Ashes and Growth: Planting Ceremony at Freedom House


A resident agreed to share the writing on her paper before burning the paper and burying it in the soil.

This past Monday residents planted at Freedom House created a ceremony and planted the beginnings of the grief and healing garden. (If you’d like to know more about this project, go here or here). Please note that due to confidentiality agreements we can not show identities of the people in these photos.

The Seeds of Change garden at Freedom House will serve as both a literal and metraphorical space for growth and healing through food and flowers. All of the plants came from regional gardeners and were chosen for their health benefits, ease of care, and ability to draw butterflies to the garden space.

Mixing in the compost

Mixing in the compost

We began the workshop by filling the second garden bed and mixing in compost and talking about soil health. We also talked about how compost is made of dead matter. Yet when the leaves begin to break down and decay the soil itself is in a process of growth and actually provides life to plants.

We talked a little bit about each of the plants in the garden and where they came from and passed out a garden manual that details the care needed for all the plants. Residents chose words they wanted to write on piece of paper (some were stories, others a few phrases), and then they set fire to them, letting the ashes fall into the soil. On top of the ashes each resident planted a herb or flower that they picked out from either the seedlings they’d started or from one of the many donations we’ve received from area gardeners.

Words going up in flames, adding ashes to the soil.

Words going up in flames, adding ashes to the soil.

Some residents chose to share what they had written and others decided kept the words private. They spoke of difficult pasts–abuses suffered and mistakes made–and the desire for a new future. Three women decided to work together and burned their papers in the same place, letting the ashes fall together before putting a large yarrow plant on top. Yarrow is known for its resilience and ability to thrive in all kinds of situations. It also draws butterflies. Other residents chose lavender, a calming plant; oregano, a herb loaded with health benefits, and zinnia, a flower that butterflies love. One of the outpatient residents chose a bright red yarrow, which will add so much color and health to the garden bed.

We gathered around the garden beds as each person burned their pieces of paper. Residents cheered, hugged, and celebrated the new beginnings.  It was a really beautiful and powerful day.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, call Freedom House at 479- 968-7086. Freedom House is a partner of ARVAC. McElroy House is a community partner helping to create and implement this program.





Our Partnership with CAAH (Conserving Arkansas’s Agricultural Heritage)

1025915_10151488904751010_1255911591_oGreat, great news! We’ll soon be hosting the Pope and Yell County local heirloom seedbank in partnership with CAAH!

We wrote all about it in the Seed and the Story column which ran in the Courier and on Boiled Down Juice site, our partner project.

Go here to read all about it!  Yay! 

Big News!: Giving Tree Grant from Pope County Community Foundation!


Goats at the Campbell’s house. Image by Saira Khan.

We’re so very pleased to formally announce we have been named as a recipients of one of the Giving Tree grants from the Pope County Community Foundation! 

This grant will help us move forward with our project, and we’re so thankful for their support!

Below you will find a copy of our press release. Feel free to share far and wide!

For Immediate Release: Pope County Community Foundations Supports Local Garden Research

The McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History and Community Action is proud to be named a recipient of a recent Giving Tree Grant from the Pope County Community Foundation for their ongoing Garden Book project.

The Garden Book Project seeks to explore the diverse stories of small-scale gardeners and growers in the Yell and Pope County areas, focusing on the people behind the gardens and thus illuminating the power of sustainable living, the need for teaching youth these skills, and the diversity of sustainable growing traditions in the region. Both Pope and Yell Counties have a long-standing tradition of small-scale growing and backyard gardening, and while this tradition has somewhat waned in recent years, small-scale food production continues to supply food for many residents and is experiencing a revival in small pockets throughout the community. This grant will help toward printing costs for the book. 

Much more than a tradition, small-scale gardening is a practical resource for the community. In both Pope and Yell Counties nearly twenty percent of the population live below the poverty line with many families relying on food banks and state assistance to supplement their grocery needs. Far too often fresh foods, especially organically grown vegetables, are financially of reach for many citizens. Yet the region is filled with available land and a long growing season making it possible for increased food production that could greatly offset at least a portion of the community’s nutritional needs. The goal of the Garden Book Project is to not only document the wisdom of this living tradition, but to also encourage a larger community conversation about the importance of local growing, the ways in which the community can come together to support the needs of existing small-scale growers, and encourage conversations that can help us organize for the future.


Kristin Simmons with one of her chickens. Image by Saira Khan, research by Marie Williams.

The book will be available in both print and online and will feature the beautiful images of Russellville photographer Saira Khan. A series of radio pieces will also accompany the book and the McElroy House will be working in partnership with El Zocalo Immigrant Resource Center to offer bi-lingual books and resources. Members of the research team include Meredith Martin-Moats, Marie Williams, and Kelsey Trotter, with  support from Rachel Townsend and Bryan Moats. 
As part of our project we’ve already met with a grandfather and grandson who grow together for both themselves and a local food bank, a family of teachers who raise goats, and a young twenty-two year old modern homesteader with a growing flock of chickens. These stories of local growers help to demystify gardening, especially to younger generations while also building pride in local knowledge and resources. The generous support of the Pope County Community Foundation will help us move this project forward.

The McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action is a research and advocacy organization for the support and exploration of folklife, oral history, sustainability, holistic land use, community action, and inter-cultural and inter-generational partnerships in Yell County and the Arkansas river valley. We seek to explore how the past connects to the present and how we can weave this knowledge into a stronger future for everyone, old-timers and newcomers alike.

An Update on Oral History Work in Searcy County from Kelsey Trotter

Students working on the garden. Image from the Delta Garden Study.

Students working on the garden. Image from the Delta Garden Study.

At the McElroy House one of our key goals is to serve as a resource organization, helping people engage in participatory research and work toward sustainable solutions. Here’s an update on our recent partnership with Prescott University and Kelsey Trotter, an Americorps member working with the Delta Garden Study in Marshall, Arkansas. Kelsey contacted us about this partnership/independent study, and set up the entire process. I’m certain we learned more from her than she learned from us, and we were so honored to get to work with her.  

Here’s some background and context. Earlier this year Kelsey Trotter began working in Marshall, Arkansas as part of the Delta Garden Study Program, a statewide program connected to Americorps and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. This $2 million research project is geared toward  preventing childhood obesity and social risk behaviors while also improving the academic achievement in middle school age children. Kelsey joined the program as a Garden Educator, working in community outreach and partnering with teachers to help them create garden-centered lessons that connect to the curriculum. To keep up to date with the Marshall/Search County work of the Delta Garden Study go here and here

Connecting her work with the Delta Garden Study with her ongoing classes at Prescott University, Kelsey designed at Independent Study in partnership with McElroy House to combine cultural studies with her current work, exploring how to work sustainably and with participatory research as a key focus. One of her main goals, she writes, is to explore “community knowledge and the existing resources and organizations that support it.” What’s most encouraging about Kelsey’s Independent study is the important questions she poses for next steps, including “how to facilitate the transformation of storytelling to community action.” 

We’re so excited to get to work with Kelsey, and wanted to share some of her experiences here as we know her work will be inspiring and useful to readers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with readers, Kelsey! 

Reflection on Introductory Oral History Work in Searcy County, AR

                  In late September, I moved to Searcy County, Arkansas to serve as an Americorps service member in a local school garden program in the Ozark Mountains.  As Garden Educator, I work with teachers to create garden based lessons that correlate to their curriculum.  I am also tasked with conducting community outreach to sustain the garden as a community supported and integrated program.  I was drawn to this position with a deep interest in exploring and working for positive, culturally appropriate community development in rural Arkansas.  With my own family roots in the Ozark foothills, Delta and River Valley regions of Arkansas, I have a deep sense of pride in my state and the varied communities and cultures that make it up.  I feel a responsibility and desire to give back to rural Arkansas where so many opportunities, as well as traditions are quickly being depleted.

I see a great value in education and programs that are regionally based.  When I began serving in Searcy County, I immediately noticed the enormous amount of sustainable agriculture and gardening knowledge that exists in the community.  I designed an independent study with the support of the McElroy House to research this community knowledge and the existing resources and organizations that support it.  For my study, I conducted the initial steps in oral history work, by doing background research on the county, meeting with community members and organizations and conducting informal interviews with agricultural producers and workers.  I also chose to do this study as my first steps in the community outreach component of my work, believing that identifying the strengths and assets of the community and listening to their voices, experience and knowledge was a sensible first step.

I had the opportunity to meet people of various cultures living, working and growing in the area.  I met with an Asian immigrant, a Searcy County native with many generations of roots here and a community member with a strong Native American influence in his heritage, culture and identity.  Speaking with these individuals was an enlightening exploration of the diversity that exists in a seemingly homogenous community.

I correlated my oral history work to the school, by designing and teaching a lesson to 7th grade Arkansas History students on gardening and food traditions in Arkansas and oral history techniques.  For their homework assignments, they interviewed a grandparent or other older community member on their experiences with gardening, food and history.  They shared the results of their interviews in a second lesson.  I could tell the students gained new insight on gardening, food and history as well as the lives of their grandparents.  They also indirectly involved many new people in the garden program.

I have greatly enjoyed making these community connections, but a pertinent question is where to go from here.  I have had the opportunity to meet a number of knowledgeable community members interested in sharing their expertise with the garden program, but  it is important to question how to develop a community involvement program that consistently, appropriately and effectively utilizes knowledge from the community.  Another question is how to facilitate the transformation of storytelling to community action.  This work also reinforced for me the immense value of multigenerational interaction: how younger generations gain access to the knowledge, experience and wisdom of the older generations and the older generations feel inspired by the spirit of youth to effectively and compassionately pass down their knowledge.

2013 CAAH-sponsored Russellville Seed Swap

Swapping seeds

Swapping seeds

This past weekend CAAH (Conserving Arkansas’s Agricultural Heritage) hosted the 2013 Seed Swap at the Episcopol Church in Russellville. To learn more about the swap you can check out our recent Seed and the Story column, a partnership with the Courier newspaper and the Boiled Down Juice site. Click here to read the piece. 

We attended the event, gave away some Marigold seeds that belonged to our director’s mother, the late Mary Sue McElroy Martin, and talked about our work on the Garden Book project. We had a great time meeting new people and running into old friends and talking about our work! We also had several volunteers sign up to be a part of our ongoing research, so we can’t wait to meet with them and learn about their gardens and how we can help support a stronger growing community in the region!

It was especially exciting because there were so many in attendance and so many seeds were exchanged. We stayed pretty busy talking and handing out seeds, but snapped a few photos near the end of the event to share here.

If you’d like to know more about our work please check out the “About” section.  We are a totally volunteer-run organization, and we’d love to have you join us!

McElroy House Independent Study, Fall 2012: Garden Research and Partnership.


Here are all the details about our upcoming internship for the Fall 2012 semester at Arkansas Tech University. We’re excited about this partnership with the University and the area students.  Below are all the details as well as a pdf flyer you can share with others.  Click here to see the flyer and to share it: Flyer for Mc 2012

Please Note: The meetings will NOT be held at the house itself. As of right now, our organization exists out in the community and we will be working on, and moving into, the building at a later date.  Sorry for any confusion about this!  If you have any questions, please ask! We’d love to provide answers and clear up any confusion! 

Garden Research and Partnership with Area Growers 

Basic Overview:

 People throughout the world are recognizing the value of locally produced food and the benefits of backyard gardening. Here in the central Arkansas area, we have a long standing tradition of gardening that transcends generations and cultures. 

The McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action, a community-based research organization in central Arkansas, is looking for students interested in helping us work toward the creation of a Garden Book featuring information about the living tradition of gardening, the value of local food production, and the role gardening can play in strengthening communities throughout the Yell and Pope County areas. We’ll work to identify and meet with local growers and partner with photographer Saira Khan to document the stories of these gardeners both young and old. We’ll also be producing some potential pieces for public radio and other print and media publications.

Course Goals: Gain an introduction to the basics of folklife and oral history interviewing and documentation while also learning about, and partnering with, area gardeners and local small-scale food producers (bee keepers, canners, etc.). This information will be used as part of the McElroy House’s work toward a regional Garden Book. Through this work we aim to explore and encourage sustainability and cross-cultural cultural and intergenerational dialog in our area. Given the extreme conditions the recent drought has created, we’ll also expect to be documenting these concerns and, hopefully, discovering and sharing innovative ways area growers are dealing with this pressing problem.

Course Requirements:  Identify and speak with area gardeners, both old and young (Spanish speaking students are especially encouraged!), help conduct oral history interviews throughout the Yell and Pope County areas, listen to oral history interviews after they’re recorded and create interview logs, write bi-weekly short papers about what you’re learning (which will possibly be shared with a wider audience if you choose), engage in archival work in the ATU library, and help create preliminary plans and writing for the Garden Book, for which you will be listed as a co-author and researcher.

Meeting Times: Weekly discussions with professor over email and phone as well as in-person meetings every two to three weeks. Meeting times will also include trips to meet with area gardeners, interviews with gardeners, and various archival research. Meeting times are flexible and can be worked around your schedule. Some weekend meetings may be required.

Skills Gained: Basic oral history documentation, the use of audio recording, interviewing and research skills, introduction to community-based research, increased knowledge of local garden traditions and food production, introduction to creating stories for public radio, writing for newspaper, and real world experience in building and sustaining community projects and written publications.

Skills Required: We can work with all students. No prior training or research required.

*We welcome all students regardless race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, ancestry, or national or ethnic origin.

For more information please visit us online at

Email the professor at or speak with Dr. Tarver about signing up!

We look forward to working with you!

~ The McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community action is a research and advocacy organization for the support and exploration of folklife, oral history, sustainability, holistic land use, community action, and inter-cultural and inter-generational partnerships in Yell County and the Arkansas river valley.  Our core is to be a perpetual student of our own home region.  Our home base is in Dardanelle, Arkansas, but our work takes place throughout the central Arkansas area.