It’s sort of brought out a little bit of pride in us — because if we can make it in the toughest place in America, that means that we’re pretty resilient. — Margy Miller
Vanda Rice: Three years ago The New York Times released an article saying that Clay County was the hardest place to live in America. We didn’t know whether to cry or just get upset and angry or get drunk. Margy and I were actually attending a training in Maysville, Kentucky when that was released.
Margy Miller: On the way back we had planned to stop at Owsley County, and see their play. Owsley is a neighboring county. It always ranks right near the bottom like us. We’re the poorest. We have the most food stamp users, etc. Owsley County’s right there with us and they have a community theater there.
At the beginning of the play, the members of the cast stood up and said the community name that they were from. They were funny names like we have here in our county — Standing Rock, Flat Rock, Goose Branch. But when they stood up and said those things, you could see the pride that they had in the place that they came from, even though it is one of the poorest places in America. They still love it. They still have pride and love for their communities. That was the first thing they did in the play. So Vanda and I just busted out crying and we ended up crying the whole play. Because Owsley County is in the same boat with us and we can so identify with everything in their play.
It’s sort of brought out a little bit of pride in us because if we can make it in the toughest place in America, that means that we’re pretty resilient.
We had coal business. Now it’s gone. We had tobacco farming and now it’s gone. We had the salt industry and after the Civil War it was gone. We still live here and we still make it, despite the obstacles. We do have many obstacles. But we kind of made a joke out of it.
Rice: Yes, we were upset for a while but then we thought, ‘You know, what we’re going to turn that around,’ because we know that this is not the worst place in America to live.
Miller: If we asked for a grant and we’d say, ‘We’ve been called the toughest place to make it in America,’ so who can say ‘no’ to a grant to this terrible, horrible, poor place to live?
Rice: We were working with Joy Jinks, who is a community development lady and a great friend and mentor out of Colquitt, Georgia, she said, ‘If you name it, you claim it and you get legislature to stamp it. Then you are it.’
We decided to take our swinging bridges and declare ourselves ‘The Land of Swinging Bridges.’ So we named it. We claimed it. We got our Kentucky legislature to do a resolution. So now we ARE officially ‘The Land of Swinging Bridges.’
Miller: In order to keep our town from dying, we had to reach for the low hanging fruit because we don’t have any money. That’s how we got started with touring and the swinging bridges because we’ve got those already here. We thought that people would be interested in them. People tour covered bridges so we thought, why not swinging bridges?
Rice: As is a lot of places, — things that you see every day — you are blinded with daily activities that you forget this is something that’s great. And, it’s right here before my eyes. That’s what’s happened with a lot of our people. They just have seen these bridges all their lives and so they’ve been completely taken for granted. But, we’re seeing that a lot of people are really intrigued by these bridges. They want to come and walk them. They want to come and see them because they are very unique. It’s opening up even some entrepreneur opportunities for people — that’s our whole goal is to stabilize the economy, bring more people into our county.
You have to start somewhere, so start small if you have to, but start someplace.
If you could tell The New York Times a different story, what would it be?
Miller: I would tell them that if they were out on the road traveling through Clay County and their car broke down and they walked to the nearest house that the people would probably help them fix their car and cook them a meal – like, a really good meal.
Of course, they’d want to know where you’re from and the views from the state of New York. Then they’d think of somebody that they knew that was once from the state of New York because that’s how we are. That’s how we identify with each other here, ‘Who’s your daddy and where are you from?’
We just have good people here. We don’t have many homeless people because we take care of our families. If they’re crazy, we let them stay at home on the front porch. We don’t throw them out so they can be homeless — we just live with ’em.
Rice: That’s one thing that we have found, that we have this Southern kind of hospitality going on even though we’re a border state. Kentucky is not really North and is not really South. It’s kind of in the middle, but you will find that most of the people here are very open and inviting and welcoming. They want to love you. They want to make a connection with you and they will talk to you and question you until they find a way to connect with you – a common ground.
Once we meet you, you’re always our friend. It’s like you be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you. That’s kind of the way it is around here, very accepting.
Vanda Rice, 63, and Margy Miller, 57, are part of an all-volunteer, grass-roots organization called “Stay in Clay.” The group was the driving force to officially make the county “The Land of Swinging Bridges” in 2015. Rice is also the chairperson of the Manchester and Clay County Tourism Commission.
Note: This version corrects the age of Margy Miller.
In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu.