Whitesburg KY
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Hemphill Community Center is an institution

Many of us have fond memories of the once lively, densely populated and thriving mining camps. Even the smaller towns had stores, restaurants, theaters, soda fountains and the daily sounds of trains and coal gons rolling. We rushed to get across railroad crossings before the train got there and fussed when we had to wait.

When the coal mines closed and the railroad tracks were pulled out there was a deafening silence. Now we long to hear the rhythmic clickety clack of steel wheels rolling across steel track joints and the mournful sound of a distant train whistle. Many mining camps are drying up as businesses close one by one and some towns disappear altogether. Residents feel as though the lifeblood of their community is being sucked out. Reunions always turn to solemn conversations of ‘the way we were’.

Many of our former residents return each year searching for some vestige of their old neighborhood to rekindle their fond childhood memories. Many times the last sign of community life is our schools. As long as there are schools with kids laughing and playing and growing up to become good citizens we have hope that the community will stay alive.

Ask Mable Johnson and Teresa Fox of Jackhorn what the Hemphill Grade School meant to them. Both had worked for the Letcher County School System and both were teacher assistants in the Hemphill Grade School when it closed in 1996. The sentiment of both was the same, “It broke our hearts.”

For nearly half a century the school, which opened in 1948, prepared thousands of our brightest kids to further their education at the Fleming-Neon school. The education they received during those formative years in the lower grades gave them the confidence to compete with the best students in high school and college and to be competitive in all walks of life.

Mable recalls that the building sat empty for a period while the Letcher County School Board pondered its fate. “About the only use for the building was as a polling place during elections”, said Mable who was a precinct officer. “I sat there all day and looked at how dirty and run down the facility had become since the school was closed.”

She said that she began to put together some ideas on how to save the old school. “We got wind that the property was going to be sold and torn down to build low-income housing. I got with my friend Teresa Fox and we decided to try to get funding to purchase the school from the school board and turn it into a community center. Teresa and I went to school board meetings and tried to lease the property or get the school board to give it to the community. Our efforts were futile at first; they wanted to sell the property. We contacted our state congress people and tried to get funding to make the purchase. We enlisted school board member Will Smith and school employee Doug Wright to help support our efforts. We went to fiscal court meetings and eventually got them to purchase the property and lease it to us for a nominal fee. We formed a nonprofit organization and in 1999 we began to breathe fresh air back into our community via the Hemphill Community Center.” Mable has been the chairwoman from the beginning and Teresa is the co-chairwoman.

Teresa recalls, “We had to agree to bear all of the costs of maintaining the facility and paying all of the utilities. Initially we had many eager volunteers to help clean and paint and develop a plan of action. Everyone was so happy to save the school and was glad to contribute their time and talents. All of our officers, directors and advisors and volunteers are from within the community. We created programs to involve the whole community but at the same time we had to generate money to maintain the facility. We had various types of socials and we sold sit-down dinners and carry-out dinners to generate the money to pay the overhead. We knew that the best way to keep the project alive was to involve our kids. We created events such as Breakfast with Santa Claus and Breakfast with the Easter Bunny. In the summer we have parties for the kids and we host the Boy Scouts and the Kids Nature Camp for one week in July. We organize hikes in the woods and take them on bus tours. A $10 fee pays for their insurance and a T-shirt. For those who cannot afford the fee we have sponsors such as Equitable Resources who make sure no kid is left out of the program for the lack of money. LKLP provides lunches for the kids at no charge. Fiscal court has helped with some funding through the parks and recreation board for special projects such as upgrades to the facility.”

Teresa says that there is rarely a week goes by that they don’t host some community event such as parties, showers or reunions. “We set aside Saturdays for that purpose.”

Soon after acquiring the facility the board decided to try doing some music shows. The Seco Company Store had stopped doing music shows so they contacted Astor Taylor who brought his band, East KY Tyme to Hemphill to perform two Fridays each month and they have been the house band ever since. The idea was successful from the beginning. Soon there were other bands calling and wanting to get booked. The directors decided to try doing a music show every Friday night and the rest is history. The concept of music shows and the accompanying food concessions have kept the bills paid all these years. The organization does not charge an admission but donations at the door pay the bands and generally generate enough money to help pay the utilities. Last year more than $2,000 was needed to buy coal to keep the furnace going.

“We try to maintain the entire building just as it was the last day of school,” said Mable. “We still have the trophies on display and we have set aside a historical room to display old photographs and uniforms the athletes and cheerleaders wore when they were here. We also have started a library which will be an ongoing project. We hope to get computers installed so the kids and adults can stay current with modern technology.”

Both Mable and Teresa commended Astor Taylor for his contribution to the center’s success. “He is more than just another musician; he is family. He always pulls a big crowd and he knows how to work the audience. He and his band members are always out there shaking hands and making everyone feel welcome. They help create a family atmosphere that makes people want to come back again and again. Even when Astor is not scheduled to play he is still there promoting the venue. His contribution has been immeasurable.”

At the Hemphill Community Center a visitor will enjoy good bluegrass music, clogging and two-stepping in a clean, family-oriented atmosphere. There is no alcohol allowed and no smoking indoors. You will find people of all ages enjoying the friendly atmosphere and an eight-year-old boy is not embarrassed to do some two-stepping with his grandmother while a one-yearold baby who has just learned to walk is trying to learn to clog.

Mable and Teresa are quick to recognize the contributions of their founding members and the many people who have serve the organization through the years. They especially wanted to commend Iolene Fleming and Starla Fleming for their many years of service.

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