March 5, 2018
In Berea, Kentucky, the local government has taken stock of and decided to invest in the town’s historic artistry and crafting. Mayor Steven Connelly joined Nick to share some of the unique history of his town, such as how they pushed back against segregationist policies of the Jim Crow South, and he shared news of what will be a bright future driven by tourism based on the local folk art heritage.
[Stephen Israel] In Berea, Kentucky, the local government has taken stock of the town’s historic artistry and crafting traditions, decided to invest – and the craziest part – it seems to be working. Mayor Steven Connelly joined Nick to share some of the history of his unique town, like how they pushed back against segregationist policies of the Jim Crow South, and he shared news of what will hopefully be a bright future driven by tourism based on the local folk art heritage. Also just so you know, this episode is brought to you in partnership with the Rural Maryland Council as we explore historic rural communities on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today, we are joined by Steven Connelly who has served as Berea, Kentucky’s mayor since January of 2003. He was a member of the Berea City Council from January of 1997 through to December of 2002. And during Steve’s tenure, the city has seen a marked increase of activities from local businesses and craftspeople as well as tourism. Since the mayor’s position is part-time, Mayor Connelly also has a private law practice. Steven, it’s a pleasure to have you on today on PreserveCast and get a chance to get a chance to talk to you about all the fantastic things that are happening in Berea, Kentucky.
[Steven Connelly] Thank you. Good to be on your show.
[NR] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, sort of how you got into politics in local government, and then we’ll go from there. So how does one become the mayor of Berea, Kentucky?
[SC] Well, you have to seize the opportunity. Berea got its first mayor in 1910 and I’m number four, so they are few and far between. I don’t know exactly what that says about our community, but I had as you know served for six years on City Council and I thought that I could make more of an impact on policy serving as mayor. We had a strong mayor form of government and there’s a fairly strict division between legislative and executive actions in our government in Kentucky.
My father had been on City Council for 18 years as I was growing up, so no doubt he had an influence on me. But as a small business owner, small-town lawyer, I also thought that it was sort of my obligation to be involved and to try to work toward making our community the best place that it could be. I should say though that I’m married and I had two children at the time. My wife and I were both graduates of Berea College. I’m a resident of Berea. Originally, she moved here from Virginia to come to college. So that we had strong ties to our community and it was very important to us.
[NR] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about Berea, kind of set the table for what kind of a community is because not everyone maybe family with it. Although hopefully after this interview, everyone would want to come visit and spend money there Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what we should know about Berea? How would you describe it: size, population, all those good details?
[SC] Berea is a small town in central Kentucky. It is sometimes said to be the gateway to the mountains because we are on the edge of the Bluegrass and the Appalachian Mountains. It became a community at the same time time that the College was growing up. Before I get into that significant history, though, I ought to just say two other things. That we are a town of about 15,000 people. We are not a county seat. Kentucky has 120 counties. Richmond is our county seat and so we are one of the unusual counties that have two towns – two significant towns within the county – that are sometimes rivals but more often the three governments, the two cities and the county government are looking for ways that we can cooperate and work together whether its emergency services or an airport board or 911 dispatch services.
But Berea was begun as an abolitionist outpost in a slave state before the Civil War in 1853 when Reverend John Thee came and preached at the request of Cautious Clay, a nephew of Henry Clay, both who had certain abolitionist or emancipationist ideas himself. Berea has a long history of being outspoken in support of Civil Rights. And, in fact, the residents of Berea were exiled in 1859 and returned – many of them returned after the Civil War – and the college was restarted.
The national significance of this didn’t really dawn on me until later in life. But starting after the Civil War, around 1870 Berea College and the City of Berea affirmatively tried to make itself an operating experiment that was an alternative to Jim Crow Society. The town and the College welcomed freed African-Americans. The College opened their doors to educate African-Americans as well as women, I might say, which was radical at the time, and also significantly offered to help provide land ownership. This was the basis of the vision for a society that was the complete opposite of what, by the turn, of the century our country had adopted, the Jim Crow Society. In fact, the Kentucky State Legislature passed a law to close Berea College from having interracial education in 1904 and it became fully effective in 1908 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to do so. And so Berea College became segregated in 1908 until 1950. And prior to the Brown vs. Board of Education, there’s some various legal reasons, the college seized the opportunity in 1950 to begin reintegrating itself in our community.
The first significant thing that you should know about Berea is how intertwined the small town and the College, which has about 1,600 liberal arts students but also an endowment that exceeds $1 billion dollars. The relationship and the presence of the College has been significant from the very early days and continues to influence the economy, and the politics, and the values of our community. I’ll probably comment more on that later. The second real theme of our town is the 125 years of arts and craft development, interest, and support that came about. Those are the two things that I would mention to any newcomer. Berea’s long history of Civil Rights and also its history of art and craft make us a distinctive community and a community that, well, it is atypical for a 15,000 populated town that’s not a county seat in the middle of the United States.
[NR] And so you painted an excellent picture and one that’s really interesting in the sense of just how unique this place is and all of these different aspects that come together to create this really interesting community. When you came in as mayor, though, I understand that the arts and crafts community, it needed some help. So what kind of actions did you take?Because I think a lot of people around the country who care about their communities and feel that they’re just as unique as a place like Berea [who] see some of the traditional aspects of their community that perhaps have fallen on harder times or struggling a little bit and they want to know what kind of actions to kind of boost them and to build them up. So what happened in Berea that you think is sort of significant?
[SC] To answer that question you have to take a somewhat longer view. We promote Berea today by saying it is a town where art’s alive. And I think we can truly say that because of the many opportunities that a visitor would have to encounter art, whether it’s a mural or whether it’s the statues that are out on the roadside, whether it’s the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea that is really Kentucky’s gateway to the arts and crafts of the whole state or the shops and workshop of our working artists. Art and an art experience are easily available in Berea.
How did that happen? And I would say in a typical long-winded answer or reply to your question that art is active in Berea because of this long history, 125-year history, that started when the College began to focus its attention on Appalachia and to try to seek ways to allow the parents to find ways with local skills to earn money. This was a time in our country when we were shifting to a machine society. We were moving away from, as a culture, from handcraft to more business industry mechanized factory-type. This is the time of Henry Ford and the assembly line. And so Berea’s entry as a college into this area represented a revival of the craft that for the last several decades had been relegated to the corner and was being moved away from.
What happened, though, over this 125 years was that there has been an uncoordinated and a self-interested but mutually-supportive activity by Berea College, individual artists, some of whom were on the college faculty, art and craft organizations, and really, only recently, state and local government. That, in retrospect, this activity that was self-initiated over these decades built up this confluence of unplanned common interest evolved erratically, but ultimately into the multiple layers of our district infrastructure that offer this experience to the ordinary visitor today.
Now, specifically to your question, what was the need that we had as a town and in the community in the ’70s and the ’80s, and in the period when I came into office, first in city council and then as mayor. We had, over this 125 years, periods of activity that would peak and then fall off depending upon who was doing what and what was going on in the greater – the country and the world. I mean, as you can imagine, during World War II, there was a very different emphasis. During the ’30s, for instance, as an example, during the Depression there was a different artistic opportunity and need.
After World War II, Berea got its Interstate exit in 1966, and the opportunity of the interstate caused artists to think about, “Well, we’ll set up a shop.” There was a now well-known artist by the name of Rudy Osolnik who had come in the ’40s to the College to teach industrial technology. He was a woodworker, and when the Interstate opened in 1966, he built a building and started selling his woodcrafts. We have a downtown area where this also happened; and, in fact, the art community during the decades of the ’70s and the ’80s and continuing up till today were real investors in our community as small-time entrepreneurs to put their own money into local shops and help them stimulate activity that, ultimately, drew in tourists and supported, as I was saying, this artistic infrastructure that helped build a synergy of artistic activity that blended with a lot of other efforts.
And so, I would say, probably two things we did as local governments in my time. We saw this activity, but if you notice, I didn’t identify local government as really doing much. In 1982, the World’s Fair was held in Knoxville, Tennessee. We were also having a depression or a recession, I guess. And so the Chamber of Commerce asked the city to organize a Tourism Commission, and the chamber said it would if they would pass the appropriate tax to fund it, and it was a tax that was to be used to support tourism. And from 1982 until 2007, we had a tourism commission that tried to be involved in this arts movement with the idea of attracting tourists.
What happened in 2007 was that we put the tax not just on hotel, motels but on restaurants. And so what that did was that provided an extra infusion of cash that didn’t have to come from our general fund. It came from the tourism operation itself, which now today, is over $1 million dollars a year that funds our tourism activity. It allowed the city to hire a professional advertising agency and the first they did was to brand Berea, and that’s where we came up with this idea of “Berea, a town where art’s alive.” That was the brand that we wanted to make sure we could keep, and the decision to focus on our working artists. Because we learned at that time in 1967, right after the interstate came, the arts organizations had their first outdoor festival. The College owns 15,000 acres of forest land on the edge of town – mountainous, beautiful. And in the ’50s as part of their 100-year celebration, they built an amphitheater, and they performed an outdoor drama that described the founding of Berea College and the town. And the arts community, Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, put on a summer craft festival in that amphitheater, and it was very popular, brought in a lot of people and, I guess, it was good for the arts community to be able to publicize itself, sell their wares. Pretty soon, over the years, we had a spring festival, a fall festival, and in 1982, another group started a summer one, so we had three outdoor festivals.
But by the ’90s, when I began to get involved, the tastes of the people had begun to change. They wanted air conditioning, and they didn’t want to be out where the mosquitoes might be. There was also a proliferation of these festivals. Everybody had a festival – Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green. And so not only did we decide to brand Berea, but we also decided to focus on our working artists, and we re-envisioned what a craft festival should be. Rather than asking people to come in during the day, go out to a pleasant wooded area, look at art, and make some purchases and then leave we – I say broadly – the arts planners and our organizers came up with this idea of we wanted to create an experience.
And so building on our working artists, we had a festival of “learnshops,” and you can imagine what that is. We have a jeweler that does a lot with pewter. He would teach a class to these interested people on making a mint julep pewter mug. We have a glass maker. She would teach a class and allow people who signed up to blow a Christmas ornament. We had woodworkers. We had basketmakers. All the various types of arts experience and they’ve even expanded it so that [if] you’re into local foods and people are learning how to treat a log to grow mushrooms. But we recreated the festival from being a place to just come and by something and be impressed by the handcrafted creation to one where the tourist could sign up. And what did that do for us?
That focused not just on an afternoon of activity but it got overnight stays. They might come and stay Saturday, Sunday, and our festival was for fourteen days. And so there would be a much longer residence, a broader opportunity to experience, and you could take level one, level two, level three. And really the ultimate idea is to convert Berea into a craft school but not a traditional brick-and-mortar school where you have a building where you come and you attend classes. We would utilize our working artists and their studios or other places that visiting artists could come in and set up.
So I would say that the two things was that the city added the restaurant pacts, which gave local government the capacity to invest in better advertising, social media, branding, and to develop this coordinated learnshop program, tourism, along those lines. And I can only comment about the farsightedness of some of the people who developed this. Not only did we look at tourists; but they began to develop reaching into our local schools so that we would have teachers bring classes and go through a tour and even a learnshop, and the curriculum that the artists would use would emphasize working in social studies, math, science, so that they could use the art experience to help extend their classroom activities and just think what we’re doing. Introducing that to the young people is beginning the process of creating a new generation of the artists.
And then our most recent addition to this program was we reached out to the college to develop an arts accelerator program. Some of our artists are aging. What’s going to happen when they retire, sell their building, leave, go to Florida or wherever they go? How are we going to replace these folks? So, in part, what we started thinking was, “We will talk with the college, we will help identify three to five perspective graduates who might like to have an internship for eighteen months where they would work in a streetfront operation painting or sculpting or whatever their craft was, they would interact with the public, and we would also work with M.A.C.E.D., a local economic development non-profit, to teach them the Kauffman FastTrac Business Skill Program so that they would not only have real experience but they would get a taste of what it would be like to start an arts business, maybe a studio of their own and to teach them the business skills that sometimes artists are lacking when they get into a business like this.”
And so those are some of the innovations that we were adding to the more typical thinking about how arts interacts with our economy. And in addition to the cultural strengths, and excitement that it brings to a community, it can also actually bring real dollars. Okay, I’ve wound down [laughter].
[NR] Okay. No, that’s fine. Well, obviously, there’s a lot of passion, and a lot of excitement, and a real concern and care about the future of arts and culture in Berea, and we can take that from what you’re telling us here. Let’s take a quick break. And when we come back I just want to hear about, maybe, some of the challenges. And then wrap up with asking you about how people can find out more about Berea and where they can go to find out how to come visit you. And then maybe find out about your favorite historic building or place, and we’ll do that right here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Tourism may be a big part of rural communities of the future, but in the past all it took was a railroad stop and a small settlement could be up and running. Did you know we just passed one the biggest railroad anniversaries? On February 28th, 1827, Chapter 123 of the 1826 Session Laws of Maryland passed a law enabling the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to be chartered as the first U.S. railway for commercial transport of passengers and freight. Not just that, it was also the first inter-city railroad in the United States.
At the time, with Baltimore being the second-largest city in the country, stakeholders invested so that Baltimore could compete with New York City for Western trade. The new law proposed that the capital of the company be fixed with a $3 million issue of stock in shares of $100 each. Stock was also available to individual subscribers, which meant that almost that almost every citizen of Baltimore owned a share by the time of construction.
Construction began on July 4th, 1828, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton – the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence – did the groundbreaking. It was not until May 24th, 1830, when the first line of track opened. The track was a thirteen-mile stretch that followed the upper Patapsco and Monocacy rivers to the Potomac ending in Ellicott’s Mills, now Ellicott City, Maryland. While it was not a long stretch by today’s standards, the track caused a lot of excitement due to the expedited travel time. However, the B&O still had skeptics because the steep winding grades of the route were at times too hard for the horse-drawn coaches and wagons to handle. It wasn’t until August 1830 that skeptics disappeared because the railroad adopted the steam-powered engine named the Tom Thumb.
By December 1st, 1831, the railroad had expanded to Frederick, totaling sixty miles of track. In August 1835 the B&O railroad connected Relay Junction, Maryland, then called Washington Junction, to Washington D.C. This connection crossed the upper Patapsco River on the Thomas Viaduct, which has been known as one the B&O’s signature structures. Two years later in 1837, a bridge was built across the Potomac, which connected the B&O to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. From Harpers Ferry, the B&O was able to connect with the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, which was the first convergence of two railroad companies in the U.S.
From 1837 to 1852, the B&O continued West adding stations in Cumberland, Maryland, all the way through Grafton, West Virginia. After Grafton the track turned northwest in order to reach Wheeling, West Virginia, the goal of its charter which was 379 miles from Baltimore. The last track was laid on January 1st, 1853 almost twenty-five years after commencing construction. [train engine noise] Anyway, there’s my train pulling in. Got to let you get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an e-mail to email@example.com and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Steven Connelly, who is Berea, Kentucky’s mayor and he’s been in that position since January 2003. Before we took our break we heard all about how Berea, Kentucky, has invested in its arts, its culture, and the unique confluence of its university, and the fantastic arts community that exists there, and the work that the local state and non-profit partners have done to invest in all of that. And, obviously, we heard about a lot of the successes and a lot of the excitement. Any big challenges or advice, for other people working in similar communities, that you would offer or encourage them to think about before they get into something like this? Was there pretty good support for adding that tax to restaurants? I mean, is there anything that you would point out or something you’d try and avoid if you were to go about doing this again?
[SC] I think I would say two things. One thing that we did, the city of Berea took a trip to Paducah, a town at the other end of Kentucky because they’re on the Ohio River and we heard that they were doing great things in the arts, and that they were really at the cutting-edge. We wanted to go down and just see if they were doing things that maybe we ought to be picking up. We quickly learned that we didn’t have an Ohio River. We didn’t have a National Quilt Museum. We didn’t have the type of urban-renewal program that they were using to be able to offer land and buildings to artists to attract new artists to their area. We learned quickly that we were not Paducah, and that we would have to focus our efforts to improve Berea on Berea’s attributes.
My first word of advice would be: don’t try to be some other place. Do an inventory, a cultural inventory, about what you have and what you value because you will be amazed. We did this and we were truly amazed at what we had, how many things, and oftentimes we tend to take a lot of this for granted. But see what assets exist in your town and where the opportunities to develop are.
And then the second biggest challenge, I would say, is when I describe Berea’s role, you get the highlights and everything sounds great. But as with all towns, we have divisions, and we had disagreement, and we have a tendency to forget our history, and we think in terms of the wisdom of the moment. Some people might say that conventional wisdom, “This is the right way because, well, that’s what they’re doing in the county seat” or, “This is what the state government says.” We forget our heritage. And as much as I describe the very vibrant arts community and activity, there is a large segment of Berea that thinks it is not significant, and it actually draws assets away from more meaningful activities like maybe the park program. And that we should be redoubling our effort to attracting industrial corporations, which pay big money, or they used to in wages, despite the fact that industrial employment has been growing less and less because of automation and offshoring. But we, too, have these differences of opinion and these challenges over what to value and how to accomplish the best things.
[NR] Yeah, and I think the point about doing a cultural survey and being honest with yourself, and also not trying to be someone else. I mean, it’s funny. When kids grow up, we tell them to be yourself, but when we do community redevelopment work or enhancement work, we all want to be somebody else [laughter] and so –
[SC] That’s right.
[NR] – obviously, there’s something to that recommendation that people give to children. If people want to learn more about Berea, I mean, obviously you’ve painted a really exciting and pretty fascinating picture. I know, personally, I want to go.
[SC] We’d love to have you.
[NR] Well, thank you. And what’s the best way to find out more? What’s the website? How do they get more information? What’s the best time of year to visit? Give us all those details.
[SC] Probably two web sites to check would be VisitBerea.com, the city of Berea tourism site, and it can show you what’s going on and get you connected with a whole lot. And then also if you check the website for Berea College. It will tell you about its history and its mission, and with those two sites, you’ll be able to get a good impression of Berea. And you might also – the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea is a state institution at Exit 77 on I-75. What it is is a really nice gateway to Kentucky art and crafts that is headquartered in Berea because we have been designated by the legislature the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky. They also have a website, and those three web sites would give you a good overview of what’s going on in Berea.
[NR] And do you have a favorite season?
[SC] There’s an awful lot that happens in July here, which is the traveling time for many people. But there’s a traditional music festival that’s in the fall. We have a spring and a fall festival. There are just lots of activities that are regularly happening, and so that’s what VisitBerea.com website can show you. There will be a calendar of events.
[NR] Fantastic. Well, before we let you go, and we really appreciate your time and painting this picture. And I think it’s going to be really helpful for people who are around the country thinking about trying to help their communities that they obviously care about, and hopefully they care about a quarter as much as you do Berea. But before we let you go, we ask everyone, do you have a favorite historic building or place?
[SC] The way I would respond to that is that I told you about the development of the arts and crafts here. We’re also known because Daniel Boone came through in 1775 on his way to Boonesborough. But we’re also known as being the gateway to the mountains, and on the edge of Berea, the College owns 15,000 acres of forest, and there are a number of pinnacles. So the favorite place I would say are the Pinnacles. It would be wrong to call them mountains, but they’re budding hills that a lot of people hike around.
And what I have come to learn is that we have one mountain called Indian Fort Mountain that in 1900s it was mistaken as a refuge for the prehistoric people that were here after the Ice Age. And recent excavations have said that it was really a holy mountain. It was a sacred mountain to the prehistoric people. It overlooks Berea, and in fact, one of the roads off our main street is called Prospect Street because it goes down the hill and you look at the prospect of the oversight pinnacle that you can see in the distance, and coincidentally, the college forest has been designated as a National Historic Site because of the work they do out there. It is also where the reservoirs are located that the city obtains its drinking water from. And at the foot of Indian Fort Mountain is where the amphitheater was that the college had their outdoor drama and we still have our annual traditional festivals, arts and crafts festivals out there. To visit the Indian Fort Mountain college forest pinnacle overlook to get a feeling for the, sort of the depth of the history that the Appalachian region contains, along with the people.
[NR] Well, you’ve painted a beautiful picture. You’re a fantastic spokesperson for your community, and obviously the passion comes across. On behalf of preservationists everywhere, we appreciate the good work that you’re doing and thank you for joining us today. We wish you the best of luck in all the things that you’re doing to make Berea a fantastic place. Thank you so much for joining us today.
[SC] Absolutely, thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!