The flood waters in eastern Kentucky were swift and merciless.
They killed at least 39 people, and ruined homes and businesses.
At the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, they busted doors off the hinges, carried cars away as if they weighed nothing, and threatened an important and extensive historical record of the region.
“I just wanted to cry, honestly, when I came in here, it was just such a disaster,” executive director Will Anderson said of how the archive rooms looked after the water had receded – it had been submerged in several feet of water.
The collection chronicled more than a century of Appalachian life in journals, letters, books and photographs.
The Hindman Settlement School marked 120 years earlier this month. May Stone and Katherine Pettit established the school to educate the children of the local isolated mountain communities. Over time, it’s adjusted its programs to address the community’s needs, whether that’s food insecurity or supporting kids with dyslexia. The school is also celebrated for preserving local arts and culture through its writing residencies, traditional arts education and archives.
Anderson said they had protected it from the threat of fire.
“A lot of our archives were in fireproof drawers,” he said. “In our history, waters never entered the building like that before, and so we didn’t really have reason to believe it ever would.”
After the floods, staff and volunteers quickly went to work to save what they could.
They removed pictures from old photo albums and hung the images to dry on clothes lines.
“What’s been surprising is finding that the old photos from the 1920s are actually better than the newer ones,” said Melissa Helton, who manages the school’s community programs and pitched in to salvage photographs. “The newer ones as soon as they get wet, the ink is coming off.”
Anderson said some of the artifacts need expert inspection, and have been sent to places like Eastern Tennessee State University and Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.
Fabric pieces, like quilts, are in the hands of an individual specialized in that kind of preservation work, Helton added.
Until that could happen, school staff had to stop further damage.
“We just ran up to Lowe’s and we bought five big chest freezers, you know, 18-cubic-foot chest freezers, and we put what we could inside of those chest freezers, and it kind of suspends them in time,” Anderson said.
A private Kentucky business also lent freezer space for items from the archive.
Some records had been digitized, Anderson said. He hopes they’ll be able to “substitute printed documents of the digital copies to make our archives a rich source of research material for those that are wanting to learn about that era and the people in this region.”
But, he added, it remains unclear how much will be lost for good.
‘Proof of people’s lives’
“One of the most valuable things about these kinds of archives is that often they negate the stereotypes that have been perpetuated,” novelist and essayist Silas House, who was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky, said.
Television, film and other media rarely show Appalachians in a nuanced way, House said.
“So to have this accurate, historic record of us be so threatened is really devastating.”
House drove to Hindman to help with flood cleanup, which he wrote about in an essay for the magazine Garden & Gun.
He has his own history at the settlement school, having attended and taught at the annual Appalachian Writers Workshop, which helps regional artists take ownership of their own stories.
Programs like that, said House, make the school a major contributor to the literary arts across the country, “and just about anybody in the writing world would tell you that.”
“If they hadn’t offered that program, I just don’t think I would have ever figured out how to become a writer in the way that I did,” he said.
Rebuilding what’s lost or damaged
Director of traditional arts education Sarah Kate Morgan typically spends her days teaching kids about Appalachian music history, songwriting and square dancing.
“My role at the settlement kind of shifted into housing people here on campus, and like, making sure they had transportation so they could go apply for FEMA,” she said. “And so I’ve been very much preoccupied with the humanitarian need here.”
Morgan hasn’t been able to think about the potential cultural losses.
“I have not felt that ping as sharply yet… But I know it’s gonna catch up with me,” she said. “I feel like if I slow down and think about it, I’ll get too sad.”
She’s also thinking about the long recovery ahead, and how art can play a role.
“Right now, people need homes, and they need food, and they need money,” Morgan said. “They may not necessarily need fiddle music or a square dance right now. But people are going to need healing six months from now.”
Senior director of program development and implementation Josh Mullins also sees art as part of the process.
He’s reaching out to this year’s workshop writers to document their stories – about 75 of them were on campus when the floods hit. They want the community and school staff to participate as well.
“Hopefully as a healing process to express themselves, and also just for the history… We lost some of our archives, but we’re working to rebuild it back,” he said.
Part of that rebuilding is documenting this chapter in Appalachian history.