Coming Home to the Mountains: Elkhorn City, A View through Fresh Eyes

This is a guest post by Cheryl Ramey-Barker.  Cheryl left Elkhorn City, Kentucky when she was 16 and recently came back to visit for a few days.  I asked Cheryl to write down her thoughts on Elkhorn now vs what she remember and give us some ideas on what we could do to improve Elkhorn City and its growing tourist industry.  Her thoughts are very relevant to our current Trial Town Project and what little things we can do to be more tourist “Ready”  Here is what she came up with!

I was raised in small town in Eastern Kentucky. As a child I couldn’t wait to leave it. I was convinced that there was something bigger and better out there, just waiting for me. I left Elkhorn City in 1984, I was 16. I moved to Lexington, graduated high school and upon realizing that there was no money for college, I joined the Navy.
I traveled the world and saw the sights that most people still long to see. I lived in several places. I once lived in 5 different states within a six-year period. But that is the “Military Life.” In all of my travels and in all of the places I lived, there was always something missing. I realized that I missed the small town, the mountains that surrounded it and the people who made it “home.”
I recently traveled back to Elkhorn City. I was so happy to be home. It felt like it always had. A warm, friendly place with a slower pace that what I have become accustomed to. The scenery has changed somewhat. Businesses and homes that I expected to see were no longer there. There were a few new businesses but not nearly enough to replace the revenue and jobs that have been lost. This was once a quite busy little town. There were several restaurants and full service gas stations and even a motel. The gas stations are long gone, replaced by a convenient store with gas pumps. The motel is closed up with vines taking over the exterior of the building. And the restaurant that I remember has been replaced with The Rusty Fork Cafe. It’s the social gathering place for the town. It’s where the men come for their morning coffee and conversation to discuss current events and local politics. I remember as a little girl referring to this as the “coffee club.” The food was even better than I remember and it was a warm feeling to see that the coffee club still holds its regular meetings.
Several new businesses have popped up in town. I saw a new pizza place. Thank Heavens-who could live without pizza! There is also a new theater with plays and musicals. I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the current play, “Greater Tuna,” but the reviews I have read state anything on stage there is a great show. There is also a new gift store in town, The Pine Mountain Outlet. It’s definitely more of a boutique than a gift store. At least it’s not what I expected, it was a great shop, but I was hoping to see some Appalachian Crafts for sale in there. I know the local women are extremely talented with their sewing and quilting projects and their canning of jams and jellies.
I guess what disappointed me the most was that there wasn’t a single item to be found that referenced Elkhorn City in any way. I know bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets and t-shirts may sound cheesy to some, but I want people to ask me about my home town. I want them see my t-shirt and say “Elkhorn City, where on Earth is that?” I want to tell them that it’s where the mountains meet the sky and the most beautiful place on Earth. It’s where the people are warm and treat strangers like family. I want to tell them about the River Walk, the Blue Line Trail, the ACT Theater, and the delicious food at The Rusty Fork. But there was nothing that I could find to elicit such a question. So for now, I will take my opportunities as they come and break out the pictures on my cell phone or my laptop whenever I can squeeze it into the conversation. But a bumper sticker or a t-shirt sure would have made it a lot easier!
I have often hoped for Elkhorn City to have new businesses to support the local economy. I honestly believe that tourism is the way to grow and sustain the town, especially with the renewed interest in the Hatfield and McCoy Feud. I am pleased to hear that the white water rafting expeditions have taken off so well. I would like to see a sporting goods store of some sort there, selling kayaks and paddles, camping supplies and the like and possibly renting equipment for those who weren’t prepared or forgot their gear. Even a new motel so folks don’t have to stay in Breaks (unless they want to). I think about a soda fountain designed like they were in the old days complete with a soda jerk serving up ice cream floats and sundaes. There are several open store fronts that would make a nice place for an Appalachian Crafts store. Maybe the local ladies could offer their crafts on consignment. A store similar to the old “What’s it Shop” would be a great souvenir shop. It could offer t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc bearing the Elkhorn City logo or city seal. Hopefully someone will open a souvenir store and be ready for business before the town celebrates in centennial in the fall.
I can imagine that having the capital to open a new business is one major problem. I work in property preservation and know that vacant properties deteriorate more quickly than occupied properties. I would hope that some of the property owners would be willing to donate business space rent free for one year; they could require the tenant to be responsible for utilities and minor repairs. It would be a win-win situation. It stands to reason that the property owners are paying up keep and taxes on the vacant buildings so why not give someone the opportunity to use that space to contribute to the economy while maintaining and preserving it? Providing a rent free space for a year would allow the business owner the opportunity to get the business off the ground and possibly create additional employment in the area while allowing the property owner some credit on their taxes. There are also places where the city purchases business space and gives a grant of free rent for a year. After the first year, the tenant signs a new lease agreeing to the amount of rent and paying it directly to the city….just some thoughts.

Cheryl Ramey-Barker

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7 responses to “Coming Home to the Mountains: Elkhorn City, A View through Fresh Eyes

  1. Elizabeth Hawkins Whittaker

    I have never actually lived in Elkhorn City or its surrounding areas but my parents grew up on Pond and in Ash Camp. I still have family living there so I try to visit at least once a year for the family reunion in the Breaks.

    Elkhorn City is a sparkling place that entices me to study my genealogy lineage from there and to learn more about my parents and their lives growing up.

    I agree with Cheyl, there needs to be more interest in the tourism aspect of the town,, its history and its culture. The shops she mentioned would be an added benefit to the town. It would be a pleasure to visit and to buy crafts from local artisans. Memorabilia from the area, like t-shirts, mugs, etc. (made in the USA, please) would certainly sell to those of us who only visit.

    I think Cheryl has the right idea. Even if the shops are only open during the tourism season, with as many visitors the area has each year, it would be profitable.

    I just wanted to add “my two-cents worth” to Cheryl’s suggestions.

    Elizabeth Hawkins Whittaker

  2. Great to be able after decades away return to your home. Your suggestions seem workable as well as benefical to the city and it’s population. I enjoyed the entire blog, it is filled with memories from your childhood and a listing of what was , now is and additions to evolve to a better city involving the entire business community and citizenry.

  3. Roxanne McKinney Blankenship

    It seems as though Cheryl has a lot of the same ideas as I do. I grew up in Elkhorn City, moved in 1974 and finally convinced my husband to move me back after 20 years of living in the Phelps area. We would come to visit my sister and her family on the weekends and I would cy everytime we had to leave. When I would get into the city limits of Elkhorn City, I would be so excited to be there; it always felt like home to me!

    My dream was to teach and raise my family in EC! We purchased the Wagon Wheel property and the Russell Shopping center in 1992 and the Woodrow Potter homeplace up Elkhorn Creek in 1992. Thus, beginning the second stage of my life. I finished my teaching career at ECHS and retired as EC elementary guidance counselor in 2007. Our shopping center burned in 2009 and finally rebuilt it this past year. We have a space rented to the Mexican Restaurant and still have 7 available spaces, each with new heating/cooling and own electrical and water. We are currently in negotiation with a franchised restaurant and welcome anyone who might have an interest in the future of ECs economy.

    We also have a 6400 square foot building beside of CTB which we are excited about opening soon. And, hopefully, the community will appreciate the outcome of the 3 yr wait.

    When I moved back to EC I decided to get more involved by serving on the city council and participating in various organizations. We invite any lady in the EC area to join our EC Area Woman’s club. Beginning in September, we meet the 4th Monday at city hall at 7pm. I encourage everyone to get involved and help promote our wonderful community!

  4. Kelissia Cantrell Hamilton

    I grew up in Elkhorn City & now live near Fishtrap Lake. I was one of last few classes to attend Elkhorn City High School & was the first to graduate from East Ridge in 2003. I honestly believe that when the town lost the high school, it lost a lot of business. I can remember going over to get breakfast before school every morning at the Happy Mart & then calling Giovanni’s to order lunch & have it delivered to school. There’s no more Friday night ballgames or homecoming parades. I can also remember when there was a carnival with actual rides for adults too on the 4th of July, Apple Blossom, & when there was an Octoberfest. Now there’s just a few inflatables and food stands, its dissappointing. I think that the idea of providing store fronts for a limited time as free (to local people) could be a great way to make the local economy pick back up. One of my friends makes beautiful peronalized wicker wreaths, I can somewhat use a sewing machine & bake. If we could have a small space to sell goods, who knows what could happen! I also think with the addition of the new 460 road, there could be a HUGE growth in Elkhorn’s economy (that is if the local government would allow it). It truely hurts my heart to see the small city that I grew up in & love losing business and citizens due to the lack of growth.

  5. Pingback: Our Deepest Fear? Elkhorn City Can be Powerful … beyond measure! A mini Manifesto on Economic Development in Elkhorn City, Kentucky | Life in a Small Town Law Office

  6. Barbara Caudill Combs

    Evidently Cheryl wrote this quite a while back because she references the Rusty Fork Restaurant, which has been closed around a year.

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