The scenic Boyle County settlement of Forkland might long since have lost its identity if not for the dedicated work of Shirley Sheperson and many other volunteers.
Instead, its community center has become a cradle of the region’s rural folk customs: home of the annual Forkland Heritage Festival, now in its 39th year; a showcase of the community’s performing and visual arts; and the site of a museum and genealogical library linking many families to their roots in the area.
While Sheperson insists that Forkland’s success has truly been a community endeavor and that she deserves no special credit, others note that the festival—which has drawn up to 10,000 visitors in a single year—the museum, and genealogical library are all linked to her vision and leadership.
“As far as the Forkland Community Center goes, it probably wouldn’t be there if she hadn’t taken the reins of that festival,” says Wayne Thurman of the Forkland Community Center Lincoln Museum. “They had a board of directors, of course, but it really amounts to one person being willing to organize and take the heat and put everything together, and she did that for 25 years.”
Sheperson grew up on a farm in the community, one of 11 children of Cecil and Alma Ellis. Her family got electricity in 1938 from Inter-County Rural Electric, now Inter-County Energy, which has helped transform her alma mater, the old Forkland School, into the community center.
In 1971, Sheperson, her late husband, Louis, and a handful of other friends and family led a grassroots effort to purchase the abandoned school for community use by people in parts of Boyle, Casey, and Marion counties, whose borders join near Forkland.
Her family’s long history in the community has helped Sheperson assist with research on six books about Forkland’s past and its genealogy. She is a fifth cousin of Abraham Lincoln through his maternal grandmother, Lucey Shipley Hanks Sparrow, who lived in the Forkland area.
Sheperson’s community leadership in Casey County, where she served as an Extension agent for home economics for more than three decades, and at Forkland, in her native Boyle County, led to her 2009 induction into the University of Kentucky School of Environmental Sciences Hall of Fame.
“I’ve worked all these years to encourage younger people to keep this going,” Sheperson says. “It’s important to try to hold this community together.”