Eastern Kentucky Town Is a Delight With Quiet Pride

<i> Belcher is a South Pasadena free-lance writer</i> .

This small eastern Kentucky college town is a delight to anyone who still can be moved by the beauty of handcrafted objects and the quiet pride of the men and women who make them.

Craftsmen from all over Kentucky converge twice a year at the Craftsmen Fair to show and sell their wares, both traditional and contemporary, in the tree-shaded amphitheater of Berea’s Indian Fort Theatre.

Many of them live and work right in Berea. The fair is a tradition that started in the late 1800s, when mountain crafts people brought their products to commencement fairs to join college students selling handmade articles.

Today Berea is one of the country’s premier gathering places for potters, woodworkers, hand weavers and other crafts people.

Berea nestles against the western edge of the Cumberland foothills, 40 miles south of Lexington, just east of the sprawling horse farms and rolling hills that grace the famous Kentucky bluegrass countryside.


A fair isn’t essential to enjoy Berea, although it’s certainly an added attraction (this year the fall fair is scheduled for Oct. 9-11). You can buy beautiful handcrafts and watch many of the town’s professional crafts people (and students in the college craft industries) at work in their shops, studios and galleries.

Shaving Hickory Bark

You can see woodworkers shaving hickory bark for the woven seats in bent-back rockers, potters glazing beautiful bowls and vases, weavers looming intricately designed Afghans, metal smiths forming exquisite silver bracelets, candlers hand-dipping colorful tapers and glass blowers creating delicate Christmas ornaments.

If you drop into Mitchell Tolle’s studio, the Kentucky artist will take time to reminisce about his Appalachian landscapes and poignant portraits.

Berea’s shops runneth-over with the fine products of all this talent. I saw everything from inlaid walnut and maple checkerboards to satin-smooth cherry wood cradles, from birdhouses carved out of tree limbs to brightly enameled handmade wooden toys, from Grandma Moses-like folk art scenes hand-painted on gourds to beautiful iridescent Raku-fired vases. From terra-cotta oil lamps to huge four-foot candles. You can buy sorghum syrup, handmade quilted calico dulcimer bags and beautiful artificial flowers crafted from cornshucks.

To a citified native Californian like me, Berea is quintessential small-town Middle America, with a slight Southern drawl and lots of Southern hospitality.

The 8,000 civic-minded, mostly middle-income people who live here are polite, easy going and friendly; everyone seems to have all the time in the world to chat with one another--or with visitors. Bereans say “good morning” to strangers on the street. They say, “You folks have a nice day now.” And they really mean it.

Berea College, a tuition-free institution dedicated to providing a quality liberal arts education to Appalachian students with high academic achievement but limited economic means, forms the nucleus of the town. The school’s holdings include its 140-acre sylvan campus, the Appalachian Museum, six student craft industries, two gift shops and the Boone Tavern Hotel, which serves as the central gathering spot for visitors.

There seems to be no night life here. The town’s only movie house closed down when VCRs caught on. Now there are eight video-rental stores.

Elegant Oval Boxes

Woodworker Charles Harvey, who crafts elegantly simple Shaker oval boxes and Shaker furniture, says: “You do what you want to do; it’s a very laissez faire kind of town. The local form of entertainment in Berea is serving on a committee.”

The college and town are like fraternal twins--separate but sharing common values. Like most siblings, they have occasional tiffs, but their goals remain the same: to preserve their Appalachian culture and heritage and to maintain a tradition of excellence in education, in music and crafts, in the arts, and in their day-to-day lives.

The college now counts about 1,500 students (80% from a nine-state Appalachian region) and owns 8,900 acres of farmland and forest. You encounter the students all over town. That’s because the college’s unique labor program requires each one to work at least 10 hours a week in one of the school’s 120 labor departments to earn part of their living expenses.

About 13% of the student work in the craft programs, making furniture, brooms, ceramics, wrought iron or stitched and woven products. Hotel and restaurant management majors staff the college’s on-campus 78-year-old Boone Tavern Hotel, some working as cashiers or bellhops in the inn, or as bus boys, waiters or even as a maitre d’ in the dining room. Even under stress--as on a full-house fair weekend--the young men and women remain unruffled, friendly and professional.

The unpretentious three-story hotel on College Square, remodeled in 1959, has 57 comfortable guest rooms (all with private baths), tastefully outfitted with simple Colonial-style furniture, hand weavings and other furnishings made by the students in the craft industries.

The spacious dining room specializes in regional country cooking, such as chicken flakes in a bird’s nest (a flaky pastry), plantation ham with raisin sauce, spoonbread (like a corn bread souffle, so moist you have to eat it with a spoon) and fresh rhubarb pie.

The hotel is the starting point for the daily (but never on Sunday), student-led guided tours of the tree-shaded campus, or to any of the six craft workshops.

The college’s Appalachian Museum, also operated by students, is behind the hotel. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children. Various attractive displays trace the history and culture of the Appalachian region and its people from the mid-1700s. These range from early handmade toys and farm implements to wonderful black-and-white historical photographs.

You can watch one of 18 slide shows depicting contemporary Appalachian people practicing traditional skills and crafts--from molasses stirring and log cabin building to hog butchering.

Outdoor Weekends

The museum also sponsors special outdoor weekends featuring traditional crafts and music, such as when local artist Jane Pierson sets up her quilting frame on the grass nearby and hangs a few finished quilts on a line between two trees. One beauty she has named “Around the World” (priced at $350) has a note pinned to it that says it is made up of 12,127 pieces of fabric.

Berea’s largest handcraft showcase is Churchill Weavers, which opened in 1922 as Berea’s first non-college industry and today is considered one of the nation’s foremost hand-weaving enterprises. The loom house, where you can watch talented weavers working on 45 hand-built looms, is open for tours Monday through Friday.

The major showplace for students’ handcrafts is the Log House Sales Room, a big two-story house that also contains the three-room Wallace Nutting Museum on the second floor. Seventy-seven pieces of the artist’s Early Americana furniture are on display, along with a collection of his famous hand-painted photographs and other memorabilia, all left by him to Berea College.

The rest of the house is filled with handcrafts for sale. When I see the whimsical, calico-stuffed animals made by students, wrought-iron candelabra, beautiful ceramic dishes and casseroles, and custom-designed hardwood dining-room sets, I know that Berea’s tradition of excellence is in good hands, destined to pass on to the next generation.

The Boone Tavern Hotel on College Square costs $35 to $50 per night, double occupancy. Advance reservations are strongly advised (CPO 2345, Berea, Ky. 40404; telephone (606) 986-9358), particularly during one of the town’s festivals or fairs.

Reservations are requested for all noon and evening meals in the hotel’s dining room. Men are required to wear jackets and ties, and women must wear dresses or tailored pantsuits for all evening meals and Sunday lunch. The dining room has set hours for meals: breakfast 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., dinner 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily. A complete dinner for two costs $24 to $30 without wine; Berea and most of Madison County is dry.

The crafts people of Berea provide a map and directory of the professional workshops that are open to the public. You can pick one up at the Boone Tavern Hotel, along with other directories and brochures with information about tours, events and local attractions.

For more information, or for a schedule of events, contact the Berea Tourism Commission, North Broadway and Depot streets, Berea, Ky. 40403, (606) 986-2540, or Berea College, CPO 2316, Berea, Ky. 40404, (606) 986-9341, ext. 526.