Yonder Campaign: ‘Join Hands, Circle Left’

Last year Shelby Clark contributed to the Daily Yonder to win a unique premium – a visit to the traditional mountain square dance at the Carcassonne Community Center near Blackey, Kentucky, with the Teresa Collins, whose family has danced there for generations. Shelby’s visit reminds her of the common threads that bind rural communities and the people who love them.

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As a micro-entrepreneur, I like to make small donations to resources that I find valuable. The Daily Yonder is definitely one. The idea of the Carcassonne square dance—an experiential premium—was so intriguing that I went for it, even though that level of donation was a stretch for my small company.

It was a privilege to experience Lee Sexton and the other musicians—six on that small stage—playing music in a way that took me back to my childhood and the pickup bands on our neighbor’s front porch.

Erin Cokonougher-Stidham did a great job of making sure we stayed on track, even though she was dancing, too. And it was so interesting to see the Carcassonne school, especially since it still functions as a community center.

Photo by Shawn Lind
The author and her husband, Steve Urey, dance the night away at the Carcassonne Community Center.

But what my husband and I appreciated the most was how we were welcomed. Even the “little ones” treated me as if I were just another dancer. They were focused on learning their tradition. I can still see the modern-day Shirley Temple who danced with me. She of the perfect curtsey and the pink-and-white cowboy boots.

Sandy Lake, Pennsylvania, where my husband and I live in a 100-year old farmhouse in a town of 650, is 30 miles from Titusville, where oil was first discovered. The industrialists who developed the oil industry also built the Pittsburgh steel mills and formed the Kentucky coal companies that provided the raw materials for the coke ovens. From a bird’s eye view, Sandy Lake and Carcassonne are just on opposite ends of the steel production process.

We are connected by heritage as well, sharing many of the same traditions—including square dancing. I am Scots-Irish and who knows, Teresa Collins (my host at the dance) and I may even have the same ancestors. I do know that everyone we met made us feel like we were visiting cousins.

It is easy to view the history of rural America through the lens of resource ownership and what that has done to our heritage and our land. This is true in our area. There used to be 24 steel mills in the Ohio River Valley; now there is one. Drugs, educational attainment and homelessness are all problems. Domestic violence and sexual crimes are too common.

But Northwestern Pennsylvania also has a small tool-and-die niche. Food production is good, and the Amish help keep farmland in production. There is an emerging shale gas boom. And, Penn’s Woods still do exist. There are reasons to celebrate.

Photo by Shawn Lind
Old time banjo player Lee Sexton accompanies dancers at the Carcassonne Community Center.

As we danced the Virginia Reel in Carcassonne, I looked across and noticed my husband, an ironworker, standing next to a young man in overalls, who was standing next to a Harvard-educated lawyer. I thought to myself, “This is the future. And this is good.”

There isn’t a rural place in the world I don’t want to visit. And while the traditions and rituals are fascinating, what interests me most are the folks who live there and, who, like me, are committed to their community. When we realize that we rural people are more alike than different, and when we claim our wisdom and our power, we make progress.

Carcassonne helped me to remember that. I can’t wait to see this year’s premiums.

Shelby Clark is a community developer and writer based in Sandy Lake, Pennsylvania. Her dance card is always open. 

This year’s premium’s and a link to our online donation page are available here.




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