The raging floodwaters that killed or went missing dozens of people in eastern Kentucky also washed away some of the region’s irreplaceable history.
Appalshop, a cultural center known for documenting Appalachian life for the rest of the world, is cleaning up and assessing its losses, as is much of the surrounding mountain region.
The North Fork of the Kentucky River flooded downtown Whitesburg in southeastern Kentucky last week, causing extensive damage to the renowned repository of Appalachian history and culture. Floodwaters soaked or swept away some of Appalshop’s treasures, including archives documenting the region’s rich, and sometimes painful, history.
“It’s heartbreaking to see our beloved building destroyed by floodwaters,” Appalshop executive director Alex Gibson said. “We will recover, but for the time being, we are mourning what has been lost.”
Appalshop, which was founded more than a half-century ago as a training ground for aspiring filmmakers, has evolved into a multifaceted enterprise with a mission to uplift the region. It also has a radio station, a theater, an art gallery, a record label, and a community development program in addition to its film institute.
Appalshop’s attention has shifted inward. The center known for training storytellers has become embroiled in one of the region’s biggest stories, with floodwaters covering large swaths of the mountainous region, resulting in deaths and widespread destruction.
Appalshop is insured, and its team is still assessing the full scope of what has been lost and what can be salvaged, according to Meredith Scalos, the company’s communications director.
The rapidly rising water flooded the first floor of its main building. When cleanup crews arrived, they discovered a thick layer of mud. Scalos stated that the radio station and theater were severely damaged. The archives were also damaged. The top two floors were unharmed. Another Appalshop structure was also severely damaged.
The first priority, according to Scalos, was to clean up and assess the archives, which contained tens of thousands of items documenting various aspects of Appalachian life over the decades.
Scalos expressed concern about the loss of one-of-a-kind items that tell the story of the region.
Film, photos, oral histories, musical performances, magazines, and other materials are among the archival materials. Topics covered included coal mining, labor strife, politics, religion, folk art, and population trends. Some of the debris was swept into Whitesburg’s streets.
Scalos stated that Appalshop officials are in contact with federal emergency officials to determine the availability of assistance. Appalshop is supported by a variety of sources, including large foundations and individuals. Its businesses have expanded over time, but its mission has remained consistent: to promote Appalachian traditions and the creativity of its residents.
For decades, the Center for Rural Strategies, which has an office in Whitesburg, has been at the forefront of efforts to reshape the region’s image by highlighting the richness of its history and culture and giving Appalachians a voice to share their stories, according to Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.
“Over time, Appalshop’s films, plays, and recordings did a lot to expose the hollowness of hillbilly stereotypes,” said Davis, a former Appalshop employee.
“We may be hillbillies, but you’re no better than us,” he said of his time at Appalshop. “And that came through in our work.”
Meanwhile, the flood has put a halt to the center’s busy schedule. Scalos said the Summer Documentary Institute film screening, which was supposed to showcase the work of its interns, had been postponed indefinitely.
“That event is the culmination of the youth interns’ summer of work in which they show their documentaries to friends, family, and the community before submitting the films to film festivals,” Scalos explained. “That one is especially heartbreaking.”
Appalshop had begun planning its fall film screening schedule, but it has also been postponed.
Despite its own crisis, Appalshop has not lost sight of its mission. Recognizing the historic nature of what has occurred in recent days, the center is attempting to document the flooding for future generations.
“We are documenting as much as we can,” Scalos said. “Of course, some of our equipment was lost and is not recoverable. In the day and age of the smartphone, it’s a lot easier, of course. We’ll be looking at ways to pull the stories together, for sure.”