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Kentucky is the folk art capital of America

Art and education are the capstones of Berea, Kentucky

© 2008 by Bonnie McKenna
All Rights Reserved

It was nearing Christmas and I was bound and determined to find gifts for my family that were uniquely American. Enough of Chinese made goods, I said. I sought the help of the ever-friendly internet, hoping to find what I wanted. I began to notice that American made gifts were readily available in Kentucky. I had never heard of the town that was heralded as the arts and crafts capital of Kentucky. Berea. But, I decided it was worth going there to check out the artisans and their wares. Berea is a small college town south of Lexington. It founded in the 1850s by John G. Fee, an anti-slavery preacher and Cassius M. Clay, the son of landed gentry. Both wanted to create a society based on the dignity of labor. In 1855, Fee founded Berea College to provide high-quality, low-fee education to students of all races. For more than 150 years the college has provided students tuition-free education. Every student earns a portion of their tuition through the college’s labor program. The student’s craft work is for sale in the school’s Log House Craft Gallery and online.

It was recommended that I stay at the historic Boone Tavern Hotel named after the legendary explorer Daniel Boone. The hotel was built in 1909 as a guest house for students attending Berea College. Today the comfortable hotel rooms are complete with all the modern conveniences. Eighty percent of the hotel staff and the majority of the wood furniture in the hotel were made by the college students. Currently, the Boone Tavern Hotel is undergoing renovation, but as of May the dining room and a number of the hotel rooms are ready for occupancy. The renovation is slated to be completed in time for its centennial birthday in early 2009.

The Kentucky Artisan Center is the place to start your search for those unique gifts. The center is where you can get a good idea of what is available in the area. You will find glass work, weavings, wood carvings, jewelry, pottery, furniture, paintings, musical instruments and a myriad of other folk art crafts, all available for purchase.

Old Town and College Square are two areas in town where numerous artisans work and live. As you walk down the streets you can see artisans crafting wood, blowing glass, creating jewelry, making musical instruments and working on other hand made crafts. The artisans readily invite you in to look over their crafts, share a cup of coffee and answer questions about their particular craft.

Another special feature of the Berea area is the ability to visit many of the artisans home work shops. If it is wood carvings you are looking for, in nearby East Bernstadt, Kentucky, is the home of Lonnie and Twyla Money. The Money’s art work is definitely unique and collectable. For special furniture, visit Red Dog and Company. Red Dog is known for mule ear chairs, rockers with woven hickory bottoms and unusual custom shaped handrests. Former president, George W. Bush has a Red Dog chair in his office in Kennebunkport. At the Tater Knob Pottery and Farm you can purchase thrown bowls, plates, candle holders, flower pots and their special spoonbread baking pan. Spoonbread is a regional specialty served at the Boone Tavern Hotel. It is made of souffléd cornbread and eaten with a spoon. You have to try it.

As I drove east of Berea, through the neighboring countryside enjoying the calm beauty of the hills of Red Lick Valley, I stopped for lunch at the Snug Hollow Farm and Country Inn. Innkeeper Barbara Napier maintains an organic farm and a spacious farmhouse with three bedrooms. Southern Living Magazine voted Snug Hollow one of the five most romantic getaways of the south and is recognized for its “holler hospitality.”

Since 1893, Berea College has encouraged students to produce traditional Appalachian regional crafts that can be purchased at the campus’ Log House Craft Gallery. Weaving is at the heart of the college crafts. Woven baby blankets and coverlets, made by the students, are the most sought after one-of-a-kind gift. Brooms and more brooms, thirteen types and styles of brooms are produced by hand; from hearth and cottage brooms to specialty brooms designed for small and hard-to-reach spaces. Another very popular item is the Skittles. Skittles is a game of finesse played in a special wooden box with various rooms and pins placed in strategic spots. Players pull a string wrapped around a spinner; toppling as many pins as they can before the spinner stops. Skittles has been a Berea College diversion since 1929. These items and many more are also available for purchase at www.bereacollegcrafts.com.


When the weather starts to turn cooler and thoughts of Christmas begin to form in your mind; think of Kentucky where you will be charmed by the friendly folks and find those one-of-a-kind gifts for family and friends that are made in America. For more information on southern and eastern Kentucky, go to www.tourseky.com.