Something is happening along Ky. 7, a two-lane road that connects Hazard to Whitesburg in Eastern Kentucky.
Five years ago, I created a weekend guide to the area. Since then, a Facebook group, Route 7 Antique Alley, has been created, and a tightly knit group of 300 artisans has joined forces, creating a website and a Facebook page. Antiques lovers have come from multiple states, and a tour bus or two has been known to brave the back roads to get to this taste of Kentucky’s Appalachian life.
Entrepreneurism is awakening, plans are unfolding and the arts are gaining strength, despite the decimation of the area’s economic lifeblood: coal.
Five years after my first report, I ventured out again. This time, my stops would be much more frequent and my belly would be much fuller as the number of antique shops and restaurants in the area has more than doubled.
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With 5,200 plus members — to put it into perspective, Whitesburg had only 2,057 residents in 2013 — Route 7 Antique Alley’s Facebook page has become a resource for local business owners and customers. And the artisan group, Route 7 Artisan Fellowship, has linked arms to push their community’s cultural initiatives and economic survival forward.
My first stop was to Delana’s Little Shoppe. Built by Delana Banks’ husband, Bob, in 2001, the little store has stayed true to Delana’s Banks’ vision. Her artifacts from the region, including quilts, pottery and farm tables, make it a historian’s treasure trove.
Since my last visit, her shop has expanded from one building to two, with Bob Banks’ childhood home now housing the larger antique pieces for sale.
“My shop has done well four of the last five years,” Delana Banks said, “although this past year slowed with the loss of all the mining jobs.”
The loss she referred to is substantial, enough to cripple any momentum these entrepreneurs had gained. Letcher County’s newspaper, The Mountain Eagle, reported that the number of mining jobs in the county fell to 101 in 2015, a loss of 170 jobs — or 62.7 percent — since the end of 2014. Today, fewer than 100 people in Letcher County are working in the mines.
A lack of jobs in the coal industry is crippling the area, causing Banks and other small-business owners to get innovative.
The Artisan Fellowship has become a call to action among those who believe in the future of their mountain communities, and Bonita Adams, owner of the Kentucky Proud N&S Farm goat’s milk products, is helping to lead the charge.
“We are trying to realize our potential and put some things in place that will draw people down Route 7 to help bring a little income to our local artists, crafters and musicians,” Adams said. “I hope that opportunities arise for our people. I am not thinking big business; just small ones with big personalities and talents.”
The next three shops I visited have opened in the past five years: The Bow Barn carries a large collection of cast iron; the Window Box has a pristine décor, like a page out of Southern Living; and All in One Basket sells a range of antiques, including large, primitive pieces such as old stoves and cedar chests.
Gwen’s Country Attic is in a long, green-sided barn that’s filled with antiques from 13 independent sellers. It’s bursting at the seams with antiques and garden knick knacks, which spill out to the open-aired pole barn.
Owner Gwen Rollins has seen an upswing in business recently.
“The past five years has shown growth in sales and increase in vendors in the store,” she said. “I have started spring and fall antique shows, drawing vendors from Kentucky as well as Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia. Folks feel involved in the store when I have hay rides, horse rides and Santa Claus visits.”
The work the owners have done to grow their businesses is not lost on Tim Glotzbach, director of the Berea College Craft Program.
“Bonita and the team of artisans and community members have done tremendous work toward developing excitement building along Route 7,” Glotzbach said. “The Artisan Fellowship in Letcher County and the Route 7 Antiques Alley projects are important community builders, but also a necessary step in helping the local economy.”
Berea College has helped the business owners. Last year, Adams attended a workshop at the college — part of the annual Brushy Fork Institute — that helped her work with the business community in Letcher County on like-minded projects and to create realistic objectives for success, he said.
Part of the work of the institute is to provide “resources and services in support of sustainable community development,” according to its website.
“Bonita told me that her experience provided her with a tool-set to guide the community in finding their community focus,” Glotzbach said. “Bonita and the others in the community should have all the credit for doing great work. We are just pleased to help in the process.”
Along with the business boom on Ky. 7 is a growth of restaurants and other enterprises in the area.
The Kentucky Mist Moonshine distillery and the Thirsty Heifer restaurant in Whitesburg are going strong.
Thirsty Heifer’s owner, Tyler Ward, was born here, and he recently returned after years in Vermont. Inspired by the farm-to-table food and craft beer in Burlington, Vt., he rented an exposed brick space that once was the regional favorite Courthouse Café.
“A significant part of our business are folks from out of town,” Ward said about his restaurant.
About the area: “We have some of the most beautiful vistas on the Eastern Seaboard: Pine Mountain, Bad Branch Falls, Lilly Cornett Woods.
“The more we can develop a sustainable tourism economy, the better for places like The Thirsty Heifer.”
The restaurant’s menu includes house-made chips with Indian spices; local beef burgers, one smothered in blue cheese and pickled onions; and a chocolate milkshake spiked with the peppermint moonshine being made just down the street.
Part of developing a sustainable tourism economy is changing outsiders’ perceptions of the area, Ward said.
“For so long, this area of Appalachia has been portrayed as destitute, illiterate and hopeless. I’m doing what I can to change that, and hopefully soon we can convince others too,” he said.
An outsider might read a piece about Hindman or Harlan, hear a news blurb about welfare and drugs in this part of the state, and assess the situation as bleak. And they wouldn’t be too far off. It is bleak. But below the surface is a rumbling of entrepreneurial drive.
Recently, the Route 7 Artisan Fellowship was awarded a 2016 Kentucky Appalachian Regional Commission Flex-E Grant for $10,000. The grant provides “small investments in short-term projects that build community capacity to mobilize local resources, gain leadership and strengthen community institutions and networks,” the Brushy Fork Institute website states.
Adams, who applied for the grant, is hopeful that the money will be the cornerstone of an artistic rebirth and make the area a tourist destination for Appalachian culture.
“Through the classes we can offer with this grant, we hope to help someone realize, ‘Wow I really like this,’ and they will want to continue and maybe do this as a business,” she said. With the grant money, “we would like to set up classrooms and a small store featuring local artists’ work.
“Mike Dixon, who owns the CB Caudill store in Blackey, has dreams of establishing a lutherie. There are men who can teach instrument design and small woodworking projects, as we do have a lot of skilled woodworkers in this area.”
“We are realistic people, but just think how lovely it would be to have a huge arts festival,” she said.
In the 1960s, there was a group of women from Letcher County who were rug hookers. The group, formed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program, called themselves the Hound Dog Hookers. The women were given a percentage of sales from the rugs they made, and that income carried their families through the mine layoffs during that time.
The president himself ended up buying the largest rug the women had ever made. Adams shared the story along with a handful of worn, yellowed newspaper clippings. “Diminished coal industry led to the ladies’ success,” she said. “That happened once, and I feel it can happen again.”
Megan Smith is a free-lance writer who lived in Lexington for a while but now calls Ohio home. She is the founder/publisher/editor of Cake & Whiskey. Learn more about her at Meganpsmith.com.
The Window Box, 589 Isom Drive, Isom. 606-634-5078
Addie’s Treasures (opening in May), 81 Isom Plaza, Isom. 606-633-7442
Gwen’s Country Attic (13 booths of antiques), 411 Ky. 7, Jeremiah. 606-233-1361
Courtney’s Needful Things, Ky. 7, below Blair Branch. 606-335-5607
All in One Basket, 2429 Ky. 7, Jeremiah. 606-634-9416
Bow Barn Antiques and Gifts, 4526 Ky. 7, Blackey. 606-634-7688
Olde Friends Relics and Antiques, 8728 Ky. 7, Viper. 606-634-0296
Thirsty Heifer, 127 Main St., Whitesburg. 606-633-5749
Heritage Kitchen, 260 Main St., Whitesburg. 606-536-5055
Pine Mountain Grille, 45 U.S. 119, Whitesburg. 606-633-1183
Happy Mountain Lodging, 115 Memory Lane, Whitesburg. 606-633-8013
Whitesburg Motel, 107 Medical Plaza Lane, Whitesburg. 606-633-8888
Parkway Inn, 3749 Ky. 15, Whitesburg. 606-633-4441
Cowan Creek Cottage, 5407 Ky. 931 South, Whitesburg. 606-633-9831
Salyer House Bed & Breakfast, 126 Hayes St., Whitesburg. 606-633-1640