Spring Issue 2022

Community, Collaboration, and the Smithsonian in Rural Kentucky

By Susanna Pyatt

In February 2019, the staff of the Loretto Heritage Center in Marion County noticed an advertisement from Kentucky Humanities about an opportunity to host the traveling Smithsonian exhibit Crossroads: Change in Rural America. “We’re in rural America!” we thought. “This is perfect!” The geographic center of the state, Marion County is home to several small towns and unincorporated communities, countless farms of various sizes, several distilleries, and a handful of other industries. With a population of around 600 people, the town of Loretto is the largest community in the western part of the county. A large number of the residents in western Marion County are descended from Anglo-American Catholic families who migrated to this area in the late 18th century, prompting the region’s nickname, the “Kentucky Holy Land.”

Holy Cross Catholic Church at its 1985 bicentennial celebration
Photograph courtesy of Jane Ballard

The exhibit came from the Smithsonian’s “Museum on Main Street” program, which partners with state humanities councils to bring Smithsonian-designed traveling exhibits to small towns across the country. At each location, the host organization is encouraged to add their own displays and projects to the exhibit in order to tell the stories of the specific places they serve. The Loretto Heritage Center staff knew that the history of western Marion County is rich. Strong generational ties to the land, agriculture, distilling, religion, and community are clear to anyone who talks to the people who call this place home. Change also runs through Marion County’s history, and we needed to focus on the last century of changes in the area in order to complement the theme of Crossroads.

But none of the Heritage Center staff are from Kentucky originally, and most of us have not actually worked within the communities that surround the Heritage Center. The Heritage Center tells the stories of the Loretto Community, a congregation of Catholic Sisters that was founded as a teaching order in 1812. While the order began in Marion County, its Sisters and Co-members have come from a geographically diverse range of places, and most of Loretto’s schools and other missions have been scattered across the United States and internationally. The Heritage Center staff have typically focused their work on the history and legacy of the Loretto Community, with little organized outreach to others in our region. However, we could not research and create a meaningful exhibit about western Marion County on our own.

Collaboration was in order. As I wrote the proposal to Kentucky Humanities, we reached out to contacts in the local community to see who would be interested in partnering with us on this exhibit. Loretto’s City Council was thrilled by the prospect of having the Smithsonian come to town, and they agreed to have Crossroads hosted in Loretto City Hall. Once Kentucky Humanities awarded us one of the seven spots for Crossroads in the state, a planning committee formed of individuals from the Loretto Motherhouse, Beautify Loretto, Marion County High School, and Marion County Public Library. Our core group consisted of members who work in the fields of archives, museums, genealogy, agriculture, education, and community service.

We chose to focus specifically on the western part of Marion County not only because it contains Loretto, but also because it is the part of the county with the least historic representation. The collections at the county public library and historical society focus mostly on the county seat of Lebanon and other communities in the eastern portion of Marion County. To the west, however, are the towns of Loretto and Raywick and the unincorporated communities of Highview, Holy Cross, Nerinx, St. Francis (formerly called Chicago), St. Joe, St. Mary’s, and, on the line with Nelson County, Manton. As so many of the names imply, most of these communities are centered around Catholic churches and other religious institutions. Highview is primarily a United Methodist area. In some cases, such as the areas around St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Seminary, the community has continued after the closure of the namesake institution. Each community has its own history of schools, churches, businesses, special events, and families that have come and gone —or remained— over the years.

The family-oriented communities, people have a personal connection with each other and caring about others […] When somebody hurts, we all hurt. When they grieve, we grieve. So we try to comfort each other. So that’s what I think the most we get out of our heritage in Marion County is that we identify as one, and we will try to help when we can.
Interview with Barry Brady, St. Joe's

The planning group started the exhibit process with two goals: ask the local communities what they wanted to see in the exhibit, and decide on a main message. As a committee, we developed a list of locally relevant topics within larger themes (agriculture, industry, religion, local culture, etc.) and turned these into a survey so that participants could select or comment on the topics they would like to see reflected in an exhibit. The survey was distributed in hard copy to local businesses and online through Beautify Loretto’s social media; we had 100 respondents.

After much discussion, we decided on the exhibit’s primary message:

“Pride in the historic resourcefulness of our communities and
our aspirations for the future.” 

While the statement itself is vague, the discussions leading up to it brought out several points to emphasize in the exhibit: deep faith; commitment to education (with a historical blend of Catholic and public schools); large, close-knit families; generational rootedness in the land and agriculture; and traditions of community support. All of these have contributed to the perseverance of western Marion County communities throughout the many transformations over the last century.

Railroad station at the J.W. Dant Distillery
Image courtesy of Brian Beaven

These changes are clear in the minds of locals. The L&N Railroad, which transported both passengers and goods in and out of the county, stopped passenger service here in 1958 and closed the rail line completely in 1987. Technological advances gradually became more available, with people able to purchase cars and gas-powered farm equipment, install telephone lines, and get running water and electricity. (Some families did not have water or electricity in their homes until the 1970s.) However, most of the close-knit communities that once had their own schools – either public or parochial, but typically staffed by nuns – lost a sense of connectedness as schools across the county consolidated in the 1960s and early 1970s.

When I was growing up, the church and school was the nucleus of your activities and everything that you did […] When you had smaller schools in your area, I think you were closer to the rest of the community. When they left, that seemed like it caused a void in your area to some extent.
Interview with Rose Mary Ballard, Holy Cross

During this time, as non-agricultural “public work” increased, the number of family farms declined as fewer and fewer people were able to make a living with full-time farming. At first, some residents migrated to cities or commuted to Louisville every day, but in recent decades, new growth industries such as bourbon distilling and auto manufacturing have made their way into Marion County and neighboring Nelson County.

Historically, the bourbon industry in western Marion County experienced two dramatic shifts. The first shift was marked by the closing of local distilleries during Prohibition. The second shift, which occurred during the mid-20th century, reflected a period in which smaller distilleries were bought out by larger corporations. Today, only Maker’s Mark remains in western Marion County. Over the county line, the Dant family legacy recently revived the Log Still Distillery.

For those who still farm, the work is often part-time and has shifted from intensive products like tobacco and dairy to less-intensive animal feed crops and beef. Beneath these developments runs a current of resiliency: the communities will continue, bound together by shared faith, family ties, and common history. During rough times, the residents come together to provide emotional and financial support for one another.

For the outside researcher, much of this heritage is accessible only by talking to people directly. Published materials about Marion County are scant, especially regarding the smaller communities. Ethnographic work, which was essential for the exhibit, took the form of both oral history interviews and community photograph collecting. As members of the Crossroads planning team began to conduct recorded interviews, it soon became apparent how invaluable it was to have community members involved with exhibit planning. 

History keepers abound across western Marion County, if only you know who to talk to. Some members of the planning committee were stymied by out-of-state cell phone calls being ignored or by not knowing which questions to ask about which stories. As a result, community members in the group were indispensable as they provided valuable insight concerning who to contact, who might be able to speak well in an interview, who was a key stakeholder or spokesperson for specific aspects of the community, and who remembered and could share stories about life in this area in past decades. Fortunately for staff, a longstanding rapport had already been established between community members and their neighbors.

The local committee members were also vital in helping to collect photographs and other materials for Crossroads. Once again, they had the social contacts to know who had large photograph collections for each community, who collected antique farm tools, who had a historic Lyon stove hiding in their garage, and who to approach for Maker’s Mark memorabilia. When we were able to schedule in-person photograph scanning days at Loretto City Hall in the spring of 2021, we relied almost entirely on Beautify Loretto’s Facebook following to spread the word, bringing in dozens of contributors.

Agricultural tools and a Lyon stove on display at the Crossroads exhibit in Loretto

Meanwhile, the Heritage Center staff contributed to organizing committee meetings, helping to plan event logistics, and pulling together all the collected materials for the final exhibit. We had the benefits of formalized training in public history and public folklore as well as having time to do this work as part of our primary, paid jobs. Our staff transcribed the recorded interviews, scanned photos, conducted additional archival research, selected photographs, and wrote the text for the exhibit. The remaining committee members had input on our drafts, making sure we didn’t leave out essential information or spin narratives in ways that didn’t ring true to the communities.

From the outset, we designed the collecting process so that the photographs, interviews, and other gathered materials would have a life beyond the month-long exhibit. Marion County Public Library agreed to archive the interview recordings and digital photograph files, making them accessible to the public in perpetuity. After Crossroads, the local exhibit panels went to the Marion County Heritage Center in Lebanon, where they continue to be on display during special events. Diane Mattingly, chairperson of Beautify Loretto, created a permanent military display in Loretto City Hall, and eventually we hope to create permanent heritage exhibits in Loretto’s senior center as well.

Several of the exhibit panels created for the Crossroads exhibit in Loretto,
with panels from the Smithsonian behind them

Our local exhibit was organized between two clear historic events: the 1918 influenza pandemic and the 2020 COVID pandemic. Within these parameters, the displays were organized by topics that spanned the decades: the changes to and adaptability of local businesses, industry, education, religion, and agriculture. Extra highlights addressed the railroad, spiritual communities of the 20th century, sports, infrastructure advances, and domestic arts. Residents contributed far more photographs than could fit into these categories, so we also designed a number of panels that showcased family photos. Students at West Marion Elementary School contributed artwork of their favorite places in Marion County and postcards reflecting on their lives in the communities here. Finally, we set up a touchscreen computer with additional images as well as brief interview clips. Launched at the same time as the temporary Crossroads exhibits was the permanent wall display of photographs and memorabilia of western Marion County residents who served in the military since World War I.

During the month that Crossroads was open in Loretto, the objects and photographs featured in the local exhibit received the highest level of engagement. Visitors were greeted at the front door by a display of agricultural tools and an Owen wood-burning stove. These stoves were patented by W.H. Lyon, a prominent Loretto store owner, and were sold at his family’s store from the 1880s to the 1930s. Guests were fascinated by the stove, a model which many remember having in their family homes. People also made comments on the tools such as, “I remember my grandfather using a corn planter!” or “I harvested tobacco with those tools as a kid—I don’t miss that kind of work” and “I still have that in my barn!”

Some visitors returned to the exhibit with friends and family to point out photos of their relatives who served in the military or who made an appearance in the family photo gallery. Several special events over the month of July also attracted visitors, particularly Family Agriculture Day. Organized by Angela Rakes of the Loretto Motherhouse Farm, this event featured a petting zoo, sandboxes made with soybeans and grains, and food from the local Cattlemen’s Association chapter. 300 people attended the event, a visitation record during the exhibit’s time in Loretto.

A child playing in a wheat sandbox during Family Agriculture Day
Photograph by Angela Rakes

Of course, no exhibit is ever complete. As is often the case, some materials, while important, never make it to the final display. We didn’t have enough space to delve into complex recent issues in the area, like drug addiction or the loss of farms. We were not able to find people who could tell us the history of African Americans in the western part of the county in time, nor did we have the space to tell the full stories of individuals or specific communities. But overall, the Smithsonian and the locally produced exhibits were a powerful combination. Placing the national and local histories side-by-side provided context and connection: the last century of rural life has many similarities across the country, while at the same time, the distinctive character of western Marion County shines through. Visitors made comments such as “It makes me so proud to be from here” and “It’s amazing to see ourselves represented here,” next to the Smithsonian. Crossroads was a successful collaboration between outsider public historians, folklorists, and community members, which welcomed over 1200 visitors to a national-scale exhibit that simultaneously told western Marion County’s stories of change and resilience.

Am I proud of this town? I don’t want to live nowhere else. I’ve been to other places. I don’t wanna go nowhere.
Interview with Tom Brahm, Loretto

Many of the photographs collected as part of Crossroads can be viewed through the Marion County Public Library’s Marion Memories Portal

Additional images and oral history clips can be viewed at Loretto Heritage Center 

Crossroads: Change in Rural America was sponsored by Smithsonian Museum on Main Street and Kentucky Humanities. We received added financial support from the City of Loretto and Marion County Farm Bureau. The Loretto Crossroads planning committee included Jamie Brown, Sister Eleanor Craig, Amanda Mattingly, Diane Mattingly, Sam Morris, Susanna Pyatt, Angela Rakes, Ayla Toussaint, Jama Watts, Reba Weatherford, and Maison Young. Graphic design for the Loretto exhibit panels was provided by Tori LaConsay. We are indebted to the dozens of people who contributed to the exhibit through oral history interviews, photographs, display objects, and volunteer time.

A native of North Carolina, Susanna Pyatt moved to Kentucky for WKU's Folk Studies MA program. Since graduating in 2018, she has been Curator of the Loretto Heritage Center in Nerinx, KY.