a journey that would change Offenbacker’s life. His mother eventually herded the family onto a train from their home in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains to seek the comfort of relatives and opportunities for work in Cincinnati.

As he and his family exited the train and made their way from Union Terminal’s lower concourse up into its enormous rotunda, Offenbacker marveled, believing that they had come to live in a brightly domed indoor city.

“I thought the station was Cincinnati,” he says. “It was so big, and I was just a little fellow. It had all kinds of things, booths and stores. I’d never seen anything like that in Virginia.”

If the grand, echoing expanses of Union Terminal were a surprise for Offenbacker, then the crowded, gray landscape of his new home, Lower Price Hill, was a shock.

Offenbacker’s small Virginia town had a mill, one main street, a couple stoplights, two small movie theaters and not much else, besides a boarding house where, at 8 years old, Offenbacker worked gathering kindling for guests’ fireplaces. Otherwise, his days were spent on the river or among the green hills.

Cincinnati had hills, all right, but they weren’t the same, with the steep slopes surrounding the Mill Creek Valley full of factories, traffic and tightly-huddled buildings teeming with people. The family quickly found a four-story apartment building right alongside a humming viaduct, where their third-floor apartment door opened up onto the sidewalk next to an overpass full of speeding cars.

The Offenbackers weren’t alone in their journey. People from Appalachia had been trickling into the Queen City since the mid-1800s. But starting in the 1940s and going well into the 1980s, the 13-state, 420-county region we know as Appalachia lost roughly 4 million people as many headed for cities like Pittsburgh,  Louisville and Cincinnati looking for work, following other family members or simply wanting to see what city living was all about.

While the Offenbackers came on the train, others took Greyhound buses or crammed into old, busted cars. When they arrived, they found the work and housing they were looking for — but they often came with their own sets of problems.

click to enlarge Urban Appalachian enclaves like Lower Price Hill are often just a few minutes' drive from downtown Cincinnati, but can feel incredibly isolated for some residents. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Urban Appalachian enclaves like Lower Price Hill are often just a few minutes' drive from downtown Cincinnati, but can feel incredibly isolated for some residents.

The Cost of Migration
Many migrants from Appalachia had little or nothing when they arrived here. There was no Census designation to count them as they came, and no federal laws to protect them from discrimination when they got here.

The impact on Cincinnati and surrounding areas was enormous. A study by the Urban Appalachian Council suggests that almost 50,000 people identifying as Appalachian were in the city proper by 1970. Ten years ago, that number was somewhat smaller, but still significant. At that point, 35,000 people in Cincinnati — roughly 12 percent of the population — identified as Appalachian.

Today, many of them continue to face challenges. Some remain in isolated enclaves like Lower Price Hill, Camp Washington, parts of Northern Kentucky and elsewhere where their parents or grandparents settled. Those neighborhoods have seen high unemployment, generational poverty, high dropout rates and struggles with addiction as the industrial jobs that once sustained the communities have largely left.

Those neighborhoods have life expectancies five or more years below the city’s average. Their median household incomes are tens of thousand dollars or more less than the city as a whole. Census tracts in the Price Hills and Camp Washington make up seven of the city’s 10 neighborhoods where evictions are the highest. Those places where Appalachians were able to move up and attain home ownership — places like East and West Price Hill — were then the neighborhoods hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis of 2007 and 2008.

Michael Maloney has helped lead a succession of groups dedicated to improving the lot of folks in Cincinnati who trace their roots back to Appalachia. Maloney came here himself from Breathitt County, Kentucky in the early 1960s to attend seminary school. He always meant to go back to Breathitt, he says, but seeing the conditions faced here by many from Appalachia, he stayed.

“The families in Lower Price Hill and what’s left of the old East End, Camp Washington and other areas are struggling,” he says. “We still have thousands of Appalachians in Cincinnati below the poverty level and struggling for the basics like food, clothing and housing.”

Greater Cincinnati’s ties to Appalachia are no secret — the national body of academics who study the region, the Appalachian Studies Association, held its annual convention in Cincinnati last month, one of only a few times the gathering has taken place outside Appalachia.

One of the more controversial guests at the conference was J.D. Vance, author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy. The work, which recounts Vance’s experiences growing up as the descendant of Appalachians, rocketed to national best-seller status two years ago, drawing both praise and derision for its sometimes-one-dimensional exploration of the woes of Appalachia.

That’s not the only attention the region has gotten of late. Following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, who scored overwhelming victories in many parts of Appalachia, reporters swarmed in to report on beleaguered coal miners, the graphic toll of the nation’s heroin epidemic and the crippling layoffs at plants that represent one of few remaining employment options in much of the region.

But that attention hasn’t always translated to concrete efforts to understand and aid those who left Appalachia, even in a city as tied to the region as Cincinnati.

“We’re celebrating Appalachian culture today, but we’re not doing anything to help Appalachians,” says Larry Redden, a Price Hill resident and member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition whose family migrated to Cincinnati from Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia in the 1930s and 1940s. “We’re still poor. We’re still not going to school, but you don’t see it. Because we’re invisible, no one is paying attention to us.”

Members of this tight-knit, sometimes forgotten community have left an indelible mark on Cincinnati decades after their migration here began in earnest. But their struggles — and triumphs — are often misunderstood.

click to enlarge Donna Jones - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Donna Jones

Illness and Addiction, Tenacity and Hope

Donna Jones sits in the basement of State Avenue United Methodist Church. It’s neat and tidy in the cool room, but Jones apologizes for the mess anyway — there was a just a funeral here for a decades-long resident of the neighborhood, a traditional Appalachian-style end-of-life celebration full of food and neighbors.
Jones has lived in Lower Price Hill since the early 1960s, after moving to the neighborhood from Over-the-Rhine with her parents, who migrated from Kentucky. She has raised her two daughters and two sons in the neighborhood, sending them to nearby Oyler School.

As we sit in the basement, one of her daughters, a slim 36-year-old with her brown hair pulled back tight, walks in. The two have a brief, quiet, but intense conversation. When she leaves a few minutes later, Jones reveals her daughter is fighting a serious battle with cancer.

She’s not the only one to get the disease. Jones rattles off a heavy list of babies and young people in the neighborhood who have come down with unexpected forms of cancer. Jones blames it on environmental hazards in the neighborhood, including the 2004 explosion at the Queen City Barrel Company, a 400,000 square foot warehouse that recycled containers for industrial waste.

Jones witnessed that event — the sky turned surreal reds and blues and purples as it filled with swirling smoke, her neighbors lined up watching from the overpass, the confusion, the popping sounds of lids coming off barrels of decommissioned industrial materials.

Though the site has long since been cleaned up, Jones and others who have become advocates for environmental protections in the neighborhood wonder about the lingering legacy of industrial pollutants there.

Data detailing deaths in Hamilton County over the last several years shows that the areas around the heavy industry in Lower Price Hill have seen as much as three times the rate of lung and other cancers as other parts of Cincinnati.

Nancy Laird is the granddaughter of Appalachian migrants from Eastern Kentucky. She has lived in East Price Hill almost her entire life and works closely with Cincinnati’s Appalachian population in that neighborhood and Lower Price Hill via a number of groups, including the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition.

Like Jones, she’s been keenly interested in the subject of environmental justice in Lower Price Hill.

Laird was taking children to visit their mother at the Chemical Addiction Treatment house in the neighboring West End the day the Queen City Barrel explosion happened.

“We looked over and it just looked like an atom bomb had gone off,” she says, noting that she and others had pushed the city to look into the factory. “We kept telling the city about Queen City Barrel, but no one would listen.”

There are other dangers associated with living in Lower Price Hill. As poverty and unemployment have risen, so have crime and addiction.
Offenbacker recalls the time not long ago when he found the windows of his truck shattered and its body riddled with bullets from a gunfight.

“This neighborhood has been to hell,” Offenbacker says. “Prostitution, drugs, stealing, murdering.”

He then brings up the night in 2012 when 26-year-old Brian Thompson died a block over from him. Two men shot him in front of his daughter while trying to steal his truck. Today, the building where he lived still wears a spray-painted message: “Brian RIP.”

Drugs have fueled some of the violence. The opioid crisis has hit many areas home to Cincinnati’s Appalachians hard. In a one-year stretch between 2016 and 2017, there were 35 overdose deaths in the ZIP codes around the Price Hill neighborhoods, for example — among the highest rates in the city. That doesn’t count myriad other non-fatal overdoses there.

But there’s more to Lower Price Hill and Cincinnati’s other urban Appalachian communities than the darkness.

Offenbacker, Laird and Jones are quick to praise the people of Lower Price Hill, saying they form a tight-knit community where family ties stay strong, even when family members stray into rough patches. There’s a resilience among the residents here, and self-reliance, they say.

Among the brightest points has been the continued comeback of Oyler School, where many families in Lower Price Hill have sent their children for multiple generations. Once, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the Cincinnati Public Schools district. But it has since become a community learning center — meaning it contains a dental clinic, an optometrist and other services for students and their families — and has been the subject of glowing national coverage as an example of ways to revive struggling urban schools.

Just as much as people like Jones and Laird say they’d like the city to pay attention to the health and social troubles that Appalachians and their descendants face, they’d like to dispel the stereotypes and misunderstandings around them. To do that, it helps to understand how migrants from Appalachia got here, and what they went through when they first arrived.

click to enlarge Nancy Laird - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Nancy Laird

Industry and Identity
Most depictions of people from Appalachia start and end with a vision of white, rural people living in poverty. But the story is much more complicated. Not all are white. Many were blue-collar workers, but some were highly-educated professionals — teachers, doctors and lawyers.

Among the ranks of local icons who trace their roots back to Appalachian migration are recent Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel, acclaimed writer Michael Henson and nationally renowned musician Katie Laur.

“We are a group of people of all classes,” advocate Maloney says. “But tens of thousands of people came here with very little formal education, and their job experience was often either agricultural or mining or timber.”

Long before the bulk of migrants arrived in Cincinnati, the workings of the coal and timber industries in Appalachia set up the circumstances that would bring them here.

Even before industrialization, Appalachia had a complex and varied economy, including urban areas with small groups of middle-class professionals. But many of those living in the region were farmers descended from poor Scottish or English immigrants who had moved west from the East Coast to better their lot.

Fueled by urbanization and the industrial revolution, first timber and then coal consumption in the United States skyrocketed in the 19th century. Coal production went from about 8.5 million tons in the middle of the 1800s to a peak of nearly 700 million tons by the end of World War I. Much of that production centered around Appalachia.

By the late 1800s, those who owned land in places like Eastern Kentucky — rich in coal and timber — began receiving offers from companies, or, in some cases, local officials conscripted by those companies, for their trees, their land and later, for the mineral rights underneath it. In many cases, those companies bought the land for a tiny fraction of what its resources were worth.

With the land increasingly eroded by logging or opened up to mining, many of the inhabitants of the region found farming ever more difficult. They turned to work in the mines or to timber harvesting. As they did, the companies that now owned so much had the upper hand. Many created entire towns, dictating the availability of food, housing and education.

“The unincorporated company town became one of the defining features of life in the region,” West Virginia University history professor Ronald L. Lewis wrote in a 1999 article for the anthology Talk-Back from Appalachia. “The company constructed the physical plant, became the miner’s landlord, provided the police force, built the churches and the stores, any other service the town required.”

As these company towns and industrial plants grew, they needed more workers, Lewis points out. That led to a massive influx of Eastern European immigrants and African-Americans into the region — a dynamic often glossed over by stereotypes of Appalachia as culturally and racially homogeneous.

New industry brought a new level of development to Appalachia, but it also brought strife. The conditions in many mines, mills and company towns, exacerbated by boom-and-bust cycles, sparked waves of sometimes-fatal labor battles.

And then, following World War II, employment in the industries that had become so important to Appalachia began to diminish. During the peak of coal production around World War I, for example, the industry employed almost 900,000 miners, the vast majority in Appalachia. By 1970, that number was less than 150,000. In 2018, there were around 6,000 jobs.

Not everywhere suffered uniformly by the loss of coal and timber jobs. Offenbacker’s father, for instance, was able to make a decent living logging and farming well into the 1950s. The elder Offenbacker owned a business harvesting pulp timber for a nearby paper mill. But in the years leading up to his death, he suffered declines in health and could no longer work cutting and hauling timber.

“We owned our own home,” Offenbacker says. “He owned his own farm. But he got sugar (diabetes) really bad, and we had to move into town.”

Moving to cities like Cincinnati presented better options for work for thousands of families like the Offenbackers.

Offenbacker’s mother found work serving food at one of the myriad bars that then existed in Lower Price Hill. Wanting to help support the family, Offenbacker began working at age 15 and left Western Hills High School in the 10th grade.

That’s been a worrisome trend in Cincinnati’s Appalachian community, where, in the recent past, the dropout rate has reached more than 90 percent.

It wasn’t such a risky bet to quit school back then. At the time, Offenbacker could leave his family’s apartment, walk two doors down under the viaduct, and go to work at a shop that machined screws. Nearby, other options presented themselves — furniture manufacturers, Queen City Barrel, Hutch sports equipment company and a number of others.

But those jobs presented big downsides, too, some of which made families’ situations precarious.

“The jobs they got were often really hard labor,” Maloney says. “So, if your health broke down, you were out of luck. A lot of people did independent work, like, if you could get a pickup truck, you could do jobs for people. But that was really hard work that caused a lot injury and disability that could plunge a family into poverty.”

There were other hardships. The places many found to live in Cincinnati were far from the soaring grandeur of Union Terminal.

Housing and History

Larry Redden’s family came from West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to Ohio in the 1930s and 1940s, as coal mines started automating. They lived in Over-the-Rhine, a major port of entry for Appalachians, beginning around 1940.

“It was cheap housing,” Redden says. “You might have family that lived here already who would let you stay with them. That’s why tens of thousands of people lived here.”

The Reddens lived at a few locations throughout OTR, including the Alcoa Hotel, which was a series of flats without hot water or individual bathrooms.
“It was five stories and had rooms all through it,” Redden says. “The higher you went up, the cheaper the rent was. They’d take one room and make them into two or three rooms. You’d have one bathroom on a floor, and you’d have five or six families sharing it. Most people had to wash in big iron tubs. Most had outhouses, right here in the middle of town.”

The neighborhood’s history had primed it to become a landing site for low-income migrants.

“These buildings were all built before there was gas, before there was electricity, before running water,” says local urban historian Anne Delano Steinert. “So, to modernize those buildings would take a pretty large infusion of cash. And if you’re going to do that, why not just buy a brand-new house up on the hills? So what happens is, basically anyone who can afford to leaves Over-the-Rhine and leaves this lower grade of residential structure behind for other families to move into.”

Those sorts of conditions existed well into the 1960s, when the city finally updated its code and, for example, outlawed outdoor toilets. Those and other changes that, on their face, would seem to have been a benefit to low-income Appalachians proved to be a double-edged sword.

Shifts in federal housing policy related to the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights legislation pushed landlords to renovate buildings that folks moving from Appalachia lived in. They were told they could come back after the construction was finished — but many weren’t able to do so.

By that time, Maloney and Redden were heavily active in advocacy for housing rights in Over-the-Rhine. Maloney says that pushes for better code enforcement at the city level to improve living conditions ironically had an adverse affect, causing landlords to move low-income tenants out of buildings instead of fixing them up.

The upshot: Over time, low-income Appalachians began leaving Over-the-Rhine. More filed into Price Hill, Camp Washington and places outside the city, further isolating them and destabilizing the communities they had built.

Coinciding with this displacement in the 1960s was the beginning of the decline of American industry, which would cost thousands of urban Appalachians decent-paying jobs that didn’t require a college degree.

“There were all these big plants up here that needed workers,” East Price Hill’s Laird says, including General Motors in Norwood and others dotted up and down the Mill Creek Valley. Many of those workplaces closed up shop in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The people who got jobs because they were hard workers — that didn’t count anymore because they didn’t have enough education,” Laird says. “It really strangled a lot of families. It was really tough.”

But many in the Appalachian community didn’t take those hardships sitting down.

Shortly after moving to Cincinnati, Maloney had come under the wing of preacher and social worker Ernie Mynatt, who was then working at Over-the-Rhine’s Main Street Bible Center.

Aided by a federal grant to establish a central hub for social services in the late 1960s, Mynatt, Redden, Maloney and others worked to form a succession of groups, including nonprofit HUB, the Urban Appalachian Council and the Appalachian Identity Center, which began in 1970 on Walnut Street as a place for Appalachians in Over-the-Rhine to gather, play games, talk and make connections. The groups worked for decades to organize low-income Appalachians and others around issues like housing rights, and to address the high dropout rate among urban Appalachians with GED centers and other educational efforts.

The need for those efforts was well-enough known at the time to become the subject of a feature-length movie set in Cincinnati starring Johnny Cash. The Pride of Jessie Hallam, released in 1981, features a widowed Kentucky coal miner, played by Johnny Cash, who moves to Cincinnati after losing his job so his daughter can receive medical treatment. Cash’s character, who is illiterate, must rely on the help of a tutor to learn to read and write.

The Urban Appalachian Council, the last group standing from that time, ceased operations in 2014. But the work lives on in the form of the decentralized Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, and in a number of other ways.

click to enlarge Sondra Saylor and Michael Maloney pose with pictures of Sondra's mother Effie Saylor, a matriarch of Lower Price Hill's Appalachian community for decades. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Sondra Saylor and Michael Maloney pose with pictures of Sondra's mother Effie Saylor, a matriarch of Lower Price Hill's Appalachian community for decades.

Celebrating Community

It’s a drizzly, unseasonably chilly day in early May, but the former sanctuary of St. Michael’s Church in Lower Price Hill is buzzing with energy and light.
Inside, Jones, Laird and others are working to set up for the 41st Lower Price Hill Community Festival, or, as they call it, the mini-Appalachian Festival. There’s plenty of food — beans, cornbread, chicken and cake — and most folks’ spirits are high. The festival, a precursor to the larger Appalachian Festival held Mother’s Day weekend at Coney Island, feels like a reunion of sorts.

Michael Henson, the writer, is there, playing with his band Carter Bridge. And Maloney is also on hand, presenting a plaque to Sondra Saylor commemorating her mother, Effie Saylor, who was a matriarch of Lower Price Hill and helped start the community festival four decades prior.

The elder Saylor was a key player in the formation of another neighborhood institution — the Lower Price Hill Community School, an outgrowth of efforts to aid the urban Appalachian community as it struggled with high dropout rates. That school, founded in 1971, went on to become Education Matters, which later spun off another organization, Community Matters, to serve Lower Price Hill’s low-income Appalachian, African-American and Hispanic populations. Those organizations now occupy the former St. Michael’s complex.

Organizations like Community and Education Matters, along with Oyler and its community learning center, have provided buttresses to the pride and self-reliance of many of the folks in Lower Price Hill as they continue to face challenges.

Sometimes, the progress the community is making manifests in young folks’ individual victories.

As Jones is busy putting up poems and photos by students at Oyler School on a large, stained-wood cityscape at the festival, she talks about her granddaughter, a high schooler at Oyler who just got accepted to Cincinnati Fire Department’s cadet program. She beams as she tells people. It’s a big deal for the whole family.

Despite the continued challenges and feelings of invisibility those in the city’s heavily Appalachian neighborhoods sometimes face, Jones isn’t the only one feeling optimistic about the next generation. Ask Offenbacker about his kids, and his usually stern, bearded face lights up.

His youngest daughter is about to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology — the first in her family to graduate college — and wants to go on to medical school.

“We raised five kids, and you’re talking about moving up — my three boys and two girls graduated or got their GED,” he says. “My kids are doing better than their pa did. That’s what it’s about.”

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