This Bakery is Bringing Hope to an Appalachian Town

The Black Sheep Bakery is giving people in Kentucky a second chance.

May 21, 2020

(rocharibeiro / Shutterstock.com)

Jackhorn Kentucky, a hamlet in the Appalachian Mountains, is deep in coal country. But with coal jobs disappearing and unemployment at record highs, this community has found a reason to hope. A bake shop with an unusual name, Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery, is providing steady employment and job training skills to local residents.

The bakery is a community-owned social enterprise that is focused on providing jobs for workers displaced by the coal mining industry, people in recovery, and others who need a new start in life according to the Greenfield Recorder.

The bakery started as a volunteer driven initiative in the Hemphill Community Center in 2017 as part of a successful “Back to Our Appalachian Roots” project. It included the traditional mountain skills like blacksmithing, quilting, and mountain cooking.

The volunteers received a $15,000 culture hub grant to install a brick oven in the center to bake the traditional breads, cakes and foods. Black Sheep uses only locally sourced healthy ingredients.

“There is nothing like hearth-baked bread,” Gwen Johnson, the co-founder and manager of the bakery told the Greenfield Recorder. “It feeds the body and seems familiar even if you have never before tasted it.”

The name of the bakery and catering company was borrowed from a local deli, a delegation from the project visited in western Massachusetts, according to Johnson. But the deli didn’t mind being an inspiration.

The reasons why the community needs the social enterprise go back to the beginning of coal mining in America. Generations of Appalachians residents worked in the coal mines and according to Free Think, it was a source of pride as well as the primary employer in the area.

But coal mining is back-breaking work with a huge amount of injuries, accidents and diseases like black lung. That is why many of the miners became hooked on the powerful opioid pain relievers. Appalachia has the highest concentration of opioid addiction in the US.

Today, there are very few coal jobs left in the area due to automation and the reduction of power plants that are coal-fed. Poverty has become a major problem in the area that encompasses all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states including Kentucky. In the Appalachian region of Kentucky, the unemployment rate was 25.4 percent even before the coronavirus pandemic.

The Black Sheep Brick Oven Bakery is working to turn this around and its model of giving people second chances and has become a successful business. Johnson told Free Think, "We have created an inclusive place of love and belonging for whoever wants to come... I was always a black sheep in my family, which gave me a heart for others."

Bradley Johnson, a veteran who became an addict and was incarcerated is now a baker. "After I got out, [finding] work was impossible," he said. But the bakery gave him a job and a second chance at life.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the bakery has remained open and it is delivering to the local community. The sales, the company said, have actually doubled as the community rallied around the bake shop and its mission.  Every evening free bread is offered to anyone in the area that needs it.

A sense of purpose and dignity has been restored to this part of the earth. The Appalachian Mountain people  who once worked in the mines are now using the same work ethic to build bakery’s, become beekeepers, learn to code, and go into green tech like solar panel installations.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.