West Virginia’s handicrafts revival originated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, due to a fortunate confluence of native skills, government attention, and the state’s centennial celebration. Among the first to take action were the Future Homemakers and Future Farmers clubs, which raised funds in the mid-1950s to construct the Craft House at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center near Ripley. A variety of weekend classes began at the Craft House in 1959.
During the 1960s War on Poverty, the U.S. Economic Development Administration funded a technical assistance grant to the West Virginia Department of Commerce for a program to encourage the marketing of handcrafts. Carl Little, Don Page, and Jane Cox George of the Commerce staff worked throughout the state to stimulate interest among craftspeople, solve individual problems, and encourage crafts education. This continued through the late 1970s.
The first Mountain State Art & Craft Fair took place in July 1963 at Cedar Lakes as part of the state centennial. The fair was a joint project of the Commerce Department, the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Natural Resources. During the ’70s and early ’80s, the Art & Craft Fair was recognized as the most important vehicle for West Virginia craftspeople to reach the buying public. While crafts marketing has evolved, the fair remains important today. Its success helped to encourage the establishment of other fairs and festivals. The West Virginia Artist’s and Craftsman’s Guild arose from the first Art & Craft Fair and continues to the present.
West Virginia crafts development profited from the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those years, numerous bright, talented young people left the nation’s mainstream in search of roots, inexpensive land, and independence. Many found these things in West Virginia, and some established themselves as serious craftspeople working at home.
Self-help cooperatives also played a part. In 1968, Florette Angel of the Commerce Department helped to organize Mountain Artisans, a quilt cooperative. With the design talents of Dorothy Dembosky Weatherford and a series of poverty warriors from the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, skilled quilters from several rural counties were taught new designs using brightly colored fabrics to produce quilts, skirts, jackets, and vests. One of West Virginia’s newest residents, Sharon Rockefeller, promoted the co-op’s products in national markets.
Several additional cooperatives began through the efforts of the federal Community Action program, including Appalachian Craftsmen, who made learning toys and apparel. The Rural Arts and Crafts Cooperative of the Parkersburg area became known for patchwork toys. VISTA worker James Thibeault began Cabin Creek Quilts, which focused on home furnishings. As government and foundation support decreased, only Cabin Creek Quilts survived into the 21st century.
In 1975, Tim Pyles was hired by the Bureau of Vocational Education to revitalize the crafts education program at the Cedar Lakes Crafts Center. Weekend and weeklong workshops were begun, with the focus on technique, design, workmanship, and marketability. The Appalachian Blacksmiths Association, the Mountaineer Woodturners, and several regional quilting groups were outgrowths of the Crafts Center experience.
With the opening in 1976 of the Culture Center at the state capitol, a new crafts shop developed under the guidance of Rebecca Stelling of the Department of Culture and History. For many years, this shop was the most important place to buy West Virginia crafts. The Culture and History marketing program nurtured crafts development and encouraged the marketing of crafts throughout the state and beyond.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the maturing of the crafts movement. Producers discovered out-of-state markets. The stronger craft fairs survived. Government agencies continued to foster the crafts, both as economic development and to hone the state’s image with tourists. The Little Kanawha Craft House in Parkersburg is the marketing center for an eight-county development project. The Art Company of Davis caters to skiers and other Tucker County tourists. The Wheeling Artisan Center was founded as a part of a center city redevelopment project. Poplar Forest, the marketing arm of another crafts cooperative, is located in an outlet center at Flatwoods. The largest project so far has been Tamarack, operated by the West Virginia Parkways Authority at Beckley. Marketing work of more than 2,000 crafts and food producers to nearly a half-million visitors, Tamarack had sales of $7.6 million in 2004. The new century ushered in MountainMade.com, serving the craftspeople of northern West Virginia, with funding from the federal Small Business Administration. Their new gallery in Thomas and a web site on the Internet may be the signal for a new chapter for crafts marketing in West Virginia.
Last Revised on November 14, 2010