Freight hoppers on stage at Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, in Graham County. Photo courtesy of Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center

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Lynn Shields, Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center’s executive director, retired last month after spending 14 years transforming an abandoned school into a destination point for arts, cultural and community services. Photo courtesy of Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center

A conversation with Lynn Shields (and how squawking transformed into beautiful music along the way)

It was 1926 when Stecoah Union School opened the doors to its first group of Graham County students. Like many rural schoolhouses, it quickly became a center of the community, with scores of students learning inside the stone-clad building’s walls.

Sixty-eight years later, though, consolidation efforts closed down the school, even though Stecoah residents sued unsuccessfully to keep it open. For two years, there it sat, abandoned.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that 14,000-square-foot building left in disrepair, with holes in its roof. Now home to Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center and its offerings of cultural and heritage programming and community services, it serves about 12,000 people a year. Its summer concert series, An Appalachian Evening, draws big-name performers such as Doc Watson, David Holt and the Kruger Brothers. The center offers a variety of community service programs, such the after-school program that began the center. It also operates a commercial kitchen used by organizations and entrepreneurs to develop and produce food-based products. The Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association uses the space to produce their ramp cornmeal and dip, for example.

Much of this transformation, says Beth Fields, is due to the dedication of the community and the center’s executive director, Lynn Shields. Shields  retired in late February after 14 years there and after having raised, in that time, more than $3 million to revitalize the building and develop its programming.

“None of that would have happened as quickly, if it hadn’t been for Lynn,” said Fields, who now serves as the center’s director, and who says Shields is most identified with the increase in cultural heritage tourism efforts in Graham County. “Most people in the community think she’s a ‘doer.’ She’s going to get it done. She’s the go-to person in the county.”

Soon to be 66 years old, Shields said the time is right to retire as the center’s director. As its leaders continue efforts to raise nearly $1.5 million to renovate the nearby 10,000-square-foot gymnasium into a multipurpose event facility, Sheilds, who is also a certified public accountant, will be the center’s financial consultant and remain as an advisor.

Here, she talks with Carolina Public Press’ editor, Angie Newsome, about her time at the center, how the area has changed and the place a cultural and arts center has in a rural Western North Carolina community.

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AN: For people who’ve never been to Stecoah, how would you describe the 
center and the surrounding community?

Community leaders turned the abandoned 1926 schoolhouse into a destination for cultural programming and community services. Photo courtesy of Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center

LS: Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center is nestled in a quiet valley community deep in the Western North Carolina Appalachian mountains near Robbinsville. The center is located in the historic Stecoah Union School, a rock structure originally built in 1926 that has been lovingly restored. It now serves as home to a summer concert/dinner series, artisan studios, arts classes, Junior Appalachian Musicians and an after-school program and many other activities. The campus also includes a gymnasium, shared-use commercial kitchen and 10 acres of beautiful grounds available for a picnic or softball game.

AN: How and why did you become involved with the center?

LS: My husband and I moved to Stecoah in 1996 from the Atlanta area. I first became involved with the center as a volunteer and later was asked to direct the after-school program. Soon thereafter, I became the executive director and have been here ever since. It has been a wonderful opportunity to restore a once vital organization and building to its original place of importance in the community.

AN: The center offers arts and history programming alongside community
services like an after-school program and a commercial kitchen to help
support small food-related businesses. Why does Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center offer such a 
variety of services and events instead of focusing on one particular
area?

LS: This is a very small community, and when the school was built back in 1926, it was literally the center of the community. It not only met the educational needs, but also civic and social needs of the community, such as the voting location, gathering place for community events and even church services when needed. The community remains small today and it just makes sense for the organization to be multifaceted and provide a variety of services.

AN: Are community cultural centers still important, when people move more frequently and the idea of community seems less and less about where you live?

LS: The community center is very important here as change comes slowly to this area. While much of the world moves frequently as you describe, that is not necessarily the case in Graham County. It is true that we lose some of the young people to “big city life and opportunities,” but their parents often remain and are focused on community values and traditions. Additionally, we gain some more mature folks who come for the summer or retire in this area. They are particularly interested in the history and the culture of their newly chosen home.

AN: In your time leading the center, what’s changed about the
 surrounding community and about Graham County?

LS: The increase in tourism. The most dramatic change has been the increase in motorized tourism, which was almost non-existent in the 1990s. The curvy roads have attracted motorcyclists and car enthusiasts from around the country. And, at the same time, there has also been an increase in cultural, heritage and ecotourists. Increased tourism, if planned and managed properly, can be very good for the area.

AN: Many people are struggling economically in the area, with high unemployment and few job opportunities being a large problem. How do 
you see this changing? What will it take?

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LS: Graham County currently has the highest rate of unemployment in the state and is consistently near the top. The lack of jobs is and has long been a huge problem for the area. Yet, we also have one of the most beautiful, pristine environments in the state. We believe that capitalizing on “place-based or asset-based economics” will be the best way to change. The growing eco-tourism, heritage-tourism and motorized-tourism markets will be the best source of sustainable economic growth for the area in the future.

AN: Going forward, how will Stecoah grow and change to meet the 
changing needs of the community?

LS: Our current focus is on strengthening partnerships and alliances with other organizations to attract and keep more people in the area. We are working with the U.S. Forest Service on the 75th Anniversary of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and with Swain County, Nantahala Outdoor Center and others to prepare for the 2012-2013 World Freestyle Kayaking championships to be held on the Nantahala River. We can accomplish so much working together. While it’s impossible to know what future needs will be, we try to be responsive to challenges and opportunities as they present themselves.

AN: What’s your favorite memory from your time at the center?

LS: The first year of the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program. Having heard the squeaking and squawking of kids learning to play the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar over the school year and then hearing the sweet strains of I’ll Fly Away at the recital brought tears to my eyes and more than a few others as well. While other Center programs are better known, I believe the JAM program continues today to be more important to the community than any other.

AN: Anything else you’d like to add?

LS: Thanks to the community for the wonderful opportunity to work here.

Angie Newsome

Angie Newsome is the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at anewsome@carolinapublicpress.org.

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