Downtown Clifton Forge. Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce.
Downtown Clifton Forge. Photo courtesy of Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce.

It’s all too familiar, the story of what happens when a town grows around a single controlling industry that pulls up stakes and leaves.  

Coal in our mountains. Tobacco in Southside. Steel in the Rust Belt and textiles farther south. 

My adopted hometown of Clifton Forge had its own powerful industrial story in the early to mid-twentieth century, when over one hundred Chesapeake and Ohio Railway trains passed through town daily.  The steam engine repair shops operated 24 hours a day, and more than a third of the 5,800 city residents made their living working for the railroad.  

But when diesel engines — requiring less repair and routine maintenance — replaced steam, things began to crumble.  Workers were laid off or transferred, the once-bustling railroad city became a quiet town, and though trains still ran through Clifton Forge, it was left wondering who — what — they’d become. 

What happens when the story a town has always told comes to an end? 

With the right people working together at the right moment, you can write a new story.  It doesn’t get written quickly or easily — it’s written over time, with committed passion and creativity fueling the story line. It’s a story with measurable economic benefits … and every bit as important, with powerful community-building effects. 

These days, Clifton Forge’s storyline is bright with stained glass and jewelry, paintings and pottery, dance and drama, blacksmithing and woodturning, quilting and embroidery, photography and storytelling.  

I’ll lay my cards on the table here. For its size (3,500), Clifton Forge is a major arts destination in southwest and southside Virginia. To see art, buy art, make art, live art — come to our town.

“Art has been around this place for a very long time,” longtime resident Bari Ballou told me.  “When we talked about bringing life back to this town in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was the Alleghany Highlands’ incredible artistic energy we kept coming back to.”

The result? The longstanding Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center, which opened in 1984 and, last year, brought more than 11,000 visitors through its doors. Early AHACC exhibits included Sally Mann photographs and the renown Fischer collection of German Expressionist art (now permanently housed at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). The Center’s Shop features arts and crafts from regional artists and tallied sales of nearly $114,000 in FY 2021-22 — a figure that the Virginia Commission for the Arts termed “impressive.”

In a town as small as Clifton Forge, how does an arts center become the central downtown draw and keep its doors open for forty years?  “AHACC was started by volunteers — and its volunteers still keep the place running,” says Executive Director Connie Baker.

A block away, the Historic Masonic Theatre stands as further testimonial to the power of committed citizen volunteers. Built in 1905 and once the longest continually operating theatre in Virginia until it closed briefly in 1987, the Neoclassical three-story Masonic Theatre caught the eye of the late John Hillert, a new resident in town who spearheaded a successful historic renovation and reopening in 2016. 

As part of the reopening, an oral history of the Theatre was produced by a volunteer committee, recording and writing stories told by people ranging from 11 to 98 years old. Professional portraits of the storytellers and historic photos of the theatre were interspersed with the stories, and the “What’s Your Story?” oral history book series was born.

The Theatre reopening was transformative. A 2019 economic impact study revealed that the Theatre supports $2.3 million economic impact in the Alleghany Highlands. On performance days/nights, there’s a regular 30% increase in restaurant revenue. (For the data-hungry, there’s a 2021 Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission study, “Economic Analysis of the Arts and Culture Industry in the Alleghany Highlands,” available online.) 

Dubbed “The Heart of the Community,” the Theatre hosts movies, concerts, plays, community gatherings, conferences, weddings, tours, and an annual sold-out quilt retreat with international quilt expert Kaye England.  

England comes back year after year because she sees Clifton Forge being “on the cusp of something amazing. I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’ve seen small towns like Paducah Kentucky, and Sister, Oregon, totally reinvent themselves and become thriving areas because they focused on what they knew and did what they did best. … The key is having a vision, a plan, and people to implement.”

All of which were in place for the creation of the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, which occupies most of one block of Church Street. CFSOTA opened its doors in 2011 and quickly became the place to go for music lessons, bluegrass jams, art lessons and materials (their Art Store is fully stocked for both professional and student artists), blacksmithing and woodturning classes, stained glass and papermaking workshops. Hundreds of children create and play during the summer on Fun Fridays.  

Like the Alleghany Highlands Arts and Crafts Center, the School of the Arts was planned and built by artists with a passion for their hometown and a commitment to arts education for everyone. And their two annual festivals — Kriskindlmarkt and Mayfaire — draw thousands of visitors and support strong sales for artisan vendors.  

The newest arts player in Clifton Forge is Cora Dance, a longstanding dance presence in Brooklyn’s Redhook community that in 2022 established an office and rehearsal and performance space in the Historic Masonic Theatre. Cora Alleghany offers pay-what-you-can dance classes and workshops to make dance accessible to all. 

Cora Dance Founder and Artistic Director Shannon Hummel is enthusiastic about the possibilities in Clifton Forge: “Everyone I have brought down from New York City, I think, is tremendously surprised by what they find here. I mean, art spaces in this community are unbelievable. You can walk right off the Amtrak and take part in this community.”

If anyone needs final proof that Clifton Forge has found its new story, the upcoming Arts Community Celebration (Sept. 14-17) will provide it. Eighteen nonprofit and arts-affiliated businesses are working cooperatively to produce a full schedule of demonstrations, performances, talks, exhibits and artisan booth sales.  

So here we are in this small mountain town. Residents. Visitors. Artists. Shoppers. Makers and dreamers and doers. Kids and retirees. Painters and musicians and sculptors. Dancers and actors, quilters and storytellers. The wide-ranging, multifaceted Clifton Forge arts scene has something for everyone, built with savvy imagination and tenacious optimism.  

Does it matter? You bet it does. In its website story “The 100 Best Art Towns in America,” the nonprofit Americans for the Arts puts it like this: 

Small art towns have come to epitomize rural cultural coolness because who wouldn’t want to visit a lively, open-minded town? A small art town is the type of community people love visiting on a weekend getaway… the sort of place urbanites move to after selling their condo… the sort of place where people can find a true sense of community.  

That’s the power of the arts.  

That’s Clifton Forge, sharing its new story. 

Downtown Clifton Forge. Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce.
Downtown Clifton Forge. Photo courtesy of Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce.

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