"Branchheads" is a political term that was employed in Alabama and North Carolina to refer to working people, especially poor farmers, and the areas in which they lived: isolated, rural, or largely undeveloped areas. Alabamian James E. "Big Jim" Folsom Sr. built his support around such people during his run for governor in 1946. The expression, however, has its origins in geographic descriptions. Usage of the term "branchhead" seems to have first appeared in Alabama and North Carolina populist politics in the mid-1940s. In Alabama, Folsom used it in his 1947 gubernatorial inaugural speech: "I believe in the kind of democracy that touches the home of the average man. The kind of democracy that goes back to the branchheads and the bush arbor gathering places." (A bush arbor refers to an arch over which a vine or bush could grow. Such structures served the purpose of a church sanctuary in rural areas that initially lacked the financial resources to construct a sanctuary.) In North Carolina, the term carried the same meaning regarding the rural and poor. It was usually associated with populist William Kerr Scott, who served as governor from 1949‑1953 and as U.S. senator from 1954‑1958. His supporters in fact were known as "Branchhead Boys" and were depicted by some journalists as "farmers living upstream of the state's river systems." Some historians described them as "farmers isolated by unpaved roads and a lack of telephone service."
For Folsom, the branchheads were more than a rhetorical flourish in speeches; they were the very foundation of his successful
and innovative 1946 gubernatorial campaign. Folsom began his campaign in January in small towns primarily in north Alabama.
With the general election being held at that time in May, most politicians and their advisors believed that starting to campaign
so early was a waste of resources because most people who heard a speech in January would have long forgotten it by election
day. Folsom's strategy was to provide a first‑rate string band and an entertaining speech to people with few sources of entertainment
and little to do in the early weeks of the year before the growing season began. His populist view of politics combined with
his anti‑Big Mule rhetoric and populist political platform had a natural appeal to small-farm, small-town audiences. Probably few who witnessed
Folsom's show forgot it. Therefore, he built support among the branchheads months before his opponents even began their public
campaigns and prevailed in the election.
The term appears alternately as "branchhead," "branch head," or "branch‑head." Its origins can be found in the terminology used by hydrologists and biologists. Geographer George Davis McJimsey, in his survey of the use of topographic terms in Virginia, observed that in Virginia the low lands were often identified with the tributaries (also known as a branches) that ran through them. Similarly, settlements and people identified with these locations were known as branchheads. He traces this usage to a 1670 source in which the phrase was spelled "branch hed." An undated Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station report concerning a raccoon reads: "her activities were confined to the margins of several small creeks and branchheads. With one exception, all daytime (resting) locations were in one of three small branchhead areas." U.S. Department of Agriculture forester Thomas C. Nelson, in his 1957 description of forests in the Georgia Piedmont, refers to trees "found upon second‑bottom and branch‑head sites. . . " The term fell out of use in Alabama after Folsom's 1946 gubernatorial campaign. In North Carolina the Branchhead Boys remained important for roughly 10 years after William Kerr Scott's death in 1958. In current political terminology and even when it was used by Folsom and Kerr branchheads is (and was) synonymous with the phrase "grass roots." Folsom and perhaps Kerr preferred a term that could be connected in people's minds to them. Branchheads was one of many terms and symbols that Folsom used to dramatize his basic message of being a champion of the common person. More recently, the term has gained popularity among computer programmers, because all computer programs of any complexity have branches and those branches have a point of origin.
Twitty, W. Bradley (1962). Y'All Come. Nashville, Tenn.: Hermitage Press.
Auburn University at Montgomery
Published August 12, 2008
Last updated January 21, 2010