Though its name might suggest otherwise, the community of Littleton (population: 560) is anything but a drive-through town. Perhaps what illustrates this municipality’s small-yet-mighty heritage most is the story behind its Lakeland Cultural Arts Center, the nonprofit presenting the inaugural Levitt AMP Littleton Music Series, which wraps up on August 26.
Over the last 46 years, Lakeland has taken many forms: in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a theater utilizing a shut-down high school’s auditorium and stage; a patchwork theater undergoing building renovations through the ‘80s and ‘90s; an organization finding its footing in the aughts; an all-volunteer-run cooperative during the early 2010s economic downturn. Throughout it all, the nonprofit’s mission — to enrich, educate, and entertain its community — has remained steadfast, just like the collective pride Littleton residents have for their town. In recent years, that multigenerational pride has been especially rewarding for the community, as former town resident and philanthropist Ed Fitts supported the latest reimagining of the Lakeland Cultural Arts Center with a $7 million gift.
Crunch the numbers and one may notice the juxtaposition between present-day Lakeland’s multimillion-dollar price tag and Littleton’s population of less than 600 people — a contrast that Lakeland Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Peter Holloway describes as “pretty remarkable.” Littleton is one of many small, rural towns in northern North Carolina’s Halifax County, which was originally home to the Tuscarora people, Indigenous peoples who migrated there over two millennia ago. Thereafter, in the early 18th century, English settlers from northern U.S. regions established themselves in the region. In 1877, the Town of Littleton was born — and today, it has an ethnically diverse population representative of the African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities.
Holloway explained that, given Littleton’s status as a majority-minority community, it’s important for spaces like Lakeland to be accessible to those who are economically disadvantaged. There is a definite divide between the haves and have-nots in northern North Carolina, as just six miles away from the town is Lake Gaston, a scenic 20,000-acre lake that attracts wealthy vacationers from throughout the region and retirees. All the while, just a “couple hundred yards” from Lakeland Cultural Arts Center is the border of two of North Carolina’s poorest counties. Holloway realized the Levitt AMP Littleton Music Series could serve as a healing opportunity for the area’s marginalized residents — an inclusive experience for these folks to connect and engage with their community through free, live music.
And the timing for Levitt AMP was perfect, given the revitalization efforts already underway in the community. In 2019, Fitts (of the Ed Fitts Charitable Foundation), committed to financing the renovation and expansion of Lakeland, the reopening of a local school, and constructing new local businesses. Not long after reopening Lakeland, the nonprofit received news that they’d been selected for the Levitt AMP grant program. “I didn’t know what our chances were,” Holloway said. “We are so proud of the fact that we are one the smallest towns to have ever received the grant.”
Tremendous solidarity exists amongst Littleton’s residents, as reflected during Levitt AMP’s online public voting period last fall, when over a dozen local civic groups rallied their members to cast their vote for Levitt AMP Littleton, and which has continued during this summer’s Levitt AMP Music Series, when members from each of these civic groups continue to show their support and volunteer during shows.
Nothing tops small-town synergy — especially when exemplified by hundreds of folks coming together to revel in the joy and creativity of free outdoor concerts, as Littleton and surrounding area residents have gathered at the Ed Fitts Amphitheater (located on the former Littleton High School football field, though the now-closed campus was purchased by Lakeland in the 1970s) for the Levitt AMP Littleton Music Series over the last 8 weeks. Just as Lakeland envisioned, audiences attending the weekend concerts have been multifaceted. “There’s no reason for people not to come,” explained Holloway, who also noted Lakeland was very mindful about their approach to booking artists/talent. “We’ve been very intentional about the diversity of our board and about the programming we bring in — to present things that would appeal to our community, and we’ve been rewarded for that,” he said.
The diversity of audience members at Levitt AMP Littleton extends beyond ethnic diversity as well. While the art center’s audience typically skews older, “a lot of kids and young people” have attended the summer concerts, he said. “Seeing kids doing cartwheels in the grass and people blowing bubbles — it is what I think we all imagine a great summer evening to be—listening to fun music and everybody’s happy.”
With each passing week, audience turnout has reflected the series’ success at bringing their intimate community together. Said Holloway: “I don’t think we’ve had less than 400 or 500 [attendees], and this past weekend we were bumping up against 1,000.” Impressive for a town of 600 people.
Alongside expansive audiences have been expansive sounds. Like many of the communities across the Carolinas, Littleton residents have a penchant for music of the southern tradition, according to Holloway — on days when artists like country songstress Jessica Lynn, the lawn is “stuffed,” and on a stormy day in July, folks were eager to see bluegrass trio Nu-Blu deliver their heartfelt acoustics, rain or shine. But what Lakeland has particularly embraced about the Levitt AMP grant program is that it challenges them to introduce musical genres that the community may not otherwise have a chance to hear in a free, live concert setting. “That it’s all different genres of music [has] made it really fun for a lot of people,” Holloway said, explaining that they have a core group of regular attendees who frequently comment on how they “never would have listened to this kind of music” if not for the Levitt AMP Littleton Music Series, which also featured soul, funk-rock, Latin, folk-pop, and orchestral jazz acts.
Levitt AMP Littleton has additionally created sought-after opportunities for emerging local artists performing as openers. According to Holloway, artists who are used to “playing in pubs and bars” have shared that Levitt audiences are “fantastic” listeners, truly engaged with their performances. And while the music series has been a seed of human connection between local artists and their community, its only one of dozens planted in Littleton‚ where each revitalization effort is growing the town into a thriving community that’s interconnected and welcoming of new perspectives and possibilities.
“The fact that Littleton was selected, and then [that] it’s going so extraordinarily well — you can tell there is a real sense of community pride that the town has happening here,” Holloway notes. “It’s so great.” The 2023 Levitt AMP Littleton Music Series runs through August 26, 2023.