ATVs lined up in downtown St. Paul. Photo by Sarah Wade.

I bought James and Deborah Fallows’ 413-page book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America with great anticipation.  It was intriguing, that title:  the suggestion of adventure (the Journey); the essentials (the Heart); and community (our Towns).  

But here’s the thing:  only a few of the places the Fallows visited from 2013-2016 were bona fide towns…small municipalities, where people pretty much know one another and have to rely on a small number of doers to make things happen.  The rest were sizable cities, places like Louisville, Kentucky and San Bernardino, California and Birmingham, Alabama — some with populations approaching 1,000,000.

Borrowing their title from Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town was smart of the authors.  But as a resident of a truly small mountain town in western Virginia — Clifton Forge — I found many of the stories the Fallows told in their book were pretty distant from my reality.

What might I learn, I wondered, if I spent a few years visiting small Appalachian towns, spending time with the movers and shakers and makers and doers?  What if I walked their streets, met their leaders and elected officials, learned their histories and listened to their stories?

In short — what if I visited and wrote about our towns?  The mountain towns of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky and northern Georgia?   Most of them struggling in the wake of coal and textiles and tobacco abandonment and with declining and aging populations?

And Blue Ridge Country magazine’s “Our Blue Ridge Towns” column was born.  With the support of the magazine’s longtime editor, Kurt Rheinheimer, I hit the road to discover the truth about what it means to live in a small–really small—mountain town these days, and how many of our towns are making things work in new and creative ways.   

After visiting 21 towns over the past three years (a few of them, during peak COVID times, virtually), I’ve come to understand a few things about what it takes for small mountain towns to stabilize, look forward, root deep, and thrive.  

So here’s a list of ten common traits of mountain towns on the move—the ones finding creative possibility and stability in making things happen.  There’s a lot we can learn from their examples.

First, nearly all the towns know their story, and tell it well.   This is quite literally true in Jonesborough, Tennessee, “Storytelling Capital of the World.”  The town hosts a longstanding Storytelling Festival each October—2018’s festival drew 10,000 visitors to Jonesborough, each of whom spent $800.  And storytelling is everywhere in Jonesboro—at their Senior Center, the Jackson Theatre, the International Storytelling Center.  Story is Jonesborough, and Jonesborough is story.

Other towns tell their stories through historic markers, state-of-the-art museums, building and street art, and walking trails.  Toccoa, Georgia (home to the only WW II training camp for paratroopers and made famous by the HBO series Band of Brothers based on Stephen Ambrose’s book) tells its unique story in the Currahee Military Museum, which draws many visitors from all over the country as well as Europe due to American paratrooper presence there.  (It doesn’t hurt that the Amtrak Crescent stops twice a day in Toccoa, and that the museum is located in the station.)  The town also has a number of well-known and celebrated natives.  Olympic gold medalist, “Dixie Derrick” Paul Anderson has his own park, initiated by a group of fourth-grade students.  And blues singer (“Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”) Ida Wells is celebrated every summer in a free concert series.

Many of the small towns have fine historic museums that tell their stories.  Hinton, West Virginia’s Railroad Museum is two stories of rail history, drawing thousands of train buffs annually. Prestonsburg, Kentucky has the Mountain Arts Center (MAC), with the Ranier Auto Racing Museum and an extensive Coal Miners exhibit in the lobby.  (MAC is clear about its many virtues — it has the largest stage of any venue east of the Mississippi, is home to the Kentucky Opry, and isn’t shy about touting its major-league concerts and recording studio.)

Waynesboro. Courtesy of Waynesboro Tourism Department.

Street art and well-laid-out walking trails are pretty much a given in the towns I’ve visited.  Two that stand out are Greeneville, Tennessee and Waynesboro,Virginia. You could easily spend a full day walking Greeneville’s downtown; it has the most impressive series of street art I’ve seen, inviting visitors to follow the well-marked art trails around downtown to uncover its people, history, and quilts.  (A side note: They’re also in the process of improving infrastructure as they bring in new businesses to several downtown streets.)  Waynesboro has a number of historic trails for visitors to follow: the South River Water Trail (yes, you do it in a kayak or canoe); the Tree Streets Trail; the Historic District walking tour, and a Street Arts Trail.

Part of the charm of walking a mountain town is seeing it as it used to be in its historic heyday. So it appears that the restoration of downtowns is part of our towns’ strategy to move forward with increased visitors and sales:  

–Jonesborough, Tennessee formed a Civic Trust that put all utilities underground and relaid its brick sidewalks.

— Toccoa, Georgia had its downtown “modernized” (i.e. turned into a concrete covered pedestrian mall) in the 1960s urban renewal movement.  It’s now been restored to its original and accessible self and is home to 80 small businesses).

–Walhalla, South Carolina has welcomed back native daughters and sons, several of whom are renovating historic downtown buildings.  In one, returned native Lana Justice found an original Bull Durham tobacco mural painted by New York City’s O.J. Gude, “The Patriarch of Outdoor Signage.”   Its restoration now covers an entire brick wall inside her newly opened event center, in itself worth a visit.

–The entire town of Rugby, Tennessee was successfully placed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1972 (by a seventeen-year-old high school student!)   The result?  A living museum, faithful to its Utopian community beginnings.  (Even nearby housing developments have Victorian architectural mandates.)

Welch, West Virginia’s story has a lot of chapters—one of which is told in a longstanding local drama  by renown West Virginia playwright Jeanne Battlo.   Based on the West Virginia Mine Wars murder of Sheriff Sid Hatfield and Deputy Ed Chambers on the McDowell County Courthouse steps, Terror of the Tug is a fine example of what more mountain towns could do:  bring their story to the stage. 

Which could, in many towns, be a fine example of what I call spinning straw into gold—the hard chapters of mountain town history being rewritten  to become a source of heritage tourism revenue.

Spinning straw into gold is uniquely apparent in Sylva/Dillsboro, North Carolina, where an unlined, 13-acre landfill producing a vast amount of methane gas has been turned into a Green Energy Park.  Glassblowers, metalworkers, blacksmiths and ceramic artists use the methane to heat their kilns and forges—located in the nearby former trash transfer station—and classes and tours and studio spaces are all part of the draw.

Outside of Prestonsburg, Kentucky, a former mountaintop removal area is now home to StoneCrest: 1200 acres of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, an equestrian center, an 18-hole golf course, and an area of houses with stunning views of the surrounding mountains.   (It doesn’t hurt that StoneCrest is within the city limits, and contributes significantly to the tax base— something to which small mountain towns would do well to pay close attention.)

Kentucky’s “Bloody Harlan” —f amous for its violent mine wars in the 1930s — has found memorable ways to reground.  The nearby mine tours and museums are part of that — but what may speak louder now is their intentional support of one another.  There are blessing boxes on street corners (“Take what you need, leave what you can”).  And during the internationally publicized Blackjewel miners’ protest, the city of Harlan stood behind its people with donations and assistance with unemployment applications.  It’s a brave and creative thing to remake a long history of mine violence and exploitation into signs of forgiveness and community strength.  I’d go again just to feel that, in these days of divided alienation.

It’s in Harlan that I also encountered something that seems a requirement for mountain towns on the move: young natives coming home to take leadership roles and make their voices heard.   Harlan, Kentucky leaders Brandon Pennington and Laura Adkisson are both children of coal miners who returned to Harlan to be part of its reshaping.  “What we may see,” Adkisson says, “is a move back to what we were before—self-reliant.”  Pennington put it this way:  “We’ve faced poverty, mining disasters, and hard times.  In the end, what you’re left with is your people.”

Strong, young voices resonated in nearly every town I’ve visited.  Whitesburg, Ketucky native Angie Hatton has served in the Kentucky House of Representatives since 2017.  In Murphy, NC, a Young Adult Roundtable makes presentations to the Downtown Business Association and Town Council.  Brevard, NC native Sara Jerome came home as her town’s community engagement manager, working through COVID to find creative ways to keep events happening and growing their organization’s online presence.

Prestonsburg’s Executive Director of Marketing, Samantha West, comes from a family of miners.  “If someone had told me that I could come home and make a living here, I’d have said, ‘Whaaaat??’” West is realistic about her town’s future.  “When you strip away coal, you’re left with what you have. For us, it’s our mountains and rivers, our history and entertainment.  It’s a process of re-imagining what can be.  How can we take empty downtown spaces and make them new?”  

Most of Prestonsburg’s new downtown businesses have been opened by creatives.  “We think about our roots, our culture—who we are—and how we can use our strengths going forward. We have always been makers and creators in these mountains,” says West.

In fact, makers and creators have a strong presence in most of the towns I’ve visited.  In Whitesburg, Kentucky, home to the reknown arts and community-building Appalshop, there’s Roundabout Music, where you can go to buy vintage vinyl, banjos and fiddles, and make music with owners Ben Spangler and Lacy Hale.  There’s also Colin Fultz, grandson of a bootlegger whose Kentucky Mist Moonshine in Whitesburg now has three outlets.  In Clifton Forge, Virginia, the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center has kept the town’s main street alive for nearly forty years; a busy School of the Arts hosts two arts festivals annually and offers classes ranging from blacksmithing to watercolor; and an annual quilt retreat at the Historic Masonic Theatre attracts quilters from all over the country.  

The so-called “St. Paul Mafia.” Courtesy of Joan Vannorsdall.
Frank Kilgore. Courtesy of Joan Vannorsdall.

The process of town re-imagining is, it seems, best done in a strong and committed group who work collaboratively for progress.  In St. Paul, Virginia, there’s the “St. Paul Mafia“ —officially known as St. Paul Tomorrow —a large and diverse group of residents committed to bringing St. Paul into the limelight. Today the town has a lovely boutique hotel and restaurant and shops in the heart of downtown, with miles of the Spearhead ATV Trail through and around town. It’s It doesn’t hurt that longtime resident attorney Frank Kilgore’s op-Eds about St. Paul and Wise County have run in numerous papers.  He’s a good writer and a skilled historian, who has an impressive museum behind his law office.

A similar group in Hinton, West Virginia receive attention from local officials as movers and shakers.  In Walhalla South Carolina they call themselves Partners for Progress.  In Welch, the mayor and his staff are “Team Welch” and rally to the slogan, “Let’s make it better, folks.”  And in Clayton, Georgia, the mayors of the six cities (nearly all of them with populations well under 1,000) and Rabun County officials meet regularly to share a meal and conversation about the region’s unified goals and progress.  It’s called Forward Rabun, and they’ve done good work crossing geographic boundaries for the greater regional good.

Nowhere is this unified group action and promotion more established than with Our Carolina Foothills, which brings together four towns in two states—Landrum, South Carolina with Tryon, Saluda, and Columbus, North Carolina. The driving tour laid out for visitors offers a very full couple of days of history, horses, art, and beauty.  These are small towns—but unified, they draw a wide range of visitors with money to spend.  “You can make something wonderful when you work together,” says Our Carolina Foothills founder Suzanne Strickland.  

Also an across-state-lines venture, The Coal Heritage Trail winds through southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.  Be ready to see some beautiful scenery, a lot of train track, and a long string of towns left behind by an extractive industry.   This one feels like it’s still in the making, but it’s there, and beautiful in an honest way, and towns along the Trail would do well to capitalize on the stories waiting to be told.

It’a not coincidental that the two towns with the strongest citizens’ groups—St. Paul, Virginia and Welch, West Virginia–are also the towns with highly visible national outreach.  In St. Paul and surrounding Wise County, the Nature Conservancy works actively to protect the region’s biodiversity (even as ATV tourism increases along the Spearhead Trail), and the Clinch River’s integrity.  With ongoing presence and  support from the Nature Conservancy, Wise County is home to the new Clinch River State Park, Virginia’s first blueway state park.  

And in Welch, West Virginia, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten teamed up with Gayle Manchin (president of the WV Board of Education and current Appalachian Regional Commission president) eleven years ago to form “Reconnecting McDowell.”  The group seeks to improved educational outcomes for area students with a number of innovative programs supported by a long chain of grants.  Most recently, the group opened Renaissance Village, designed to provide housing for teachers.  As a result, it seems that Welch has the potential to become something of a poster child for our region, demonstrating the strength of partnership and the national presence.  

There’s also Whitesburg, Kentucky, with its Appalshop connections to major funders like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities and dozens of national and regional foundations over its half-century of work.  And Clayton, Georgia, which is one of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s newest designated Trail Towns, running shuttles daily to the AT Trailhead to bring hikers to rest and spend in their town.  

Most of the towns I’ve visited have been or currently are Main Street Communities, with the support of the National Main Street movement, supporter of “preservation-based economic development  and community revitalization.”  That kind of support for small towns can extend beyond the obvious building façade work to brass tacks economic development strategies and avoiding what many town officials warn against: working in silos. 

We are, it seems, all in this together.

So where does this leave us?  

In Appalachian mountain towns, what I’m beginning to understand is that our geography as we’ve been told it, doesn’t have to be our destiny.  Contrary to the longstanding geopolitical dictate, we here in the mountains can turn–are turning—things  traditionally seen as our geographic burdens into geographic benefits.  Strip-mined mountains can become golf courses, housing developments, elk grazing sites, bike trails.  Former textile mills can become apartment complexes and artists’ studios.  Tobacco fields can grow pretty much what you want them to, with the right science behind you.   Lots of public land in our mountain counties can open the door to outdoor and heritage tourism dollars rather than industrial tax dollars.  Young natives can return to re-create their hometowns looking forward, with new ideas and new energies.  Being far from urban centers can mean being happily far from the madding crowd (as we’re beginning to see with remote worker migration).    Maybe, with our attention focused on what is already happening in our places, and what seems quite possible in the near future if we share our stories and listen, we can write our own 413-page book: Let’s call it Our Appalachian Towns.

Joan Vannorsdall is the author of two novels and dozens of articles about the Appalachian region. She...