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James Taylor Adams

Biography by Michelle Vincent

Ferrum College

  Quick Facts  Professional Life References More Links   

Michelle Vincent
was a senior English/Secondary Education student at Ferrum College in 2005-2006 (now a middle school teacher). Her summer research project, "Studying the Oral Tradition in the James Taylor Adams Collection," was supported by a Lee B. Ledford Scholarship from the Appalachian College Association. Her faculty mentor is Tina L. Hanlon, Associate Professor of English and co-director of AppLit. They presented this project at the ACA Summit on October 27, 2005, in Abingdon, VA. Tales that Michelle selected from the Adams Collection are being added to AppLit's Fiction & Poems section.

Quick Facts about James Taylor Adams

Professional Life

Adams is most known for his extensive collection of songs and tales from Wise County, Virginia, as well as other neighboring communities in Virginia and Kentucky.  In 1936 he began working with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and in 1938 Adams began working with the Virginia Writers’ Project, which was part of the national WPA.  Adams worked closely with Richard Chase, folklorist and storyteller, and others to collect thousands of pages of folklore.  Several members of Adams' family, especially his wife Dicy, told Adams many of the tales we know today.  By the time the project ended, Adams “had collected more than twice as much folklore and song material as any other Project worker in Virginia” (Perdue, Outwitting 101). Most of the collection is archived at Ferrum College's Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in the James Taylor Adams Collection.   


In his book titled James Taylor Adams: A Brief Biography (1937), Frederic D. Vanover discusses Adams' fondness for the Appalachian region--more specifically, the Cumberlands.  Adams says, “There are almost two hundred miles of these deep slopes and narrow ridge tops which extend from East Tennessee northeast along the border line of Kentucky and Virginia, and on into West Virginia.  This comprises what we know as the Cumberland Empire, an empire with a romantic and important place in American history” (qtd. in Vanover 4).


Because Adams wanted to preserve the Appalachian culture, he began a company known as the Cumberlandcrafters, which housed a printing press, a library that focused on the history of the area, and a museum of the mountain people’s handiwork.  Adams and his wife, Dicy, had eight children, and four of their children “[did] all the typesetting, presswork and binding turned out by the small plant, in addition to aiding in the housework and other duties” (Vanover 6).  


Prior to Adams’ most noted accomplishments, however, he sold fruit trees, established a post office in Big Laurel (Wise County), owned a grocery store, sold insurance, and wrote news articles.  Adams also traveled as a nursery stock sales representative.  “This…job was more to my liking.  It gave me the opportunity to get around among people close to the soil, talk to them, and hear their stories of triumphs and failures.  In this job, I thought, I could study human nature; I could begin writing,” Adams told Vanover (qtd. in Vanover 8).   


Although reluctant, Adams “was forced by a run of bad luck to take up pick and shovel and go to work digging coal for about one year” because of lack of money (Vanover 10).  There were other times throughout Adams’ life when he “was forced” to work in the coal mines.  He compiled ballads based on coal mine disasters in a book titled Death in the Dark: A Collection of Factual Ballads of American Mine Disasters with Historical Notes (1941).  In the foreword, Adams states, “The miner’s home life was bad.  His working conditions were terrible” (15).  An opponent of poor working conditions, Adams fought along with other miners to improve conditions.  Many conditions were improved because of federal and state laws; however, he asserts in 1941 that  “the miner still finds only tragedy of which to sing” (18).      


Another area of interest for Adams was genealogy.  He published Adams Family Records (1929), which was a journal about any genealogical accounts of the Adams family, and Adams also helped other families with their own genealogical histories.  These papers were published by the Cumberlandcrafters (Vanover 12).  Several books published by the Cumberlandcrafters are still in existence today.   


Later in life, with his own printing press, Adams published several newspapers, but, according to Adams, only The Vagabond Gazette (1928-1930) and The Liberal (1929) succeeded; however, The Liberal “was too big a success” (qtd. in Vanover 12).  Adams goes on to say that over 300 subscriptions were requested at one time.  “I just couldn’t handle it and suspended publication after four issues,” he said (qtd. in Vanover 12).  


Adams worked hard to establish Big Laurel College, which eventually became part of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.  Adams died of cancer on September 3, 1954, which was the same year the university opened ("Scholarship").  Just before his death, Adams donated all of his personal library’s books to the college’s library ("Scholarship").  Beginning in 2006, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise will grant the James Taylor Adams Scholarship Award in Writing to “gifted English and journalism students” in honor of Adams ("Scholarship").   


Adams' contributions to Appalachia are innumerable.  Adams and his family never focused on money; instead, Adams said, "All we care about…is that our plans to have a big part in the future cultural advancement of this backwoods region succeed” (qtd. in Vanover 14).    



Adams, James Taylor. Death in the Dark: A Collection of Factual Ballads of American Mine Disasters With Historical Notes.  Big Laurel, Virginia: Adams-Mullins Press, 1941.


Perdue Jr., Charles L., Jr. "James Taylor Adams." Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Vol. 1. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.


Perdue Jr., Charles L., Jr., ed. Outwitting the Devil: Jack Tales from Wise County Virginia. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1987.


“Scholarship Established at UVa-Wise in Honor of Local Author, Folklorist James Taylor Adams.” The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. 24 Jul 2005.


Vanover, Frederic D. James Taylor Adams: A Brief Biography. Louisville: Dixieana Press, 1937.


More Links

Appalachian Folktales in Collections lists books by Adams.

Background Resources on Appalachian Folktales and Storytelling. See reference to Lindahl, Carl. "Introduction: Representing and Recovering the British- and Irish-American Märchen," which contains a picture of Dicy Adams.

Bibliography of Works by and About Richard Chase

Blue Ridge Institute of Ferrum College

See Index of Folktales, Stories, Plays, Poems and Songs in AppLit for copies of tales collected by Adams.

Wise County Historical Society web site: Historians page has photo, information on Adams, and poem by Adams.

For references to the Jack Tale Players' dramatizations of tales from the James Taylor Adams Collection, in adaptations by R. Rex Stephenson, see:

Ferrum Performers Keep Jack Tales Alive - article by Lana A. Whited and Tina L. Hanlon 

Strong Women in Appalachian Folktale Dramatizations by R. Rex Stephenson - article by Tina L. Hanlon

Introduction to "Mutsmag" by R. Rex Stephenson - background by Tina L. Hanlon


This page created 11/5/05. Last update: 6/2/10
Send questions or suggestions for this page to Tina L. Hanlon
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