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SharePrint Dorothy Thompson

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Dorothy Thompson, a noted Tucker County hand weaver, was born Barbra Dorthy Mayor on April 5, 1920, at Grays Landing, Pennsylvania. She went by her middle name because her brothers could not pronounce “Barbra”; a teacher later added an “o” to Dorthy. She was the fourth child of Alex and Rosie Vance Mayor, who were of Czech-Hungarian descent. Her father emigrated from Austria-Hungary in 1906, met the Pennsylvania-born Rosie, and married in 1915.

In the early 1920s, the family moved to West Virginia, where Alex worked as a coal miner. As with most miners’ families at that time, the Mayors moved frequently depending on which mines were operating. In rapid succession, the Mayors lived in Rivesville in Marion County, and just north of there in the Scotts Run coal towns of Fort Grand, Granville, and Randall in Monongalia County. At the time of the 1930 census, they were living in Cassville on Scotts Run, where Alex was a miner and Rosie was a school custodian.

A skilled woodcarver and cabinetmaker, Alex made Dorothy’s first heddle loom for her when she was 10. The Mayors strung up a warp — the tight vertical threads through which weavers run their thread — in the backyard between two trees. They taught Dorothy how to make rugs, as well as many other centuries-old European weaving traditions.

When the Great Depression hit and mines shut down in large numbers, Alex, like many miners, took a series of diverse jobs as opportunities presented themselves. Dorothy later explained, “There were various organizations that were trying to find work for the ex-coal miners. My father was digging ditches by hand with a pick and shovel, [and] putting in a water line up Scotts Run,” in a particularly poverty-stricken place known as Bertha Hill.

In 1933, new First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Scotts Run, just northwest of Morgantown, and was appalled by what she viewed as squalid living conditions. She urged her husband to use federal funding to relocate families from Scotts Run to the first national subsistence homestead community at nearby Arthurdale in Preston County.

The Mayors moved there in 1935. As Dorothy recalled, “Arthurdale was a wonderful place to live. We had a beautiful, brand-new, four-bedroom house with a bath, outdoor cellar, barn for the cow who came along, and chickens.” The move occurred when she was entering Arthurdale High School, which was geared toward vocational skills. “Weaving and garment making class,” she remembered, “ran from nine to lunch — three hours every day.” The classes were led by Swiss immigrant Ruth Halleen.

Dorothy’s parents even took woodworking and weaving courses, using wool from the sheep raised on local farms. A handcrafts cottage industry soon developed in the area. The students’ products were sold publicly at the store in Arthurdale, and furniture for the homestead’s first 50 houses was made by her father and other residents. In 1939, Dorothy sewed her own high school graduation gown. At Dorothy’s ceremony, Eleanor Roosevelt personally presented the graduates with their diplomas, as she did for many years.

Dorothy’s weaving skills were apparent to everyone, including the first lady, who paid for her to serve a year-and-a-half apprenticeship with master weaver Lou Tate at the Little Loomhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Tate taught Dorothy to create intricate patterns through the art of colonial overshot weaving.

When the United States entered World War II, Dorothy returned to her family in Arthurdale, taught weaving with her mother, and met Ben Thompson, a Tucker County native who had moved there to work as an agriculture foreman with the National Youth Administration. Thompson’s family had built up one of the early lumber businesses in the Davis area, the Blackwater Boom and Lumber Company. Dorothy and Ben were married at Reedsville Methodist Church on April 13, 1942, and moved in with his parents in Canaan Valley, Tucker County for three years before building their own house on the family property.

Ben raised cattle, chickens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Balsam Fir Christmas trees through the West Virginia University Extension Service Produce Co-op program. Dorothy raised a family and says she “was just always weaving something for somebody. I made some aprons and some rugs, and stuff. I must have sold some weaving because if you don’t sell something on weaving, you can’t buy thread to do more weaving.”

In 1962, with financial support from a federal project, Dorothy began teaching weaving at the local two-room Cosner School through the Tucker County Board of Education’s Adult Education program. With $5,000 in startup money to buy looms and materials, she taught approximately 10 students a year. In one form or another, Dorothy continued to teach weaving for the next four decades. In the late 1970s, she began teaching at the Augusta Heritage Center, and became a master artist through the center’s West Virginia Folk Arts Apprenticeship program in the 1990s. Dorothy was also a regular weaving demonstrator at the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins.

By the 1980s, Cosner School was in declining condition, and federal funding for the program was ending. Dorothy and her husband built a barn on their property to teach weaving classes. They filled what they called “Ben’s Old Loom Barn” with looms of all shapes, styles, and ages, beginning with one from Vermont that had been handed down from Ben’s great-grandmother. Initially, most of Dorothy’s students were women looking to supplement their family incomes by making and selling textiles. Over time, her students tended to be hobbyists. She estimated having taught more than 150 students, and was an early member of the Mountain Weavers Guild, which continues to preserve these ageless traditions.

Dorothy’s husband, Ben, died in 1994 at age 90. They were the parents of three children: Sarah Thompson Fletcher (1943-2023), Frank H. Thompson (1944-1994), and Daniel Thompson (1946-1949).

In 2000, in recognition of her talent and for passing down weaving traditions, the National Endowment for the Arts designated her a “living treasure,” bestowing upon her the lifetime honor of a National Heritage Fellowship. As of 2023, she is one of only four West Virginians who have received the fellowship, the others being fiddler Melvin Wine (1991), instrument maker Ellie Mannette (1999), and fiddler John Morris (2020). (In 2001, singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, a Mercer County native, was also recognized as a National Heritage Fellow, although she resided in Washington, D.C., at the time.) Thompson initially was hesitant to accept the honor, noting modestly, “It took me a little to decide to go along with it. I don’t care much for publicity.”

Barbra Dorothy Thompson died at Cortland Acres, a residential nursing facility in Canaan Valley on October 1, 2008, at age 88. She is buried in Davis Cemetery beside her husband and two sons.

By the early 2000s, her daughter, Sarah, a retired nurse, had taken over full-time operation of Ben’s Old Loom Barn, which remained open in Davis during summers. It featured the work of different weavers and offered a wide variety of locally made fiber arts, including rugs, placemats, runners, stoles, towels, baskets, and afghans. In addition, the shop took special orders and continued Dorothy’s tradition of teaching weaving. Sarah died in May 2023.

Last Revised on August 30, 2023


Sources

Lilly, John. Weaver Dorothy Thompson. Goldenseal, 29, 4, Winter 2003.

National Endowment for the Arts. Dorothy Thompson, Weaver: 2000 NEA National Heritage Fellow, Davis, West Virginia. , 2000.

Obituary: Barbra D. Thompson. Parsons Advocate, October 8, 2008.

West Virginia Humanities Council, West Virginia Folklife Program. "Oral History of Sarah Fletcher," Emily Hilliard. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia & Regional History Center, West Virginia Folklife Program Collection. July 25, 2018.

U.S. Census, Monongalia County, WV, Populations Schedule, ED 31-30, p. 3A, 1930.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Dorothy Thompson." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 30 August 2023. Web. 15 April 2024.

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