Rural communities often assume their neighbors share similar cultural backgrounds, traditions, and beliefs. But diversity has always been a part of Knox County life; African Americans have lived and worked here from pioneer times, and the county is home to one of Ohio’s oldest Catholic churches. Belgians migrated here in 1900 to take up skilled jobs in Mount Vernon’s burgeoning glass industry, and small numbers of Jews have operated many of the stores on Main Street. Today Knox County continues to change, with significant increases in the local Amish, Hispanic, and South Asian populations. These migrations contribute to the community’s resources and vitality, but they can also become a source of misunderstanding and discord.
To explore the cultural diversity in central Ohio and across America, Kenyon’s Rural Life Center collaborated with the Knox County Public Library to host New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, an exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program. This multimedia exhibition, which traces the many voices that have contributed to the diversity of American traditional music, was developed especially for small institutions and rural audiences that typically do not have access to traveling exhibits.
To complement the exhibit, the Rural Life Center presented a month-long series of lectures, films, book discussions, and musical programs about the historical and contemporary musical traditions in and around Knox County including a performance of rarely heard Amish singing, a workshop on traditional fiddle music, and a shape note sing; these and other programs attracted well over 1,000 visitors to the library. The series provided a meaningful foray into the diverse cultures that continue to inform local rural life.