When James Rogers was stationed in Iraq and mentioned what his aunt Carolyn Carroll did for a living, an Army buddy knew immediately that one of her Kentucky quilts would be the perfect birthday gift for his young sons. Rogers e-mailed her, and the handmade treasure arrived right on time.
With a growing number of retail outlets offering inexpensively made products, more consumers are looking for handmade craftsmanship and quality, especially for gift giving.
“There’s something special about drinking out of a mug that was hand-thrown, as opposed to a cup that was mass-produced by a machine,” says Victoria Faro, director of the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea.
Carroll, who learned to quilt from her mother, owns Carroll’s Quilts and Crafts Shop in Drip Rock, a “wide spot in the road” in Jackson County. “I’m at least a fourth-generation quilter,” she says, “and my great-grandma and grandpa made ladder-back chairs.”
In Appalachia, an area known the world over for handmade crafts, her story is not unusual.
Because the mountains were so isolated, early settlers had to construct most of what they used daily. The skills to make utilitarian crafts that would last a good long time were passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.
Today, many Appalachian craftsmen still create baskets, brooms, candles, ceramics, glass, jewelry, metalwork, paintings, photos, textiles, woodcraft, furniture, dolls, and corn-shuck crafts in lovely, remote areas and small mountain towns where the beauty of nature inspires their work.
Both born in Laurel County, Lonnie and Twyla Money, known for their whimsical wooden animal carvings, live a mile from where Twyla grew up. One of Lonnie’s ancestors was a Swiss woodcarver. They love rural life, but in the past, appreciative buyers with disposable income were scarce.
Fortunately, prospective consumers can now easily connect with artisans through a myriad of retail outlets, crafts fairs (the first in Kentucky was held at Berea College in 1896), crafts cooperatives, and a slew of state support organizations, including the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail, a treasure of an online resource that is part of the Eastern Kentucky University Center for Economic Development, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (CEDET).
Carolyn Carroll and the Moneys are listed on the Web site of the Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trail, which Carroll says gives her credibility.
“Online access has put formerly isolated artisans on the same playing field with other businesses,” says Chris Cathers, director of CEDET. “Now, a tourist or potential customer can connect with the artist and still make a purchase, even if they can’t go to a studio. There are directions if a visitor wants to drive. It’s a win-win.”
Whether via auto or Internet, Berea, the Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, is a great starting point for artisan seekers. Home to Berea College, where students have been making traditional Appalachian crafts as part of their work-study program since 1893, the town boasts three separate areas of galleries, shops, and studios.
“More than 125 artists live in a population center of 10,000,” says Belle Jackson, executive director of the Berea Tourist & Convention Commission. “At least half sell here or in studios in addition to students producing crafts.”
Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ashley Judd have purchased whisper-soft hand-woven items from Berea-based Churchill Weavers.
“Handmade is part of our heritage,” says Lila Blondo, manager of the world-renowned Churchill Weavers begun in 1922. “It’ll last you 100 years.”
“Kentucky has become a model for the support it gives its artisans,” says Fran Redmon, director of the Kentucky Craft Marketing Program, where you can order corporate gift baskets filled with Appalachian crafts. “Handcrafted gifts are unique, unlike those in a lot of ‘cookie cutter’ stores.”
A few state crafts-support organizations and sources for Appalachian crafts include:
Founded in 1893, small liberal arts institution where students make traditional Appalachian crafts as part of a mandatory work-study program.
Berea Tourist & Convention Commission
Information on Berea, the Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, including working artists’ studios, crafts tours, annual events.
Kentucky Appalachian Artisan Center
Exhibit space for and retail sales of artisans’ works from 49 eastern Kentucky counties, working crafts demos, workshops, and entrepreneurial training.
Kentucky Artisan Center
Berea-based gallery and shop with Kentucky crafts, music, books, specialty foods; working crafts demos on weekends; resource to locate artists and craftsmen statewide.
Kentucky Artisan Heritage Trails
Cultural heritage tourism and business development program with Internet-based driving trails directing visitors to Appalachian craftsmen.
Kentucky Craft Marketing Program
A division of the Kentucky Arts Council that sponsors annual Kentucky Crafted: The Market, the state’s handcrafted gift market, and The Kentucky Collection, an exclusive line of high-quality crafts.
Kentucky Folk Art Center
Expansive folk art gallery, shop, and museum with ongoing exhibits in Morehead.
Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen
Kentucky’s oldest and largest statewide art and craft membership organization.
Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
One wonders if Reverend Elijah Craig takes a spin or two in his grave every time someone orders a shot of the Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey that bears his name. One of Heaven Hill Distilleries’ 25 core brands is named for the Baptist minister historically attributed with discovering bourbon back in the late 1700s.
The history of bourbon, including Craig’s contribution, is celebrated in grand style at the Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown. The airy state-of-the-art facility, warmed with plenty of bottles of the umber-colored liquid, was built in 2004 by the largest independent family-owned spirits producer and designed as an architectural paean to the process and traditions of producing “America’s only native spirit,” so designated by a 1964 act of Congress.
The Center is both history lesson and hands-on experience that includes touring a working rickhouse (where the barrels of bourbon are stored and aged), exploring high-tech exhibits, and enjoying a “tutored” tasting in the barrel-shaped A Taste of Heaven room.
“Our brands honor the famous people in bourbon history and they’re as much about our heritage as the birth of bourbon,” says Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s director of corporate communications. “The Heritage Center complements the rickhouses and was built with copper, white oak, and limestone—the three key elements in making bourbon.”
Since the Center opened two years ago, some 60,000 visitors have visited—from all 50 states and more than 50 foreign countries—to learn about the process of turning local corn mixed with rye and barley into bourbon.
Visitors will learn how, shortly after Prohibition, the five Shapira brothers founded Heaven Hill Distilleries, an operation that today accounts for the world’s second-largest holding of aging Kentucky bourbon and represents more than 16 percent of the world’s future supply. You can press aroma buttons offering scents of new whiskey and 7- and 12-year-old bourbons. One sniff and you’ll be taken back to the days when Mom would mix up a hot toddy for you to drink when you had a cold. And you’ll hear about the lore of bourbon, including the oft-quoted misconception (gasp!) that it must be made in Kentucky.
“Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States,” says Kass. “But as the president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association is fond of saying, ‘If you want to sell it, you’d better make it in Kentucky.’ Our limestone water and four distinct seasons make the Commonwealth uniquely suited for producing and aging bourbon.”
Each tour ends at the tasting room and the gift shop, chock-full of souvenir items—including a keepsake jug of Evan Williams Master Distillers Select signed by father and son Master Distillers Parker and Craig Beam that can be personalized—and where more tastings take place. Sample Heaven Hill’s bourbon-spiked barbecue sauces: smooth Evan Williams, feisty Fighting Cock, and the unrepentantly tangy Elijah Craig. You can also dip into a sinfully delicious marmalade and a wicked hot wing sauce.
Heaven Hill Distilleries
Bourbon Heritage Center
1311 Gilkey Run Road
Bardstown, KY 40004
Tours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sundays from 12–4 p.m. Closed Sundays in January and February. Closed Mondays and major holidays. No bourbon tastings or liquor sales on Sundays. Reservations required for group tours of more than 10 people.
The Heaven Hill Distilleries Trolley, www.heavenhilltrolley.com, departs from Historic Court Square and squires visitors around Kentucky’s second-oldest city, including the Bourbon Heritage Center. Tickets may be purchased at the Bardstown Tourist and Convention Commission. Tours daily except Monday. Call for schedule.
Heaven Hill Distilleries is one of several distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, www.kybourbon.com. Also on the trail: Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, and Wild Turkey. Each distillery is a showcase to the centuries-old art of bourbon-making and all are within a leisurely day’s drive. Free guided tours are offered most days. Call for specific schedules.
A visit to Bardstown should include a stop at the Chapeze House (502) 507-8338, www.chapezehouse.com, an 1810 mansion tucked into Bardstown’s historic downtown.
In its second year of business, the Chapeze House is home of the Kentucky Bourbon and Fine Food Tasting, Afternoon Tea, and the Kentucky Bourbon Cooking School. It is the brainchild of Col. Michael Masters, a genteel dynamo wearing many hats: Masters is an author (Hospitality—Kentucky Style); chef (he’s made numerous appearances on the Food Network); bed and breakfast proprietor (the Colonel’s Cottage Inns, two utterly charming bungalows also in Bardstown’s historic district); coffee-blender; a true old-school Southern gentleman who is known as The Host of Kentucky; and a self-professed town character.
Bardstown-Nelson County Convention & Visitors Bureau
One Court Square, Bardstown, KY 40004
(800) 638-4877 or (502) 348-4877
Kathy Witt is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.