No Child’s Play:
Berea College and the Appalachian Handcraft Revival
Berea College President William G. Frost, during the late 1890s, asked a local weaver whether she thought orders could be filled in a month or two for a half-dozen duplicates of a hand-woven coverlet made to his standards. Her reply, which Frost referred to as his “first lesson in weaving”, summed up the difference between handcraft and manufacturing.
“President Frost, in order to make so many kivers we will have to raise more sheep, shear them, pick and wash the wool, card it and spin it, then collect the bark and sich to color it. Then we will have to have the loom all set up, fix the warp and beam it, then get a draft and thread the warp for the pattern we want, then tie up the loom, and then we will be ready for the weaving . . . It would take we’uns nigh one year or more to afore we could have that many kivers wove. Its no child’s play to weave a kiver, president.”
Frost’s “lessons” in weaving and other mountain crafts began in 1893, during an all-summer horseback ride through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The so-called “extension tour” took the Frosts into many mountain cabins where handwoven coverlets, baskets, chair bottoms, and rug were in daily use. But the “kivers” most attracted Frost, who purchased several examples for resale, and it was not long until coverlets became part of the medium for exchange at Berea College; coverlets bartered for educational expenses.
Frost saw, in the mountain coverlets, the potential for preserving a craft tradition and – at the same time – developing a new market for Appalachian crafts.
Berea’s “Fireside Industries” began in 1883, followed by the “Homespun Fair” first staged on Commencement Day in 1896, and Berea College’s history of leading the Appalachian craft revival was firmly entrenched. The city of Berea’s US Post Office features a WPA mural depicting a typical Berea Commencement Day and Homespun Fair. In 1993, the Fair was recreated for a 100 year celebration.
By 1899, Berea’s weaving and marketing effort required the full-time energies of Miss Josephine Robinson, the dean of women, and in 1900, a Berea coverlet won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition. By 1903, Berea’s sales were up to a new high mark of $1,500 per year.
In 1911, Frost brought Mrs. Anna Ernberg, a native of Sweden, to Berea to direct the Fireside Industries. In his letter hiring Mrs. Ernberg, Dr. Frost spelled out what he expected: “We do not wish to introduce forms of weaving which are new and foreign to the people here but to encourage and develop the forms which have been handed down by tradition from the old English and Scottish sources.”
Mrs. Ernberg’s influence on the weaving of the Appalachian region lasts to this day. Among those who came to Berea to study were Lucy Morgan, founder of the Penland School for Crafts, and Lou Tate, founder of the “Little Loom House” in Louisville. Loom building patterns or Woodcraft-built hand looms were provided to the region. Weaving teachers from other settlement schools and craft centers came to learn both handweaving and crafts marketing.
In 1926, Berea graduate Howard “Tony” Ford took on the job of creating a department to weave wool yardage on fly-shuttle looms. The “Mountain Weaver Boys,” in addition to producing blankets and yardage for garments, took on jobs such as weaving 198 yards of fabric for the 1937 yearbook covers. The “Boys” continued through 1941.
Woodcraft evolved from the College’s cabinetry program with design influences from famed furniture collector and author, Wallace M. Nutting, whose collection is on display on the second floor of the Log House Craft Gallery.
Needlecraft was added when the manager of the Boone Tavern Gift Shop put student clerks to work, between customers, sewing “cuddle toys”. Broomcraft began when an obsolete broom factory was donated to the college. The Candy Kitchen, part of the Berea College Bakery, made decorated tea sugars for a national market.
What is now the Log House Gallery was built in 1917, when Mrs. Ernberg raised the funds for a new weaving workshop. At that time, only the second floor was used for a gift shop. Mrs. Ernberg then raised the money to build the “Sunshine Ballard Cottage”, used for many years, including today, as the studio of Fireside Weaving. Since the early 1950s, the museum area has served as a primary outlet for Appalachian crafts including work not done at the college.
Craft leaders from centers in North Carolina joined with Kentucky and Tennessee centers to plan a regional cooperative effort that still serves the craftspeople of Appalachia.
During the late 1920s, Berea College played a major role in the planning for and formation of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a nine-state membership craft organization dedicated to craft preservation, teaching, and marketing. In 1930, the Guild was formally organized with support from the Council of the Southern Mountains. President William J. Hutchins was very much involved, and Helen Dingman, of Berea, chaired the first meeting at Penland School. She later wrote, “We met on a mountaintop literally, and the freedom and friendship of the group as they talked over the mountain handicraft situation – the hopes and fears and practical problems – made it real mountain top experience.”
For many years, the Guild’s records were maintained at Berea College. From the beginning Berea’s faculty, staff, and students have been active in guild programs.
The early craft history of Berea College and of the Southern Highland Craft Guild is covered in Allen H. Eaton’s classic book, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, first published in 1937. Berea’s weaving programs are the subject of Philis Alvic’s study, Weavers of Southern Highlands: Berea, part of a series on mountain weaving centers of the early 20th Century. Garry Barker’s 1991 book, The Handcraft Revival in Southern Appalachia, 1930-1990, takes Eaton’s study on into the modern era.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Berea graduates were many of the region’s weaving and woodworking instructors, the producing craftspeople, and the settlement school and agency staff members who helped create the solid markets for quality crafts made in Appalachia.
In 1960, Berea College helped sponsor the formation of the Kentucky Guild of Artists & Craftsmen. The college provided free office space and the two boxcars that traveled Kentucky as the Kentucky Guild Train, probably the nation’s first mobile arts programming.
In 1970, Berea’s ceramic department became the Ceramic Apprenticeship Program, a formal crossover between classroom and practical work experience, an opportunity that has trained dozens of young studio potters. The Wrought Iron Program was added during the early 1970s. During the early seventies the Candy Kitchen was closed, and 15 years later Needlecraft was no longer financially feasible and was closed.
As Berea College shifted from a self-sustaining community, complete with college-operated farms, dairy, bakery, brick factory, hospital, and fire department, the “Fireside Industries” shifted more to crafts production for retail markets. The college and the Southern Highland Craft Guild created a market for quality regional crafts in the traditional sales centers of Berea, Gatlinburg, and Asheville, plus shipments to the entire nation.
Today almost 115 students and 13 full-time staff work in the Student Crafts Program, making and marketing the wood, brooms, weaving, jewelry, and pottery. Three shops in Berea – the Log House Craft Gallery, the Boone Tavern Gift Shop, and Student Crafts on the Square (SCOTS) – are student staffed.
Campus workshops are open to the public weekdays, and craft tours leave twice daily from the Boone Tavern Gift Shop. Weekend craft demonstrations in the Log House add to the availability, and College booths in select regional craft fairs continue the traditional Berea presence.
Continued college involvement in craft organizations and marketing efforts such as the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the Kentucky Guild, and the Kentucky Crafts Marketing Program carry on the work begun over 100 years ago during a summer horseback tour of the mountains.
The Student Crafts Program often provides a teaching laboratory for other college departments, such as Economics and Business, Industrial Arts and Technology, and Art. Recent studies have covered design for production, quality improvement, and production costs. Berea’s unique work/study program, crafts production, and marketing efforts draw researchers from across the world to study current activities. Researchers studying the Appalachian craft revival come to Berea College’s Archives and Special Collections and Museum to access over a century of collected information.
The most important aspects of the Student Crafts Program at Berea College continues to be the students who learn not just craft skills but a deep appreciation for the traditions and exacting standards of craft: quality materials, hand work, and expectations of excellence impact the lives of every student who spends time in the craft workshops of Berea College.
Berea’s students, who come primarily from the Appalachian counties of nine states and who must demonstrate academic ability and financial need, do not receive academic credit for their work in the crafts. All Berea students work 10-20 hours a week in lieu of paying tuition; those who choose the crafts areas also earn the lifelong dividend of the handmade experience. It is still, today “no child’s play” to weave a blanket, throw a vase, shape hardwoods into stools, baskets, and beds, or roll a broom from natural corn.