Golden anniversary ‘looming' for craft fair
"Granddaddy" is celebrating an anniversary.
The Mountain State Art & Craft Fair got its start near Ripley in the summer of 1963. The intention was to have a one-time festival to commemorate West Virginia's Centennial. Fifty years later, however, potters still have their wheels spinning, weavers are still producing on their looms and blacksmiths are still pounding away.
This year's fair is scheduled July 4-6 at the Cedar Lakes Conference Center.
The idea of an art and craft fair was actually the culmination of a multi-year process, according to Don Page. He had recently been hired as a craft advocate by the state Department of Commerce.
Supported by a federal grant, his goal was to initiate a program that would encourage crafts education, production and marketing. Fundamentally, it was an economic decision.
"It was all about using handicrafts to supplement the low income rural people and the unemployed," said Page, 82, who says that he has been crafting since age 9. "West Virginia was full of people who made things with a utilitarian use. We would meet people who would say, ‘I'm not a craftsmen, I just make these things.'"
A crucial step was organizing the West Virginia Art and Crafts Guild, a non-profit group that co-sponsors the fair along the Department of Agriculture and half-dozen state agencies.
"The craftsman was the producer, the retailer and carried it all the way through the pipeline for selling the products," he said. "There were no markets for the consumer. There were no shops that would sell the crafts other than a few knick-knack shops in the state parks.
"We had to do it with events," Page added. "That was their marketplace."
So, the powers that be had this desire to improve the economy. The timing was right to coincide with the state's Centennial. Cedar Lakes proved to be an ideal location. The Department of Education facility near Ripley had been around for a decade and had already introduced a craft program, including a contingency of 40 "charming" weavers based in the Craft House.
"It was a great time of show and tell," Page said of the fair's infancy. "It was an opportunity to show who we are and tell the world about West Virginia. We had some beautiful things and some beautiful people doing it."
That first event was structured after consulting with craft experts in Berea, Ky. and Gatlinburg, Tn.
"Nobody knew what a craft fair was," Page recalled.
The 1963 fair would be comprised of 54 artisans from 21 West Virginia counties. Setting up in the buildings and on the porches of Cedar Lakes, they demonstrated their crafts, and more importantly, sold their products. Civic and church groups from Jackson County took care of the appetites by serving traditional favorites such as beans, cornbread, apple butter and sassafras tea. First-year attendance was estimated at 6,500 from 23 states.
"They came, they bought and it was wonderful," Page said.
He reminisced about the early musicians and "colorful" crafters like Connard Wolfe, a sculpter from Paint Creek who was best known for chiseling a life-sized image of Jesus Christ.
"He had a large bear that we hauled in on a wrecker truck. He sold it to West Virginia Tech (now WVU-Tech) and it's there now," Page said of the mascot at his alma mater.
One musician had a particularly popular exhibit area. He had constructed banjos from auto parts.
That initial MSACF went over so well with the crafters and the crowds that a decision was soon made to turn the fair into an annual event.
The fair went through a period of tremendous growth during the 1960s and 1970s. Attendance increased by 64 percent in 1964, according to an economic study conducted by West Virginia University.
"It was always a marketplace for the craftsmen to sell products. That built the fair and it was very successful," Page proudly stated. "It was the epitome, the showplace. We had 75,000 people attending the fair one year and we had 20,000 people there one day. Traffic was backed up on the interstate (I-77).
"It was wild," he said. "Everybody came then. We gave the people at the statehouse free tickets, but in its heyday it was so crowded that they couldn't get in."
Crafting became hip among the "hippie" generation, who added selections such as sandals made from tire tread.
The MSACF was essentially the model that – by design - would be duplicated from Harpers Ferry to Huntington. Imitation, after all, is the greatest form of flattery. The craft concept soon spread to other traditional West Virginia festivals such as the Black Walnut in Spencer, the Strawberry in Buckhannon and the Forest in Elkins.
It led to new events such as the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, the Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival in the Eastern Panhandle and eventually Tamarack, a year-round West Virginia craft house located in Beckley.
"They all tried to imitate it," said Page who later worked at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Southern West Virginia Children's Museum. "We had 100 events in the state selling West Virginia crafts."
Other states caught on quickly. Photos from the fair at Cedar Lakes even appeared in a brochure promoting a similar new event in Texas.
Page said the fair led to craft cooperatives and associations such as Cabin Creek Quilts, Mountain Artisans and Mountain Made, which sell worldwide.
"The fair did things for West Virginia," he said. "It was great. The fair was important. It still is. I'm still in love with the craftsmen of West Virginia and what they are doing."
This year's fair will take place July 4 – 6, again offering three days of traditional Appalachian music, food, heritage exhibits and family activities. There will be 160-plus artisans demonstrating and selling.
MSACF President Jan Sizemore said visitors will get a chance to shop and learn about products that are as authentic as the people.
"Artisans who exhibit at the fair are selected by a jury of craft experts and all hail from the Appalachian region," the Jackson County resident said. "All products represent some form of traditional or contemporary Appalachian arts and crafts."
Board member Bob Wines said the fair slogans of "traditions worth holding on to" and the current "50 years in the making" are appropriate.
"These are traditions and fine craftsmanship products that our parents and grandparents grew up with," said Wines. "I think, more than anything, that's why the fair is still a success and has been around for the number of years that it has. (The artisans) are still bringing high-end, quality products to the table and offering them at a reasonable price."
Activities include a Civil War encampment, kite making for youth along with stunt kite flying and a NASA constructing and launching exhibit of small rockets on opening day. A youth fishing derby is scheduled July 5 and the Firecracker Chili Cook-off is planned July 6.
Those who want to try crafting of their own can visit interactive artisan booths include broom making, basket weaving and stained glass workshops. Participants will leave with their completed project.
Headlining the entertainment this year is the Davisson Brothers with 3 and 5 p.m. performances on July 5.
For information on the event and a daily event schedule go online at www.msacf.com or call 800-CALLWVA.