Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Day, a free family oriented festival that celebrates Southern Appalachian culture through concerts, living-history demonstrations, competitions and awards programs, will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, on the WCU campus in Cullowhee.
Named one of the top 20 festivals in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society, this year’s event will include additional musical acts, vendors and an expectation of more visitors, organizers said.
So, you have the talent, imagination and output of an artist. But, do you also have the drive, business savvy and staying power?
“Tell your story, get involved in your community, and share your passion,” said Brad Dodson.
Joe Frank McKee knows what Dillsboro is capable of. “It’s a fighting town,” he said. “There are more craftsmen involved here these days, which means if you’re making your product and selling your product, you have more of a reason to fight.”
Co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in downtown Dillsboro, McKee and his business partner, Travis Berning, have spent the last 11 years setting down roots and investing in what has become one of the premier pottery establishments in Southern Appalachia. And as the town itself celebrates its 125th birthday, many businesses within the community are reflecting on a storied past, an uncertain present, and a hopeful future.
With her hands fluttering like a hummingbird, Dana Claire loops skeins of colored yarn around a large pegboard.
Claire has been interested in fiber crafts her entire life and now, in her retirement years, has she decided to pursue her true passion of working with her hands by going back to school. Offering a nationally recognized professional crafts program, she found herself at Haywood Community College in Clyde. This semester, she’s learning and engaging in the new Creative Arts facility constructed on campus.
The creative arts building at Haywood Community College has hit a few more snags on its way to completion — much to the chagrin of county commissioners.
The college will once again tap into its contingency fund to correct miscalculations resulting from either a lack of communication or a design faux pas. The project is still within its original budget, however.
The total project cost was estimated at about $10.2 million. A contingency fund was built into the price tag to cover unexpected costs that crop up during the course of construction, half of which has now been spent to fix several snags.
The commissioners agreed to allocate a little more than $25,000 to widen a doorway, reinforce an outside deck and construct a retaining wall as well as pay for a couple of minor miscellaneous items.
Rectifying the size of a doorway will consume about one-third of the money. The entry was too small to fit an absorption chiller, a piece of machinery that will allow the building to use solar energy to power its air conditioning.
“The architect has admitted an error,” said Bill Dechant, director of campus development. “When it is a (building) designer error, the architect or the designer is responsible for that item.”
However, the county will have to foot the bill for now. Possible reimbursement is not negotiated until the end of a project. While the architect will likely repay the college some amount, it is not known how much money HCC will receive or even what mistakes the architect will claim.
“It’s hard to say” how much, if any, money the college will recoup, Dechant said.
The architect has been forthcoming in admitting errors, Dechant added.
Unfortunately, the sizing mistake was not caught until after the doorframe had already been installed.
“I don’t understand how they would have missed that,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said at a county meeting last week, when the college came before commissioners asking for a budget adjustment on the project to tap contingency funds.
Although the widened doorframe is the priciest error, the board seemed most concerned about an inaccurate topographical survey that mapped how water drained around the building and where it should pave sidewalks. The contractor identified discrepancies between the survey and the land’s actual conditions, and a new survey needed to be conducted — a $2,000 cost.
HCC had hired the original surveyor, but when discrepancies were found, it did not ask the company to redo its survey for free or refund the money. The contractor’s on-hand surveyor reviewed the land at cost.
Commissioners agreed that the original surveyor should have returned and reevaluated the property at no cost.
“If the survey was wrong, you need to get the surveyor out there and correct it. That’s what I would do,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a surveyor by profession. “And, I wouldn’t charge anybody for doing that.”
When Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger made a motion to approve the added funds, none of the other commissioners immediately offered to second the motion.
“I am not hearing any explanation as to why someone else has not attempted to get someone else to pay for these things. And, I think that is what we want to here,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, after an awkward moment of silence.
Considering the scope of the project, Dechant said the total amount of change orders thus far is below average. Of the total project cost of $10.2 million, the construction contract is $8.6 million.
“In terms of an $8.6 million building, the amount of change orders on this project have been extremely low so far,” Dechant said. “I think overall I have been pleased with the amount of problems that we have had on this job.”
In the end, the county board voted to release the money.
These were not the first design issues that have arisen during the already controversial project.
In January, Dechant went before the Haywood County Board of Commissioners seeking approval to use more than $262,000 in contingency funds. Most of it went to a water pump needed to provide adequate water pressure for the building’s sprinkler system.
Architects from the Raleigh-based Innovative Design erred when studying the water pressure earlier in the planning process. They tested the pressure in the main water lines running through campus a few hundred feet below the building site. As water flows up the hill to the new building, it loses pressure — a fact the architect did not factor into his plans, Dechant said at a previous commissioners meeting.
Last year, the commissioners and college administrators battled for months about the scope of the creative arts building project, before settling on a plan.
The new facility will house studio and classroom space for students studying the creative arts, such as pottery and woodwork.
“I know there was a lot of discussion about the building, and ‘Why this? Why that?’ And, I know my opinion, and I am sure the rest of the board’s opinion is too, is ‘How much more?’” Sorrells said.
Money to pay for the new building is coming from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters more than four years ago to fund improvements to Haywood Community College’s campus.
Never tell people how to do things, said the indefatigable General George S. Patton. Instead, he said, tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
That viewpoint resonates clearly with Lori Anderson, and it’s why she’s working hard to keep old Appalachian traditions alive, remembering their creativity in an age where such resourcefulness is becoming increasingly harder to come by.
“The thing I rely on most about the past and history is their ingenuity. Here they were in the mountains and they had to figure it out themselves,” said Anderson. “I think that’s something that we’re losing, that if someone doesn’t show you how to do it or do it for you, you’re not going to do it.”
Anderson is a corn shuck artist, and her craft is not one that is practiced or passed down by many in the 21st century. She herself learned the art by self teaching and trial-and-error, before connecting with her mentor, Annie Lee Bryson, known regionally as the corn shuck doll lady.
Then she got plugged into the heritage and tradition that comes with corn shuck art, and when Bryson died last year, she shouldered the burden of keeping the Appalachian art alive.
Though most of what corn shucks are known for in the mountains is dolls, Anderson’s passion in the craft lies elsewhere.
“As I was apprenticing with her (Bryson), I could see the passion that she had for making her dolls. That was her joy,” said Anderson. “So, instead of grabbing a hold of her corn shuck joy, I found my own: corn shuck wildflowers.”
Her flowers are stunning replicas of the plants found here in the Smoky Mountains, and thanks to them, she was recently accepted into the prestigious Southern Highland Craft Guild.
In the absence of her friend and teacher, however, Anderson is now doing double duty, with one hand in the past, teaching and demonstrating the traditional corn shuck doll techniques that Bryson perfected and propagated, and the other moving forward, using the husks to make ever more unorthodox creations, stretching and redefining the boundaries of the craft.
But mostly, she’s trying to keep it alive. There are very few books around that teach the intricacies of corn shuck art — Anderson said that every time she comes across one, she snaps it up. And the human resources like Bryson who taught widely in the past are dwindling.
So Anderson goes into schools and fairs and places such as Western Carolina University’s annual Mountain Heritage Day to expose more people to an art that has roots in their communities.
“A lot of times the kids don’t even know what a corn shuck is,” said Anderson. “They think the corn comes frozen in the three-inch little cobs.”
It’s truths like that which keep Anderson pursuing the heritage art of corn husks, keeping up a steady education campaign and demonstrating regularly at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere.
Technology, she said, is proving a bane to the ingenuity that birthed many of the Appalachian crafts that are, today, revered. Figuring out how to make something of what you have, said Anderson, is the crux of Appalachian heritage crafting, and it’s a skill she’s trying to keep alive and cultivate.
This, of course, hasn’t always been her livelihood. Anderson was born and raised in Florida, but spent summer vacations from childhood at Deep Creek in Swain County, instilling in her a deep love of the mountain community.
When an opportunity popped up for she and her husband to relocate to Bryson City in 1998, they leapt at the chance.
Crafting has always been a part of her life — she even bought a load of quilting supplies before the move, expecting to pick up the traditional mountain art — but it’s not until she got here that corn husk creating found her and she found Bryson.
“She had taught for all those years and, you know, some people were mildly interested in them,” said Anderson. But until she came along, there was no torchbearer. For her part, Anderson plans to be a little more vocal about passing on the art than her predecessor.
“I think I’m not going to be so quiet,” she laughs, when asked about where her replacement will come from. “Because I think it’s very important, to learn the old ways of doing things is very important.”
Even if you’re using the old ways to make new things.
For 3,000 years, the source of silk — shimmering, luxurious and terribly expensive — was a closely guarded secret. Silk worms, it’s lucrative little spinners, were kept jealously hidden by the silk makers of China on pain of death.
But today, 8,000 miles and a few millenia from ancient China, the very same worms are readying to produce another crop of precious silk, still one of the most pricey and sought after fibers on the market today.
Cassie Dickson has a tray of them sitting serenely on her dining room table in Sylva, munching on mulberry leaves, the sole diet of the Bombyx mori, the legendary variety of silk worms responsible for producing the lion’s share of the world’s silk.
“I have emergency trees, I have trees everywhere,” says Dickson. “I can spot trees just driving down the road.”
She’s been rearing the insects herself for 21 years now, after a magazine article piqued her interest.
She’d always been interested in handcrafts and fibers; she got traditional weaving and fiber spinning in the 1970s, and today she weaves historical pieces that have found their way into museums and private collections alike.
So she wrote to the woman featured in the article and got a response — along with some silkworm eggs as well.
She hatched them, and now she travels the region, giving out eggs and advice of her own.
The cardboard tray is teeming with a hundred or so worms, which are really more akin to caterpillars, with their knobbly bodies and tiny, sticky feet that make the sound of gently falling rain as they patter over the mulberry leaves.
In their short, month-long run as worms, they’ll grow to 10,000 times their original size, ballooning up from tiny eggs that are no larger than a grain of sand.
They don’t venture out of their cardboard homes, says Dickson, until it’s time to spin, when the fattened worms begin to get antsy for a dark, secluded place to create the hard, oblong cocoons that can eventually be turned into everything from couture eveningwear to wire insulation.
It takes more than just a few worms, however, to get to the prêt-à-porter phase. According to Dickson, it takes 1,000 cocoons to make an average-size ladies’ blouse, which might be why the gossamer threads are so costly. Each two-inch worm will produce one single filament that’s anywhere from 500 yards to a mile long, and it takes around 48 filaments to spin into a single silk thread.
Dickson, though, says she uses the fiber not only for spinning into yarn and thread, but also raw, unraveled and pulled from a cocoon.
Purchased from a factory, raw silk comes in thin, translucent squares that are unraveled from the hardened cocoons that have been softened in water. But rather than spin these, Dickson often just knits this silk straight from its original state, simply pulling it by hand to the desired thickness or space dying it with natural dyes or even Kool-Aid.
That’s a technique she takes into workshops and schools, to demonstrate how versatile the fiber can be.
“The boys always go, ‘that looks like fish bait to me,’” laughs Dickson, but her worms and their products have always proven pretty popular with kids and adults in her classes and workshops.
And, she says, while the month of raising the worms is very labor intensive, she’s never had a problem hatching the eggs, which she keeps dormant in her refrigerator for much of the year.
This year’s herd has about another week before they begin to branch out and spin themselves into their fibrous shells. And for most of them, that’s the end of the line. The majority of the blind, flightless moths that would naturally emerge from the cocoon will never see the light of day, as their chrysalis damages the silk threads. But Dickson will select a few of the most choice cocoons and let them emerge to lay next year’s eggs — “sort-of my selective breeding,” she says — while the others will be stifled, heated slightly to prevent their exit.
Today, most of the silk used in the U.S. comes from China, still a powerhouse in the industry it founded so many thousands of years ago. While domestic production has seen spikes throughout American history, large-scale sericulture died out in the 1930s, thanks to the Great Depression.
But the age-old tradition is alive in places like Western North Carolina, where natural fibers and natural textile techniques are seeing a new vogue. And the secret of silk is still hatching and spinning, year after year, as Dickson passes on eggs and expertise to a new crowd of silk spinners.
A new and long-awaited Creative Arts Building is only days away from its groundbreaking ceremony at Haywood Community College. But the tree clearing undertaken to prepare the way for the new crafts center has proven less-than-popular with some of the school’s forestry students.
Andy Fitzsimmons, a student in the college’s nationally recognized forestry program, said he’s lamenting the loss of trees that have been used as teaching tools for the school’s natural resources programs.
“There were some trees in there that had been there for a very long time, there were some that were just starting to sprout up,” said Fitzsimmons. “I feel like it just takes away learning tools from other departments.”
The college says that the trees in question had to go in order to make way for contractors to begin work. Some students were also displeased by the way the plants were taken out — dozed over rather than cut.
“They just seemed to go in there with tractors and push trees over, they didn’t even saw a lot of the trees,” said Jeremy Graves, a recent forestry graduate. “Even if they were going to proceed at that site, they could’ve taken their time and allowed the students to go in there and fell the trees. That would’ve been an excellent teaching opportunity for students that are still in the program.”
Debbie Trull, the school’s executive director of administration, said that the college really did everything in its power to fell the trees properly, making sure they were still useable either for firewood or to be milled and reused as flooring in the school’s new research house.
As for using students in the removal process, Trull said the idea was broached by the architect and discussed at the school, but because of a logging accident that happened there in 1982, the decision was made that letting students cut the trees was too dangerous.
“Where they get the opportunity to practice with their chainsaws is in their operating-a-chainsaw class,” said Trull, adding that they did use forestry students to mark the trees that were appropriate for removal before uprooting them.
Some students, however, see the bare and leveled patch of land as an eyesore and blemish on the face of their famously beautiful campus.
“It’s supposed to be an arboretum,” said Graves. “People come from all over to see the school, to walk through there and see the plants and wildlife. I think it kind-of goes against what the school claims to promote and I think it’s a big eyesore for the campus.”
Dae-Won Koh, the project manager for the building and vice president of Innovative Designs, the project’s lead architect, said that they’ve actually planned for the removal of as few trees as possible. In fact, said Koh, the amount of trees left on the site is going to be a greater challenge for the contractor, but they felt it was important to save as much of the surrounding flora as possible.
The contract for the $8.3 million building, which will house the college’s well-known professional crafts programs, was just awarded to Miles-McClellan Construction. The groundbreaking is scheduled for March 6, after which construction on the 41,665-square-foot, environmentally friendly building will begin in earnest.
By the time construction is finished, said Koh, the school is planning to replant two trees for every tree that was removed, which will be reflected in his final landscape plan.
In fact, he said, though the decision to cut down larger, older trees might not be as aesthetically pleasing or popular as removing smaller ones, research done by his firm has shown that it will go further towards reducing the building’s carbon footprint.
“The reason that we supported the college’s decision on planting new trees two-to-one is because when they [the trees] are old, their photosynthesis is quite low compared to the young trees,” said Koh. “If you plant new, young trees, they have to grow so fast, the contribution to the environment is the greater.”
Trull said that the school has taken all these things into consideration and has tried to make the most eco-friendly decisions for the site.
“There is a landscape plan and we worked within that contract as we could and with the department of natural resources as much as we could to do everything correctly,” said Trull.
Even so, the naked patch that now features in the center of an otherwise-green campus still doesn’t sit well with some who prize the school for its natural beauty and want to keep it that way.
“It’s an area of natural space that’s destroyed, it’s gone,” said Graves. “To drive by there and see it, it just hurts.”