Lessons for Middle and High School Social Studies, Visual Arts, Media Arts, and Digital Literacy Teachers


Welcome to Creelsboro and the Cumberland: Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art. This is the Creelsboro Documentary Project’s education collection for teachers and their middle school and high school students. These materials were developed to support the hour-long documentary Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History.

Incorporated in 1836, Creelsboro is located on the north bank of the Cumberland River. Credit: Aerial photograph, Kentucky Archaeological Survey, October 2015.


Documentary art is created to represent lifestyles or events of the past, provoke lively discussions, and generate questions. Teachers can use discussion of images to build visual literacy, critical and analytical thinking skills, collaboration, and communication skills. These are key components of 21st Century Skills and are also embedded in the Kentucky Academic Standards as well as in the National Core Arts Standards and the Social Studies Standards established by the National Council for the Social Studies.


A molasses stir in the 1910s. Credit: The Porter Family.

These themes – exploration and settlement, commerce and trade, transportation, and agriculture – define the growth and evolution of every Kentucky community. So, to learn about the town of Creelsboro and the rural Russell County community that surrounds it is to learn about many Kentucky communities – and about many communities across America as well.

Creelsboro is a good example of river towns and rural communities that developed because of their proximity to a navigable waterway. Towns like Creelsboro were dependent on the Cumberland River as the primary method of transportation, for both goods and travel. The invention of the steamboat was one of the first forays into taming that unpredictable river, and allowed Creelsboro to flourish.

The Cumberland River, however, is just part of the Creelsboro story. The rich bottom lands, replenished with dirt from the river with each flood, fostered an agricultural economy with numerous subsistence farms that were able to sell their grain, livestock, and tobacco for goods that were not produced locally.

Foggy Morning by Fred Thrasher (1999).

This fed back into the river economy and the importance of steamboats for the area’s development.

The aspects that make Creelsboro unique also are a reason to study its history. The town of Creelsboro was one of the more important river ports and a major commercial center on the upper Cumberland River in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although it was isolated due to poor roads, the Creelsboro area was a vibrant community, a mixture of a lively commercial and trading center (Creelsboro) surrounded by farmlands devoted to agriculture.

Janie-Rice Brother, architectural historian for the project, explained the importance of studying Creelsboro this way:

…from understanding the past and understanding the story of Creelsboro, we learn more about ourselves as people.  We learn more about…the stories [of] everyday men and women that worked so hard to make a life for themselves and give their children a better life, and to stay connected to the land and to each other.  And by telling that story and by honoring those people and their contributions, then we preserve a little bit of that spirit as we move forward.

“Brack” Flanagan, who grew up in the Creelsboro area hoped that, from their study and appreciation of Creelsboro’s history:

…people will see and will look back in their areas at their history and try to preserve and get to understand and revisit, you know, years past and to see what contributions that their ancestors have made to the present day.  It’s a continuous thread – unbroken.

Students and teachers will not find Creelsboro or southwestern Russell County, Kentucky in the history books. This community is recorded in the memories, photographs, and documents of the families that called it “home.” A part of it is presented in the documentary, its companion website, and these lessons – all elements of the Creelsboro Documentary Project.

The Collection

Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art is an integrated set of essays, short videos, activities, and resources developed for middle and high school (grades 6-12) teachers and their students. All elements of Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art are designed to be used in visual arts or social studies classes. Some activities are equally appropriate for reading and writing, media arts, theatre, or music classes. Each Teaching Tips and Activities section provides teachers with an overview of curricular connections.

Creelsboro Landing, 1890s by Dennis Thrasher (2018) is a portrait
of the community’s steamboat landing on the Cumberland River.

Irvin Store, 1920s by Dennis Thrasher (2018). It depicts the
vibrant community heart and focal point of Creelsboro.


The focus of this collection is on two units – Rural Economy in the Early 20th Century and Rural Life in the Early 20th Century – linked to Dennis Thrasher’s documentary paintings – Creelsboro Landing, 1890s and Irvin Store, 1920s, respectively. Thrasher created these paintings to fill visual voids in the hour-long film, Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History, at the direction of the film’s producer/director, Tom Law, of Voyageur Media Group, Inc.

Thrasher’s artwork draws from primary source archival and historic documents research: published historic sources, original historic research, archival photographs period documents, contemporary photographs, and contemporary oral histories. Both paintings visually document aspects of rural Kentucky life and its economy in the early 20th century.

These units include overview materials and an interactive of each painting. All are linked to background readings, discussion questions, teaching tips and activities, short videos, and Powerpoint slide presentations.

Two additional sets of supplementary resource materials complete the collection. They are designed to be used alone or to support the main units. Dennis Thrasher- Documentary Artist explores artist Dennis Thrasher’s process of researching and composing documentary art. Documenting Local History Using Primary Resources highlights the vital importance of using primary sources to document the lives of everyday people. Teachers also may wish to access additional content through the Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History companion website.

The curriculum materials in Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art are aligned to Kentucky Academic Standards in Social Studies, Reading and Writing, and Visual and Performing Arts as well as to the National Core Arts Standards and the Social Studies Standards established by the National Council for the Social Studies.

The developers at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey welcome you to Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art. Share your comments and suggestions, and any questions you may have, with the Education Director at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.


Educators can use Exploring Rural Kentucky Through Documentary Art as a self-contained unit. They can access the additional related content to supplement the unit’s many activities and readings. Or, they can select specific activities and use them to support existing curricula.

Each unit, each lesson set linked to the interactives, and each supplementary resource set begins with a short, illustrated, grade-level Background Reading. Vocabulary and Standards-based Discussion Questions follow the Background Reading. Italicized words in the readings are new vocabulary words. They are either defined in the essay or listed in a separate Vocabulary section. Student Pages are accessible to students on-line, or instructors can download and distribute .pdf versions.

Teaching Tips and Activities on the Teacher Pages provide teaching suggestions and activities. The activities connect social studies content based on the Kentucky Academic Standards with Kentucky Academic Standards for Reading and Writing; and the Kentucky Academic Standards for Visual and Performing Arts/National Core Arts Standards. A list of Standards for each activity is provided. Teacher Pages with Teaching Tips and Activities, and Standards are provided in downloadable .pdf format for teachers.

Photograph (1920s-1930s) of Campbell’s Ferry. Credit: The Campbell Family.

Detail from Creelsboro Landing, 1890s by Dennis Thrasher (2018).

Educators may wish to access related content through the companion website – Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History. This website includes links to:

A view of Creelsboro – Left Behind by Fred Thrasher (1978).

  • the complete hour-long documentary: Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History;
  • information about the Creelsboro Documentary Project and the Creelsboro Rural Historic District;
  • a short aerial flyover video of the Creelsboro area;
  • selected archival images (.jpg) used in the documentary;
  • additional information and content about Dennis Thrasher and his two paintings, including a 21-minute video about him;
  • a link to the Library of Congress’ digital collections; and
  • additional information about the original music used in the documentary, including a profile and short video about soundtrack musician Eli Bedel, soundtrack song profiles, 15 short audio files of songs used in the documentary, and links to additional music resources.

Creelsboro and the Cumberland: A Living History is Episode 7 in The Kentucky Archaeology and Heritage Series. Click here to access descriptions of all seven episodes in the series and the order form. Contact the Education Director at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey with any questions about ordering.

If you enjoy integrating art and social studies through documentary art, you may also wish to access TEACHING THROUGH DOCUMENTARY ART – Lessons for Elementary and Middle School Social Studies Teachers. These are the instructional materials linked to the documentary art that is a part of the Davis Bottom History Preservation Project. These lessons engage students in social studies while strengthening their visual, literacy, and analytical thinking skills. The focus is on the lives of late 20th century working-class people who lived in Lexington, Kentucky’s Davis Bottom neighborhood, and on civil rights in Kentucky’s post-Civil War period. Students explore the meaning of neighborhood and the definition of family, the use and abuse of power, and stereotypes about the working poor.

Credits and Acknowledgements

A rope ferry at High Bridge on the Kentucky River, circa 1907. Detroit Publishing Company (

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet provided funding for the development of this collection.

It was developed in 2020 by Judy Sizemore, Education Consultant with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, and edited by A. Gwynn Henderson, Education Director at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

The authors would like to thank Dennis Thrasher for creating these wonderful paintings. Thanks also go to the residents who participated in this history preservation project, to our principal scholar Janie-Rice Brother, and to Tom Law and Beth Fowler of Voyageur Media Group, Inc.

These materials may be used and copied for educational purposes, free without special permission. However, re-publication or reproduction of any part of them by any other publishing service, whether in a book or any other resource, is strictly prohibited.

Conor Higgins, Web Project Manager at Honeywick in Louisville, KY, directed the development of these webpages.