Book Excerpt: ‘Hippie Homesteaders’

Posted by | April 8, 2014

Head shotThumbPlease welcome guest author Carter Taylor Seaton. Seaton is the author of two novels, Father’s Troubles, and amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story, numerous magazine articles, and several essays and short stories. In her earlier life, she directed a rural craft cooperative, was nominated for the Ladies Home Journal’s “Women of the Year 1975” Award, and ran three marathons—Atlanta, New York City, and Marine Corps—after she was fifty. Her newest book, the non-fiction Hippie Homesteaders, was just published by West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to offer an excerpt from it here:

 

Unraveling the tapestry of efforts that culminated in West Virginia’s strong reputation for supporting its arts is tricky business. Pull one agency thread, and you’ll find it tied to others. Although Don Page and the West Virginia Department of Commerce seem to have been the very earliest proponents of handcrafts as an economic engine, others took up the cause in short order. In addition to Don, artisans of that period give credit for help in launching their careers to Tim Pyles, then Coordinator of the Crafts Program at Cedar Lakes, Norman Fagan and Jim Andrews at the Department of Culture and History, and Rebecca Stelling, manager of The Shop at the Cultural Center. The Mountain State Art & Craft Fair and the West Virginia Arts & Crafts Guild that formed at the first fair, while not actual state agencies, also were entwined in the state’s efforts. They provided another valuable layer of marketing assistance to the emerging craft community.

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When the West Virginia Department of Commerce sent Don and his fellow staffers across the state to find these folks who made arts and crafts, they did so knowing that of all their tourism-marketing efforts, craft events were the most lucrative. Thus, their mission was to encourage the artisans, offer additional training, if necessary, and find markets for their work, often through the craft fair venue.

For the upcoming 1963 centennial, they either identified or encouraged the creation of over one hundred fairs, festivals, or celebrations statewide that included arts and crafts as an essential component. One of these was the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair (MSACF), which was conceived by several folks involved with the Cedar Lakes Conference Center at Ripley, West Virginia. When Cedar Lakes was created in 1950, it was dedicated to providing educational opportunities for students and adults. Situated on a former farm, the 360-acre venue originally included four groups of cottages, an assembly building, dining hall, and chapel surrounding a four-acre lake. An arts and crafts center offering “training in the craft field to anyone in West Virginia interested in learning to make craft items for fun or profit” also was part of the initial plan.

Therefore, during the run-up to the state centennial, Ron Thomas, Larry Cavendish, and Margaret Pamalon decided the best thing they could do for the celebration was put on a craft fair, and that Cedar Lakes was the ideal location. They wanted to showcase the work of some of the people who had been taking workshops at the facility’s craft center. With the joint support of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Education, the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair opened in July 1963 with fifty-four exhibitors. They intended it to be a one-year only event. Invitations to come see what the state had to offer were sent nationwide. Huge crowds attended, including folks from the Smithsonian Institution.

Faced with such success, it became an annual event, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. Although its first exhibitors were indigenous artisans, it didn’t take long for word of the MSACF to spread to the back-to-the-landers who were arriving as early as 1965. Don Page was eager to help them get accepted by the fair. A former industrial arts teacher, Don had operated twenty-six craft workshops while he was in the military. Each offered a different discipline. He knew his stuff. “I was receptive to those people, because they often had a background in design, and could move vertically in the craft medium whereas sometimes, the traditional people could not break themselves from their old molds,” he recalls. This honing of a traditional craft is often what made the back-to-the-land artisans so successful. Some began to exhibit at the fair after adopting both West Virginia and their new craft.

Connie weaving 1

Others, like potter Brian Van Nostrand, who landed in Webster County three years after the centennial celebration, were already practicing artisans. Don learned about Brian after reading a letter the artist had sent to the Department of Commerce seeking sales outlets. Van Nostrand was typical of the new breed of artisan, according to Don, and he reached out to the young man.

One day, Brian looked up to see Don and wood sculptor Wolfgang Flor walking up his road. Surprised to see any visitors at his remote homestead, he was even more amazed when Don told him the department would pay his expenses to come to the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair. He recalls thinking it was a dream come true. “I went, and remember making about four hundred dollars, thinking, ‘Oh man, we’re going to be making big money here – not big money, but maybe I can make a living doing this,’” he says as we sit chatting at a picnic table outside McDonald’s near Flatwoods, West Virginia.

After nearly thirty years, I’d been thinking about this reunion for several days, knowing I’d recognize him instantly. His engaging smile and steel blue eyes were indelibly imprinted after fifteen years as his tent-next-door neighbor at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair. I was just as certain he would remember me. We had talked by phone, planned the meeting. Finally the day arrived. I found him sitting inside McDonald’s, bent over the table, his hands enveloping a coffee cup as if it were an unformed ball of clay. Only the top of his head was visible. Brian is no longer young, but he remains lithe and wiry. Bearded like most of the artisans of that earlier day, he still dresses in a tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans. He hasn’t changed, except for the graying hair. As I approached, he looked up, his blue eyes smiled, and crow’s-feet formed. “It’s been a long time, Carter,” he said. After we chatted a moment, we moved outside into the sun and he continued his story.

Joe at wheel

New Jersey born Brian Van Nostrand was studying art and philosophy at Furman University in South Carolina when he met Montie, his future wife. While waiting for her to graduate, he apprenticed with a nearby studio potter and discovered that ceramics was something he really loved. The experience set the course for his future career.

When Brian learned that West Virginia was hoping to attract artisans for tourism and promotion purposes, the couple decided to look there for their future home. They knew crafts held a strong tradition in the southern highlands and had learned from Brian’s mentor that other artisans were building successful careers in the mountains. Young and eager, after working for about six months in New Jersey to save start-up money, they headed south to look at West Virginia. Within eleven days of leaving home, they’d bought land in Hacker Valley, Webster County, where they currently live. It cost twenty-six dollars an acre—cheap even then—and they were debt free. They’d brought a year’s worth of canned food, basic materials, and foodstuffs, including potatoes, and were determined to have no overhead from the beginning.

It was a brutal first year. Brian had few, if any building skills, much to Montie’s dismay. Arriving in October, they slept on the ground under a makeshift canvas lean-to until the weather turned so cold Brian’s beard froze when he breathed. Neighbors gave them a miniature wood stove, and they moved into a structure built for drying corn that was still standing on their property. Although he knew next to nothing about construction, Brian did know about the basic materials, having worked at a building supply store in New Jersey. Soon, he began building their home by reading an instruction book one chapter at a time: Chapter One – How to Frame, Chapter two – Rafters, etc. By spring they had moved in, although the house still lacked windows. Once they were under roof, he set up his studio and began making pots.

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