Just a simple question

August 30, 2010

Aug 7

The one saving grace about yesterday’s marathon was that it changed today’s trip into Berea from a 40 to a 15-mile journey. That seemed to be all my legs cared to do today, because even though the road into town was flat, they began to ache during the final distances.

Berea's Boone Tavern Hotel

Nervous about what might be going on in Berea this weekend, I had made advance lodging reservations last night from Mt. Vernon. I had chosen the Boone Tavern Hotel, located in the middle of town next to Berea College. Its tall-columned porticos expressed quiet grandeur. My bicycling garb was out-of-place among the formally suit-coated staff, but they were well-trained enough not to cringe at my sight. It was the fanciest place I had stayed at the entire trip.

Despite its name, Boone Tavern seemed to have no connection to Daniel Boone. It is part of Berea College, and was the vision of a former college president’s wife, who felt the community lacked a suitable place to host visitors to the college.

The college has and continues to set a noble and impressive tone for the community. In 1855 John Fee, a Kentucky abolitionist, founded Berea with the intent of offering Appalachian students with high potential, but little means, an opportunity to receive higher education. Today nearly three-quarters of students come from Kentucky or the Appalachian region.

Berea was the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Since its beginning students have paid no tuition. Today, every student gets a $102,000 scholarship and must meet the remainder of his or her tuition obligation by working jobs in the college or community. The College turns away academically qualified students if they don’t have financial need. Students’ community jobs help residents meet local food, health care and building needs. Community service programs help students fulfill the college’s mission of service to the community and supports protection of natural resources and preservation of regional culture and traditions.

An important part of the College’s commitment to Appalachia is its student crafts program. In it, students learn traditional weaving, woodworking and metal working crafts. This program has created an environment that has enticed professional artists to live and work in Berea, where some uphold the college‘s educational mission by opening their studios to the community. It was with this opportunity to meet Appalachian artists at work that I planned the rest of my day in town.

Master dulcimer maker Warren May demonstrating one of his instruments to a visitor

Around the corner in the same block as Boone Tavern was the workshop of woodworker Warren E. May. Warren had been a teacher who had gotten interested in Appalachian dulcimers through his students. After hearing them talk about the instruments their families owned Warren decided to learn more about them and began learning how to build them. He got started emulating the designs of a local master, then developed his own versions. Eventually he gave up teaching for woodworking, moving to Berea to concentrate on the craft full-time. To date he has made over 13,000 dulcimers. The Smithsonian Institution once purchased a quantity of his dulcimers to sell through their catalog. He was invited to the signing of the bill designating the dulcimer as Kentucky’s state instrument.

One of the more sophisticated designs displayed at the Berea quilt show

A striking quilt pattern

Viewers gave white glove respect to the quilts

His shop was simple, and rather sparse. Some of his non-musical creations lined the window bays, but the center of the store was the dulcimer workshop. He was demonstrating a dulcimer to another visitor as I walked in, crisply segueing through a medley of traditional and popular songs. When I got to talk to him he emphasized how much easier the dulcimer is to play compared to the guitar. There are only four strings, versus the guitar’s six, and two of those are mostly used for rhythm and chords. All of the melody notes are played in a straight line across the remaining two strings, which in his designs at least, are placed close together for “brightness.” Ultimately, he was hoping I would buy one. But the combined factors of a $375 price tag, transportation on a bike and limited success learning to play the guitar prompted me to defer the decision until some more consideration back in Saint Paul.

There was a juried quilt show going on around town during my stay. While I admittedly have not had a great interest in quilting, I was curious to see more of what is one of the representational Appalachian arts.

The work of community quilters was being shown at the local school. Some chose to create quilts based on themes chosen by the show committee. Others just displayed their best works. The quilts ranged from kitschy to interesting designs, with some seemingly technically difficult sewing work.

Having been to model train shows and bike swaps, I have learned that each has its own protocol of how you handle the goods. So I stepped back to watch the quilters‘ approach. It is with kid, or more accurately, white gloves. Since quilting is both a visual and tactile art, people like to feel as well as see the work. If you wished to touch the quilts, you were issued a set of white cotton gloves. Besides being a practical response to this desire, I thought it was a nice symbolic gesture of respect.

After only looking, not touching, the quilts, I headed down to the Old Town Artisans’ Village to watch more artists at work. I stepped into Jimmie Lou Jackson’s Hot Flash Beads store just in time to see the end of her demonstration of lampworking, a means of shaping glass without blowing air. The process involved heating colored glass rods to 2000 degrees to make them pliable. She then molded the viscous glass around a clay-coated welding rod–the coating enabling her to easily remove the bead later on. Next, she selected a different colored rod, heated it, and pulled it like taffy to make a thin strand of glass. This was the artistic part, swirling one color upon the other to make an organic design. The creation was then flattened with metal tongs and placed in a kiln to be heated at progressively lower temperatures to stabilize the glass.

Artist Jimmie Lou Jackson demonstrating the first step in lampworking: heating the base glass rod to 2000 degrees F.

Step 2 involved pulling a second glass rod into a thin strand and "painting" a design on the base

A completed lampwork bead, ready to be finished as an earring or pendant

Impressively equal to her design abilities was her grasp of physics and the physical properties of the glass and metals. She knew the coefficients of expansion of the various glasses, along with what metal additives gave the various rods their colors. This information, combined with her experience taught her, for example, never to marry Chinese glass with Oregon glass. I commented that she was a Renaissance artist, effectively combining her art and science knowledge to produce her work.

I asked for one more demonstration so that I could photograph the process for the kids I work with in Landfall and Cimarron. Hearing this, she shared an upcoming project with the local university which would tie her and other local artists’ work into the middle school curriculum. Students would come to observe, integrating art, science and writing reports into their experiences. She was delighted that she finally would be getting paid for these educational efforts she had been doing a long time for free. I wish I could have transported her and her passions to Minnesota.

I left Jimmie Lou and started wandering down the street toward the end of the artists’ workshops. On both sides of the street were chocolate and candy shops–there’s art in candy making, isn’t there? That thought didn’t cross my mind. What did was the opportunity to get some dark chocolate that had been missing in local grocery stores.

The Chocolate Factory seemed to be the logical place to go. It was small with only a couple of glass display cases full of treats. A man with a Hershey’s Chocolate cap sat behind the counter. I asked about the milk content of the chocolate, since I am lactose intolerant. He stepped into the back room to check on the ingredients, which, once informed, I declared fair game to eat. I queried him about how much time he spent making candy and the length of the various processes. He seemed very knowledgeable, so I asked the simple question “When did you start making candy?” expecting some typical answer of age 18 or 20. “When I was twelve,” he replied.

At that time he was selected to come to the Hershey Industrial School. It was a school founded and entirely financed by company founder Milton Hershey “for orphan boys” he explained, but not offering the circumstances around his selection. Boys were fully supported by Hershey and expected to learn a trade. He chose candy making. Perched on one of his display shelves was his diploma from the Hershey School. I was so taken with this artifact that I didn’t think to observe his name. “I’ve done well,” he stated, “but obviously not as well as Hershey.”

Despite the rift in financial success between him and his benefactor, his sense of indebtedness to Hershey was evident. In the not too recent past, there was talk of Hershey being sold to another company. This man got word of the prospect and informed some of his Hershey classmates about it. Together they approached the state attorney general asking for help to kill the deal. “I’m going to go talk to the Hershey Board of Directors,” the lawyer said, “why don’t you come with me?” The Hershey Company was never sold. Although he told the story in an understated way, I could tell he was proud of his part in keeping “his” company true to its roots.

Over a hundred years later, the now-named Milton Hershey School still provides a supportive environment and education for 1700 boys and girls whose families are in social or financial need. The school is entirely funded by the profits from the Hershey Company and its entertainment arm. So indulge in a Hershey’s bar with a good conscience.

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