“Jeromy Rose called me out of blue,” my husband Michael Brown, the Chapel Hill muralist, said. The two men were nearly a generation apart, but their conversation two decades ago began a friendship that compelled Brown to walk the Chapel Hill and Carrboro streets this June with hat in hand, soliciting funds and supplies to help the town of Richwood, West Virginia.
Richwood is a typical small Appalachian valley town, situated on the banks of the Cherry River. Now the town, population 2,000, is typical in another way. Along with settlements in 40 counties, it was hit by recording-breaking floods and has been designated a federal disaster area. Many of its homes and nearly every business was submerged.
However, former mayor and Richwood native Jeremy Rose won’t take “typical.” “Richwood is one of those special places that grabs people by the heart and won’t let go.”
For generations, artists have been drawn there. Rose returned in 1994 with a master’s degree in sculpture from UNC Chapel Hill. He thought he’d start making art. Instead, by 1996 he was Richwood’s youngest mayor and throwing his creative energy into revitalizing the former coal and lumber boom town. Richwood is also the self-proclaimed Ramp Capital of the World, for its prolific crop of the wild leek that is the darling of American chefs.
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Rose and other residents have worked tirelessly to reinvent Richwood as a tourist destination. The town backs up to a national forest and the area is blessed with scenic hiking, trout fishing, and white water rafting. “I called Michael because we wanted to spiff up our downtown.” The first mural almost didn’t happen because money was short. Brown turned to another UNC-trained artist whose family makes grants. Her gift funded a team of UNC art-student interns to go to Richwood and help Brown paint.
“Off we went in my truck,” Brown says. “Looking like the Beverly Hillbillies.” In record time, they painted a night sky with constellations inspired by local wildlife. Townspeople hosted the painters and made sure they got three hearty meals a day. “These kids got great training from UNC,” Brown says. “And the hospitality of Richwood touched them.” Four of the five went on to careers in art. Brown returned every few years, sometimes for pay and sometimes because he had a free week. He painted a total of five murals, including a towering lumberjack (the mascot) in the high school gym. The flood wrecked the gym. Like many town assets, the gym was not flood insured.
Rose says there’s something irresistible about Richwood’s spirit. “Michael is not the only one who drank the water and couldn’t stay away.” The local State Farm Agent could have set up anywhere, but chose Richwood. The FEMA representative assigned to the flood offered to come and help organize the effort as a private citizen using his vacation leave. “We couldn’t let him do that,” Rose says.
The day of the flood, another friend who’d adopted Richwood was visiting Rose. The UNC-trained art historian and her daughter watched horrified as water poured down slopes and filled the streets. Then the river and lake began rising by two feet an hour. “She was devastated, and it wasn’t safe, but I had to make her leave.”
The week after the flood, Rose and his family had planned to take their ancient station wagon and tour new England. Instead, they agreed to give the relief effort the time and money they would have spent traveling. Rose is no longer a town official, but many turned to him and a core group of natural leaders who will continue to organize and fundraise long after the National Guard goes. Rose has returned to his day job, but expects the recovery to be a second job for a long time. “We didn’t give up when the coals mines left, or when we had to talk the paper company out of clear cutting the mountain slopes above us,” he says. “We won’t give up now.”
Disaster funds won’t cover many losses, like the gym or the high school and Little League sports fields, or the lost uniforms and instruments of the school’s awarding-winning band. The public library was flooded and the volunteer fire department was overwhelmed and needs funds. “If it was up to me,” Brown says, “Chapel Hill and the UNC Art Department would adopt Richwood as their sister city in need.”
Tax deductible donations can be made to the Nicholas County Community Foundation online at http://RebuildRichwood.com/or by check to P.O. Box 561, Summersville, West Virginia 26651. Be sure to specifying "Richwood" as the recipient.
Roxanne Henderson is a writer and fundraiser.
How to help
Tax-deductible donations can be made to the Nicholas County Community Foundation online at http://RebuildRichwood.com/or by check to P.O. Box 561, Summersville, West Virginia 26651. Be sure to specifying “Richwood” as the recipient.