“Welcome back to Carcassonne!” exclaimed the homespun flyers for the dinner, crafts fair, and square dance held Saturday night at the Carcassonne Community Center.
And a warm welcome it was. Hundreds of people of all ages packed the old mountaintop schoolhouse, spilling out onto the porch and playground outside. So many people came that folks were parking at the bottom of the hill and hoofing it up.
The cakewalk was so popular that two circles were formed, one inside the other, and more than 15 cakes were given away. A band including banjo legend Lee Sexton and fiddle prodigy Natalie Tomlinson filled the center with tunes all night long, as grandparents and grandchildren, teenagers and young adults, and citizens and public officials from across the region talked, played, danced, and enjoyed a delicious soup bean dinner together.
The future of Carcassonne did not always look so bright. A year and a half ago Jon Henrikson, the center’s longtime president, told Mountain Eagle readers that the Carcassonne square dance “may be coming to an end.”
“Some of us may be getting too old or too few or too tired to keep things going, or maybe we need some more help or maybe we need to say thanks and goodbye to the Carcassonne square dance,” he said. As recently as this past winter, meeting attendance was low and prospects were bleak.
But help was on the way. Last spring Henrikson partnered with Appalshop and several other community institutions to write a major grant from the national creative placemaking fund Art- Place America. Last summer ArtPlace awarded a $450,000 grant to Letcher County, and last fall the partners began a major project to bring the county’s cultural institutions together into what they call a “culture hub.”
It’s a grassroots, bottom-up economic development project. The project is bringing together institutions that are creating community wealth across the county — community centers, small tech and retail and agriculture businesses, art and artisan organizations, Extension services, and more. The point is for people to recognize that they can make a better Letcher County together, that they can imagine and create an economy that’s different from the one we see right now.
Jon Henrikson and I spent the winter months meeting with members of the Carcassonne community and partner organizations across the county. They identified shared hopes, dreams, and needs, and worked with other local leaders to make a plan.
“We knew we couldn’t just keep doing what we were doing,” said Henrikson. “Just a square dance alone wasn’t working. But if we partner with the schools to bring in more young people, and connect the square dance to crafts and food and other activities that other people are into, we could have something for everyone.”
The organizing work paid off. At the end of 2015, the monthly Carcassonne community meetings had five people in attendance; by March, they had 30. In addition to Saturday’s event, Carcassonne recently hosted a field trip from Letcher Elementary School, and plans are in the works for more school and camp programs this summer. Next month, in addition to hosting the Carcassonne Square Dance at Seedtime on the Cumberland, the center is planning a pie and box auction supper and film night. In July, the center will host another dinner and square dance, with visitors from across the country planning to attend.
(Ben Fink is Appalshop’s Creative Placemaking Project Manager)