TOP PHOTO: John Ward created the Appalachian Channel on YouTube and features old general stores and more as he travels around the Appalachian region.
By Charlotte Underwood
LAFOLLETTE, TN (WLAF) – LaFollette resident John Ward went from repairing iPhones to YouTube internet fame in just a little more than two years. He spends his days traveling all across the South East Appalachian region making videos highlighting everything from general stores from a by-gone era to mountain folk making sorghum and apple butter.
Ward said he tries to use his videos to show “the good sides of Appalachia” with various hidden gem locations such as old general stores, drug stores and more. In some ways, his Appalachian Channel on YouTube and Facebook has turned into a “traveling destination” channel.
He used to run his own iPhone repair business and now he runs around Appalachia making videos that hundreds of thousands of people across the world tune in and watch.
During the Pandemic, he started making videos in March of 2021, at first posting them on Facebook and finally expanding to YouTube with nearly 100,000 subscribers to his channel.
A general store that’s been in business since 1937.
Ward grew up in downtown LaFollette and graduated from Campbell County High School in 1985.
He said he always worked for himself and that he was also interested in doing videos for a long time.
He started making videos in 2010 and did other projects trying to find stuff people were interested in watching. He has done videos on abandoned buildings and historical pieces as well.
“I had done a story on a general store in Scott County, Hembree’s Grocery in Smoky Junction. I put it on my Facebook page in 2013 and got a lot of comments on it,” Ward said.
It took him years to get back around to it, but when he started a new project in 2021, he decided to do videos on things in Appalachia.
“I like to find things and places you don’t see much of; things disappearing in Appalachia,” John Ward said.
“I wanted to show good things here, not negatives,” Ward said.
Growing up in downtown LaFollette, Ward remembers the Five & Dime stores and drug stores. He also remembered the big chain stores putting “mom and pop places out of business.”
“I remember all the little stores and I remember when the mall came in, it changed the downtown, then fast food restaurants came and it changed even more. These old General stores resonate nostalgia in folks; it’s reminds them of places they would go to as a kid,” Ward said.
He built on that idea and began shooting videos of places and people that he thought others would find interesting. Locally he has done a segment on the Glade Springs area and how it got its name, as well as a segment on a barbershop in Jellico. He has also featured LaFollette’s own lady of fame, Frankie Bacon!
He has also done features on nearby Rugby, places in Dandridge, up the valley in Claiborne County, Cades Cove, as well as in other states.
“I like to find things and places you don’t see much of; things disappearing in Appalachia,” Ward said.
He has video documented “old-timey” methods of making apple butter and sorghum molasses, as well as a video on hog butchering.
Since he began his journey, he has shot and edited over 250 videos ranging from 30 minutes to an hour long.
He “kicked it all off with a video on the origin of Glade Springs at Old Doc Howard’s house.”
That video went viral.
“There’s actually a spring and that’s why the area is called that. There was an old slave house and the spring came into the bottom area of the outside kitchen,” Ward said. After this, he did videos about places up the valley, including features on three or four of the John Kincaid houses. Through this process, he wound up in Greasy Hollow in Claiborne County interviewing then 95 year old Rolph Robertson whose family had ran an old general store in the area for years.
“I made 35 videos of him, telling stories from when he was a kid,” Ward said.
He continued to travel and shoot videos and his followers and subscribers grew.
“It turned out to be like a traveling destination channel; places I’ve filmed, people see these old stores and want to come visit them,” Ward said.
He films places like the R.M Brooks store in Rugby or the Tinsley-Bible Drug store in Dandridge, Tennessee and his 89,000 YouTube subscribers and 139,000 Facebook followers love it! He’s been able to make enough money from ads to quit his business and start running his YouTube channel full time. In the last 18 months, his videos have had about 18 million views.
“It’s a job now. I have to sit and edit for hours and hours, but I love the filming part and meeting the people,” Ward said. He’s always looking for interesting Appalachian places to check out.
In his travels, he has been to multiple states in southeast Appalachia, as well as tons of locations here in Tennessee.
The furthest he traveled was about eight hours away to Lancaster Pennsylvania where he made some videos on the “world’s largest smorgasbord.”
He often returns to locations and does a series of videos.
When he went to Mount Airy in North Carolina, (the locale of Mayberry), Ward said he made about ten videos.
He has been to North Carolina three times this year. According to Ward, people love the Mount Airy videos.
“The video on the Snappy Lunch got 270,000 views. I also did one on Floyd’s Barbershop and got my hair cut,” Ward said.
His videos in general get anywhere from about 25,000 views and up.
The video he did on hog-butchering got 100,000 views in two days and did over 300,000 views total.
One of his most popular videos got 1.6 million views; it was on a Mennonite General Store.
Sometimes he tells his viewers where he’s going to be filming in advance and they often come to the filming location to meet him.
“I never intended for it to be a traveling destination channel, but people see these places they didn’t know still existed and they want to go see them. Sometimes the videos aren’t just about the locations, but the owners as well, and people want to come meet them,” Ward said.
He usually films at these locations more than one.
“If people like it, it gives me content and gives them free advertising,” Ward said. In February he did a “meet and greet” with viewers at R.M. Brooks Store and about 500 people showed up coming from 11 different states.
According to Ward, the key is “finding a good old building or store and an interesting person like Tiffany at R.M. Brooks.
“Then I do it in series and the viewers feel like they know these people,” Ward said. He does his videoing with an i-phone and a gimble and a wireless microphone and occasionally a drone.
He just finished filming the Gunthers, who have been making sorghum at Cades Cove for years. He has done multiple series on the Gunther family.
Some of his upcoming filming includes the Gunthers and will be done in Monteray, Tennessee. He will also be back to Dandridge in December to film Peggy at the drugstore who is “83 years old and plays Mrs. Claus in the parade.”
Overall, the past two plus years has been an “amazing journey” for John Ward as he’s explored hidden gems in Appalachia on the road in his RV and out and about locally in his vehicle.
“It’s been the best experience of my life. I’ve met some very interesting people and documented some very fascinating places. I never imagined that I could do what I do just by using an iPhone and YouTube,” Ward said. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 11/27/2023-6AM)