'We could lose history.' Appalachian archives soaked in record Kentucky flooding

Bill Estep and Austin Horn, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Weather News

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A good bit of Appalachian history and arts got soaked in the record flooding in Eastern Kentucky.

In Whitesburg, water may have breached the vault at Appalshop, where the arts and media collective stored more than 20,000 items, including decades worth of film, oral histories, videotapes of musical performances, photo collections and other records.

Driven by rainfall of eight inches or more in places in just a few hours, the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Whitesburg swelled to more than six feet above the old record flood, inundating downtown.

“Some of the film from Appalshop was all through the streets and everything,” said Austin Caudill, 24, who lives downtown. “We could lose not just businesses but history.”

In neighboring Knott County, Troublesome Creek gushed out of its banks and flooded buildings at another institution that seeks to preserve and further traditional Appalachian culture, the Hindman Settlement School.

High water damaged the administrative offices, housing and classroom spaces, a historic cabin and the school’s archives, said the executive director of the school, Mike Anderson.

The archive collection included books, dulcimers, photos, old newspapers and handwritten journals from local residents recounting life in the mountainous coal county.

Staffers saved the musical instruments, but it’s likely some of the archival materials can’t be salvaged, Anderson said Saturday.

“I think that’s the biggest heartbreak of this whole thing,” Anderson said.

Water also reached a depth of more than three feet in Appalachian School of Luthiery near the settlement school in downtown Hindman, which trains people in substance-abuse recovery to make stringed instruments such as dulcimers.

Paul Williams, 65, who taught at the school, said when he stopped in on Thursday, the first day of the flood, he just looked around, cried and left.

“I couldn’t stand it,” he said.

He was back on Friday to look through the damage. His fiddle was still missing, but some friends’ fiddles were there, and he found a carved headstock for a mandolin he’d been working on.

A local man stopped in to mourn the loss of the trove of beautiful, handcrafted instruments, and asked about a guitar with a birdseye maple neck he’d had his eye on.

“It’s probably still here,” Williams said, pointing to a room with a mass of tangled wood. “I just don’t know what kind of condition it’s in.”

Next to the settlement school, flooding damaged the Troublesome Creek Stringed Instrument Co., including its factory, sand many valuable instruments, said Bill Weinberg, who in on the board.

The company employs more than a dozen people in making dulcimers, guitars and mandolins. The office manager set up a GoFundMe account for donations.

“I’m just astounded they got the damage they did,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

Appalshop was established in 1969 to train young people in film-making, improve the economy and provide a contrary narrative to negative stereotypes about the region.

It has evolved in more than 50 years to include a record label, a theater, a radio station, a solar project and community development work, but a key part of the mission remains to “document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia.”

The materials in its archives cover nearly a century of life and work in the region, according to Appalshop, including coal mining, labor strikes, religious practices, out-migration, farming, traditional folk arts, musicians, storytellers, politics, and environmental activism.

Dee Davis, who worked at Appalshop for 25 years and whose wife, filmmaker Mimi Pickering, works there, called the archive “precious cargo” in an NPR interview this week.

“That’s — those are the stories of miners and quilters and people who have built this place and learned the lessons the hard way,” said Davis, now president of Center for Rural Strategies. “And it’s really important information. And it’s a treasure.”

Caroline Rubens, director of the archive, said the vault was likely breached by water.

“It’s probably all wet up to a certain point,” she said.

One of her particular concerns was extra footage from published documentaries that didn’t make it into the final film.

“For every documentary that Appalshop made, there are hours and hours of footage that was shot. We have interviews with musicians, artisans, politicians; everyday local residents talking about what they care about or what makes them angry,” Rubens said. “They’ve got people talking about social justice issues, their love for this place and the region, how it can be painful to see themselves misrepresented – a lot of those voices are in there.”

Rubens said those voices can help change the narrative about an Appalachian culture that has often been misunderstood and badly portrayed. Preserving those items is what drew her to the profession and this place, she said.


She said the final cuts for many of Appalshop’s films have been backed up physically and are in storage, but much of the other material in the archive had not been preserved digitally.

A former Appalshop staffer offered to round up high-grade dehumidifiers to help salvage material. Ten were on the way, Rubens said Friday.

On Saturday, Meredith Scalos, spokeswoman for the organization, said staffers were still assessing the archive contents and wouldn’t likely know the extent of the damage for some time.

Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 to provide education in what was then an isolated spot in the mountains.

It was among a collection of settlement schools, mission schools and academies, some secular and some church-run, set up in Appalachia in the late 1800s and early 1900s to educate children at a time when public schools were scarce or hard to reach for many kids.

Improved roads and the spread of public education ultimately reduced the need for such places.

Hindman Settlement School stopped boarding students in 1980, but it and some others, including Pine Mountain Settlement School in nearby Harlan County, adapted with new programs.

Hindman Settlement School, for instance, provides dyslexia education for young people and hosts the celebrated Appalachian Writers’ Workshop.

It also has a writing program for high-school students; operates a literary imprint in partnership with the University Press of Kentucky to tell Appalachian stories by people in the region; and provides folk-arts education in schools and an after-school program to teach old-time music to young people.

The school overlooks Troublesome Creek, but is on higher ground and had never suffered significant flooding in its 120 history, said Anderson, the executive director.

“You just can’t imagine the water getting this high,” he said.

Water reached a depth of five feet in the office of the school.

The wife of an employee fell and broke her leg as as she and others tried to get to campus buildings on the hillside above the creek, Anderson said, and 12 cars owned by participants in the workshop were swept away.

Staffers Josh Mullins and Sarah Kate Morgan tried to save items, grabbing computers as the water rose quickly, but they didn’t have time to carry boxes of items out of the archives.

Four instruments got wet, but employees dried them. Anderson said it appears they will be OK.

The school sees its mission as serving the community, and it was doing that Saturday. Volunteers were handing out water and the school was providing housing and meals for 30 people whose homes were damaged or destroyed, with more expected, Anderson said.

As for the archives, it’s unlikely that decades worth of soggy newspapers can be saved, and the school may lose some historical books that can’t be replaced, Anderson said.

But Anderson, a photographer, said he believed photos from the archives can be cleaned and saved.

Materials from the archives were still in wet storage boxes on Saturday. That was on purpose; removing papers and photos could make them stick together as they started to dry.

Saturday, people were loading boxes of archival material to take to Eastern Tennessee University, which has a freezer to keep them in — to keep them from molding — and resources to help save them, Anderson said.

For materials that wouldn’t fit on the truck, the plan was to have volunteers familiar with saving flood-damaged records take them.

The state Department of Libraries and Archives had provided advice on putting documents in freezers to prevent them from molding and dry them, Anderson said.

Anderson said the soaked storage boxes will have to be broken apart to get materials out without damaging them.

Anderson said the school had flood insurance, but it’s not clear if it will cover all the losses. The school has set up a page for donations.

What’s not in doubt is that the school will clean up and get back in business, Anderson said.

“We haven’t lost the spirit and the desire to serve our community,” he said. “I think there is a love of this organization. I don’t think people will let it fade away.”

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