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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.