This article appeared in the Volume 3, Issue 3 Winter 2022 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.
By Jinny Turman
I was in Denver, Colorado, wrapping up a vacation when I heard the news that portions of eastern Kentucky had been flooded by a series of thunderstorms. Thankfully my partner’s community, Morehead, was spared, but we quickly realized that certain areas of Wise County, Virginia, where I live, were underwater, as were locations in Letcher, Hazard, and several other counties in southeastern Kentucky.
Like many people, I was shocked to see the images of flooded downtowns, homes, roadways, and hollers appear on social media. Then I saw the picture of Appalshop, its wood-clad building submerged under six feet of the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Having attended an audio/visual archival workshop at Appalshop and toured their archival warehouse in 2019, I immediately knew what this image conveyed: some of Appalachia’s most precious historic resources were in imminent danger.
On Thursday, July 28, I reached out to Appalshop’s archivist Caroline Rubens to offer assistance. I am not a trained archivist, but I have worked in archives and, because of previous public history projects, could offer at least a modicum of experience moving archival collections. Caroline responded the following evening saying that she had just accessed the building and that she would welcome volunteers the following day. I arrived the morning of Sunday, July 31 to see what I could do to help.
The day, for me and everyone else who volunteered there, I feel confident in saying, was shocking and sad. Witnessing the scope of devastation around Whitesburg, and then Appalshop itself, rendered me less effective a volunteer than I wish, in hindsight, I had been. The tasks for the day consisted of creating a space in Appalshop’s pavilion where volunteers could place archival materials as they were brought out of the building; removing materials from the building; and relocating some of the material that did not need immediate access to cold storage, like B-roll VHS tape, to an off-site facility with dehumidifiers. I helped with the latter task but spent the bulk of my time shuffling 16mm film and other sodden, mud-caked audio/visual materials from the warehouse’s truck bay to the pavilion. My biggest challenge was trying to keep the wheelbarrow upright on completely saturated ground. A young volunteer DJ at Appalshop, maybe 10 years old, provided me with good company and encouragement. His school and home had been flooded, and he said what he missed the most were Spaghetti-Os with meatballs. Sometimes it’s the little things that can really get to us in a crisis of that magnitude. I must admit that I cried more than once when seeing films like “Chemical Valley” lying drenched in the bed of my wheelbarrow.
I returned a second time with my partner, Tom Kiffmeyer, a historian who consulted on Appalshop’s landmark film “Stranger with a Camera.” This was several days later, and Caroline had acquired refrigerated trucks to temporarily house materials that needed to be shipped off to Colorlab, a film restoration company in Maryland. In light of everyone’s anxiety about seeing rare film footage secured and restored, it was gratifying to help load boxes of audio / visual materials onto a FedEx truck bound directly for Maryland. We then emptied out VHS tapes from a separate refrigerated truck and relocated them to the facility in Whitesburg for dehumidification.
I wish I could say I did more. My semester was about to begin, courses needed to be planned, and pre-semester meetings drew my attention away from Whitesburg. However, the experience has certainly made me rethink my role as a public historian in the region. Although digital copies of archival resources can never replace any originals lost to fire, flood, or the normal deterioration processes, digital copies can allow us access to those resources for the foreseeable future. This experience has renewed my commitment to working with regional organizations to digitize historic resources that may become even more vulnerable as climate change renders 100-year floods a nearly annual occurrence.
Jinny Turman teaches Appalachian, environmental, and community/local history at UVA Wise. She is also a member of the ASA Special Collections Committeee