Five students traveled to the Clearfork Valley of Tennessee to live and learn at the Clearfork Community Institute as part the course LBAR 3910: Practicum in Liberal Arts. Zoe Davis, Gabrielle Lamplugh, Lindsay Steelman, Donna Tosh, and Taryn Wilson share a desire for adventure and an openness for experiencing rural life in former coal-mining communities that stretch along the border of East Tennessee and Kentucky.
By Dr. Mark Wilson, Director of Civic Learning Initiatives and van driver
Student Taryn climbed a mountain first thing before church this morning. We drove back a ways on the road behind CCI that leads up the mountain, and since some deep mud seemed too much for our mini-van, we parked at the power lines and followed that open trail up the mountain. Taryn pressed on beyond the trail and went straight to the top, enjoying a beautiful view that can only be found before spring. She came back from the top with an old Pepsi bottle and a small lump of coal. Not bad for a thirty minute hike.
We visited the Clairfield Missionary Baptist Church. Congregations form an important part of the social structure of rural communities, and it doesn’t take long to discover that church services provide an opportunity to share vital information on the health of neighbors and pressing needs in the community. Churches dot the landscape of these former coal camp communities, and the denominations vary mostly within Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. Our groups are always warmly welcomed, and the hugs received are too many to count.
The weather was beautiful, in the high 60s, so after lunch we split into two groups to capture photographs and interviews related to two cemeteries. Clyde and Val led us up to Valley Creek Cemetery, a few miles off the main road back into strip mining territory. The area was once a thriving community with house after house along the road. The cemetery lies at the top of one of the hills, and it is still in use. The burial of Clyde’s brother was the most recent interment on the hill. Nowadays, for the most part, a backhoe is used to dig the hole, but it’s not uncommon for families to gather with shovels and prepare a final resting place as a last act of responsible love.
The gravestones, as in most rural cemeteries everywhere, range from rudimentary types made of hand-chiseled stone to more modern commercially made types. Some of the gravestones, including ones of Clyde’s ancestors, have a picture of a coal miner made into the stone. Clyde told us stories of growing up in Valley Creek, hunting and fishing in the mountains, long before strip mining became the norm. Our VIP (Volunteer in Partnership) from CCI, Tiffany Hurst, found her grandparents grave, and student Zoe found a black snake. Tiffany and our students performed gravestone rubbing on three markers where the text was not quite legible.
On the way back from the cemetery, we stopped at a coal mining operation and talked with the night guard, a friendly gentleman who told us some great stories. Timber and mining operations have to employ guards to prevent theft of equipment, and the guard writes down a description of every vehicle and its time of passing down the mountain road that leads to and past the operation. There are few problems encountered on the job, but one time our new friend did encounter a black bear snooping around a nearby vehicle, leaving gigantic paw prints on all four sides.
After returning to CCI for the evening, we dug a few worms and borrowed some fishing poles, but dinner was ready before we could catch something in the stream that runs behind the old school building. Rain is coming in tomorrow, so we probably need to return our worms back to the earth and catch their cousins later in the work for the purpose of determining if there is indeed a fish in some of these deep holes.
Zoe and I visited with Tiffany Hurst and family in the community called Buffalo. Tiffany’s dad Thomas has a unique guitar collection (and a banjo and several mandolins), and each piece carries with it unique qualities and memories. Thomas plays the drums in a band down in Anthers. His father is reported to be an exceptional self-taught banjo player, but he doesn’t like to play in front of audiences. Maybe one day we’ll talk him into playing for a group.