Outreach to the Mountain People (1955-1960)

During the 1950’s, Walnut Hills experienced another change in demographics and economics as poor people from Appalachia moved into crowded, dirty apartments, especially in the south-west area. The Advent’s curate Mike Hamilton, and his wife Sallie moved into one of these tenements (2100 Sinton) and lived with the Mountain People for 3 years (1955-1958).

Mike and Sallie prepared a report on their experiences and how that work was supported by The Advent. We found a copy of the report in our Archives and got permission from Mike (retired from the Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and, sadly, deceased in 2018) to use it in understanding this period in The Advent’s history.

Migration of the Mountain People to Cincinnati: Why 1950’s and Why Walnut Hills?

The Advent’s Response to the Changing Neighborhood

The Outreach Program Workers: Two Curates, a Wife and Lots of Laity

Mountaineers in the Big City: Adjustment Problems

What Does Success Look Like?

Migration of the Mountain People to Cincinnati

Cincinnati had long been a destination for rural people seeking “a better life” in the city, but in the late 1940’s and 1950’s what had been mostly migration-by-choice changed to migration-from-need. There were 2 main factors driving people from the Appalachian hills to urban centers after WW2[1]:

  • The coal industry underwent intense automation, resulting in fewer jobs for miners.
  • Logging intensified, resulting in the destruction of the forest, a common resource needed for sustenance farming in the hills.

Walnut Hills in particular provided a resting place for this outward migration from Appalachia. The Hills had been an economically diverse neighborhood since the 1830’s, and the transportation improvements of the 1930’s made commuting to work in the factories on the West Side, Oakley, Norwood and Gilbert Avenue easy. Peebles Corner – a few blocks from 2100 Sinton – remained a transportation hub even after the streetcars were removed in 1950.

Further, Walnut Hills had a large supply of good housing stock that could be easily converted to high density apartments. Many of those buildings had been constructed in the 1880’s to 1920’s when Walnut Hills was a neighborhood of choice for professional and skilled laborers escaping the filth of the center city. (2100 Sinton was built in 1800.)
The Advent’s Response to the Changing Neighborhood
By the 1950’s Walnut Hills had lost some of its reputation as a desirable location; suburbs, free from the influx of poor people, were more attractive to the middle classes. White-flight to the suburbs left housing stock available for re-purposing into tenements. It also put pressure on main-line churches such as The Advent to adjust to declining white middle-class membership even as the demographics of the immediate neighborhood of the church changed significantly.[2]

The Advent’s response – unlike other main-line urban churches – was to direct its outreach work to the neighborhood. While the change was not without controversy, it has characterized this congregation to the present day.

When the Reverend Alanson Higbie came to the church, he accepted the call with the intention the parish open up relations with the newcomers to Walnut Hills. Under his leadership there developed a new and dynamic core of lay men and women who were religiously very well informed and who committed themselves to local evangelism. A few individuals voiced opposition to the local mission efforts and suggested their cessation, and that the church building be sold and the parish build elsewhere. However, the bulk of the parishioners seemed at least to be open-minded, and there were sufficient enthusiasts to supply the leadership for the local program to begin. Since 1956 the majority of the parish has been actively for a neighborhood outreach program and has tended to become proud of the task.[3]

When the Reverend Alanson Higbie came to the church, he accepted the call with the intention that the parish open up relations with the newcomers to Walnut Hills. Under his leadership there developed a new and dynamic core of lay men and women who were religiously very well informed and who committed themselves to local evangelism.

There was a danger that because, of necessity, most of the work was done by the clergy, the parishioners might avoid their own responsibility and salve their own consciences by meditating on what ‘the wonderful clergy were doing.’ However, partly to avoid this, but even more because the work demanded it, a great deal of lay work was done in the neighborhood.

The Outreach Program Workers: Two Curates, a Wife and Lots of Laity

In 1955, Michael Hamilton came to Advent as curate, with George Laib following in 1956. Using Diocese funds and a national grant, Hamilton was able to devote full-time to outreach work among the Mountain People beginning in 1956. In that year he also married Sallie, a Cincinnatian from Indian Hill.

In the early 1950’s Advent had started lay-led outreach work such as Girl & Boy Scout Troops and Vacation Bible School, and these programs dovetailed with the specific focus on Mountain People let by Mike and Sallie. By 1958 when Hamilton wrote the report on the ministry, neighborhood outreach had become ingrained in the church’s identity.

While there was extensive lay involvement, Michael and Sallie Hamilton’s commitment to the Mountain People ministry was 24×7. Mike moved into a single room at 2100 Sinton and, in 1956, brought his new bride to a 3-room apartment in the same building. 2100 Sinton was in the heart of housing for Appalachian immigrants and was among the worst of the tenements in the area:

[2100 Sinton Avenue] by police and Housing Inspection Bureau standards, this is the worst in the area (it is fondly referred to by the police as the ‘Red Hell.’) … Each apartment has toilet facilities (unheated) and some have baths.

The building is structurally sound but very little repair work is done. The landlord permits illegal and serious overcrowding, and the children do continuous damage to the walls and furnishings. As many as twelve people will live in one room twenty feet square. Rats infest the walls. They run across the floors at night, and I have heard one story of a child being bitten while asleep. There is no hot water. Heat is supplied by kitchen ovens and small gas stoves.[4]

Michael and Sallie lived and worked in the neighborhood of 2100 Sinton until 1958. They published a summary of their work in late 1958 for use by the church and social welfare groups in Cincinnati working with the Mountain People.[5]

The report is noteworthy for its focus on the Christian character of the work. The Hamiltons, Laib and the numerous lay people involved in the outreach clearly saw their efforts as a response to Jesus’ call of discipleship. While initial efforts to reach neighbors living near the church were aimed at increasing membership, it was soon realized that most of the people now living near 2100 Sinton and 2366 Kemper would not be comfortable worshiping at Advent. Nevertheless, the outreach work continued, now focused on helping this group of new neighbors adjust to life in the big city – all in the name of Christ.[6]


Mountaineers in the Big City: Adjustment Problems

While economically-forced rural-to-urban migration for any group is inherently difficult, the Appalachians who moved into Cincinnati and Walnut Hills during the 1950s brought some habits and beliefs that made their adjustment particularly difficult. The Advent’s outreach work was sensitive to the cultural background of the Mountain People.

Even before the Hamiltons moved into 2100 Sinton, Advent had sponsored and led several child-oriented neighborhood programs. (Scout Troupes were particularly popular.) However, Mountain Folk were not oriented toward structured activities nor were they “joiners”.[7] Nevertheless, “doing well by our children” was a desire in most households. In response, the immediate, daily presence of Mike & Sallie led to some participation in church school and other structured youth activities. Lay people at Advent supported all of these.

The main success has been with the children; firstly, in getting them to church school and worship services, also to Saturday special church school classes, and to vacation church schools. Then in attempts to give them happiness and to broaden their experience, we have had a lot of parties… .”

Mountain People were poor. There were constant crises: medical issues, no clothes for the kids, food shortages, etc. At the same time, Mountain People were proud and unwilling to discuss their issues with outsiders or accept help — especially when it involved participation in large institutions or structured, scheduled activities. Again, the fact that Mike and Sallie were neighbors at 2100 Sinton allowed a level of trust to develop which extended to others willing to help.[8]

Those who have attended our service tend to have their suspicions confirmed [that we are catholic] when they are confronted with candles, acolytes, and a liturgical service. However, they are embarrassed by the fact that they appreciate the friendliness of the Advent people, and therefore do not wish to think ill of them.

In the hills, while women’s work and men’s work were separate and well-defined, both parents were present in the home most of the time. In the city, the husband went away to work, leaving the wife at home. But instead of a large, open area, “home” now meant a crowded room and play-space on the streets. Mountain women particularly had a hard adjustment to this type of living.[9] Sallie Hamilton’s sections of the report speak to the isolation her neighbors felt and their need for daily, supportive friendship.[10] Sallie’s health suffered as she tried to respond to this need. While parish visits could play a role, this is one area where outreach efforts seemed inadequate to the task.

[Sallie’s voice] Much of my time with the women is spent listening to gossip, complaints, and the normal round of women’s favorite topics. I find it extremely difficult because it is impossible to be the kind of friend they need. They demand patient, continuous (every day) loving relationships. This is tremendously time-consuming, and there are just too many people.

“[Mike’s voice] The strain [of living in the tenement] is naturally much harder on the wife than on the clergyman; he gets out of the apartment to do a lot of his work. After about eighteen months, Sallie, who had never been strong, had a long bout with pleurisy … .




What does success look like?

During the 1950’s, The Advent spent money, time and talent in an outreach effort focused on newly arrived people from Appalachia. Today, those people have largely disappeared from Walnut Hills, either having become assimilated into the general population of the city or moved on to the suburbs. The Ministry to the Mountain People was a point-in-time experience. How can we assess its impact? Was the outcome worth the effort?

In their report, the Hamiltons also had difficulty stating clearly what return-on-investment was:

Living in the same building with the people to whom one ministers is a great advantage. However, if the building is of a tenement type this is a strain, and the workers should not be expected to stay more than two to five years.

It is impossible to assess whether this tenement ministry is worth the effort in terms of the returns. I would hope, for our sakes, that there will always be a few people who are willing to do it as a special vocation, so that the Church can have some “listening posts” in social areas it cannot otherwise reach.[11]

We can say clearly what the ministry was NOT:

  • It was NOT a way to increase membership in The Advent.
  • It was NOT a social program with measurable goals such as life-expectancy, school success, financial stability, etc.

But we also know that, through the ministry, some Mountain People received medical care, food and clothing, some children were encouraged and valued, and some families were able to escape their initial poverty so that the next generation could blend into the middle-class of our city.

Yet it is hard to read the report without a growing conviction that God had used this ministry not only for “good in the hood” but also as a transitional moment in the life of The Advent. At a time when church membership was under threat and the beloved building was increasingly “out of place” with its immediate surroundings, Advent chose to turn outward in a new kind of ministry. Middle-class lay people – often from the suburbs or from wealthier neighborhoods – interacted directly with people from a very different economic class and with very different beliefs and practices.

Preach that if we turn our backs on any of God’s children, whom He loves, then He may well turn His back on us. In fact, it seems that when any denomination retreats from a tough situation or refuses to adopt itself to changing conditions, it dies.

Led by Higbie, the Hamiltons and Laib, these people (some of whom are still among us!) transformed The Advent’s long-held commitment to outreach into caring, creative, patient work with their neighbors in Walnut Hills. The path from the Mountain People Ministry to Open Door is relatively direct. Where will it lead us next?


Barbara Haven and JoAnn Morse

December, 2017



[1] Ramp Hollow, Chs 5 & 6 describe the change in industrial practices after WW2 and the effect on rural life. Mayor’s Report, p 2: “Some indication of the scale of migration out of some of the mountain counties is the fact that from 1940 to 1950 the 12 [Kentucky] counties known as the ‘coal counties’ had a net gain of only 500 persons while exporting out of the state some 103,500.”

[2] Hamilton Report p1: “The membership of [Advent’s] parish declined from 723 in 1947 to 638 in 1957; most of these losses were occasioned by deaths and by constant transfer of members to new suburban missions and parishes.” Mike next describes a major membership drive in 1957 that was spectacularly unsuccessful. Nevertheless, pledges increased and a major capital campaign was held during this period of decline.

[3] Hamilton Report, p 4. Higbie had been assistant to rector Francis Moore from 1940 to 1941. He returned as rector in 1950 and stayed until 1960.

[4] Hamilton Report, p 3. Hamilton did not at first engage the landlord to fix issues, but after a fire due to a defective stove, he enlisted the press to try to put pressure on the landlord. I have not been able to locate the Enquirer’s expose, but I’m still looking.

[5] Hamilton Report, front material: “This duplication of the Hamiltons’ report has been made for confidential reference and limited circulation among responsible Church leaders and among certain persons in intergroup, social service and educational agencies who will utilize it only to enhance their professional skills and insights in dealing with intercultural adjustments.” In 2017, Barbara Haven contacted Michael Hamilton (retired from the Cathedral in Washington, D.C.) and obtained his verbal to use the report and have it available on The Advent’s website and Walnut Hills Historical Society.

[6] Hamilton Report, p 7: “Preach that if we turn our backs on any of God’s children, whom He loves, then He may well turn His back on us.” P 27: “There was a danger that because of necessity, most of the work was done by the clergy, the parishioners might avoid their own responsibility and salve their own consciences by meditating on what ‘the wonderful clergy were doing.’ However, partly to avoid this, but even more because the work demanded it, a great deal of lay work was done in the neighborhood.”

[7] Mayor’s Report, p7: “A characteristic pattern which seems to stand out in marked contrast to urban ways of living as we know them is the relative absence of competitive rivalry. The play activities of children seem rarely to be organized around competitively sought goals, and work activities of adults, particularly in the rural farm areas, do not incline individuals to rivalrous behavior.” Also see Ramp Hollow, passim, on lack of competitive behavior and individualism.

[8] Hamilton Report, p18: “Keeping appointments is always difficult for them, as it goes against the grain of their way of living, and they will seldom continue a treatment that requires time and frequent examination. However, if they are broken in gradually, driven to and from the hospital, and sat with in the waiting room, they do gain confidence.” P27: “… two parishes ‘adopted’ a family each, and for about six-month periods visited them, brought them groceries, got the children spectacles, helped them plan their budgets, etc. In the case of one family, they arranged and transported for over sixty doctor and hospital visits required to get the family of eight back on their feet.”

[9] Mayor’s Report, pp 6-7: “These people have come to believe that the place of the woman is in the home … . This will carry over to the city in a strong resistance by the entire family, and probably most intensely by the husband, to the wife’s accepting outside employment. … The long established tradition of the male-dominated family continues to be expected, and in the main, accepted. … With the father’s work away from home he will have less contact with the children, particularly the boys, with a consequent reduction in his authority over them. The mother will increasingly take over his role of order-giving and discipline with a probably decrease in the emotional attachment of the children for her.”

[10] Hamilton Report, p 15.

[11] Hamilton Report, p 28. Note that the Hamiltons did not have any children during their time at 2100 Sinton.