From Punk Rock to Ultramarathons, Diverse Economies Are Taking Shape in Coal Country

Nico Gendron

Stearns Ky.—Athletes from across the country gather for the first annual Yamacraw ultramarathon in 2015. The 10K and 50K routes include the old tram road where coal was once transported.

From Ken­tucky to Ohio, gen­er­a­tions of Appalachi­an peo­ple have made their homes amidst rugged and often unfor­giv­ing moun­tain ter­rain. They’ve fed their fam­i­lies min­ing the region’s coal to heat homes across Amer­i­ca. That was until the late 1990s, when coal pro­duc­tion began to plum­met with ris­ing demand for nat­ur­al gas.

East­ern Ken­tucky was par­tic­u­lar­ly hard hit. Between 2000 and 2015, coal pro­duc­tion in the region dropped by 80 per­cent. In 2009 there were 14,098 res­i­dents of east­ern Ken­tucky employed by the mines, accord­ing to the Ken­tucky Depart­ment for Ener­gy Devel­op­ment and Independence’s coal report. By 2015 the num­ber had dropped to 5,897.

Stripped of their econ­o­my and a way of life, east­ern Ken­tuck­ians have been pushed to find alter­na­tive economies, par­tic­u­lar­ly in tourism. They have cre­at­ed unique attrac­tions span­ning punk music, com­mu­ni­ty the­ater, and ultra­ma­rathons to bring in out­siders, and their money.

Whites­burg was one of the first com­mu­ni­ties to chart an alter­na­tive econ­o­my by becom­ing a breed­ing ground for punk music.

Punk music was the sin­gle thing that expand­ed my hori­zons as a teenag­er,” says Evan Smith, a native of Whites­burg who after col­lege and law school returned to become an attor­ney for the Appalachi­an Cit­i­zens’ Law Cen­ter. He says that punk was the sin­gle thing that most expand­ed his hori­zons as a teenag­er because it was dif­fi­cult to get any new music in the small moun­tain town.

I had a friend in Whites­burg whose sis­ter was work­ing for a music mag­a­zine in New York City. Every month, she would send a care pack­age home with mag­a­zines and up to 50 CDs,” he says. He and his friends began to con­sid­er how to make music more acces­si­ble to the rest of their peers.

The first local punk shows in Whites­burg were put on from 1996 – 1999, Smith says.

Bands would play in an ele­men­tary school gym in the mid­dle of nowhere because some­one would have a fam­i­ly mem­ber who worked at the school,” he says. There would only be a show about once a month, but 10 bands would come out.”

Smith is a 10th-gen­er­a­tion Appalachi­an whose par­ents are doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers affil­i­at­ed with Appal­shop, a pri­vate non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion found­ed in 1969 that says it con­tributes more than $1.5 mil­lion in salaries and pro­gram­ming into the local econ­o­my each year.

When Smith was a teenag­er, Appal­shop bought an aban­doned car deal­er­ship that was con­vert­ed into a 100-seat the­ater for punk and DIY shows. The orga­ni­za­tion helped estab­lish Youth Bored, a group that put on punk shows at the deal­er­ship that attract­ed folks from across Ken­tucky and from as far away as Vir­ginia, North Car­oli­na and Tennessee.

Mikie Burke was in mid­dle school when Youth Bored was launched. He was 15 years old when he began sell­ing tick­ets to shows.

I used to tell venues that I want­ed to host a birth­day par­ty and they would rent the space to me for $20,” Burke says. The local judge final­ly caught on and real­ized I was too young.” The judge made him give back the mon­ey he was making.

But the oth­er kids just gave me more mon­ey so I could keep the prof­it I made, after pay­ing the bands, to keep the shows com­ing,” he says.

Burke, now 27 with a 7‑year-old daugh­ter, works as a mixed media and tat­too artist and tours with a punk band. He says that coal was impor­tant to the com­mu­ni­ty and it kept peo­ple fed, but his focus is now on the new econ­o­my tak­ing hold in town.

The loss of it has made east­ern Ken­tucky a more artis­tic place. It has made Whites­burg a lit­tle hid­den gem and pushed peo­ple to ven­ture here to see what we are doing,” he says.

Har­lan, about 45 miles from Whites­burg, once was home to min­ers who made between $64,000 – $80,000 a year. Today, the medi­an annu­al income in Har­lan is $23,955.

High­er Ground The­ater was born from the void left behind by the col­lapsed coal indus­try. The project reimag­ines nar­ra­tives of drug abuse, teen preg­nan­cy, and labor unrest reflect­ed in com­mu­ni­ties through­out east­ern Kentucky,

Car­rie Bil­lett, who spent 10 years help­ing low-income fam­i­lies reha­bil­i­tate sub­stan­dard hous­ing, was drawn to High­er Ground in 2009 because of its empha­sis on oral his­to­ry; each the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion is inspired by the first­hand accounts of Har­lan Coun­ty res­i­dents col­lect­ed by their neighbors.

There are end­less sides to every sto­ry,” Bil­let says. Some­times when we look at his­to­ry and cur­rent events, we look at the facts, but oral his­to­ry is a way to look at the way that peo­ple expe­ri­ence things. You can learn a lot about a per­son by lis­ten­ing to the sto­ry they tell and the way they tell it.”

High­er Ground and its pro­duc­tions are fund­ed through grants, but ulti­mate­ly the mon­ey is put back into local Har­lan busi­ness­es and makes it pos­si­ble for any­one at any income lev­el to get involved.

Bil­lett says High­er Ground can’t replace the lost coal econ­o­my rev­enue, but it helps raise aware­ness of the issues for­mer coal com­mu­ni­ties are fac­ing. A per­for­mance in Sep­tem­ber proved just how much: It was the first of its kind to be com­mis­sioned by the Cen­ter for Sub­stance Abuse Prevention.

Needle­work was direct­ly aimed at work­ing to get ahead of and pre­vent an epi­dem­ic of Hep C and AIDS,” Bil­lett says. It’s about reduc­ing cur­rent and future bur­den of health care costs on a com­mu­ni­ty affect­ed by drug abuse. It’s about keep­ing peo­ple in and bring­ing peo­ple back into the work­force. It’s rec­og­niz­ing that when we talk about the future econ­o­my we have to con­tin­ue to build a stronger and health­i­er community.”

Stearns is anoth­er ex-coal com­mu­ni­ty and is a two-and-a-half-hour dri­ve from Har­lan and Whites­burg. Long­time res­i­dents like Andy Pow­ell, who is the direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mar­ket­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of the Cum­ber­lands in near­by Williams­burg, have turned their atten­tion to Appalachia’s nat­ur­al beau­ty and how it can be used to attract tourism.

In 2009, Pow­ell was approached by Bri­an Gajus, a run­ner from Knoxville, Ten­nessee, who found­ed Ultra­naut Run­ning. Gajus was inter­est­ed in plan­ning an ultra-race in Stearns through an old coal camp.

We nev­er had an oppor­tu­ni­ty like this,” Pow­ell says. Stearns was kind of lost in terms of stan­dard busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties.” About 60 per­cent of peo­ple in town who are able to work are on gov­ern­ment assis­tance, accord­ing to cen­sus data.

Pow­ell and Gajus host­ed the first Yamacraw Race in Stearns in 2015. About 100 peo­ple signed up that first year for 10K and 50K runs. By 2017, that num­ber had grown to 650 runners.

The route runs along a moun­tain ridge where Powell’s great-grand­fa­ther once lived and rode a mule to the mine each day. The route also includes the old tram road where coal was transported.

Pow­ell says Stearns’ trans­for­ma­tion from an extrac­tion econ­o­my to one of con­ser­va­tion is exem­pli­fied by the Yamacraw race.

And it’s work­ing. We have had run­ners from 23 states and Cana­da rep­re­sent­ed in this race. The guy who won the race most recent­ly was from Ore­gon,” he says.

For the 2017 race, the Ken­tucky Depart­ment of Adven­ture Tourism cal­cu­lat­ed the uptick in tourism rev­enue the race brought to Stearns was $150,000 for one weekend.

Yamacraw has been instru­men­tal in val­i­dat­ing a tourism economy.

Local peo­ple are dis­trust­ing of tourism as a legit­i­mate econ­o­my,” Pow­ell says. They want fac­to­ries because they don’t believe tourism can cre­ate viable jobs and eco­nom­ic opportunities.”

But [now] they are start­ing to see it at gas sta­tions and restau­rants and camp­grounds dur­ing Yamacraw,” he says.

Appalachi­ans are some of the tough­est, most inde­pen­dent peo­ple on Earth. We made a life in one of the most rugged places in the Unit­ed States, and we can do it again,” he says.

(The Sur­pris­ing Tourist Des­ti­na­tions Reviv­ing Coal Coun­try” was first pub­lished in YES! Mag­a­zine. It was fund­ed in part by a grant from the One Foun­da­tion.)

Nico Gen­dron wrote this sto­ry for YES! Mag­a­zine. She has worked for The New York Times in strat­e­gy, and cov­ers cul­ture, arts, and soci­ety as a free­lance writer. She is a native of Boston and Cape Cod. Fol­low Nico on Twit­ter @nico_gendron.
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