One of the calls we frequently get here at the newspaper are related to archival copies of the previous papers to serve the communities we cover. While many of the bound volumes of the Grayson Journal, the Sandy Valley Enquirer, The Olive Hill Times, and other predecessor newspapers were salvaged and donated to the Highlands Museum in Ashland when CNHI closed the Journal-Times office in early 2020, a lot of those older volumes are simply lost to history.
This is especially true in Olive Hill, where many of the bound volumes that weren’t destroyed or lost outright in the 2010 flood suffered from water damage and mold.
Thankfully for us, we do have newspaper clippings and articles saved from these older papers in the scrapbooks collected by Jack Fultz. But these items, interesting as they are, aren’t the complete record. They don’t show us everything that was going on, or even everything that was in the paper. While they’re always important stories, and often have a deep connection to local history and lore, they aren’t necessarily helpful when it comes to genealogy research. Not in the same way obituaries and birth notices are, anyway. They don’t show that depth of personal and familial connection that some of these other items – important only to the families in question – might.
Things like a list of participants in a community band that includes your grandfather’s name. Or your great grandma winning a scholarship to the new normal school.
Things that might only be important to a few people, but also illustrate how those people were part of a larger community. A greater culture and community that we all belong to. A community of shared experiences and ideas and struggles.
This has been on our minds a lot as we watch the cleanup in Hindman, at the Settlement School, in Whitesburg at Appalshop, and elsewhere.
A lot has been lost. Valuable items of cultural heritage that are irreplaceable. But even among the chaos and the mud, there are folks cleaning and fumigating antique dulcimers from the Settlement School. Instruments that tell the story of the songs our forebears brought with them to gestate into bluegrass and country music.
Books are being dried out and preserved, so that future generations can read directly the annotations of those who laid the foundations they will build upon.
At Appalshop, folks are doing the same – salvaging audio recordings of songs, and oral stories of struggle and perseverance, and of triumph and tragedy.
They’re doing what they can to salvage what they can. Because it’s important to the children and the grandchildren of the people preserved on those tapes, to be sure. But it’s also important to all of us, and to anyone who wants to understand who we are as a people.
If you want to understand how and why we come together in times of tragedy like this, how we persevere when Nature herself throws her toughest at us, you need to look at how we respond today, sure. (And the way people have responded has been inspiring.) But you also need to look at how the labor movement brought people together to fight for safe conditions and fair pay – building on the same sort of family and kinship ties that have always defined our communities. You need to look at how we found common ground through shared music. Through shared food traditions. And how those things, and sharing them, allowed us to build new connections when we encountered new people, no matter where they came from.
This heritage is important.
So, while we’re making our donations, and thanking the volunteers working on cleanup, let’s remember the ones working on getting families back into homes, and hot meals in folks’ bellies, for sure. Those should be everyone’s first priorities.
But let’s also remember the folks fighting to save what they can of our cultural heritage. In the face of this devastation, and the still unquantified level of loss, the preservation of what can and has been salvaged is important.
Saving the reel-to-reel tapes and compact discs is important, and a good starting point. It isn’t enough, though. The contents of those audio and video recordings need to all be digitized when we can get around to it, for greater accessibility and to survive any future destruction of the physical record. The same can be said for rare books and other written content. Scanning and preserving those documents not only safeguard our records, they make them more accessible.
It’s a tedious and painstaking process. And it isn’t always cheap. But our people in eastern Kentucky have already lost their material goods in these floods. They undoubtedly will again in future natural disasters. They don’t need to lose their cultural heritage though. And we should let this be our wake up call to the importance of digitizing and preserving this legacy in as many places as possible.
So we know what it is that makes this a place worth coming together for. So we understand why we feel the need to help each other out. So we know where we came from, and can get a better understanding of where we are now, and where we’re going.