To Hear Zeno Tell It

Let's do a once-upon-a-time moment. Once upon a time in Madison County, there was a family named Ponder. Their origins stretch way back before the Civil War. I'm not sure how far back, but for our purposes here, we're looking at Emma and Zadie Ponder and their descendants.

Emma bore thirteen children, twelve of whom were boys, and many of whom went on to run the county. E.Y. Ponder was the sheriff for 32 years, based out of the jail, and he's our touchstone. His brothers and nephews and other family members played key roles in local politics, education, economic development and more -- particularly Zeno, who presided over the Democratic party, held various roles through the Board of Elections, and unsuccessfully ran for state senate in 1964.

I don't know much about the origins of this photograph. If you do, please email me.

That election became notorious and caused a major split in the local Democratic party. The results were overthrown, and the Ponders have been portrayed as ballot box stuffers ever since. I've never seen an account that makes me feel confident in exactly what happened. There was so much political smoke blowing from all directions. I think probably there still is.

Does this story still sound like once upon a time? I think not. Lots of articles, like the ones I'm about to discuss, will try to give you that "long ago in a faraway place" feeling. They will give you caricatures. Beware. This place is now, and those people are still here, or their descendants are, anyway. We're not going to do caricatures.

There's a 1994 article in the LA Times about Madison County that makes me feel regret -- regret because people I would have known are dead, and regret for the institution of journalism, which has limited its own access to subtle textures.

I guess it's not surprising. A journalist for a Los Angeles paper hears a story of a "colorful clan (who) ruled Madison County as a virtual fiefdom." He comes here to try to capture his piece of something iconic. Maybe he comes here to take it.

There's something about a byline that can make storytelling feel like taking. It's always troubled me, and it's one of the reasons why, after seven years, I'm no longer on payroll at a newspaper.

In addition to the use of the word clan, which maybe you shouldn't use in this part of the world unless you are talking about one particular clan, the LA Times writer calls the politics of this area "somewhere between a blood sport and war" and "a boutique bastion of Democratic machine politics that rivaled any in U.S. history--including Daley's Chicago and Tweed's Tammany--one where hard-fought precinct tallies often were determined by litigation or at gunpoint."

I'm going to offer some counterbalance to these particular characterizations in just a minute.

Maybe these things are true. Maybe they simply sound dramatic -- good for a faraway LA audience. Here's the article if you want to read it. Mark Pinsky, the writer, also penned "Met Her on the Mountain." I haven't yet read this book about a notorious Madison County murder that happened in 1970.

The political machine, in Pinsky's view, is the Ponder family.

From the News Record-Sentinel, shortly after Zeno's contested state senate race in 1964.

Articles like this one tell you a lot about the journalist Pinsky's view of the Ponder family. He seems more interested in implicating E.Y. Ponder of wrongdoing than learning exactly who killed the young woman he's researching. Incidentally, E.Y. wasn't sheriff when the murder took place.

All that to explain my regret at reading the 1994 article, which is mostly regret that I won't ever interview Zeno and E.Y. as Pinsky did, and I'll never make up my mind for myself about how things were. 

Still, you can imagine my delight that the UNC archives contains an extended interview, recorded in 1974, with Zeno Ponder. Bill Finger, about whom I know very little except that he was involved with the UNC research on Southern culture and textile in the '70s, conducts the interview and organizes it loosely and chronologically, walking through Zeno's experiences without particularly heavy handed interest in one area or another. Bill Finger has his own opinions, but it's pretty clear what they are from the way he challenges Zeno about certain subjects, such as whether he arranged political stunts and the gradations between Republicans and Democrats.

From a May 30, 1968, News Record-Sentinel article about Zeno's farm accomplishments.

Here are the takeaways that are important to me initially. I expect I'll come back to this interview many, many times as we proceed, but I want to hold it up here, at the beginning, as a way of grounding us.


People in this part of the world were worn out by politics. It's easy to forget these mid-century developments were happening in the shadow of the Civil War. Zeno's grandfather, Robert Ponder, opposed slavery and fought for the union. Zeno said Robert's choice was more about values than politics. But when he returned from the war, he died about 18 months later from what Zeno describes a "run-down condition."

His grandmother remarried a man who had fought for the Confederacy, and Zeno describes the political fallout for the family this way:

Now when my father grew up, of course his mother talked to him about what his father had done. Robert Ponder. Josh Reams, his stepfather talked to him about what he had done. So there was a woman who had lived and given birth to two sons of the Union and, incidentally, she gave birth to two sons of Josh Reams, a Confederate soldier. The political implication as I see it, coming from . . . through my father and on down to the children, was simply that we took the view that we had very little if anything to conserve. We were liberal and the Democratic Party was liberal in its views nationally, state, and county. So we were for that form of government which would give us a better opportunity to involve ourselves and enjoy some of the goods, some of the good things of life.

The idea of a political machine isn't going to get us anywhere. It's true the Ponders were an influential family, but they weren't an organized crime syndicate, and they weren't strongmen. Whatever they were, it was more nuanced. I think it's useful to consider how Zeno saw what they were doing:

You know in politics you don’t have to hold office to exert influence. You just have to have friends, key people, that can get jobs done. And oftentimes if they know what you want, perhaps they’ll go ahead and work their heart out and you might not even be aware, you might not be cognizant of the fact that they are doing this because they know that that’s what you basically want. And they’re doing it, well, maybe not for green stamps, but because they trust your judgment, they think you’re right, and they’re working very diligently to bring it about. So, I think some of the greatest politicians we have had are some of the people who have maybe never held office ... I feel very strongly that in the South—and maybe throughout the nation, I hope—we will continue to have in both major parties a sense of loyalty in that a party machine, a party organization, contrary to the idea that is carried through the media, really consists of success being spelt W-O-R-K. If you work hard enough and if you’ve dedicated yourself to a task, then you’ll get that job done.

I would say calling the Ponders a political machine misses part of what Zeno, at least, was trying to do. His technique was very grassroots, and it seems focused on outcomes (although I can't pretend to know what all the desired outcomes were).

The Ponders' political strategy was very sophisticated. For all the talk about stuffed ballot boxes, it seems the Ponders' style of political organizing was incredibly nuanced. They analyzed every precinct and determined what it would take for Democrats to topple the Republicans, who had held the county for decades in a style one might describe as "a machine" if one were interested in using such vague terms.

Here's what Zeno says about the first election he worked on in 1950, when his brother E.Y. ran for sheriff for the first time:

So, E. Y. and me, from that point on, we worked very, very close. We figured out right down to the vote what would be the minimum in each of the twenty-four precincts. And the Marshall precinct was by far the largest precinct. And we concluded that he would have to have a split in that precinct to get it. If we wanted any part of the ticket we would have to have a split—that is, a fifty-fifty break. And that never had happened in the history of the Marshall precinct ... It had been strongly Republican. Usually losing by two, three, four hundred votes. So my work was cut out for me and I had helped cut out my own work in that particular precinct. So I really went to work and working hard. And with the help of other Democrats, we carried that Marshall precinct by two votes. And E. Y. was elected sheriff by thirty-two votes.

The banks could have been involved in a way that feels unimaginable today. I hear so much about the Ponders and elections fraud, but this is the first I've heard of dirty banking in Madison County. I think with modern oversight institutions and national banks, it's become hard to imagine banks could have influence on individual votes.

I had a lot of fellow registrars throughout the county who were GIs and knew how to use a gun and had the guts to do it. And they took charge. So when a Republican deputy came in and said, “Now I’m going to take the names of the people here who are using markers because we feel there’s something going on. You all are buying votes. Accusing us of buying votes. The Democrats. So I’m going to take names.” Well, I knew all the time what he was taking names for. Because both bankers were solid Republicans and both bankers would brag that they held enough paper to control any election. Just so they could find out, you know, if that fellow did in fact vote a Democratic ticket. They could foreclose and go get his cow or his horse or demand full payment on the little shack that they had sold him ...

”There was no Democratic bank. There was no Democratic finance. There was no way. If you wanted a loan in Madison County economically, you went through the Republicans. But I was trying to change that.

What's true of Zeno isn't true of E.Y. Zeno discusses how different they were, and how they played distinct roles in the community. If it helps to understand their relationship, E.Y. was 11 years older than Zeno, who was the last in a line of 13 children.

For every one person that I have talked with and worked with politically and done a favor, E. Y. has gone me about ten better. He is a person who has dedicated his life to helping others. He’s dedicated his time to listening to others’ problems. I’m just not that good a politician. I’m just not that kind of a politician. I like to plan, I like to organize, I like to deal with the key people. I like to have a program, and I like to go at it from that standpoint, long-range standpoint. E. Y. thoroughly enjoys working with people day by day. You can go down to the jail and I can guarantee that he will talk to not less than a hundred a day and ninety-nine of them will have problems. One might come in to commend him on the job he’s done. Ninety-nine of them will have problems and he will listen to all of them and most likely he’ll leave seventy-five or eighty of them pretty happy. So he is the person who has . . . he’s been the workhorse all the way through.

There are so many rich quotes in Zeno's interview with Bill Finger. It's hard not to like him from this distance of many years. My fiancee Josh and I had a conversation about the interview. Josh sees Zeno in a fairly sunny light.

"I genuinely believe Zeno wanted to make Madison County a better place with more opportunities, especially for young people. I think it's important to remember the context of how isolated areas of Appalachia like Madison were when Zeno was a kid," he said. "One of the main things they did was bring state money to fund construction of roads in the county and improve access.

"I think sometimes we take those things for granted, or idealistically debate whether increased access is good or bad for the county, and we don't know what it is like to live without access to basic services ."

Josh and Zeno have similar goals -- they both want to see Madison County thrive on its own terms -- so I think it's easy for Josh to connect with him.

I'm not so sure. I'm just totally uncertain about Zeno's motivation. That's a big question for me. What was driving him?

There are so many negative ads in the archives of the News Record-Sentinel taken out by Zeno's fellow Democrats in attempts to weaken him during primary season. There are characterizations of Zeno as "controversial" that stretch back into the '50s. We're treading into a very old story. And I'm not certain there's proof of Zeno's success.

From an ad in the News Record-Sentinel from May 1966, two years after Zeno's unsuccessful bid for state senate. Clearly the dust had not settled.

"Success or failure in a case like this is complicated," Josh says. "This is rural Appalachia. There is a long history of isolation, exploitation, and extraction. I think folks like Zeno were genuinely trying to get some of the pie for the people who live here." 

But Zeno, certainly, said things that made you feel he was trying, that make you want to like him. Here he is talking about the time he spent teaching Madison County GIs after World War II.

We would have field days, countywide field days. And I did have the opportunity to go before all these GIs and express myself on certain points. I learned and I sensed maybe a consensus of the group was, “Well, yes. We’ve been out of Madison County. We have seen what’s going on in the rest of the world. We’ve been in boot camp in Louisiana, or South Carolina, or Tennessee, or Texas. We like Madison County but we got some changes we want to make.” I could sense this thing and I became a part of it. I become their mouthpiece. And Democratic or Republican, it was incidental. Really, it was incidental whether I was a Democrat or they were Republicans.

This post has a ton of historical material. Congratulations if you read it all. We appreciate that. Next post, we promise fireworks. Like really, actual fireworks. Stay tuned.