Fifty years ago, a Yale-educated architect named Bill Richardson was on his honeymoon, paddling a rowboat in Maine’s Audubon Nature Preserve with his wife Josephine, when he asked her if she wanted to move to Eastern Kentucky.
A job in Letcher County with the Office of Economic Opportunity promised at least a short stint of interesting work: training young Appalachians in the art of film-making.
Today, the Richardsons’ project, now called Appalshop, is approaching its 50th year, and on Friday plans to unveil the largest net-metered solar project in Eastern Kentucky. Starting in the fall, and throughout 2020, Appalshop will host a series of events celebrating its anniversary.
The solar project is one example of how Appalshop has grown over the years from a work-training program focused on film-making, to a conglomerate of media and community development projects including the solar initiative and a rural-urban exchange program.
In the beginning, in 1969, the Appalachian Film Workshop started by giving high school students training and equipment to film public service messages, or to document events downtown like the homecoming parade.
“For instance, we could work with the Health Department and do very simple public messages,” Bill Richardson told the Louisville Courier-Journal in an article published that year. “Very simple, no nonsense. Short films or video tapes that they could use to communicate, particularly with those people out in the hollows that they can’t visit every day.”
The group would, in fact, go on to produce professional work that has been seen across the world and is housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Dee Davis, the president and founder of the Center for Rural Strategies and the former executive producer of Appalshop, said the group, in the early days, used the films to pay homage to and sometimes challenge the values of their grandparents’ generation.
They wanted to cut through stereotypes of Appalachia, too.
“It was kind of this special chance to outdo the stereotype, to do something special,” Davis said.
Eastern Kentucky, at that time, was more isolated. The absence of highways made it difficult to get anywhere quickly.
A trip from Whitesburg to Lexington, for example, took about six hours, said Josephine Richardson. It now takes less than three.
With the highways came a potential for economic opportunity that never really took, Davis said.
“The reality is, a lot of the economic development schemes for Appalachia were really fattening frogs for the snakes,” Davis said.
The films aimed to spotlight ways toward a better future, he said.
“I think the good thing is that holding on to what’s valuable, and trying to find a path forward,” Davis said. “That’s something that Appalshop can take pride in.”
On Friday, Appalshop will take pride in what they see as another way forward: solar energy.
At the beginning of Appalshop’s annual music festival in Whitesburg, called Seedtime on the Cumberland, it will unveil a 192-panel solar pavilion along with an additional 42 panels on its Boone building across the street.
The panels will produce 60 to 70 percent of Appalshop’s monthly energy usage and save it $100,000 over the initial cost.
Through the Letcher County Culture Hub, an Appalshop community-development network, the group will also install three solar projects with the Hemphill Community Center, the King’s Creek Volunteer Fire Department and HOMES, Inc.
Marley Green, Appalshop’s community development worker, said he hopes the project will serve as a model to other institutions and people in Eastern Kentucky, where he said energy costs have risen 48 percent in the last 10 years.
“We’ve been here for 50 years. If we’re gonna be here for another 50, we need to think about long-term sustainability of our building, of increasing costs,” Green said. “That was a real driving factor for us, just looking at our energy rates and thinking ‘Where is this going over the long haul, and what can we do about it?’”
As Eastern Kentucky’s economy and culture have shifted since Appalshop’s beginning, projects like the solar project and the Letcher County Culture Hub show a similar shifting of Appalshop’s tactics to tell the region’s story.
“They have completely changed,” said Ben Gish, owner of the Mountain Eagle, the local newspaper in Whitesburg.
While Gish said he isn’t convinced of the success of Appalshop’s community development projects, he sees the group as a valuable neighbor — one that brings money into the community and has helped show the world the value of Appalachian folk art.
“If they can do some community development, I’m all for it. We need them, they bring a lot of money into the place.”
Mimi Pickering, who has been with Appalshop since 1971 and serves as the director of its Community Media Initiative, said this expansion of programs still meets Appalshop’s overall mission, albeit through a different approach.
Asked whether Appalshop’s work — particularly its mission to show the world a more realistic picture of Appalachia — is still as necessary as it was during the early days, Pickering said it is.
“We still have that challenge,” she said.
Pickering said the election of President Donald Trump, and the popularity of books like “Hillbilly Elegy,” a New York Times best selling memoir that conjured stiff criticism for its depiction of Appalachia, have created a simplistic and negative impression Appalshop can work to change.
“I think that’s why it’s so important to have people from a place, in a place, not just here but everywhere, who are telling the stories,” Pickering said.