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Living Traditions

Preserving an Appalachian Archive

By Victor Wishna | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

With energy that belies his almost eighty years, Dewey Thompson takes a good last whack with his double-bitted ax, and the small hardwood tree starts to fall. Moments later, he is hauling the log back to his four-room house in Sugar Loaf Hollow, Kentucky, deep in the mountains of Appalachia. Before nightfall, he will have fashioned the wood and its bark into a solid, rough-hewn rocking chair, just like the ones he has been making for four decades. "People bigger'n me and younger'n me say they don't see how I do it," Thompson says to the camera. "If I ain't workin' on one, I ain't satisfied. When I get to be a hundred, I'm gonna retire and rest up about a week or two and try it again. . . ."

Dewey Thompson is the main subject of Chairmaker, a twenty-two-minute documentary film produced in 1975 by Appalshop, a media, arts, and education center based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Founded as a filmmakers' collective some thirty-seven years ago, the nonprofit organization has produced more than one hundred original films and videos, covering subjects such as traditional Appalachian culture and coal mining, the environment and the economy.

Inside the renovated grocery warehouse and attached RC Cola bottling plant that Appalshop calls home, a new NEH-supported effort is being launched to organize, archive, and make accessible the center's materials.

While most archives have been built on the donations of various artists and collectors, nearly all the materials in Appalshop's archive were developed there. "So there is a thread that runs through the entire collection," says archivist Dwight Swanson. "It's a unifying way of showing the history of an area, as opposed to cobbling it together from various sources."

Appalshop traces its origins back to 1969, when, as an outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, the Office of Economic Opportunity established the Appalachian Film Workshop as a training program to help "impoverished mountain youth" develop skills and find work in the growing national media industry. What developed, however, was a collective of young filmmakers intent on documenting the traditional culture and social issues that surrounded them. In the decades following, the workshop expanded its activities by launching a theater company, a record label, a public radio station, and a quarterly journal.

The materials in its collection-comprising not only finished products, but all of the raw footage, field recordings, and supporting documentation-tell stories about Appalachia and its people. "They are important in their own right as documentary films or recorded music, but they also have importance to researchers or for reuse by other institutions and the public," says Elizabeth Barret, a filmmaker who has been a member of Appalshop's Board of Directors since 1974. "And we're very interested in local people having access to their own history, as well as to how it's informed the national experience."

With three levels and nearly thirteen thousand square feet, the arts and education center houses a dozen offices, editing suites, a darkroom, a theater with one hundred-plus seats, and three radio studios, where Mountain Community Radio (WMMT 88.7 FM) broadcasts traditional music and local programming to much of central Appalachia-eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, northeast Tennessee, southern West Virginia, and southwest Virginia.

"There have been things piling up here for more than thirty-five years," says Chad Hunter, who works with the archive. "In addition to the documentary films, I was interested in the audio collection. The old-time music traditions down here are incredible and authentic. Eastern Kentucky music-there is really nothing like it. I see Appalshop's work as the preservation of that tradition so that people can understand what life is like here. Unless you're here, it is rather hard to get a grasp on it, and these albums and films really provide windows into that."

For years, a back room in the basement served as "the vault," with film reels and containers stacked on shelves. "By the time I got here, the space was just overwhelmed," Swanson says. "Boxes on the floor, up to the rafters, outside the door, all over, and there was no way of finding something, short of going in there and sorting through it all."

The project team has overseen the renovation of the "vault," which has doubled in size. Moveable shelves have been installed along with equipment to regulate the temperature and humidity. Meanwhile, the space outside the vault, once piled high with boxes, is being repurposed as a film inspection and viewing area. "That's really half the battle, just getting everything organized," Hunter says.

The campaign just beginning is to preserve Appalshop's most valuable films and videos. Chairmaker is just one of dozens of decades-old 16mm films showing signs of deterioration.

Some of the titles being designated as "classics" include UMWA 1970: A House Divided, a documentary about leadership and reform of the United Mine Workers of America, and Sunny Side of Life, a 1985 film about the Carter Family musicians. Swanson says his favorite Appalshop films are those stand-alone portraits of individuals like Dewey Thompson. "The heart and soul of Appalshop is the idea of self-representation," says Swanson. "The way they took it upon themselves to tell their own story is the legacy that's left in the collection," he says.

The archival team will move on to preserving at-risk materials from the collection of Appalshop-produced TV programming and original masters of June Appal music recordings, including rare selections by American folk music legend Jean Ritchie. "The bottom line is that we're trying to save as much as we can," Swanson says.

The next step is to make the archive accessible, primarily through an online database that Swanson would like to see up and running in the next five years. "For the first time, people will really be able to see what's there," he says.

The collection itself continues to grow. At any given time there are about four or five film projects in development, along with Appalshop's theatrical productions and educational programming. As Appalshop enters its new phase as an archival resource as well as a production house, Barret says there is an emphasis on having veteran Appalshoppers mentor younger documentarians. "There have always been new people, new ideas, and new energy," Barret says, "but now we're trying to do more intentional generational transition.

"There are still people like Dewey," Barret continues. "It may be a banjo player, it might be a quilt-maker. The traditions of the culture are still alive, and we are continuing to discover new practitioners. Culture is not a finite commodity. It is always evolving and changing."

About the Author

Victor Wishna is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

Appalshop, Inc. received $176,629 from NEH to catalog and reformat its collection of moving images and sound recordings. Since 1979, Appalshop has received thirteen grants from NEH totaling $1,136,765 for media, endowment, and preservation projects.