I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Coal Country in the last year and it is an area of the country that fascinates me. This region of Appalachia that stretches from far southeast Ohio down to the Carolinas and the very far north of Georgia is full of rich history and tradition. The mountains are majestic and the woods are full of game and recreation opportunities. Families that live there have often been there for generations and the whole area can sometimes seem frozen in time. Unfortunately, times are often tough in Appalachia. Poverty is rampant, which is doubly sad because poverty was usually what drove these families there to begin with. The opioid epidemic is taking a huge toll on the area, although the problem started when miners with genuine chronic pain got hooked on prescription pain pills. The years have taken their toll on buildings and houses and many are slowly dilapidating into the ground giving many areas a “ghost town” like feel, but if you look closely you can see that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time that these buildings were brand new and that these communities were thriving. As the coal seams have dried up and mining has become more mechanized, there hasn’t been much industry to take its place. Many people have just picked up and moved away while others are fighting to stay. These areas are remote and hard to get to, despite the transportation links which once brought millions of tons of coal to market. Many of these communities across the region are aging and struggling and some have all but given up the ghost. In Kentucky’s Coal Country though, there are rays of light as these communities are trying to rediscover themselves and reinvent themselves and move boldly towards the future. While I have loved visiting communities across the region, it is those in southeast Kentucky which seem to be pushing the hardest for new ideas and change. While this entire region is deeply religious and many communities have just leaned back and put their faith in God, Kentucky’s towns seem to know that God helps those who help themselves. I was impressed with a lot of the efforts I saw in my time there and wanted to share some of those today.
I listen to local radio stations as I drive, and always enjoy listening to local programming and news. Radio is important in these rural areas and I was impressed by many of the things I heard being advertised or reported on. “Morning Marketplace” is a common feature across rural America, and something I always enjoy listening to. These radio classified ads help people buy, sell and trade items around their houses with others in the area. People simply call in and tell the host what they have to sell or what they’re looking for and give their phone number so people can contact them. In addition, there were commercials playing offering classes in how to start working with Airbnb. These classes aimed to get people up and running quickly and with minimal investment to start making money from extra rooms and buildings. There was also an ad for a second deer hunting season which would use the resulting meat to feed families in need. Lastly, several ads were trying to offer help with addiction to drugs or cigarettes. Radio can reach almost everyone in this country, and it was great to hear rural Kentucky using it to help people in their communities and the communities as a whole move forward.
I do 90% of my work in public libraries, I’m actually writing this post in one today. Public libraries can really be the center of a community and offer so much more than just books. Public computers and free internet help many rural community members connect to the outside world. Good libraries are also offering many other services from help creating a resume to help with your taxes. There are printers, copiers and fax machines available. Of course they still offer books, magazines, newspapers, CDs and DVDs. Sitting in a rural library, you’d be fascinated by the number of different things people come in and ask for help with, and how well the librarians can and do help them. In almost any town of any size I was in in southeast Kentucky, there was an excellent public library.
Some of these communities are trying to make a real push to make tourism one of their industries, which is something I obviously applaud. I thought the Portal 31 Exhibition Mine in Lynch was an excellent attraction. We sat on a miner care and went down into an actual retired coal mine where animatronic characters told the history of Portal 31 and of mining in general. It was fun and educational and very reasonably priced. I know they had to (rightfully) go through a lot of safety procedures to get this project off the ground, but hopefully it will pay off for them in the long run. I sure learned a lot from it. In nearby Benham, the old schoolhouse has been turned into an inn, offering reasonably priced accommodation and meals in a cool historic setting. It’s hard to bring in tourism if there isn’t somewhere decent for people to stay and eat.
Literally right across the street from Portal 31 was the wonderful Lamp House Coffee Shop, a warm and welcoming place to get in out of the rain. This coffee shop is run by a group called Meridzo Ministires which seemed to me to be working hard to really help the region, providing anything from clothing and job training to spaying and neutering pets. They’re even growing shiitake mushrooms in the old miners’ bathhouse. They rely on volunteers, but also try and make money with their coffee house and Black Mountain Exchange, a gas station and convenience store down the road. My favorite aspect of this coffee shop was the ‘Pay it Forward’ board. You could pick someone to pay for a cup of coffee for, say a retired miner, a Vietnam vet or a school teacher, and if someone that fit that description saw the note, they could redeem it. What a wonderful idea! I haven’t done a whole lot of digging into Meridzo Ministries, but it sure seemed like they were doing some good things in the region.
I was also happy to find several State Parks in this part of Kentucky, something I was really disappointed to not find in West Virginia’s coal region. State Parks connect the region to a statewide network that will bring people in just to visit the park. They provide safe and comfortable access to hiking trails and other recreational activities and also bring more jobs to the area. I’m a big fan of State Parks, and definitely see the boost they can give poorer regions of a state.
I was also happy to see some of the programming that communities were working on in Southeast Kentucky. In Harlan, I sat in on a screening of several short films created by young women from the region about local access to reproductive health, birth control and sex education. These women, working with an organization called All Access EKY, were trying to call attention to the needs of their community and how hard it can be to get these services in conservative, religious, rural areas. Their films showed the struggles of LGBTQ teens in the area who spent as much time educating their doctors as their doctors did helping them. They talked about sitting in “abstinence only” sex education classes with their pregnant friends and how rural clinics and pharmacies may not offer more than one form of birth control These young women then led a fascinating discussion with their peers about where this all needed to happen (in school seemed to be the answer they agreed one, even over the protests of families and churches). I found the fact that young people in these communities were having these discussions and producing these videos to be encouraging and inspirational.
Right down the road from this screening, I went to an open-mic night at a local yoga studio. Appalachia has a musical tradition which stretches all the way back to the first settlers to the region. It was really great to find an event like this which could showcase local talent and give young people a supportive space to perform in. It was also a wholesome, healthy environment in a town that didn’t seem to have a lot to do after dark. These kinds of events really show me that people aren’t giving up on their towns, they are actively trying to involve the community in positive, fun events. I also liked some of the beautiful public art displays, murals and memorials I saw around. It doesn’t take much to make your town look presentable and lively, but it does take some work and effort.
I had a fascinating visit to Kentucky’s Coal Country and saw and learned a lot while I was there. I found nothing but good people there who, while they might be a little wary of strangers, warmed up quickly. Coal Country was a point of discussion around many a dinner table around the country during the last presidential election, but I’d venture to guess that few people have actually visited the region or talked with the people who live there. If you’re looking to learn more about it, but you’re not really sure about it, southeast Kentucky would be a good place to start as they are reasonably well set up to welcome tourism. And getting more-so by the day. I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.
I’ve included a few more photos from Coal Country below. I hope in all these photos you’ll see the beauty of the area. Some of them will look exactly like you might expect. Hopefully others will show a region moving forward with respect and nostalgia for the past, but knowledge that coal is not their only option.