Joan Vannorsdall with the books her committee has produced. Photo by Grace Mamon.

CLIFTON FORGE — Big cities naturally get more attention than small towns. But small-town stories are worth telling too, Joan Vannorsdall believes. 

Vannorsdall, a Clifton Forge resident, was energized to document stories in the Alleghany Highlands after reading the “Humans of New York” book of street portraits and interviews. 

“I said, we’re going to do a book just like this,” she said. “But it’s going to be ‘Humans of Clifton Forge.’”

Instead, the project, which began in 2016, is called What’s Your Story? The goal is to preserve a snippet of life in Clifton Forge, where Vannorsdall lived in the 1980s and then returned after her retirement. 

She also wanted to document stories to help residents get in touch with the identity of the town, she said.

Clifton Forge was a booming railroad town and a major hub for maintenance on the C&O Railroad. But when the industry declined, the town was left pondering its identity, Vannorsdall said. 

“Who are we now, that’s what I was hoping to discover,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any better vehicle than a story to find that out. We can do economic analyses, or we can do heavy duty cultural studies. But if you sit down and listen to someone tell a story, you’ll learn a lot.” 

The project’s story gatherers are members of a committee formed by Vannorsdall. And though Vannorsdall is a member of the Alleghany County Board of Supervisors, this is a non-government project. 

Story gatherers conduct interviews and write stories on a volunteer basis, while the photographer, book designer and printer are paid. The books are a break-even production, Vannorsdall said. 

What’s Your Story? has produced four books since 2016, each about a different part of the community. 

Book topics include the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, the Green Pastures recreation area and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, which recently announced that it will change its name. 

“Each book has been different, and each has provided different support for this community,” Vannorsdall said. “It’s celebrated some very different people who sure deserve to be celebrated.”

A display promoting the “What’s Your Story” project. Photo by Grace Mamon.

The stories are paired with portraits of the storytellers, taken by the project’s photographer, Chuck Almarez. 

“You can see where the story is coming from,” Almarez said. “It just makes it a lot more personal, when you actually see the source of the story.”

Alleghany residents are often thrilled to share their stories for the project, Vannorsdall said. But the upcoming book, focused on COVID-19, has been a different experience. 

“In the past, we’ve had people lined up to tell stories,” Vannorsdall said. “With this one, there’s been a lot of hesitation.”

She understands their emotions: Vannorsdall lost both of her parents to COVID-19 last year and was unable to attend their funerals. 

Still, the committee has collected tales from first responders, healthcare workers, business and restaurant owners, and schoolteachers. 

“How much I would’ve paid to have a bunch of stories like this to read about the 1918 flu pandemic and how people managed to get through it,” Vannorsdall said. 

The committee, which had eight people before the pandemic, has dwindled to two story gatherers for this book. They have been collecting stories since June of this year. 

Gayle Hillert, who has worked on all the other projects, is still gathering stories with Vannorsdall for the COVID-19 book, though she said she wasn’t sold on the idea at first. 

But after she spoke with the owners of Jack Mason’s Tavern, a local restaurant, Hillert changed her mind.  

“I was hooked,” she said. “They convinced me that this story needed to be told. And the history of this tiny little community trying to survive the pandemic, that needed to be told, too.”

Hillert is also president of the board at the Historic Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge, which was built in 1906. The theater became the first subject of a What’s Your Story book after its reopening in 2016. 

The Historic Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge. Photo by Grace Mamon.

Hillert said her involvement with the theater helped her find the right people to interview.

“You can go online and read the history of the Alleghany Highlands or the Historic Masonic Theatre,” she said. “And it’s a very interesting history. But these are the personal stories.”

Clifton Forge residents, aged 11 to 98, are featured in the book about the theater.  

Some remember going to see movies as children in the 1940s. Others recounted having to use a separate entrance, exit and seating area as Black theatergoers during the segregation era. 

Eight of the storytellers in that book have since passed away, Vannorsdall said. 

“This is such a gift to [their] families, and to public history,” she said. 

And collecting these stories can have a tangible impact. 

The 2018 Green Pastures book brought statewide attention to the fact that the historically Black recreation area had fallen into disrepair. Gov. Ralph Northam and other state officials attended a reopening ceremony Oct. 1. 

The state government bought around 30 copies of the book and distributed it to the officials who attended the ceremony, Vannorsdall said. 

Where to get the books

Books can be purchased at the Historic Masonic Theatre. They can also be ordered online at the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center online shop, where they cost $20 (Shop Online – Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center | Clifton Forge, Va.) or through the What’s Your Story? site.

“That’s when I began to realize this has big impact,” she said. “To tell the story of a place that’s been basically forgotten, and then have people sit up and say it needs to be restored, it just made me think we were right.”

But she’s less sure about the aftermath of the COVID-19 book. The book will be important historically, she said, but whether people want to read about it today, she’s not sure. 

“Here’s the problem,” Vannorsdall said. “How do you tell a story before the story is done?”

Hillert and Almarez agree. 

“There’s a start, but there’s no finish,” Almarez said. “It’s kind of like a time capsule. You put stuff in, and you don’t know what’s going to have an impact when the years go by.”

Still, Vannorsdall envisions it as What’s Your Story’s magnum opus. 

“I don’t say that with joy, I say it with determination,” she said. “This is a book propelled by grit.

Grace Mamon is a senior journalism and English student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington,...