Inventing the South

Story Adele Elliott

Necessity, as we know, is the mother of invention. However, that alone is not enough.  Resourcefulness and intelligence are also necessary. Remarkable creativity and innovation can be found in every Southerner. Oh, sure, we get a lot of flak for our drawl. It somehow makes us just sound a bit dumber than people from other parts of the country. That may be intentional. We know not to show our hand too soon.

Here, you will find ingenuity and intelligence that is innate, ingrained. Do not be fooled by a homey accent.

Southern ingenuity has manifested itself in many ways. Jack Daniels whiskey, created just one year after the Civil War, is an example that immediately comes to mind. Born from modest roots, it is the more refined cousin of moonshine.

But, then came Prohibition, and distilleries were smashed with axes, their nectar splashed onto the ground, evaporating to heaven. This made humble moonshine quite desirable, indeed. It was the preferred refreshment in speak-easies all over the country.

Still, there was that pesky little Eighteenth Amendment which made the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors illegal. Once again, Southerners saved the day. Enterprising young men ran moonshine to points north in souped-up cars with heavy-duty shocks to help support the load. Those runs spawned NASCAR.

Southerners are inspired inventors. Many yards are piled with rusty cars, or tractors or dead washing machines. Unsightly, perhaps, however, these are the parts department for an instinctive and exceptional design talent. With a coat hanger and a roll of duct tape, a good ol’ boy can probably build whatever you need, even if you were not aware that you needed it. Junk is one of our greatest natural resources.

The first tow truck, called a “wrecker,” was invented in 1916, in Chattanooga, by Ernest Holmes. He modified a 1913 Cadillac using bits and scraps and created the basis of the vehicle we know today.

The invention of air conditioning has saved a lot of lives and made the southern part of the country a year-round destination. In 1845, a Florida doctor named John Gorrie saw how his patients suffered in the heat. He hung buckets of frozen swamp water from the ceiling of hospital wards. And, there you have it: an early air conditioner.

The first open-heart surgery was performed in Louisville, Ky., in 1960. In Jackson, Miss., Dr. James Hardy performed the first lung transplant and first animal-to-human heart transplant in 1963 and 1964, respectively.

Southern culinary contributions are too vast to list. I will tackle that subject in another column. However, whet your appetite on these temptations. Cotton candy, Gatorade, Krispy Kreme donuts, along with the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain, all originated in the South. Are you hungry yet?

We have to thank our British friends for the origins of football. Nevertheless, Southerners have elevated it to cult status. We may have lost the Civil War, but we seldom lose a football game. Our success might owe some thanks to pre-game rituals, such as tailgating. Once again, Southern cooking proves to be inspirational, and perhaps the catalyst for winning.

The South is home ground for the blues. Musicians all over the world copied the singing and guitar styles of Delta artists like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King and Robert Johnson. Those foreign artists may have been inspired by the blues, yet they never got it quite right. This music is born from experience and pain. You can’t fake that.

I think it’s significant, too, that football and the blues are so very inclusive. There are no divisions by status, and especially not by race. The South is a leader in equality when it comes to appreciating homegrown talent.

So let’s keep them guessing with our rustic inflection and honey-sweet accent. It’s pretty easy to fool folks from other parts. They’re not too bright, bless their hearts.