Witts Springs is a tiny hamlet on the edge of the Ozark National Forest. They are the closest jump-off spot into the lush forests of Richland Creek Wilderness and the tranquil Falling Water Falls. The nearest town is Marshall, about 25 winding miles away. There's probably fewer than 20 people in the town itself, but quite a few more scattered in the surrounding hills and hollers.
About two years ago, Witts Springs resident Cynthia Garmoe called and asked me about joining Rural Community Alliance (RCA) and becoming a part of the Ozark Byways revitalization network. She hoped to restore some vitality to her community, so she invited me to come to her town's monthly Garden Club meeting at the old Witts Springs school to talk about it.
On the appointed day, I gathered up my usual materials, brochures, and membership forms and headed for Witts Springs. It was a pleasure just to drive there on the road that winds and climbs until it comes out at the top of the mountain between the cemetery with 200-year-old graves and the old school that was abandoned in 2002.
I was surprised when I drove up to the school–now the Community Center–to see several cars there. Who knew that so many people could belong to a garden club in Witts Springs? There were about 15 women present. A huge arrangement of wildflowers dominated the U-shaped table arrangement. A veritable feast of summer vegetables, fruits, and homemade dishes was spread out in the kitchen area. One of the ladies had brought onions from a large plot her husband had planted in memory of his father, who always grew them to sell at farmers' markets. Another woman, insisting I stop by her house and tour her garden on my way home, gave me plants that continued to flourish in my flower beds years later.
The ladies gave me a tour of the building, the most recently built of four that the Searcy County School District had deeded back to the community. The roof and plumbing leaked, but the building was relatively new–built in the late 1990s–and worth saving. Did I have any idea of what they could do to fix it up and pay utilities?
I told them that RCA was a membership organization and that they would need to have a chapter of 25 members to join the Ozark Byways network. This would get them a spot in the Ozark Byways magazine, which they really liked, and whatever technical and organizing assistance we could give them. "No problem," they said. They used to have a group called Community Voices that had sort of lapsed, but maybe they could reactivate it and get something going. We strategized how to bring more people and money into the community. They invited me to come back a month later to a Community Voices meeting to pitch membership.
When my team and I went back, we took materials and explained the history of RCA and Ozark Byways, and we talked about our services. Right there one woman agreed to be a chapter leader, and another agreed to help her. Within a couple of weeks, they had 25 members.
They have since secured a grant to fix the building. Volunteers continued to maintain the property, and residents re-started a spring festival and created a fall one. They had monthly community events like game night or Valentine's Day dinners in the building, taking donations to keep the lights on. In 2015 they held their first annual Pinnacle Rock 40 off-road bicycle race that was so successful they repeated it the following year. Their all-terrain vehicle Poker Run raised $4,000 and brought 100 people into the community.
The gym already had working bathrooms with showers, so they made the former classrooms into hostel-type lodgings and rented them out to hikers, cyclists, and bikers who were on long runs through the back country and needed a place to stay. They even rented out the whole facility to a church youth group for a retreat, and they were so thrilled to have 40 young people in the building again. They also attended a recent communications and organizing workshop in Marshall that RCA helped present, which helped them create a Facebook page and website that we linked to the Ozark Byways website.
You know, the funny thing is that we did very little except give advice, lead a few workshops, and provide exposure.
From that small start, they organized their community, raised money, created a strong can-do community spirit, and connected to three larger networks that are renewing pieces of rural Arkansas.
Rural Community Alliance (RCA) empowers low-income, rural communities to effect change by creating opportunities in education, economic development, and youth development to improve quality of life and place.
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