21 March 65 : A road trip into American poverty : Cincinnati, USA

This continues the letter dated 17th March 1965 which began: 

Dear Mum, Dad, Carol, Nigel and Kipp,

Sunday 21st March

Well, I’m afraid you will have to disregard the first part of this letter, for as you will see from the postmark we didn’t go to Canada. A lot has happened in the last few days, and the result is that we are now driving through the fabulous Grand Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.


1965 03 21 postcard caption Panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains as seen from Barnetts Knob Fire Tower
Tony’s postcard, caption: Panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains as seen from Barnett’s Knob Fire Tower.


We were working in Cincinnati (in our motel room doing some paperwork) on Thursday, when there was a knock at the door and in walked our two new chiefs for this area. They were very nice fellows and invited us out to a dinner that night, which they were holding for the staff of the warehouse where we have been working all the week.

We put on our suits (a very rare event) and went and had a terrific meal, and a very pleasant evening. They were all very interested in us, and they could all be made to laugh very easily, and we spent a long time telling them of our adventures and funny incidents.

We then got down to business and had a sales meeting. This was one of the most high powered sessions I have ever attended. The pace and the pressure were tremendous, and I realise now how different selling is here, compared to that at home. They acted just as though they were selling washing machines on TV, not precision bearings.

I wasn’t very impressed by this way of selling, especially when it’s SKF, but I suppose this is America and that’s the way it’s done.

We finished at midnight when everything was signed and sealed, and we were told that our first job would be in the morning in Jackson, Kentucky, a mere 200 miles south, and so we had to scrap our plans to visit Niagara.

So we hurriedly looked at a map and decided instead to visit the Grand Smoky Mountains for the weekend.


1965 03 21 postcard caption An Autumn scene on Newfound Gap Highway through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.jpg
Tony’s postcard, caption: An Autumn scene on Newfound Gap Highway through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park


We set off on Friday morning and went all down through Kentucky, across flat rolling farmland, all huge ranches with corals, and white fences, just like you have seen in films.

We saw our first cowboy on a farm rounding up cattle, and many of the horses for which Kentucky is famous.

It was a beautiful day, and the road we were on enabled us to average 66 mph. To go 200 miles to get to a job probably sounds awful to you, but here it means nothing. Distance doesn’t mean a thing here. This weekend we have travelled a total of 1,000 miles (business and pleasure) and have enjoyed every moment of it.

The car we have is a pleasure to drive – it is so big and powerful.

On the way to Jackson we made a detour into a National Park and went to see a very famous natural rock bridge. I wasn’t very impressed by the bridge, but some of the birds we saw were amazing (the feathered type). We had to walk about 2 miles through the forest, and we saw some very colourful birds.

We also made a detour up into the hills and saw some real ‘hillbilly people’ – very simple, very honest people whose main occupation seems to be making ‘Moonshine’ (illegal whiskey).

We then drove on to Jackson. This had to be seen to be believed – it was a real one horse town. The main street looked exactly like the film set of a western film. The only difference was the new cars and the parking meters. The rest was identical – high ‘boardwalks’, the bank, the saloon, the newspaper office – they were all there.

We spent the afternoon there doing a job, and then moved on. We set off south for the weekend to the Smoky Mountains. We decided to go on a detour to see some of the poverty we have heard so much about. We went down through some mountains in South Kentucky and wound down through the valleys. We were shocked and horrified.


poverty in Kentucky 1965
Tony’s photo captioned ‘poverty in Kentucky 1965’


I have never, ever, anywhere, seen such poverty and filth. For mile after mile we passed the most awful shacks and hovels. This is an area where coal mining used to be done. But for various reasons (mainly automation and less use of coal) the people are now out of work. They belong in this part of the world, and won’t consider moving the way to a more prosperous area, so they stay and try to live on next to nothing.

They live in ‘homes’ which are nothing more than wooden sheds, some are even propped up with wooden beams to prevent them falling down. They have no sanitation, and no running water, although some have wells in the garden.

All are surrounded by piles of junk, old cars, tin cans, and junk of all description. It’s like being in another country, and we both found it very depressing. We wanted to get away from it all, but couldn’t as along all the roads there were these disgusting shanty towns.


The Chimneys as seen from highway between Newfound Gap and Gatlinburg, Tenn., in Great Smoky Mountains Nat'l Park..jpg
Tony’s postcard, caption: The Chimneys as seen from highway between Newfound Gap and Gatlinburg, Tenn., in Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park.


These people are so poor that they can’t even afford a grave for their dead, (graves here cost a lot of money). We saw shacks with gravestones outside in the ‘garden’ where they have buried their own family. We were so horrified that we took some photographs. I felt very guilty taking pictures of these poor people in this awful state, but I’m sure nobody would ever believe that there is a side of America like this. It doesn’t seem possible that in amongst all this luxury and good living, that there can be people living like this.

Friday night was awful. We spend hours winding down through the mountains on awful roads, and eventually stopped at a place called Hydon for a meal. This was a tiny place (population 600) and it had nothing – no TV, no cinema, no dancehall, no nothing!!

The woman who served us had never heard of  England, and when we asked her what the road going south was like, she said she didn’t know, as she had ‘never been down there’.

We pressed on and stopped overnight at a place called La Follette, and when we awoke next morning it was snowing, so we drove on down through the mountains in snow.

We finally arrived at a beautiful place called Gatlinburg. This was a beautiful little town nestling in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was, I imagine, very much like a Swiss or Austrian town – very clean and neat, in fact one of the nicest towns we have seen in America to date.


1965 03 21 Colin in Gatlinsburg.jpg
Colin in Gatlinburg


We booked into a very nice motel and had a quick lunch, and then went for a long drive. In spite of the snow we drove right over the top of the Smoky Mountains. At the top we were at 5048 feet, and it was snowing hard, in fact it was quite a blizzard. It was very cold at the top and we got out to have a look, and to have a picture taken, at the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, which is at the top of the Mountain.


north and south carolina state line 1965
Crossing the state line, March 1965


We couldn’t see much, so we went down over the other side to the town of Cherokee which is an Indian reservation, and we were served petrol by an Indian, and also had our picture taken with a genuine Indian chief in all his feathers (after bribing him with a dollar).

We then drove down through the valleys between the mountains to the Fontana Dam. By this time the weather was glorious, the snow having stopped, and the sky now a brilliant blue.

The mountains are all covered in trees, and lots of them are evergreens, so there was still plenty of colour and all were topped with snow, which made it all very picturesque, (‘On Top of Old Smokey All Covered in Snow’).

We drove down past the 29 mile long lake formed by the Fontana Dam and looked at the dam itself, which was pretty terrific. We then drove back over the mountains and we were able to see the terrific views as it was now clear. We didn’t see any bears as they are hibernating for the winter, but apparently there are plenty of them around.


1965 03 21 GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE AS SEEN FROM THE UPPER TERNIMAL OF THE SKYLIFT ON CROCKETT MOUNTAIN. This view is made looking up Airport Road. Mt LeConte may be seen in the distance at the left..jpg
Tony’s postcard, captioned: GATLINBURG, TENNESSEE AS SEEN FROM THE UPPER TERNIMAL OF THE SKYLIFT ON CROCKETT MOUNTAIN. This view is made looking up Airport Road. Mt LeConte may be seen in the distance at the left.


When we got back to Gatlinburg we learnt that, that very night (Saturday), was the night of the year, as it was the Fireman’s Ball, so we got tickets to go. We learnt also that we were in a ‘dry’ State, that is, liquor is illegal – and it was very funny to see at the dance nearly everyone with a bottle in a brown paper bag which they kept under the table.

We drove back to Cincinnati today, Sunday, and had a beautiful drive in perfect weather. We made a detour to see the Cumberland Mountains, and went through the famous Cumberland Gap!! By the time we got back we had done about 1,000 miles since Friday.

We came over here to see this country and believe me we certainly are doing just that.


meeting a Cherokee chief March 65
Posing for photos in Cherokee, March 65


Mr Christie, our new boss, was telling us that we will probably be in the Midwest for 2 to 3 months, and there are strong possibilities that we may go to Detroit in the North, and Saint Louis, Missouri, so we should have a good look around the Midwest. We could be out here with him for 2 to 3 months. So far, I have been in 14 States which is pretty good when you realise we have only been here for five months.

I don’t understand the mentality of these people, throughout the weekend when we were driving through some of the most beautiful countryside, we frequently came upon huge piles of junk, mainly cars, which really spoil the scenery.

So for we have seen this in every State and just cannot understand it at all. Passing through Ohio last weekend we passed an area of junk cars which stretched to the horizon – as far as the eye could see nothing but junk!!

We had a laugh one day last week. Near where we were working was a shop selling nothing but cowboy equipment – ten gallon hats, boots, spurs, saddles, etc, and all sorts of leatherware.  Colin’s shoes need repairing, so he went in to enquire if they would repair them.

The woman in the shop said she could repair his shoes for him, but if his saddle needed repairing, she could do that for him too. It took him quite a while to explain that he didn’t have a saddle – but I don’t think she really understood!!!

Well, I can’t think of much else to tell you except that I am fine and enjoying this job far more now that we are away from the East. A lot of people tell us they wouldn’t like all the travelling we do, but as far as we’re concerned it’s great.

I hope you are all fit and well and enjoying the warmer weather. (The daffodils were out all over the place down south). That’s all for now,

All my love,

Tone xxxx

p.s.   Having the day off tomorrow to watch the space launch on TV.

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NOTE: It’s sobering to hear Tony’s accounts of the extreme poverty in Kentucky in 1965. It’s particularly shocking as it seems that in some areas today, little has changed.

In June 2014, the New York Times ran a sobering article entitled: ‘What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky?’ which states: ‘…in its persistent poverty, Eastern Kentucky — land of storybook hills and drawls ­ — just might be the hardest place to live in the United States.’

This intelligent and measured article discusses the history of the region and the social and economic causes of such entrenched poverty, which despite so many official attempts to intervene, seems impossible to change.

Meanwhile in December 2017,  The Guardian followed the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston as he explored America. 

The article states: “In the Black Belt so many families still have no access to sanitation. Thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.

The crisis… led to an ongoing endemic of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that is transmitted through human waste. It is found in Africa and South Asia, but had been assumed eradicated in the US years ago….

The Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (Acre) “estimates that 70% of households in the area either “straight pipe” their waste directly onto open ground, or have defective septic tanks incapable of dealing with heavy rains.”

Knowing that families are stuck living like this in America – such a vibrant and wealthy Western country – is still shocking and desperately sad today.





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