By Donna Daniels
In the city of Manchester in Clay County, Kentucky, a restored swinging bridge symbolizes a path to a future that honors the past. The bridge leads into downtown, and was named “Bridge to the Future” by a local grassroots downtown revitalization group called Stay in Clay in 2012. The bridge is just one of many projects that volunteers have undertaken during the past four years to revitalize a community that news media often represents as a place that is down and out.
In June 2014, an article in New York Times Magazine called Clay County the hardest place in America to live. Vanda Rice—one of the four women who founded Stay in Clay—recalled seeing the article. “That really brought us to our knees,” she said. “But then, we got over our pity party and decided we must be tough because we live in the hardest place, and we still have hope.”
“If you’re driven by passion, you might be taken back by a day or two, or even a week,” Rice explained. “We’ve about thrown our hands up and quit at times, but we have come to understand that people look to us to see that we aren’t quitting. And so we push on.”
The New York Times Magazine article served as fuel to fan a spark that was created when a group of women from Clay County attended the Brushy Fork Annual Institute at Berea College in September 2012. Amy Dunzweiler, Margy Miller, Tammy Pennington and Vanda Rice had met Dr. Vaughn Grisham. Grisham shared two concepts that hit home for Rice and the other group members: Start with one small project and do whatever is needed to make it happen, and use what already exists and build upon it.
“He also told us that if we didn’t do something, our community would die,” Rice explained. “It was a wakeup call.”
The swinging bridge in downtown Manchester was Stay in Clay’s first project, and it fulfilled a vision shared by Stay in Clay President Margy Miller, and incorporated Grisham’s advice to start small and build upon local assets. Rice recalled that the group started with no funding. Grisham made an initial donation of $250 as a challenge to the community.
“Two-hundred and fifty dollars is a lot of money when you have none,” Rice said.
The small donation created a ripple effect. Funds began to come in, and the group engaged the services of a master swinging bridge builder, who also happened to be a 70-year-old man from the county. Most importantly, local people stepped up with volunteer labor and other donations.
“People saw us working,” Rice said. “The visual aspect of the project was important, and so was the fact that community members put some of their own money into it.”
Rice said that finishing the first initial project in a community revitalization project is critical, and urged other communities to do everything they can to make it happen because carrying out a vision to fruition is so important to uplift a community. And sometimes, it has to be the community itself that carries out a project because they are the ones who care most about their place, and will see the project through to completion.
“People in the mountains have been told so many things – we are going to do this or get that – and they are very tired of hearing words,” Rice said. “They want to see results.”
The results are showing in Clay County. Some of them are readily traced to the “Bridge to the Future.” For example, the Kentucky legislature declared Clay County “The Land of Swinging Bridges” in 2015 because there exists more than a dozen of the structures in the county. Now visitors travel to the county to see and walk the historic bridges. But for local people, other results have stemmed from the rising tide of community engagement promoted through Stay in Clay.
“We chose the name Stay in Clay for a variety of reasons,” Rice said. “It means to come to Clay County and stay awhile, shop local if you possibly can, and most importantly, live and work here.”
The heart of this group’s work is creating opportunities for talented young people and others that will enable them to call the county home. The group has a vision of a community that the New York Times Magazine might call one of the best places in America to live.
Stay in Clay found inspiration for a major component of its work in a community that lies hundreds of miles to the south, in the cotton and peanut country of Georgia. When members of Stay in Clay met Joy Jinks of Colquitt, Georgia’s Swamp Gravy at the 2012 Brushy Fork Annual Institute, they recognized that they could learn a great deal from Colquitt’s experience. The small town had lost its primary source of employment as the cotton and peanut industries suffered downturns. People left the community for jobs elsewhere, and those who stayed began losing hope. Jinks began a local theater group as a way to honor culture and heritage and rebuild pride in the community, and she did so without the notion that the project eventually would spur a multi-million-dollar economy for the small town.
Members of Stay in Clay used a Flex-E-Grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Kentucky Department for Local Government to attend the Building Creative Communities Conference in Colquitt. Attending the conference led to the birth of Monkey Dumplins, Clay County’s story theater group. At the conference, the group members met Richard Geer of Community Performance International, who has provided guidance for the theater project.
“Once again, we started with using what we had,” Rice said. “We began gathering stories from our people, and we put them on stage.”
Monkey Dumplins has become a mainstay in Clay County, engaging people from all generations in community productions that explore history and culture. The group performs several productions each year and has become a well-respected story theater group throughout the region. Neighboring communities also ask the group to perform and teach them how to do story theater.
In September 2015, more than 50 cast members performed the initial staging of an outdoor drama called Salt of the Earth, written by local author Anne Shelby. Community members provide all the writing, set building, acting, music and other elements of the play, except for the choreography. People involved range in age from nine to more than sixty-years-old.
Salt of the Earth will be a regular feature at the annual Saltworks Appalachian Homecoming each Memorial Day weekend. The Saltworks festival is another Stay in Clay project that engages the entire community. The growing event features historical re-enactments in the county’s Pioneer Village, offers music performances, and includes vending booths for visitors. Funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Flex-E-Grant program supported community-based projects to plan and prepare the first event. The Saltworks Festival was in its third year and growing in 2016.
Volunteers built a primitive stage at the festival site, painted murals of historical county landmarks on downtown buildings, and decorated planters that depict the salt kettles that once were tools of the county’s early economy in preparation for the first festival. The murals were another visual project that caught the interest and imagination of the entire community.
“As a group of volunteers, we painted as many nights as we could,” Rice said. “We got a consultant to tell us how to do the mural, but she didn’t paint one stroke. Meanwhile, people began to bring their lawn chairs to sit and watch us paint. People brought us blackberry dumplings and then soup beans and cornbread. Finally, I handed some of them a paintbrush and told them, ‘I know you can paint that tree over there.’ And they did.”
Stay in Clay members engage in other projects throughout the year, including Friends of the River, Clean Up Manchester Day and “Pride of the Counties” at the Kentucky State Fair, where they took first place for county display in 2014. The group sees its work as a support to other endeavors in the county and actively seeks connections and ways to contribute.
One way this support has shown itself was when Stay in Clay helped others in the county with preparations that must be made in order to become a state designated Trail Town, including downtown beautification and cleanup, building trailheads, and creating signage for visitors. The support paid off when in 2015, Clay County became a Kentucky Trail Town.
Rice said the impact of Stay in Clay’s work in the community over the last four years is personified in the greater sense of community that people in the county feel.
“There is a positive feel in the Clay County air that I’ve never felt before,” she said. “Our people are beginning to realize that coal mining jobs will probably not return, but they also now see that we have natural resources that people in other part of the country might like to experience.”
The group’s impact is felt in other, more tangible ways as well. New businesses are opening in Manchester. Those business run the gamut—everything from local artisans selling their wares, an outfitter store that rents kayaks and bikes, new eateries specializing in local cuisine, to a farmer’s market. Local festivals provide venues for local vendors to sell and on the second Thursday night of every month, a Main Street Market is open at no charge to vendors.
“Our ultimate success would be for our people to be able to stay in these mountains and make a decent living, all the while not having to conform to what the world thinks we should be,” Rice said. “Success would allow us to be proud and embrace who we are and the talents, abilities and resilience that make us strong.”
Rice continued: “The economy of Appalachia needs to depend on the natural resources and people that make us unique. We shouldn’t seek to become a ‘general America’ but embrace what we have and use it for a springboard into the future, even if we reach out to people for guidance and training to help us. The key is to educate our people to use their talents to the fullest extent in the changing world market.”
The kind of education Vanda Rice advocates relates to building capacity in the community – those that allow people to take on projects that allow them to serve the community as they are building skills. Local capacity grows when people take part in the development of the places they call home.
“Our people are our workforce for community,” she said. “Places like Brushy Fork Institute, Promise Neighborhood, Community Performance International, Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation and others have walked beside us, empowering us, but it is up to the people to do the work.”
The biggest impact that Stay in Clay has spurred, Rice said, is to return hope to Manchester.
“We may live in an impoverished area,” she said. “But there is hope for tomorrow. Manchester did not have a vision up until now. Stay in Clay was just the spark that began a positive movement.”
The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development turns 40 this year. To help celebrate this milestone, the organization has taken a step back to reflect on the amount of just economic transition that’s taken place in the region over the past 40 years. They’ve been collecting stories, and have compiled them on a new website, “Stories from the Mountains.”
Renew Appalachia is proud to share some of those stories over the holiday months, as a way to spread the hope and joy that is present when the people of eastern Kentucky begin to rebuild their communities together, with an eye on the future.