For over 40 years Appalachia and Wales have maintained a transatlantic solidarity born out of economic and social similarities across the respective coalfields and communities. Established by pioneering academics from Highlander Research and Education Center, Appalachia State University and Swansea University, namely Helen Lewis, John Gaventa, Richard Greatrex, Pat Beaver and Hywel Francis, the coalition has remained strong throughout changes in the political, social and economic climates of both countries. The baton of friendship and collective learning has been passed over recent years, and now people like Dr. Billy Schumann, Tom Hansell and Bruce Stewart from the Center for Appalachian Studies at ASU and Sian Williams from the South Wales Miners’ Library are forging new links at a time when, arguably, such internationalism is needed more than ever.
This autumn marks the anniversaries of the Center for Appalachian Studies, the W.L. Eury Collection at Belk Library and the Appalachian Journal. I have been very fortunate to have been involved in visits to Wales by students from the Appalachian Studies programme since 2003, and was overwhelmed by the invite from my good friend Billy Schumann to attend the anniversary event at ASU.
Our trip began on Tuesday 5th September, when we flew into Charlotte, NC after a very enjoyable flight from London Heathrow. Our ride from Charlotte to Boone came in the shape of the very gracious and kind MA student Emma Parrish, and after a quick change at our fabulous hotel we met Billy, who took us for food at The Local. We all had different varieties of burger and sweet potato fries, washed down with a local beverage, and it was delicious. We spent a couple of hours discussing the current state of Community Development and Adult Education in Wales before retiring to our hotel after a long but incredible day; after fifteen years imaging, it was great to finally be in Boone.
On Wednesday morning Sian and I had some free time to look around Boone, most of which we spent taking in West King Street. Billy had arranged for us to meet Dr. Katherine Ledford, Trevor McKensie and MA student Ian Kirkpatrick for lunch, which we ate at the inspirational F.A.R.M. Cafe. I know Trevor from pervious visits he has made to Wales, so it was a lovely surprise to catch up with him. Katherine then took us on two impromptu visits to Appalachia Voices and the Jones House, and it was great to meet Molly Moore who would be participating in the same panel discussion as us on Friday. In the afternoon we met up with colleagues from two South African universities – Kanego, Segun, Jared and Geofrey – and we travelled up to Grandfather Mountain, where we visited the swinging bridge. We also stopped off at a delightful venue called The Inn at Crestwood, where we were treated to a refreshing local drink. Sian and I then met Appalachian Journal Editor Sandy Ballard for dinner, and we travelled to a wonderful little restaurant called Foggy Rock in the neighbouring town of Blowing Rock. Sandy was a wonderful dinner date, and it was a privilege to tap into her wealth of experience on the region and the journal.
Thursday saw Sian and I separate in order to visit different organisations related to our areas of interest. Sian visited the Belk Library and Information Commons, and I visited representatives from Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture and High Country Local First. Our experiences meeting with these organisations crystallised an already inspiring trip into an invaluable learning experience; I was struck by the commitment to community development in the region and wondered whether such a commitment would return to Welsh policy making anytime soon.
Following our morning visits, we were delighted to catch up with Tom Hansell for lunch at a great local Thai restaurant. Tom is the director of the film ‘After Coal’ that documents the comparisons between the coalfields of Wales and Appalachia and the subsequent regeneration efforts following deindustrialisation. After lunch we were given a tour round the library and the W.L. Eury collection by the incredibly knowledgable Dean Williams. Our evening involved visiting the exceptional restaurant ‘Over Yonder’ with Billy, Jessie, Tom Hansell and his wife Sarah, and Dr. Julie Shepherd-Powell. The meal, service and atmosphere were all incredible, and I would highly recommend a visit. We were honoured to meet the Chef and owner Andy Long, who is doing a great job creating a unique dining experience with local produce and authentic southern flavours – the smoked North Carolina trout spread is something special.
Friday was the big day, with a schedule of events marking the 40th anniversary of the Center for Appalachian Studies, the 45th anniversary of the Appalachian Journal and the 50th anniversary of the W.L. Eury Collection. We began our day with a showing of ‘After Coal’ with our South African colleagues. Both Sian and I were struck by just how much has changed in the five years since the filming had took place. Lunch was followed by a community development panel in which we participated and were joined by Molly Moore (Appalachian Voices), Dave Walker (Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture), Willard Watson (Blowing Rock Art and History Museum), and George Santucci (New River Conservancy). The second panel was lead by the founding editor of Appalachian Journal Jerry Williamson and Dr. Fred Day, Librarian of the W.L. Eury Collection. The formal part of the day was concluded with a great presentation from the founding director of the Center for Appalachian Studies, who spoke about the development of the Center, its importance in progressing an understanding of Appalachia for the region itself, and of course its international links. We were then treated to a quick beer at the Boone Saloon by old friends Dr. Bruce Stewart and Jameson Jones (both of whom had a made a special trip to see us, which I am very grateful for) and new friend Adam Sheffield. The anniversary events were rounded off with dinner at Gaijin Noodle Bar accompanied by some incredible music from the region performed by local musicians – unfortunately I am unable to name them all, but I must make a special mention of Si Kahn and the musical prodigy Shohei Tsutsumi.
Our visit regretfully came to a close on Saturday, when we visited the Elk Knob Community Headwaters Day. It reminded me of the sort of classic community carnival or fair that we do so well in Wales, with music, stalls, games and a community potluck buffet of local homemade food. It was incredible, and I felt at home. We even had a spot of rain, which really made it feel like Wales! The setting and community spirit on display should really make the people involved feel proud. It was also wonderful to have a final catch up with friends before setting off for home. We rounded off the day with a relaxing coffee at Billy and Jessie’s place, where we were able to admire the grounds and the view, and catch our breath before the journey back to Wales. We were picked up by yet another kind MA student, Jacob Meadows, who did a great job getting us down to Charlotte, and despite a bit of turbulence the return trip was thankfully uneventful.
I really cannot over express how fantastic the trip was, how inspiring it was meeting every single person who took time out of their busy schedules to give us such a warm welcome. I want to personally thank you all for creating memories for me that will last a lifetime. And a personal thank you also to my great friend Billy Schumann, who made it all possible in the first place.
As a photographer, it was important for me to document the trip using my camera to capture a digital, pictorial diary of the people and landscape that make Boone, North Carolina and Appalachia a special place. I am a fan of the photo film and so decided to bring together some of my favourite photographs as a narrative of our trip, with the soundtrack provided by the incomparable Si Kahn and his beautiful song “Sixteen”. I hope you like it.
Dean Cawsey, September 2018.