Kentucky floods took Appalachia’s history with them

Appalshop has been a cornerstone of Whitesburg, Ky., since 1969, working to tell Appalachian stories through art, film, music and more with a focus on their voices. Its theater is usually buzzing with actors portraying the region’s experiences; the community radio broadcasts music and local news; and its rich archives provide an immense repository of central Appalachian history.

But on Wednesday, as Alex Gibson, the organization’s executive director, stood inside the building that has housed the Appalshop for four decades, all he could see was mud.

Water damage covered the walls of the radio station. Every chair in the newly renovated 150-seat theater was covered in mud. Filing cabinets, tables, CDs and loose film strips were tangled. And perhaps worst of all, much of the contents of the Appalshop Archive was covered in mud and debris after devastating flooding in the area last week left the building submerged in water.

Mr Gibson said he was most struck by the ‘blind nature with which water destroys things’.

“I see things that shouldn’t be together,” Mr. Gibson said. “There’s a banjo built by a master banjo maker covered in mud next to one of our first LP releases in 1970.”

He added: “We used to have an organized archive.”

Flooding killed more than three dozen people in eastern Kentucky and displaced hundreds more. Many are still without electricity. Even amid the loss of life and property, members of the Appalachian community were also mourning the loss of the region’s cultural heritage.

“We’re going to do our best to salvage whatever we can salvage,” Mr Gibson said. “It’s obviously emotionally devastating to see such precious materials just sitting in water and whatever chemical combination is on my boots right now.”

Mr. Gibson and about 50 volunteers are working against the clock to recover what Appalshop estimates to be hundreds of thousands of archival pieces in all media: film, photography, crafts, woodworking, musical instruments, magazines, diaries, posters and personal family archives. which were donated to the group – all illustrating life in Appalachia.

Water tore through the first floor of the Appalshop building, which it has occupied since 1982. This included the radio station, theatre, air-conditioned vault for the archives and some gallery spaces used for exhibitions of art.

When Appalshop was first notified of a possible flood last week, the priority was to ensure staff were safe. Then they stepped up to use their resources – social media, their website, and the radio station – to deliver information to the Whitesburg community.

Now, the organization’s top priority is to ensure that records are recovered quickly, before mold sets in. It’s still too early to tell how many items are salvageable, damaged, or destroyed, but the rescue was aided by visits from archivists from nearby colleges and universities in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and the greater area. of Appalachia.

One piece that is likely missing is “Sun Quilt”, a stained glass sculpture by local artist, Dan Neil Barnes, made up of five interlocking squares that mimic the quilts common in the area. It stood outside the Appalshop building and was a popular gathering place for visitors.

“It was a particular pain,” said Meredith Scalos, Appalshop’s communications director. “It has become an emblematic piece of the building. We don’t know if there are pieces of it, but it was glass, so probably not.

Ms Scalos said Appalshop has a history of documenting flooding and climate change, and she can “see a future where we also tell that story”.

In the aftermath of the floods, Appalshop wants to put the community first, Ms. Scalos said, and has raised tens of thousands of dollars for various self-help groups. The outpouring of support from archivists and volunteers is a true mark of the mountain community, she added. She said there was a similar sense of camaraderie after tornadoes killed 74 people in the area in December.

“Kentuckians come to each other, we do,” she said.

Ms. Scalos, who grew up in rural Kentucky, said she joined the organization in part to “reconnect with my own heritage.” “Appalshop has always been more of an idea to make people feel like it’s okay to be proud to be Appalachian,” she added.

But the building itself has become a central part of the work the group does throughout the community, hosting art previews, concerts and regular radio shows. Appalshop began as a film workshop in 1969, but has expanded to include photography and literary programs, a theater company, a recording studio and a community organizer, all centered on the mission to document and celebrate the Appalachian culture. Appalshop had just finished its annual summer documentary program for young people and was due to show its films the week of the floods.

Steve Ruth, a volunteer DJ on WMMT 88.7 FM, the Appalshop community radio station, was looking forward to hosting a bluegrass event on July 28, but Floodwaters had other ideas.

“Walking into the radio broadcast room and seeing the situation will bring you to your knees,” he said. “There was about five feet of water in that space, I’m sure it looked like an aquarium at one point.”

Mr Ruth said the Whitesburg community was in shock but was “rising to the challenge”. He and Appalshop hope to have the radio station back up and running soon in a temporary location in town.

“It’s a place where people interested in the history of the mountain and the history of the region have come together,” he said. “It’s a place that’s just no small thing for a small group, people from all walks of life can come in and feel good and safe.”

While a full recovery of Appalshop may take months and the fate of many of the building’s contents remains unknown, a sign of hope has brought Mr. Gibson, the center’s manager, some joy: despite flood waters over 20 feet, a young apple tree was left standing with about 30 apples tied up.

“This tree was clearly totally submerged in the rapids, and it still has so many apples and leaves on it,” he said. “I didn’t know an apple was so hard to pick.”

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