By Katie Pratt
Photography by Matt Barton
Dressed in 19th century clothes and sitting at a spinning wheel, Christina Lauterwasser is living out her dream of working at the Mountain HomePlace in Johnson County.
It's a goal Lauterwasser, from the community of River, has had since she first toured the 1850s working farm when she was 5 years old. She is just one person who has benefited from behind-the-scenes work done by many to promote county tourism and community development.
Johnson County is like many areas of Eastern Kentucky in that nearly every aspect of life is shaped by its mountainous geography. Residents, struggling with the loss of coal jobs and looking for innovative ways to improve the economy, realized in the early 1990s that their county's history and culture were worth preserving. They turned to Brenda Cockerham, the county's family and consumer sciences extension agent, to lead the charge. She has spent much of her 30-year extension career helping locals see the potential of the county and in themselves.
In 1992, Cockerham invited Lori Garkovich, Tom Ilvento, and Ron Hustedde from the Department of Community and Leadership Development to guide county residents in the process of community planning and visioning. The UK experts trained about 30 people to lead listening sessions and to capture data from session participants. In all, between 700 and 800 county residents participated in the process.
“The way we do the process, it gives everyone a chance to participate in the future of their county,” Garkovich said. “For many of them, it was the first time anyone had asked them for their opinions and thoughts on their community's future.”
The UK team analyzed the collected data and presented Johnson Countians with a report that helped them prioritize their local assets. Cockerham and Johnson County Extension led additional forums in 1998. More than 500 residents participated in those forums, where tourism and historic and cultural preservation were identified as initiatives they could use to improve the community and enhance the economy.
Building on what's already there
The following year, Cockerham attended a conference on community and economic development and learned about the concept of asset mapping. She liked what she heard.
“Asset mapping was appealing to me, because it is the art of looking at what you have instead of what you do not have,” she said.
Cockerham presented the concept to her Extension Homemakers. They identified places throughout the county that were of historical or cultural significance and at least somewhat available to the public. They researched each site and then approached site leaders to offer Cooperative Extension's help in reaching their potential.
Today, these assets are bearing fruit that benefit the whole county by showcasing the places and people and their talents that make Johnson County unique.
Some of the identified assets, like the Butcher Hollow home of country music singers Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle in the southeastern section of the county, were already established tourism destinations.
In fact, singers and songwriters from the area have had an innate ability to climb to the top of the country charts and continue to do so. This led to U.S. 23, the region's main north-south highway, being designated as a National Scenic Byway and named the Country Music Highway. Because Johnson County and its county seat, Paintsville, were uniquely positioned at the heart of this highway, extension personnel worked with leaders and community partners to develop what became the Country Music Highway Museum. The museum showcases the region's top performing artists who, in addition to Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, include Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Tom T. Hall, and The Judds.
Cockerham further set out to enhance the museum's offerings by creating the Kentucky Heritage Collection product line. With permission from the country musicians, local painters were commissioned to create souvenir merchandise like coffee mugs featuring portraits of the singers. She partnered with local artists and country musicians again to paint and construct quilt block murals patterned after quilts actually owned by the singers. These were placed at significant country music destinations in the county.
Breathing new life into the old
But not all were so easy or cut and dry. Some assets, like the Oil Springs Cultural Arts and Recreation Center, or OSCAR, required significant tender loving care. Once a school, the building had sustained significant water damage and was in desperate need of repair.
Despite the damage, Cockerham saw the building's potential as a new business incubator and approached the owner who was at a loss as to what do to with the large, deteriorating structure. She also asked community members if they knew any budding entrepreneurs who might be interested in locating in the facility, if it were usable. She received an overwhelming response from area artists.
With the help of volunteers, backing from the local Cooperative Extension council, and years of work, Cockerham was able to make the OSCAR Center into an artistic show place.
Debra Burchett is one of the artists Cockerham encouraged and recruited to help paint murals at the OSCAR. Although Burchett had never painted a mural before, Cockerham was impressed by her work on another community art project and knew Burchett had the potential. Since that first mural, Burchett has painted others at the center, in neighboring Magoffin County, and at the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum.
“Without this, I wouldn't be painting at all,” she said.
Now after 15 years, the center is restored and generating income. In addition to holding at least one weekly art class, local artists, a local ministry and a Christian academy rent space at the facility. The renters and classes bring in around $30,000 annually. Most of the generated income goes toward the center’s electric bill and helps make the center self-sustaining.
The Francis M. Stafford House required a similar preservation effort. With the first parts of the structure constructed in the 1820s, the house is the oldest home within the Paintsville city limits. However, it had not been occupied since the 1970s and was facing demolition three years ago. Cockerham and the Johnson County Family and Consumer Sciences Extension council convinced the owners of its historical significance and began looking at ways to promote its preservation.
“We needed to not just restore it, but to demonstrate how it could be easily managed and pay for its own expenses, if we were to convince the city or tourism to take it over,” Cockerham said.
To do that, she turned to the Johnson Central High School culinary arts program. By preparing and serving meals at events in the building, they were able to show local leaders that the building could be used in creative ways to generate income to become self-sustaining. This, paired with careful budgeting, convinced the Paintsville Main Street program to take over the project in the summer of 2015.
To further help manage these and other historical sites, Cockerham, through a partnership with the Kentucky Arts Council, developed a nonprofit organization called the Route 23 Cultural Heritage Network in 2001. The organization is charged with continued preservation efforts and fiscal management of area assets in the network. The Stafford House and OSCAR Center are just two of the sites under the umbrella.
Mapping the artists
Asset mapping isn't just about building preservation. Cockerham utilized asset mapping again when she hired a person to go throughout the region and identify heritage artists, or those that engaged in arts and crafts that past generations relied on for survival, such as woodworking or quilting. When the community hosted an event that had the potential to be a good avenue for a particular artist to showcase their talent, Cockerham would invite them.
As a result, she developed a mentorship program between area heritage artists and those interested in learning a particular craft. The heritage artist was paid for showcasing their work and training an apprentice at a cultural event like the county's annual Heritage Days Festival. In turn, the apprentice would donate their time back to the community once they mastered the skill.
Lauterwasser's job at The Mountain HomePlace is a direct result of the mentorship program. Several years ago, Lauterwasser was paired with Debbie Conley, a local artist who taught her the heritage skills of spinning and weaving during the Heritage Days Festival. Lauterwasser's skills and work ethic were readily recognized by The Mountain HomePlace management, who hired her in the spring of 2015 to give tours and display her heritage arts skills.
“The job is a perfect match for her and her skills,” Cockerham said.
From Johnson County to Kentucky's corners
Asset identification and mapping as a part of community visioning and planning was so successful in Johnson County that UK specialists have duplicated the process in 60 other counties, modifying the process based on the county's needs and wants.
“That wild and crazy idea we had that local people could lead their own community development efforts was correct, and Johnson County was the first one to prove it could be done,” Garkovich said.