This past weekend I drove two hours southeast of Springfield, Missouri to a little town near the border of Arkansas called Alton. In this neck of the woods, everyone remembers when in 1964 the Beatles took a break on the nearby Pigman Farm during their very first American tour. In fact, this year was the 50th anniversary and although the locals have consciously chosen not to turn their town of 879 into a shrine to the Beatles, they did dress up their windows for the anniversary, which was mostly for the town residents, and not to draw tourism.
My reason to visit Alton was by invitation of a very bright and determined, Rachel Reynolds Luster, who was born and raised in the region, and who over the last three years has pulled together the resources, with the help of local producers, to create the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisan Co-op. I found her via Facebook last summer and reached out to learn more about her work as a culture producer and her focus on Ozark Heritage. Through her work I have learned about several rural arts programs that I find so refreshing, artists operating outside the confines of urban art centers. Coming from Northern California where many small towns have been revived over the last decade, I see much potential in the literally thousands of small towns left behind from the early 1980s, when many small farmers went bankrupted.
The Co-op (a membership model), helps support local farmers and artisans by providing a hub for them to sell their goods. Rachel also provides an area for playing music with a piano, a rotating art exhibition, and an education corner or library of local music and written Ozark folklore. She has been collecting stories, and photographs of the regional architecture and even taught me the names of the types of homes you find here (which my grandparents lived in on their farm), flagstone and saddlebag. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, you can find her and other community members in the kitchen cooking up lunch for local visitors, “pay what you can,” offering something like what she served me, which was homemade pimento cheese on grilled bread along with pinto beans.
What Rachel has created in Alton could help revive small towns across the Midwest, helping communities that have literally died culturally, and are struggling to survive economically. There is no better cure for social dysfunction than to create a safe place for community members to be themselves, to contribute to their “neighbors” by volunteering to make foods to feed those with less, to make things to sell and barter, and to teach each other our histories and build on these stories to foster the next generation of farmers and makers.
Other rural arts programs and resources to check out include: