Professor's New Book Looks at Change in Rural Kentucky Communities

photo of Ken Tunnell

While some people listen to books while driving a car, an Eastern Kentucky University professor’s commute inspired him to create one.

Dr. Kenneth Tunnell, professor of Criminal Justice and Police Studies,  is the author of “Once Upon a Place: The Fading of Community in Rural Kentucky,” which looks at the changes rural communities are undergoing.

“I live in rural central Kentucky and rarely venture onto the interstate, preferring to drive back roads,” Tunnell said. “During those drives in my own community, I have been struck with the number of idle farms, abandoned farm houses, dilapidated barns and other farm-related outbuildings. I also began noticing the number of locally owned businesses closing their doors. Then, I began thinking about the connections between the downturn in family farming and local economies.”

Those observations turned into research – visual sociology (the book features numerous photos taken by Tunnell) and collecting secondary data, mainly from government sources. His research focused on the impact that changes in family farming in Kentucky have had on locally owned business that at one time primarily served agriculture-based communities.

“As the family farm goes, so go mom-and-pop operations,” Tunnell explained. “But the effect has also been felt by public sector institutions, such as small town post offices that are closing and schools that close and send students to consolidated schools. Communities and small towns are becoming vastly different places than of a generation or two ago.”

Connected to this is the development of the countryside, Tunnell explained.

“As family farms decline, that land is often developed and sold as 3- to 5-acre tracts where ‘McMansions’ are built,” he said. “The residents are newcomers to those areas and have little connection to the families that have lived there for generations. The newcomers shop elsewhere. Work elsewhere. Send their kids to school elsewhere. The intimate connections that at one time existed among rural residents are disappearing as ‘strangers’ move in and as long-term residents move out (or die off).”

The book also documents social problems that emerge in communities that are undergoing fundamental change and are not organized as they once were, such as property crime, drug crimes, and large and small scale littering.

Tunnell, a native of rural east Tennessee, joined the EKU faculty in 1989.

Published on September 29, 2011