“Back then, it was difficult to get people to turn the corner on Main Street and head down to where these other businesses were on Church Street,” Pennington said. “Richard really wanted to get folks down here, and that’s where the idea for the show came about.”
What started out with 28 artist booths and a decent crowd has now become a festive day showcasing more than 120 vendors with attendance approaching 20,000.
In the beginning
Back in 1983, when the idea for an art and craft show was taking shape, Miller decided to hold it in a parking lot behind the buildings on Church Street. There used to be a dirt lot where the outdoor seating patio is today for The Classic Wineseller, Chef’s Table and The Patio. Miller had the space paved and started readying it for the event. Artists for the inaugural event were handpicked and invited from other shows in Banner Elk and Boone.
“Since it was a new show, we let the artists come for free,” Pennington said. “As the show got more and more successful, it started to attract more and more people and talented artists.”
They had a location and artists, but both thought they needed music to complete the day. Miller and Pennington were eating at the now-defunct Bill Stanley’s BBQ in Asheville. Haywood County banjo player Marc Pruett was the leader of the house band. The bluegrass music was impressive, and so Miller asked them to play at the inaugural Church Street festival. Pruett accepted the invitation. Miller now had to build a stage for the group, which eventually was constructed out of old scaffolding and sheets.
“Back in the day, you didn’t have a stage or bleachers like the town has now,” Miller said. “So, we had to build our own, and we must’ve been out there until three in the morning putting it together.”
The day of the show finally arrived — sunshine, blue skies, with troves of curious folks milling about. And as the parking lot sloped down toward Montgomery Street, The Marc Pruett Band began to play at the bottom of the hill, providing the audience with a natural amphitheatre filled with the sounds of Southern Appalachia.
“Oh, it was a great group that day,” Pruett said. “I loved the camaraderie in seeing so many people interested in crafts, and the arts and variety they brought to the festival was stunning.”
Passing the torch
Following several years of growth, Pennington and Miller began the process of transitioning the festival to the Downtown Waynesville Association (DWA). Though the founders are still involved in fund-raising efforts and picking artists to bring into the fold, the DWA has largely grabbed the ball and run with it, making it one of the most successful festivals of its kind in the Southeast.
“I’ve worked with this show since 1990 and watched it grow even through slumps in the economy, rockslides and rainy weather,” said Buffy Phillips, executive director of the DWA. “Maintaining the show’s mission of quality is essential to its success.”
The craft show is juried, which means only quality artists are allowed to display their wares. Artists are handpicked for their superior work, and the show is an authentic competition for prize monies offered for the finest work displayed.
“I feel so proud of the show, especially with the fact we’re been able to maintain the quality of it through the years,” Pennington said. “A lot of shows have had to compromise the quality to get more people and artists in, but I’m thankful we haven’t had to do that.”
Phillips said the Church Street Art and Craft Show represents the best of Appalachian traditions.
“This show is a reflection of the art and craft culture found in our mountains,” Phillips said. “Most people here are repeat vendors who have been coming for over 20 years. They appreciate the quality of the show and continue to do well in sales.”
A festival grows up
The 30th anniversary celebration is a full circle moment for Pruett. He’s now a member of acclaimed bluegrass/gospel group Balsam Range, which recently won the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association award for “Album of the Year.” The group will be headlining the musical lineup, which will include performances throughout the day in front of the Haywood County Courthouse.
“[Church Street] is one of the many things that gives you that sense of place, of being in the mountains,” said Pruett. “Some years, it has been cold; it rained, but I always have remembered the good people and memories I’ve made at it.”
Pennington enjoys the electric atmosphere that resonates through downtown Waynesville when all the diverse people, artists and music come together.
“I love the good mood everybody is in. They all come in happy,” she said. “The skies are usually blue, with a nip in the air in the morning. You get your cup of coffee to warm up, then the jackets come off in the afternoon as the sun comes out.”
Pennington is optimistic for the future of the Church Street Art and Craft Festival and has taken a special pleasure in watching it grow and succeed.
“This show is almost like my child,” she said. “It’s the same reason I love doing my work. It’s about sitting in front of that canvas and creating something from scratch, something that has never been done before. This show is like that — we created it and have watched it grow up.”
Waynesville welcomes 30th Church Street festival
The 30th annual Church Street Art & Craft Show will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12, on Main Street in downtown Waynesville. Alongside more than 120 craft/food vendors, live music will be provided throughout the day from Balsam Range and Whitewater Bluegrass Company. Free.
www.downtownwaynesville.com or 828.456.3517.