A Family That Time Forgot: Traditional Kentucky Living

Life in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky has changed a lot in the past 100 years. What was once a vibrant culture, filled with traditional ways of living, methods of supporting yourself and a reliance on community, is quickly disappearing, if not gone all together. In the early 1980’s, photographer Shelby Lee Adams stumbled upon a forested ‘holler’ called Beehive, the home of the Napier family. Their way of living stunned him. Chickens ran through the yard, hound dogs came running, small cobbled together homes had ceder smoke wafting out of their chimneys… with just one small line for electricity, it was truly like stepping back in time.

Adams quickly made friends with the welcoming Napier family, learning that they had somehow escaped the passage of time and were happily living as a traditional Appalachian family would have back in the 1930’s… the only clue to their modern time being small details on clothing like “Camel Joe” or “Michael Jackson.”

Since that first encounter, Adams has documented the family and their friends, producing an inspiring, enlightening and heartwarming series of photographs and a number of publications. You can find out more about his experiences, including a wonderful essay on his website.

For an interesting and in depth look at traditional Appalachian culture — from preparing pigs, to building cabins and making moonshine — the Foxfire series are an excellent resource (they’re often available second-hand). Well written by school children in the 1960’s, the books are a series of interviews from a time when the Napier’s culture was quickly modernizing. For more on the Napier family, see the short documentary at the bottom of this page.

“Had sixteen children in my family-you wouldn’t believe that, would you! Eight dead and eight livin’! Lord, they drank and get out and get killed, and everything. You know, you can’t put sense on ’em. But when they was small, they mind me good, till they got to be twenty-two or twenty-three. Now, Lord have mercy!” – Berthie Napier, Beehive, Kentucky ’88 (pictured below)

Below: Berthie Napier studies Shelby Lee Adams first book featuring their family.

Below: Shelby Lee Adams and the Napier Family.

The True Meaning of Pictures, a documentary about the work of Shelby Lee Adams and the Napier family.


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