December 18, 2002 | By: Aimee D. Heald
CATLETTSBURG, Ky.

The Ohio River was instrumental in the beginnings of many Kentucky communities. It also was responsible for devastating them with floods. In response, most towns erected floodwalls to protect their livelihood and over the years those walls have aged and become weathered.

One eastern Kentucky town decided to turn the floodwalls into a work of art and source of pride and tourism for their community.

"We saw the murals on walls in other cities like Portsmouth, Ohio and Paducah, Ky. and we wanted to see if the artists would come to a small town," said Suellen Zornes, Cooperative Extension Agent for family and consumer sciences in Boyd County. "They were just amazing and we knew something like that would be good for Catlettsburg."

The murals depict actual scenes from Catlettsburg's past - a time when the community was thriving and growing in the wake of the oil and transportation boom along the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers.

The Extension service started the Catlettsburg Development Club with a goal of helping develop pride in the community among youth and adults. They wanted to spur economic growth and tourism, as well as create educational opportunities for young and old.

One of the murals depicts the rich heritage of Ashland Oil and its impact on early years in CatlettsburgThe Club started its community development efforts with a grant Zornes secured from CYFAR, an organization that focuses on youth and families at risk. She knew everything the Club wanted to accomplish would cost more than the $16,000 grant provided - but it was a good start. Once residents saw the group was serious about changing Catlettsburg's image, funds started pouring in.

Each mural costs about $25,000 and could've been more had the artists been required to prepare the walls for the artwork.

"The artists charge $1,000 per section of floodwall to clean it and prep it for the murals," said Catlettsburg Mayor Roger Hensley. "Four other gentleman and myself watched them and found out how to do it so we could save $1,000 a panel."

A big part of the stories on the walls is Catlettsburg's most famous resident, Kentucky author Billy Clark. Clark grew up along the banks of the river and even lived in the courthouse for a time so he could attend school. Clark often was told he would make nothing of his life and he was determined to prove them all wrong according to childhood best friend Sid Rice. Rice said he loved to listen to Clark's stories while they were growing up and he always knew his friend would be successful.

A wall is dedicated to a mural of Billy Clark with his books. Above his head is a depiction of him and Rice playing on a makeshift raft on the river.

"In February of our eighth grade year there was a flood and the water backed up behind my house," said Rice. "I saw a big log out in the backwater and took my clothes off and swam out there and got it. We made a raft and I guess somebody took our picture out there in that backwater because it ended up on the wall."

Rice said the wall murals bring back more than memories of his childhood with Clark - they also show current residents what the town used to look like before the walls were built. Rice also is president of the local Master Gardener's Club, which has volunteered time and supplies to add landscaping in front of the walls.

To make sure the artists had accurate history to paint, Micah Williamson, secretary of the Extension council and also a member of the Catlettsburg Development Club, went door-to-door in the community to find pictures of how Catlettsburg used to look. She found many long-time residents willing to donate pictures and documents for the project.

The Community Development Club has incorporated a tour for school children into the beautification project so that Catlettsburg history is preserved.

"Last year we had more than 500 school children go through the Billy C. Clark Historical Tour," said Nikki Baker, Extension agent for community development in Boyd County. "Clark will come in and present a lecture and then the kids tour the library, walls and other landmarks to learn about the history of the town."

Baker was hired as the county's first community development agent partly because of her contributions to the Community Development Club. The local Extension council members saw the need for her position because they knew the work was becoming too much for Zornes to do herself without neglecting her family and consumer science duties.

Hensley said money was raised to put in lights at the base of the walls so they will be viewable at night. The improvements don't stop there.

"Everyone has taken a very big interest in this. It's rolled over into the residents starting to fix up their homes more," Hensley said. "The Extension folks were actually the ones who got behind all this and pushed and pushed and got everyone interested in it and it has grown a lot since 1996."

Zornes and Baker said many businesses have become involved and now there are 72 old fashioned street lights in the downtown area, a gazebo and a town clock.

"The main objective of the Club was to bring tourism and business to the community and it's just unbelievable economic development," Zornes said. "I've been an agent for 25 years and I don't think I've ever seen people come together and work this hard before. Everyone has worked as a team with common ground. Residents donated more than $100,000 for the walls. Once residents saw that we'd really use the money to beautify the area, they had no problem donating funds for the projects."

With six panels already painted and two more being prepared, Catlettsburg is well on its way to preserving history and drawing crowds to their small community. Zornes is amazed at the response because she never thought her dream would become a reality.

"We wanted our youth to be proud of Catlettsburg," she said. "We really wanted to build up their self-esteem and I think we've been able to do that."

 

Contact: 

Suellen Zornes  606-739-5184