Floodwaters in eastern Kentucky were swift and unforgiving.
They killed at least 39 peopleand crumbling homes and businesses.
At Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, they smashed doors off their hinges, carried away cars like they weighed nothing, and threatened an important and extensive historical record of the area.
“I just wanted to cry, honestly, when I got here it was such a disaster,” executive director Will Anderson said of the state of the archive rooms after the water receded – she had been submerged in several feet of water.
The collection chronicles more than a century of Appalachian life in journals, letters, books, and photographs.
The Hindman Settlement School marked 120 years earlier this month. May Stone and Katherine Pettit created the school educate children from local isolated mountain communities. Over time, it has adjusted its programs to meet the needs of the community, whether it’s food insecurity or support for children with dyslexia. The school is also celebrated for preserving local arts and culture through its writing residencies, teaching of traditional arts and archives.
Recovery in progress
Anderson said they protected him from the threat of fire.
“A lot of our archives were in fireproof drawers,” he said. “In our history, the waters had never entered the building like this before, and so we had little reason to believe it would ever happen.”
After the floods, staff and volunteers quickly got to work saving what they could.
They pulled photos from old photo albums and hung them to dry on clotheslines.
“What’s been surprising is to find that the old photos from the 1920s are actually better than the newer ones,” said Melissa Helton, who manages the school’s community programs and has been involved in the recovery of the photographs. “The newer ones as soon as they get wet, the ink comes off.”
Anderson said some of the artifacts needed expert inspection and were sent to places like Eastern Tennessee State University and Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
Fabric pieces, such as quilts, are in the hands of someone who specializes in this type of preservation work, Helton added.
Until that happened, school staff needed to stop further damage.
“We just ran into Lowe’s and we bought five big chest freezers, you know, 18 cubic foot chest freezers, and we put what we could inside those chest freezers, and it sort of suspends them. sort in time,” Anderson said. .
A private Kentucky company also lent freezer space for archive items.
Some records had been scanned, Anderson said. He hopes they will be able to “substitute printed documents for digital copies to make our archives a rich source of research material for those who wish to learn more about this era and the people of this region”.
But, he added, it is still unclear how much will be lost for good.
“Proof of People’s Lives”
“One of the most valuable things about this type of archive is that it often negates the stereotypes that have been perpetuated,” said the novelist and essayist. Silas Housewho was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky, said.
TV, movies and other media rarely show Appalachia in a nuanced way, House said.
“So to have this accurate historical record on us so threatened is really devastating.”
House traveled to Hindman to help clean up the floods, which he spoke about in an essay for the magazine Garden and Gun.
He has his own history at the colony school, having attended and taught at the annual Appalachian Writers’ Workshopwhich helps regional artists to take ownership of their own stories.
Programs like this, House said, make the school a major contributor to the literary arts across the country, “and just about anyone in the writing world would tell you that.”
“If they hadn’t offered this program, I don’t think I would have ever figured out how to become a writer the way I did,” he said.
Rebuild what is lost or damaged
Director of Traditional Arts Education, Sarah Kate Morgan, typically spends her days teaching children about Appalachian music history, songwriting and square dancing.
“My role in the colony kind of shifted to housing people here on campus, and like, making sure they had transportation so they could go and apply for FEMA,” said she declared. “And so I’ve been very concerned about the humanitarian needs here.”
Morgan was unable to think of potential cultural losses.
“I haven’t felt that ping that strongly yet… But I know it will catch up with me,” she said. “I feel like if I slow down and think about it, I’m going to get too sad.”
She also thinks about the long recovery ahead and how art can play a role.
“Right now people need homes, and they need food, and they need money,” Morgan said. “Maybe they don’t necessarily need fiddle music or square dancing right now. But people are going to need healing in six months. »
Josh Mullins, senior director of program development and implementation, also sees art as part of the process.
He is reaching out to writers at this year’s workshop to document their stories – about 75 of them were on campus when the floods hit. They want the community and school staff to participate as well.
“I hope it’s a healing process to express yourself, and also just for the story… We’ve lost some of our archives, but we’re working to rebuild them,” he said.
Part of this reconstruction documents this chapter in Appalachian history.