The Cooter Controversy as Window into the New Class/Culture War

Cooter’s in the Country store in Sperryville

by James A. Bacon

Ben Jones, the former actor and Georgia congressman, has built a small retail empire around the character Cooter he played in the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series. In addition to his Cooter’s store in Rappahannock County, Va., he has opened stores in Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tenn. But Jones has to contend with a force more formidable and arbitrary than old Boss Hogg in his home town of Sperryville: zoning laws.

Jones has announced that the Cooter’s store in Sperryville will close because, according to a Wall Street Journal account, Rappahannock County “snobs,” many of whom are refugees from the Washington metropolitan area, won’t let his customers park behind the store, an area zoned agricultural.

“It has become a cause celebre for people who don’t like us,” Jones told the Journal. “They don’t like our store. They don’t like our people. They don’t like our flags. They don’t like our culture.”

Jones, whose politics can best be described as Southern blue dog Democrat, was born poor in Portsmouth, Va. He got his big break playing Cooter, a mechanic who helped the Duke boys and cousin Daisy outwit Hazzard County’s Boss Hogg. He parlayed his celebrity into two terms in Congress in Georgia, then, after losing to Newt Gingrich, he moved to Virginia and built a business on “Dukes of Hazzard” nostalgia. He dabbled in politics here, too, running unsuccessfully against former Congressman Eric Cantor. Tens of thousands of fans attend his show reunions every year.

The owner of the Sperryville land that Jones leases asked the planning commission to recommend rezoning the fields behind the store to allow parking and an eating area, according to the Journal’s account. A few neighbors objected, wondering what might come next. In July the commission urged the county to order Cooter’s to stop using the lot on the grounds that it was an unpermitted extension of a commercial use.

Parking outside Cooter's Place. Image source: RappNews.
Parking outside Cooter’s Place. Image source: RappNews.

Jones frames the issue as a culture clash between local elites who “stare down their noses” at other rednecks like him, and as an example of unresponsive and arrogant government.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find Jones’ argument highly plausible. Educated elites in this country do look down upon white, working class culture — especially that of Southern whites, who are widely considered to be Bible thumpers, gunhuggers and closet Klansmen. Just watch any edition of the Bill Maher show, and you’ll get the idea. Overlay upon that prejudice the Rappahannock zoning controversy in which the right of affluent landowners to live in an unspoiled environment trumps the right of Jones to grow a business and provide employment opportunities for locals. Cultural/economic elites protect their property values at the expense of income opportunities for the working class. (Don’t even get me started on the class implications of conservation easements in which big landowners unload their property tax liabilities while small landowners continue to pay the standard rate.)

I might not have paid this controversy any mind had I not had the strange experience of being solicited twice this summer, a month apart, by different crews of tree cutters claiming to live in Rappahannock County. Both truckloads of mostly white, working class men (one individual was a woman) had traveled three hours to suburban Richmond to cruise neighborhoods and look for gigs. While the Rappahannock County unemployment rate is supposedly around 4%, I’m willing to bet from my singular anecdotal experiences that the rate of under-employment is much higher. I’m also willing to bet that a lot of working poor would jump at the chance to earn a few extra bucks helping Jones run his Dukes of Hazzard extravaganzas.

While it is unlikely that the economic fortunes of working-class Rappahannock residents will rise or fall upon Jones’s ability to expand his Sperryville activities, the symbolic value of the controversy is momentous. The white, rural working class is the bedrock of Donald Trump’s electoral support. Is there any doubt why they feel like the system is stacked against them? Whether their highly flawed candidate wins or loses the 2016 presidential election, is there any doubt that  cultural snobbery and class conflict will persist?

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27 responses to “The Cooter Controversy as Window into the New Class/Culture War”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Why make Cooter an icon for what believe are poor or middle class southern whites. Covering them in confederate flags is insulting. What makes you believe the cartoon is real

    1. It’s hard to respond because I’m not sure what you mean. I think a couple of words are missing from your comment.

  2. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Local residents shouldn’t be allowed to govern themselves through zoning ordinances? If those “white working class” voters don’t care for the Board of Supervisors’ decision, can’t they vote them out?

    I’m never a fan of these articles. Any time any local gov’t actually votes against any “development” project, no matter how bogus it is , the denial is “class snobbery” or “anti-growth.” Which is complete fiction. Did the WSJ or this blog examine Rappahannock County’s Comprehensive Plan? Did either outlet examine the approval/disapproval or rezonings and special use permits granted or denied by the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors over the past ten years? What if the facts demonstrated that the BOS approved a majority of those applications in the past decade? Would denial of this project still be “class snobbery” and “anti-growth”?

    Would either outlet agree or disagree with this proposition: Residents opposing a rezoning or special use permit which is not in accord with the locality’s comprehensive plan are not “anti-growth” or “class snobs.” Are property owners and residents in the area supposed to just say, “Oh to hell with it, this may generate a few minimum wage jobs for the white working class. Screw the environment, viewshed, quietude, property values, comp plan, etc. for every single development project”?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I agree. This is nothing more that a faux dispute blown up by a publicity hound and the Wall Street Journal took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

      1. Reed, I’m dismayed — dismayed!! — that you of all people would feel this way. You have done more than anyone on this blog to expose how the land use/transportation system works.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Hey, man, it’s been a apple stand there for decades. Didn’t cause no trouble for nobody. And this guy is no Virginia Redneck, ain’t good enough. He’s a damn movie star trying to climb back up another soapbox stage.

    2. Cville, you are correct, there are legitimate reasons for having zoning controls and comprehensive plans. I’ll admit it, I wouldn’t want a trailer park opening up near my subdivision! What I am saying is that class tension is intrinsic to the way zoning works in practice. Whether in the inner city or the countryside, exclusive zoning protects the interests of the well-to-do over the interests of the poor. Moreover, would you deny that:

      – educated elites know better how to take advantage of the rules of government to advance their interests than do members of the working class?

      – educated elites are generally contemptuous of Southern white working class culture, and that they express their contempt freely in ways that they were never dare to express for working class blacks?

      1. Cville Resident Avatar
        Cville Resident

        A couple of thoughts:

        A.) Are educated elites contemptuous of Southern white working class culture? Well, I see agriculture celebrated in Albemarle County. The educated elites appear to love local farmers markets across the country. Is agriculture a part of Southern white working class culture? I’d say it is. Isn’t football part of Southern white working class culture? I’m not a football fan, but it appears that college-educated elites flock to college football games moreso than soccer or tennis or golf.

        B.) Anyone with the ability to read law or hire attorneys to do so generally do have an “advantage” in a rules based system.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          geeze CR – if you keep bringing up relevant zingers’re gonna rile up the “folks”..


    3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Well stated C’ville. Land use is regulated because what owner A does with his/her/its land generally has a significant impact on other landowners in the area. Indeed, I remember reading a newspaper article some years ago, where the illustrious developer Til Hazel was fighting rezoning of some land near his rural estate for townhouses.

      Like any other law or government plan, a zoning ordinance or comp plan can be unfairly restrictive. But by and large, they go through a long process before adoption – and those with the most input are usually affected landowners and developers. And, of course, one can always build to right.

    4. Hamilton Lombard Avatar
      Hamilton Lombard

      From reading the local paper’s description: I think many locals thought of Ben Jones as another “refugee” from the Washington DC area who was trying to open an eyesore in their community. Given his background in showbusiness and politics I think he probably has a good deal more in common with the “educated elite” than those poor tree trimmers from Rappahannock.

      1. Possibly… Next time I see one of those Rappahannock tree trimmers, I’ll ask them what they think of ol’ Cooter.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Isn’t that where James J Kilpatrick used to opine from on high in Scrabble, Va?

    and the current home of Conservative Freedom Party guy and Icon Richard Viguerie ?

    could be that Sperryville itself is infested with red-neck hating liberals though…. although the rest of Rappahannock County is red, red, red – politically.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Rappahannock County = God’s Country pure and simple.

    Sperryville south to Quiglersville west to Rapidan and back south to Madison, prettiest Valley in the whole damn state, most sublime mountain trout stream flying fishing west of the Rockies, hands down.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Thinkin’ more on it, I’m guessing now that’s EAST of the Rockies back in there.

      1. Cville Resident Avatar
        Cville Resident

        You are correct. That’s some of the prettiest area in the entire nation. I sure as heck don’t think denying a parking lot is a bad thing to preserve such a national treasure!

    2. Spent many an opening day of trout season stopping at Clark Brothers for license and stamp before hitting the Crigglersville / Syria area for some fishing. Got to cook off some ammo back at Clark Bros on the way home just to complete the day. Can’t remember Crigglersville being spelled with a “Q” though.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        You are right, most likely it never was spelled “Quiglersville. ” But sometimes my memory fails.

        As for the Upper Rapidan, if there is a more perfect mountain trout stream in Virginia, or most anywhere I’ve been for that matter, I’ve never found it. Much the same can also be said about much else that one finds in Rappahannock County. If people were allowed to trash up that special place like people have done to far too many other places, it would be a tragedy for us all.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Rappahannock County is very, very nice but there are quite a few more remote, just as beautiful – perhaps more so – in Western Va, and parts of Eastern Wva for those willing to go a little further off road with hiking boots or canoe…


  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I’m game both ways, four ways to Sunday!

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Prepare to Meet thy God Rapid

    on the Thornton River near Sperryville

  8. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Reed,

    If you got some tar, I got the feathers, and we kin load that Bacon fella up n’ run ‘im outta Rappahannock! Send ‘im back to Hen-ryco and his “whine” & cheese liber-tariuns. Long live conservation easements! ;-))<

    By the way, here is the link to the Crazy Like a Fox trailer set in Loudoun.


    Andrew of Pave-topia (formerly Fairfax County)

  9. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    My God, Andrew, I’m with you. And that trailer you said watch, damn if it ain’t Charles Bon at Sutpen’s Hundred up there on the Little Devil’s Staircase yellin’ about them easements above Cooters there in Rappahannock County Virginia – and for Old Bacon now, its Gonna be Hell to Pay soon, I’ll tell you that.

  10. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Jim, I dropped “who” cannot finger pick my Uphone. I mean IPhone

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I think maybe those water nymphs done gone to most everybody’s head, most particularly Peter’s Head.

  11. DLunsford Avatar

    I go through Sperryville quite often on my way up to Old Rag and have had the chance to stop at Cooter’s a couple of times. Ben is a genuinely nice person and I’m sure he will be able to find another location in due time. This is all to do about nothing (except maybe for the local transplant’s aversion to the Confederate flag or the crowds that gather there on days when he holds court on the back deck). Sperryville died long ago when the original emporium in the old school house closed down. The only thing of any significance other than Cooter’s Place is the Copper Fox Distillery (some mighty fine rye coming out of there). As far as zoning issues, take note of the tiny golf course someone stuck in the highway median just as you enter town. How retarded is that?

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