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Appalachian Folk and Heritage Conference to shine a spotlight on regional culture

Feb. 17, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Leave it to a seed swap event to grow and vine up and over the fence, out into the neighbor's yard -- and then some.

Master gardener Kristi Ruggles was looking for a quiet public place where the Tri-State Area Seed Savers could have its heirloom seed swap.

Raceland-Worthington Independent Schools teacher Mike Francis, who goes to church with Ruggles, suggested the school, but also thought they should take the swap a step further -- why not turn the seed swap into a larger wintertime celebration of the area's rich Appalachian culture?

And so it goes, come 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23 when the John P. Stephens Cultural Arts Center at Raceland-Worthington High School in Raceland, Ky., will serve as a giant front porch, of sorts, as folks from around the Tri-State are invited to the Appalachian Folk and Heritage Conference, a free first-time event to share a day-long buffet of Appalachian arts and folk life.

Just a few of the highlights and folks involved include: free fiddling from award-winning musician and luthier Michael Garvin and Kentucky Memories, an heirloom seed swap by The Tri-State Area Seed Savers, traditional craft demonstrations, booths by the Boyd County and Greenup County Master Gardeners, The Rolling Hills Folk Center, The Potting Shed, re-enactors from the pioneer village, Wolfpen Woods, and informal talks with some of the region's storytellers and artists including professors from Ashland Community and Technical College, as well as Soc Clay, the legendary Kentucky outdoorsman and outdoors journalist who is in the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

They will also show two documentary films by the Whitesburg, Ky.-based renowned media group, Appalshop.

At 10 a.m. will be the film "Morgan Sexton: Banjo Player from Bull Creek" about the banjoist who won the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Award. Then at 4 p.m. will be a showing of the Appalshop doc "Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song," about the iconic West Virginia native songwriter and artist, Hazel Dickens, a member of the WV Music Hall of Fame.

Francis, 41, and who works with kids at the Ashland Day Treatment Center, said since he moved into the area in 2005, he's been amazed at the area's rich culture, but also at the lack of opportunities for letting it shine.

"As a teacher my concern is always that we are so worried about being global that we forget about being very local and we are losing a lot of that culture," Francis said. "I think there are so many things about this area that make it different than somewhere else and I know a lot of people who do too. A lot of people are segmented into groups so this is getting musicians, farmers, teachers and bringing them all under the same roof."

Francis, who worked for seven years as a disc jockey for the 50,000-watt radio station WRVG-FM in Georgetown, Ky., said he sees the informal conference as like a winter-time festival giving farmers and folks wanting to know more about heirloom seeds a perfect window into spring, and stitching together cross-cultural connections with folks wanting to learn more of the old -time ways whether its local history or folk medicine.

"One of the advantages is that it is winter and there aren't a lot of other things like this going on," Francis said. "In the summer there can be five or six festivals every weekend. We're right in the middle of winter with nothing going on and that's kind of good."

To reel in more folks to the one-day conference, Francis enlisted Ruggles, as well as University of Kentucky Extension Agent Anne Stephens, who also works part-time for Raceland-Worthington Schools, in her unique role as an arts director who helps arts groups utilize the school's state-of-the-art facilities for a wide-range of community events and performances.

Francis contacted many local folks including his wife's uncle, well-known local historian and judge Lewis Nicholls, who has a new book coming out on Greenup County history. He'll be on a 12:30 p.m. panel called "Tracing Our Past: A Journey Through Appalachia" - with Roland Burns and Ernie Tucker discussing how our area has evolved and changed through the generations.

"Once we had a venue to put something like this on getting the people was like people coming out of the wood work and everybody has been excited about it and so the idea snowballed," Francis said. "It was almost like walking a trail. I would talk to someone and then they would say, 'well, have you talked to this person?' I've learned a lot and that's been a lot of fun already."

Francis said the event, which will also have some limited food concessions from local groups, will be spread through the Cultural Arts Center with the front area filled with re-enactors and vendors and the Cultural Center where folks will do presentations and then the seed swap just down the hall.

Stephens said she loves this type of event as it really hits on the high school arts center's mission of keeping a connection between the school and the community.

"The school being the educational institution in the community has to reach beyond the students and to their families also and to encourage families to look within their own families and their own heritage to learn more about it and to experience it," Stephens said. "That will not only keep those traditions alive but also creates that community."

Creating that community, one that cherishes the rich Appalachian culture and that continues to save and plant the seeds of its best practices for the next generation is something that excites gardener and small business owner, Ruggles, who's perhaps best known in Huntington as co-owner of The Potting Shed, located inside Common Ground Shoppes, Shop 9 at Heritage Station.

A veteran heirloom gardener whose Huntington garden shop carries organic and heirloom High Mowing Seeds from Vermont and gardening books and tools, Ruggles said the loose confederation of gardeners, the Tri-State Seed Savers, simply share their love of gardening with old-time varieties of seeds that are organic, not genetically modified and that contain a wide berth of varieties not often carried by big box retail home and garden stores.

At the conference, there will be a panel at 11 a.m. called "Farming and Gardening in Eastern Kentucky" that will feature well-known greenhouse owner and farmer, Kenny Imel, Aaron Boyd, Kevin Scaggs and others discussing gardening and farming techniques in our area.

Ruggles, who grows such heirloom varieties as the Abe Lincoln tomato (one she got at the gardening fest at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, said fellow heirloom gardeners and seed savers such as Imel and Scaggs will talk about some of their varieties and adventures in gardening as well as sharing ideas on how to start seeds and also how to save seeds for the next season.

"Kenny Imel knows a lot of farmers who died and they would not share their seed, and some probably would have but their family members didn't know they had a special variety passed down generations," Ruggles said. "We just want to get awareness out there, and we want to start a seed bank."

The Seed Savers will also have displays up including mason jars of Scaggs' wealth of seeds (he has about 16 different varieties of beans and tomatoes with local roots). Also, Ruggles, through her shop, will have lots of heirloom seed samples to give away as well.

Such well-known heirloom seed companies as High Mowing Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom and Comstock, Ferre and Co., (which was bought by Baker Creek) all sent seeds and books for giveaways and door prizes to Ruggles' shop, where her 2013 seed displays have been up for a couple weeks.

"I want to let people know if you don't have something to share come anyway, we do have seeds whether you bring them or not and then you can learn how to save from that," Ruggles said.

Francis said he hopes everyone who wants to know more about heirloom gardening or some slice of our local culture comes out to learn more and to be proud of the area's heritage.

"I think if it was just a seed swap that some people might feel like, 'well I don't know enough to justify just going and hanging out with the seed swappers,' but this way you can kind of see what they are doing and that goes for everything. You'll be able to kind of walk over and see what it is," Francis said. "... We're hoping that by being more approachable and open to the public we will have people from 5 to 85 showing up. We want to just open up and let people talk about the issues and talk about the culture and hopefully they can decide where this thing goes by saying what is important to them."

Seed 'n' Story Swapping

Here's a look at the new Appalachian Folk and Heritage Conference

WHAT: A day-long interactive public forum on Appalachian folk culture featuring free live music, an heirloom seed swap by The Tri-State Area Seed Savers, traditional craft demonstrations, booths by the Boyd County and Greenup County Master Gardeners and much more.

WHERE: John P. Stephens Cultural Arts Center at Raceland-Worthington High School in Raceland, Ky.

WHEN: From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23

HOW MUCH: Free and open to the public

GETTING THERE: The John P. Stephens Cultural Arts Center (CAC) is located at Raceland-Worthington High School. Raceland High School 500 Ram Blvd. Raceland, KY 41169. Off U.S. 23 turn north onto Pond Run Road Drive 2 blocks to the stop sign. Turn left on Greenup Avenue. Raceland High School is 1/2 mile on left. Parking for the CAC is behind the High School.

ON THE WEB: http://appalachianconference.weebly.com/

THE SCHEDULE: 10 a.m. -- "Morgan Sexton: Banjo Player from Bull Creek, Appalshop film on Morgan Sexton, banjoist who won the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Award

10:30 a.m. -- Speaker - Ernie Tucker: "Take a Feather from a Groundhog." Mr. Tucker is professor of history at Ashland Community and Technical College. Tucker's talk involves more than 35 years of collecting Eastern Kentucky folk remedies and the stories that go along with them.

11 a.m. -- Panel "Farming and Gardening in Eastern Kentucky" Kenny Imel, Aaron Boyd, others will discuss gardening and farming techniques in our area.

Noon -- Speaker, Soc Clay "The Mad Trappers View." Kentucky Poet Laureate and veteran outdoor photojournalist Soc Clay will discuss his latest work as well as stories he has collected in his journeys.

12:30 p.m. -- Panel - Tracing Our Past: A Journey Through Appalachia - Dr. Roland Burns, Judge Lewis Nicholls, and Ernie Tucker will discuss our Appalachian past, how our area has evolved and changed through the generations.

1:30 p.m. -- Music - Michael Garvin and Kentucky Memories - Michael Garvin is a traditional fiddle player and Luthier. Garvin along with family and friends will take us on a musical journey through our Appalachian roots.

2:30 p.m. -- Speaker, Christie Cook: "Oral Storytelling, the Heart of Appalachian Culture." Cook will discuss the roots of oral storytelling and its importance in our region.

3 p.m. -- Panel - Forging Our Future: 21st Century Appalachia. Panelists include Dr. Kay Adkins, Tina Garland, and local small business owners. They will discuss the current state of economics and education in our area and look towards new trends in education and entrepreneurship.

4 p.m. -- "Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song." Appalshop documentary film about one of the pioneering woman of bluegrass and hard-core country music, the late Hazel Dickens.