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Eastern Kentucky Town Is a Delight With Quiet Pride

August 09, 1987|NANCY HOYT BELCHER | Belcher is a South Pasadena free-lance writer .

BEREA, Ky. — 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.

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