Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center
by Monica McCann
Located in the small community of Stecoah in North Carolina’s Graham County, Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center (SVCAC) vitally contributes to the preservation of the unique cultural traditions of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and carries on those traditions through education, celebration, and economic opportunities.
SVCAC is located in the now-renovated Stecoah Union School, which first opened in 1926 and served as the center of the community for sixty-eight years until it closed in 1994. A beautiful solid stone structure surrounded by ten acres of natural mountain land, the school was originally built using native rock and the labor and skill of local residents. SVCAC was started by a group of concerned citizens dedicated to restoring the historic school. In just a few short years, the renovated school is now a vibrant community center, offering over 20 programs to approximately 10,000 people annually. Through their programs, SVCAC has enabled the Southern Appalachian mountain culture to thrive in the small town of Stecoah and the greater area of Graham County and Western North Carolina.
All of SVCAC educational opportunities are rooted in promoting the Southern Appalachian mountain culture. These opportunities are available for people of all ages, from the youngest kindergarteners to the eldest in the community. A Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program teaches students to play the fiddle,banjo, mandolin, guitar, or upright bass. The Center provides the instruments and all lessons are free of charge, providing the students a chance to reclaim and help preserve the music of their heritage. JAM students often perform at local festivals and events and have an end-of-year recital. After school programs for students in grades K-8 offer not only academic assistance, but also provide social and cultural activities in music, arts, and crafts.
Particularly vital to the community are the life-long learning opportunities offered by SVCAC. Local artisan members of the Stecoah Valley Weavers provide both beginning and advanced weaving classes all year round. Other adult craft classes include jewelry making, soap making, gourd crafting, knitting, and quilting. Culinary classes include Appalachian jam-making, hearty bread baking, and campfire cooking. SVCAC has even begun developing a community garden and offers classes in basic gardening and vegetable planting.
SVCAC brings the Southern Appalachian mountain culture to life through the events and festivals they feature in the community. One of their most popular events is their summer performing art series, An Appalachian Evening, which hosts award-winning artists in bluegrass, folk, and old-time mountain music who perform in the renovated auditorium portion of the school. An Appalachian Dinner can be enjoyed prior to each show. Locals prepare the meals, which feature traditional Southern Appalachian mountain cuisine prepared using local produce.
The SVCAC Harvest Festival is held every fall on school grounds. Along with mountain music and dancing, attendees can learn about traditional agriculture by viewing antique tractors and exhibits like corn-grinding. An associated country fair offers competitions and exhibits of jams, jellies, pies, cakes, quilts, and needlework. A Civil War encampment area is also set up for history enthusiasts.
Equally important are the economic opportunities SVCAC provides. SVCAC renovated the old school cafeteria kitchen facility into a commercial kitchen available for public use (known as Stecoah Valley Food Ventures). The kitchen is a NC Department of Agriculture inspected and sanitation graded facility featuring modern kitchen equipment with cooler and dry storage space. For a small fee, the kitchen can be used to help start or grow a small food industry business. In fact, the largest user is a non-profit organization—the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association—which utilizes the commercial kitchen for their ramp project. Members sustainably harvest locally grown ramps (a native and pungent onion-like plant) to then make, store, package, and market ramp value-added food products. This project is so successful it created 64 seasonal jobs this past year.
SVCAC has also set up an Artisans Gallery in the school that offers a wide variety of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts, including: paintings, pottery, weavings, wood-turned items, glass works, photography, note cards, jewelry, soaps, quilts, books, and other crafts. The Gallery also features the works of many talented Cherokee Indian artists whose beadwork, pottery, masks, and other artworks are produced today in the traditional ways of their ancestors. The Gallery showcases the work of more than 100 artisans, including more than 50 members of the Stecoah Artisans Guild. The collaboration of the Gallery and the Guild plays a vital role in preserving mountain crafts and creating an opportunity to strengthen and sustain the arts community.
The opportunities and services SVCAC provides are especially important given the region in which they are located. Graham County is a small and relatively isolated place. Bordering Tennessee, Stecoah is far from the larger urban centers of Raleigh or even Asheville. The county has a population of less than 8,000 people and much of the land is uninhabitable. Approximately 65-70% of the county’s land is in public holdings (mostly National Forest) that are scattered throughout the county, leading to the relative isolation of the residents. Although so much public land provides some economic opportunity through tourism, the county is economically distressed with a high poverty rate of 19.5%.
This makes the contributions of Stecoah Valley Center even more meaningful and significant. They serve as an exemplary model for communities who want to keep their cultural traditions alive. Whereas other communities are struggling to simply preserve their culture, Stecoah is a community where their traditions are thriving. Traditions are not only being preserved for visitors and future generations to learn about, but the community is living their traditions every day. The music, food, dancing, crafts, and other traditions are woven into the everyday lives of community members because SVCAC has so effectively provided a community center where residents can celebrate, learn, and gain from their traditions.
If you would like to visit the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center or learn more about the organization, please visit their website at <http://www.stecoahvalleycenter.com/>.
Monica McCann works for the The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program (RCP), which has worked for nearly 20 years in distressed communities throughout North Carolina to build successful working partnerships with more than 250 grassroots organizations.
Original publication citation:
McCann, Monica. “Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 56.2 (Fall-Winter 2009): 30-33.