Nearly 50 years ago, on a presidential campaign swing through eastern Kentucky, Sen. Robert Kennedy promised to help a disabled coal miner build a community center in the tiny mountain town of Hemphill to give idle youth and others a place for recreation and meetings.
James Johnson used the brick-making machine and VISTA workers that Kennedy supplied to create community space and built a park and area for horseback riding.
Years later Johnson developed black lung disease and couldn’t keep the center going. After he died, his widow, Mabel, helped establish a new Hemphill Community Center in this mountainous region in the heart of Appalachia.
Now the Johnsons’ daughter, Gwen, is trying to save this piece of family legacy by opening a catering business inside the center, which saw operating funds diminish as tax revenues from the coal industry declined.
The network of local organizations that helped get Hemphill Catering up and running is part of an unusual form of grassroots economic development underway in this community, staggered by the collapse of coal.
It’s known as the Letcher County Culture Hub, a broad and growing collaboration of arts and media groups, for- and non-profit outfits, community organizations, and government agencies that help one another survive and grow…