Al Jazeera America

5 days in Kentucky: Small town conceives new life after mining

Whitesburg is reinventing itself as a creative mecca with a heart of coal

This is the fourth in a five-part series, “Fed up in Kentucky,” exploring how political issues are playing out in personal ways in the Bluegrass State this election season.

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Kentucky’s voters could determine the balance of power in the Senate next month, and here in the eastern part of the state, the struggling economy is a top concern for most residents. With coal jobs disappearing, people are leaving to find work. Some communities feel like ghost towns.

Whitesburg, however, isn’t one of them. The small central Appalachian town (pop. 2,057) is using a mix of offbeat, independent businesses to turn things around and ensure life after coal. Some are run by entrepreneurs who grew up in eastern Kentucky and have returned after getting an education or experiences outside the region. Others never left — and never want to. 

Tattoo artist John Haywood, who opened Parlor Room Tattoo Shop in downtown Whitesburg  in the summer of 2011, designs distinctive and artistic tattoos. 

He sports a lot of tattoos himself including some that pay homage to his roots, done when he lived outside the region and felt homesick.

John Haywood, owner of Parlor Room Tattoo Shop in Whitesburg, colors in Jordan Garnett’s mining-themed tattoo.
Libby Casey / Al Jazeera America

“At the time I didn’t know I’d ever be back in eastern Kentucky, and I wanted a reminder of the landscape,” he said. A tattoo on his arm depicts overflowing coal cars. Another is twist on tradition: a zombie in a coal miner’s hat.

“My whole family was brought up in coal,” Haywood said. “So that’s my way of just paying tribute to that.”

He always thought he would seek his fortune away from his boyhood home of central Appalachia. He moved to Louisville and got a master’s degree in fine art.

“One of the things my papaw — my grandfather — always said, he wanted me to get an education,” Haywood said as he tattooed in the shading of a skeleton coal miner on customer Jordan Garnett’s side. “He didn’t want me to go down in those mines, because he had broken down. He had black lung. He had problems as a result of going down in the mines.”

But the mountains, the community, the trees — even coal — called Haywood back.

When he and his family moved to a farm in the Kentucky hills, Whitesburg was the obvious choice to set up a business. It’s the closest town and has, as Haywood describes it, “a little bit of nightlife getting going here.” Whitesburg residents voted two years ago to make it easier for restaurants to sell alcohol in what was for decades a dry town. Haywood found a cheap basement space in downtown Whitesburg and let the customers find him.

“Coal miners around here, that’s one thing I was excited about when I came home,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do more pictures related to coal mining, mountain heritage sort of stuff.”

Garnett, 25, a truck driver who hauls coal, says the skeleton coal miner tattoo Haywood designed for him will last forever. But he knows his job in the coal industry may not. “It kind of represents, him being the miner, dead — it’s kind of like the industry,” Garnett said.

A desire to preserve the heritage of eastern Kentucky inspired miner and photographer Tom Biggs to commission a coal-themed tattoo from Haywood. He proudly shows off the colorful design that covers his upper right arm. 

“For me, I’m proud of what I do. Proud of where I’m at,” he said. “It means a lot to me that people know what I do and know what I believe.” 

Down the street from Haywood’s tattoo parlor, Ben Spangler and three friends opened the Roundabout Music Company record shop June. Although unemployment in Letcher County is twice the national average, he said there are opportunities for small-business owners. Prime storefronts are available, competition is low, and kids who need a place to hang out are built-in customers.

“We have people driving from West Virginia to check out our shop,” said Spangler. “You have to go over 100 miles to go to any other record store within our radius.”

For Kae Fisher, it was when her husband lost his job as an oilfield worker two years ago that she decided to open the first general store Whitesburg has seen in years. Business at the Railroad Street Mercantile is steady after its first year, and she just started a downtown merchants’ association. It has seven members. Fisher says they promote one another’s businesses, telling customers about what else Whitesburg has to offer.  

“We’ve always been a little weird,” Spangler said of Whiteburg’s creative resurrection as other coal towns crumble.

One of the biggest forces behind the town’s turnaround is Appalshop. The arts, media and education nonprofit started 45 years ago with government funding from the War on Poverty initiatives launched by President Lyndon Johnson. Its mission back then was teaching filmmaking to youth, and locals viewed with skepticism the hippies who ran it. Now those locals’ children and grandchildren, who grew up benefiting from Appalshop’s programs, run the center.  

Its mission includes educating people about the region and demonstrating that the culture is dynamic and sustainable, not something from the past. 

The group recently hosted a workshop for students from the University of Kentucky and Centre College on a tour of coal country and introduced them to local entrepreneurs making a difference. 

“The answer isn’t just to leave. It’s to do something,” Spangler told the roomful of students. “You shouldn’t just give up on a place because it takes some extra work.”

Ada Smith, institutional development director at Appalshop, sees arts and culture as the new “backbone industry” for Whitesburg. Her family has lived in the region for two centuries. She said when policymakers and politicians talk about bringing in jobs, they envision big industry moving to town. They tend to overlook what’s already there.

Smith said what’s unique about Whitesburg is that locals are taking the risks — and reaping the rewards. “When people commit to being in a place for a long haul,” she said, “you’re going to see a change.” 

For Spangler, the dire straits of coal country have a silver lining: a new generation of Kentuckians can follow in their ancestors’ footsteps — not down into the coal mines but in the tradition of resilience and self-reliance. 

“On one hand, it’s superscary because one of our biggest driving forces has collapsed. It’s not coming back. We know that,” he said. “But at the same time, we now have an opportunity to redefine what our industry or economic strengths are — which is also scary but also exciting.”

To view the “Fed up in Kentucky” series, tune in to “Al Jazeera America News” with John Seigenthaler this Mon. to Fri. at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

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