As the executive director of the center, Fields and her colleagues lead the charge in the preservation and perpetuation of Southern Appalachian traditions in the county. Cruising down Schoolhouse Road, one immediately becomes immersed within the 500-resident community of Stecoah, only to end up on the 10-acre grounds of the center. What was once a K-12 school, the 1926 natural stone structure has become a hub of artists, music and public programs for visitors from near and far.
“Our mission is to serve the community and also restore the property,” Fields said. “Our purpose is to preserve Southern Appalachian culture.”
After it came to life in 1926, the school burned down a year later, only to be rebuilt and reopened in 1927. In 1994, due to consolidation of schools within the district, it closed. A few of years of abandonment turned into the county purchasing the property, to which it become the nonprofit artisan organization you see today.
“It really is a central place for people to come, especially for people from outside,” Fields said. “We have a large second-home population and this place is busy in the summer, and year-round, too, because we also have winter programs and an after-school for the children of Graham County.”
At the core of the center is their summer concert series, “An Appalachian Evening,” which brings in some of the largest names in bluegrass, roots and Americana music. The 10-week Saturday night series has become an institution for musicians and music lovers, with sellouts and pack houses in the 325-seat auditorium not uncommon. Alongside a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, tickets have remained competitive to be able to keep the series successful and engaging as it enters its 18th year.
“What I think makes us unique is how intimate the shows are,” Fields said. “And we’ve been very fortunate to be able to make it affordable to come to a show, to be able to sustain the bands we have here.”
“‘An Appalachian Evening’ has been an amazing platform to expose new people to mountain culture the right way,” said Darren Nicholson, mandolinist for 2014 IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” group Balsam Range. “Where better to hear the finest musicians these mountains have to offer than in one of the prettiest places on earth? We appreciate all the hard work the people at the Stecoah Valley Center do to preserve our folk heritage in every facet — it’s one show I look forward to every year.”
Atop that, the center is also a big proponent of the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program that puts string instruments and instruction into the hands of area youth.
“Kids would learn how to play music by sitting on the porch and listening to pickers, but that tradition, like weaving and quilting, is waning,” Fields said. “And with JAM, we give them a sense of where they come from, a boost of self-esteem when they get up in front of people and play. We’re making sure these traditions are staying alive, and thriving, for future generations — it’s important.”
With the schoolhouse now restored, the next step in the master plan is to work on the nearby gymnasium, expand the playground, move the outdoor pavilion and also incorporate a handful of interpretive stations along the center’s nature trail. Add that to their numerous art classes, a theater program and artisan gallery, and the property is well on its way to having its ultimate dreams come to fruition.
“We’ve grown every year, not just in our programs, but in the people who come through the door, too,” Fields said. “Everybody in the community is able to get to know each other, able to come together and work together towards progress.”
Fields noted that total attendance last year for “An Appalachian Evening” was 2,510, with the center tallying 15,500 visitors. Compare that to the 500 folks in Stecoah, and the 8,800 people in the entire county, and you have a location that not only uplifts those it serves, it also remains as a beacon of culture and tradition for all lucky enough to step in its light.
“Stecoah is a tightly-knit place, with the center able to be a bridge between the old locals and the new ones,” Fields said. “You can tell when a place is loved and cared for, and you feel taken care of here, and in this community.”
Want to go?
“An Appalachian Evening,” a summer concert series, will return to the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, just outside of Robbinsville.
Performers will include The Special Consensus June 27, Buncombe Turnpike July 4, Town Mountain July 11, The Snyder Family Band July 19, The Walking Roots Band July 25, Balsam Range Aug. 1, Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’Blues Aug. 8, The Jeff Little Trio Aug. 15, Henhouse Prowlers Aug. 22 and The Kruger Brothers Aug. 29.
Season tickets are $150, with separate show ticket prices varying.
www.stecoahvalleycenter.com or 828.479.3364.