Man aids the ‘invisible people’ in need in Appalachia
By JESSICA BLISS
CRAWFORD, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly five decades ago, Jack Stoddart — a socially conscientious, pot smoking, long-haired hippie — set out to capture a vanishing culture.
With a pair of Canon cameras stashed in his lime green 1963 VW bus, he moved with his wife from Miami to rural Tennessee to document the people of Appalachia.
He went to give them a voice.
Now, he brings them peanut butter, winter coats, new white sneakers — and hope.
Stoddart, a gray-bearded man more well known as Hippie Jack, has spent the better part of his 66 years living in the hills photographing those whom society has overlooked or looked down upon.
He calls them the invisible people.
They took him in when he needed it most. Now, he and his wife, Lynne, return that kindness.
They host music festivals on their farm to collect food and clothing, and they drive their rainbow-colored Hippie Bus along the twisting two-lane roads to the top of the Cumberland Plateau to help the neediest among them.
“You just don’t understand what the mountain people had to survive,” Stoddart says, “in order to become survivors.”
In the tiny town of Wilder, Steve Sells lives with no electricity. No running water.
His home, barely 400 square feet with chipped aqua paint and a leaking porch roof, hasn’t had any working utilities for almost a year.
He’s made some bad choices in life. Had some tough breaks. He spent 13 months in Fentress County jail for theft. He had seven days left on his sentence when his wife died.
Life hasn’t improved much since his release.
“I haven’t had nothing but a hard way to go,” the 47-year-old Sells says, peering into his dark kitchen where the stove doesn’t ignite and the refrigerator doesn’t hum.
“If it wasn’t for Hippie, I’d be done had.”
But he doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
He was raised on these ridges like so many of his neighbors. Their fathers and mothers were born here, their grandparents made a living here. They worked as coal miners, shirt factory employees, meat plant packers.
Sometimes their kinfolk would leave, by choice or circumstance, but often they would return.
This is home.
On the Plateau, woodland wraps around a labyrinth of rocky ridges and ravines. Leaves glow gold and burn red. Brisk rivers and streams teem with catfish and bass.
“It’s beautiful,” says Alice Vaughn as she sits on her front porch with her son, Jeremy, and a neighbor, Melissa Littzi, down the road. “The country and the trees.”
But it’s not easy.
Littzi, too, is without power now, paying $20 here and there for electric. She needs $148 for the water to be turned on.
Stoddart sits on a threadbare brown couch outside Vaughn’s home and visits with her. Trash burns in a fire near the muddy drive. Discarded furniture and boxes clutter the property. But he does not judge.
“Would it help her to treat her with less dignity and respect?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”
“We’ve lost the ability to have empathy and understand what people went through. I think we would all be better off if we could embrace the people who have the least among us.”
Later, he will stop by the utility companies and pay her bills with a donation he received from a friend.
For now, he offers a hug.
He feels their pain because he has had his own.6
Stoddart grew up in Florida with upper-middle-class parents who got drunk every day after 5 p.m. “Eastern time,” he quips in his persistent sarcasm.
His father liked cheap vodka, his mother scotch. After several drinks, the old man would sometimes confuse his boy with Jimmy Carter.
There were nights he was locked out of his house, evenings with no dinner on the table, and many uncomfortable political discussions.
He felt alienated, at times abandoned.
On the mountain, there were others who knew what that felt like.
He was drawn to them.
Stoddart was blowing bubbles in the Florida rain the day he met his future wife.
Lynne was riding a bike, without an umbrella.
He jumped in front of her, and their hearts collided.
Both were artists — photographers — who sought to document the disregarded and undiscovered. They fell in love with the work, and each other.
In 1972, the couple arrived in Tennessee and purchased 48 acres of land at the foot of Highland Mountain for $7,500.
In the wake of Vietnam’s upheaval, it was an era of artists’ collectives and communes. A time when a swath of American society searched for a broader idealism, one aimed at rebuilding the world from the ground up.
“We moved to Tennessee because Scarface was true,” Jack Stoddart says. “The summer of love was over and Miami was turning into cocaine, bad disco music, guns and money.”
In the unincorporated community of Crawford in Overton County, the long-haired-hippie couple set up in a tiny cabin with no running water and learned to cultivate their land.
The mountain people around them, those who had been there for generations, were still making whiskey and raising their own meat. It was subsistence living, and they taught the Stoddarts the same, showing them how to grow tomatoes and cut firewood and sharpen a chainsaw.
“We were the oddity,” Lynne said.
In turn, Jack Stoddart documented the spirit of life on the Plateau.
He took photographs of a vanishing culture, giggling Mennonite girls and an old woman dipping snuff while rocking on her front porch. He created silver-gelatin prints, toned other in sepia hues. He viewed his camera as a way to preserve history.
All the while, he and Lynne raised their four children on the farm, teaching them rural ways, traveling with them to art shows across the country and sending them to college.
And when their house was empty, the Stoddarts wanted to find a way to repay the kindness that was shown to them.
“The thing I learned early, when a Hill person offers you a tomato, you take it,” Jack Stoddart says. “This is not about me helping the little people. This is about equal footing.
“They took us in. We are paying that back.”
Digital cameras sent Stoddart’s silver gelatin into obscurity, and he knew his art — which culminated with installations in the American History and Tennessee State museums — must also evolve.
In 2006, the Stoddart clan began hosting an annual Americana music festival on the family farm.
They called it Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s.
Featuring renowned singer-songwriters like Mary Gauthier, Darrell Scott, and Malcolm Holcombe, the festival — at first — was created to preserve roots music.
Stoddart videotaped the concerts, which aired first on the local PBS affiliate WCTE-TV of the Upper Cumberland, and then nationally. He turned the recorded music festival archives into a Saturday night radio show for WDVX in Knoxville.
Along the way, though, it became about more than just the music. It was about the people.
Now, once a month on his land “halfway between nowhere and too far,” Mr. and Mrs. Hippie host old-school concerts they call Sanctuary Shows.
The farm lights up with tiny twinkling bulbs, a bonfire roars and inside a small wooden barn the sounds of guitar and fiddle fill a warm, candle-lit room.
The events are free, but Stoddart requests that his guests — many who camp on his land for the weekend of festivities — bring non-perishable foods, new or like-new children’s coats, toys, shoes or whatever else they can spare.
“It’s a Tennessee thing to do,” Chris Deck says, his breath making white clouds in the fall chill. “Helping your neighbor and having fun doing it.”
On show nights, the Hippie Bus — luminous in glitter and bright paint — brims with cans of beans and chunky chicken soup and boxes of grits. There are piles of donated clothes. All to be sorted and distributed, in a blue-grassroots kind of way.
“Hippie has created an opportunity here to come together,” says concert-goer Bill Alexander, an Appalachian poet with a big white beard, overalls and a pair of peace symbols hanging around his neck.
“This music, this love, and this effort to help people along the way. You have fun — and whiskey. You mix old roots and new roots and you get people working for social justice and equality.”
When the music stops and the campers go home, Lynne Stoddart goes to work sorting the donations.
Affectionately called Mrs. Hippie, or sometimes “Munch”, a shortened version of the pet name Munchkin, Lynne Stoddart is the heart behind the scenes.
She spends hours preparing for food delivery trips to the ex-coal mining communities of Wilder, Vines Ridge, Cravenstown and Twinton — places where poverty is fierce, opioid addiction is active and whole communities often go unconsidered.
“They’re the last people anyone’s thinking about,” Lynne Stoddart says, pulling her long silver hair over her shoulder as she sorts through the 80 loaves of bread donated by Great Harvest.
Last winter, the Stoddarts and their crew distributed five busloads of food, more than 3,000 books, 45 new bikes, several scooters and Christmas toys.
Most importantly, more 400 children’s coats.
They have paid for bathroom, hot water heater and roof repairs. They’ve settled phone, water and electric bills. Provided hospital beds and wheelchairs.
“People blame the mountain people for the conditions they’re in,” Jack Stoddart says, as he turns the steering wheel of the Hippie Bus out onto a highway toward the plateau on delivery day morning. “They think they won’t work, or are lazy, or live on some imaginary welfare check.
“There is no welfare check. There’s food stamps, but those disappear when they drive 40 miles down the mountain to work in a T-shirt factory.”
There are critics of the Stoddarts’ mission. Some say the Stoddarts give to people who don’t deserve it, helping drug addicts and convicts. Others believe the couple is enabling the poor and out-of-work and perpetuating the problem.
Jack Stoddart doesn’t believe there are undeserving people.
He operates by a simple mantra of generosity: “You don’t need to pay and you don’t need to pray.”
You only need to receive.
Liza Cravens lies in a hospital bed in the front room of her home, an oxygen tank at her side and an old-time Western playing on the TV by the door.
At 82 years old, Cravens has lived on the Cumberland Plateau all her life.
She used to carry water for washing in buckets from the stream and work the family’s fields with a No. 8 plow and a mule named Jed.
She went to Cravenstown School through sixth grade, before quitting to pick beans for 60 cents a bushel. She has never known anything else.
“It was rough when I was growing up,” she says. “But when you look back, you realize those were the good old days.”
As she reminisces, she grasps at Hippie’s hand, as he sits at the edge of her bed.
In a straw hat, jean jacket and guitar-pick necklace, Stoddart smiles and squeezes her frail fingers.
The first time Stoddart met her, she had a walker, a pack of cigarettes and polished purple fingernails. He is always nervous that when he knocks on her door she won’t be there to answer.
It happens with others. Relatives who offer sad stories of emergency visits to the hospital, or unexpected arrests.
Last winter, Cravens gave Hippie a hug and told him goodbye for what she thought would be the last time. “And she’s still with us,” Stoddart says with a chuckle.
Though she looks decidedly frailer, her yellow knit blanket pulled up to the chest of her hot pink sweatshirt.
“I’ll come with more pork shoulder in two weeks,” Stoddart says. “I’ll bring you the fattiest one. You need a little meat on your bones.”
After seven hours on the road, with night starting to shadow the trees, Stoddart finally directs the bus toward home.
Back on the farm, he pops open a beer.
There is a whoop of celebration, but also a reticence.
Truth be told, Stoddart doesn’t know how much of a difference a one-hippie-bus-operation can make.
On the Plateau, he sees generational poverty and generational drug abuse. He visits homes where children come out to accept food while pill-addicted mothers are passed out on the couch.
It’s not an easy mold to break.
“We’re not changing the world,” Stoddart says with a sigh.
“But,” he adds more optimistically, “we are maybe changing a day or two.”
These are a proud people. Stubborn, but not pretentious. Fiercely protective, and also grateful. They are kind. And they are real — not invisible.
“They are survivors is what they are,” Stoddart says.
“And maybe if we keep showing up they will see that someone cares.”