Group works to “change the narrative”
When you take your first steps on the Rocky Branch Swinging Bridge, be ready because it sways under your feet. (It is a swinging bridge, of course.) The wooden span hangs over the South Fork of the Kentucky River in a lush corner of Clay County. It takes a moment to adjust to the feeling, but keep going and you’ll see that the bridge will hold, and that it offers a perspective on this place like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Like many places in Appalachia, Clay County has a long-standing reputation for being both beautiful and troubled. In 2014, The New York Times Magazine analyzed poverty, life expectancy, education and other statistics for every county in America and declared, “Clay County, in dead last, might as well be in a different country.”
For the people who know and love this place, that designation stings. And while there are long-standing challenges in this county of about 20,000, something is happening here. There is a new energy and sense of possibility. And among the driving forces is a group of proud Clay Countians who are determined to bridge the gap between a complicated past and a more promising future.
The ongoing effort to transform this county’s prospects has its origins in a meeting among some concerned citizens and Vaughn Grisham, a Mississippi-based expert on community development who works with communities in 34 states. Grisham visited Clay County in 2012 and said, “You’re going to have to do something, or your community is going to die.”
Among those who heard that warning was retired speech pathologist Vanda Rice, who thought “Why am I not doing something?”
Rice joined with several other Clay Countians to form Stay In Clay, an all-volunteer nonprofit with a goal “to empower our people, bond our community, and strengthen our local economy … to move Clay County forward with pride and purpose.”
Rice is the group’s current president. She and co-vice-presidents Amy Dunzweiler and Danielle Collins are working with others around the county to, as Rice puts it, “change the narrative” around Clay County, following Grisham’s recommendation to maximize existing assets. “We have mountains, streams, people, stories, swinging bridges,” Rice says, just to name a few.
Stay In Clay’s strategy involves forming partnerships with entities like the Appalachian Regional Commission, Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), Jackson Energy Cooperative, Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, Advent Health and other public and private-sector funding sources to support efforts like creating a concrete River Trail Walk along an ancient buffalo path, gathering oral histories from local people to develop into stage plays and restoring swinging bridges throughout the county. They’ve rebranded Clay County, “Land of the Swinging Bridges” and posted a driving tour for visitors on their website, www.claycountykentucky.org.
The county’s history is also drawing visitors. The Clay County Historical Society, a Stay In Clay ally, operates a local history museum, published a book and sponsors a series of historic murals all under the brand name, The Clay We Were. In addition, the society bought a bus and started organizing $45 day-long history tours of the county. Ticket sales exceeded expectations for the fall session and they have a waiting list for the next round of tours planned for the spring.
“The question of whether or not we can do something never enters our mind,” says Clay County Historical Society President Mike White. “We just think about how we’re going to do it.”
There’s more. Local pastor Tess Lipps opened the Axis Coffee Shop and Gathering Place, the profits of which support his church’s community work, and business is good. “We’re on track to have our best year,” he says. Lipps, a 74-year-old Clay County native, adds, “I’m seeing people working together like I’ve never seen before.”
Stay In Clay promotes community celebrations like the Manchester Music Festival and the Shaping Clay Jubilee. It’s also established a local acting troupe, the Monkey Dumplins Story Bridge Theater. Stay In Clay also worked with local and state government officials, including State Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) to have Manchester declared a Kentucky Trail Town, and the county’s rivers qualify as trails, too.
“Bring your kayak,” Rice says, “bring your canoe, bring your fishing gear.” Talk with her and Dunzweiler (who moved to Clay County from California 10 years ago, drawn in, she says, by “the people and the natural beauty”) and it’s clear how hard they work and how much they’ve learned.
Grisham himself has praised the Stay In Clay team’s energy and enthusiasm, their willingness to embrace the sometimes numbing process of meetings and documents and grant applications to make their town a better place. “They’re heroines of mine,” he says, adding that Stay In Clay fits a pattern he’s observed in many communities working to create this type of change: “In about two-thirds of them, it was the women who turned it around.”
Rice, Dunzweiler, Collins and the many others working to change Clay County’s narrative know that none of them can create progress alone, that this will take time and focus, and that, not unlike crossing a swinging bridge, there will be moments of uncertainty. But the idea is that you keep putting one foot in front of the other, because the view from the other side will be worth the trip.
Senate president voices support
Kentucky State Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) praises Stay In Clay and talks about how tourism fits into the larger economic picture for Clay County in a video interview with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
- Stay in Clay website
- Monkey Dumplins Story Bridge Theater
- Clay County Historical Society
- Sycamore Hollow Guest House
- Axis Coffee Shop and Gathering Place
- The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) visited Clay County in 2014 and spoke to Stay In Clay’s then-president Margy Miller.
- The Stay in Clay feature includes reference to a 2014 article in The New York Times Magazine titled, “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?”
- Clay County writer Anne Shelby responds to the NY Times article on Clay County and Eastern Kentucky.
- Anne Shelby also writes about the life and culture of the area in her books Appalachian Studies and Can a Democrat Get Into Heaven?