Making History:
Brasstown Carvers

The Brasstown Carvers is a group—still in operation today—that got its start during the Craft Revival period.  It was one of several cooperatives formed in partnership with the John C. Campbell Folk School during the 1920s and 1930s.  The school’s carving program was under direction of Park Fisher from 1930 until 1934 or 1935, when a full-time craft instructor was hired.  Murrial Galt, an occupational therapist, taught carving from mid-1935 until her retirement in 1973.  During the Craft Revival period, Louise Pitman was in charge of the business side of the crafts program; she handled pricing, orders, and marketing. 

The Brasstown Carvers can trace their beginnings to 1929 when a local craft guild was organized in cooperation with the John C. Campbell Folk School.  The association had its own Board of Directors who determined the policies and prices for the group.  Dues were fifty cents per year.  The school provided instruction, equipment, and bookkeeping, while the community provided skilled labor.  Creativity was shared; the school suggested some items, while others came from the community of makers. 1

From the very beginning of its craft production, the school judged whether work was acceptable for re-sale.  Craftwork was purchased outright if it was judged to be of “class A” quality.  “Class B” work was paid for when it sold, while “class C” work was rejected.  In its earliest years, the association produced a variety of traditional items including “stools, baskets, brooms, chair seats, and chairs.”  All of the work was made in the homes of association members who lived in communities in and around Brasstown.  An immediate success, the handicraft association sold over $1,000.00 worth of crafts during its first year of operation. 2

During the summer of 1930, the folk school held its first session focused on handcraft.  For the most part, professionals, teachers and other mountain workers who wanted to learn more about hands-on craft production and its application to mountain work attended these annual summer sessions.  Instructors were a mix of staff from the John C. Campbell Folk School and those from other schools and craft production centers.  Margaret Campbell (no relation to John and Olive) was a teacher at the Pleasant Hill Academy in Tennessee, a school with an established carving program.  Clementine Douglass ran the Spinning Wheel in Asheville, which marketed hand-woven items.  Helen Dingman, affiliated with both the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers and Berea College in Kentucky, was also listed in the program, along with Evelyn Bishop, Director of the Pi Beta Phi School (today’s Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts) in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Instructors from the John C. Campbell Folk School included Park Fisher who taught woodworking; Louise Pitman and Jane Chase who taught weaving. 3

The John C. Campbell Folk School followed the lead of Berea College, an early and influential leader in the Craft Revival movement.  Berea operated a split system of craft instruction, running a community extension program with local families as participants and an on-campus Fireside Industries department for its students.  Several other schools adopted Berea’s terminology in establishing a “Fireside Industries” program of their own, including Penland School of Handicrafts’ predecessor, the Appalachian Industrial School near Spruce Pine, North Carolina.  The Campbell Folk School eventually developed a similar twin system of instruction.  Its “industries” department was aimed at students enrolled in the residential winter session, while its craft cooperative reached into the community.  While the two programs remained somewhat separate, their goals and methods intertwined.  A 1931 school report acknowledged the value of the community handicraft cooperative as a “growing link between school and community.” 4

In 1932 school founder Olive Campbell reported “The crafts have made a decided gain this year” and noted that carving had caught the attention of folk school students.

The last few weeks have seen a real interest from the boys in carving, for the most part of farm animals.  Frequently geese or donkeys make their appearance at meal time and necks or hind-quarters are compared as to beauty of line or resemblance to the original itself.  No two are alike, and it is evident that the carvers are finding something in their new diversion besides the money reward. 5

By 1933 there were 20 steady workers supplying the craft “industries.”  Student carver Hayden Hensley was supporting his family from income derived from carving.  While it is true that the school provided the market for carving, interest in the activity seemed to grow on its own, particularly among young boys. 

Carving has brought several boys and men to us in the last year whom we might not have known in any other way.  They have appeared from time to time bearing chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, or birds, many of which aren’t accepted the first time, but most of the carvers are interested enough to try again.  Little Quentin Clayton, a local boy of twelve, come one day, panting under the weight of his own wood, and saying that he wanted “to learn to carve right away.” 6

Between February 1929—when the craft cooperative was formed—and June 1935—when the school hired a full-time craft instructor—it is not exactly clear who is in charge of the carving program.  One annual report gives some indication of the program’s organic structure; “We are not cooperative in organization, we are in spirit,” it reported.  Park Fisher was on staff, partly working on the school’s facility and partly serving as wood working instructor.  Louise Pitman was also on staff.  She was in charge of the business side of the craft program while she worked as a craft maker herself, experimenting with native plants as dyestuffs. Pitman’s report mentioned, “the ingenious Park Fisher in the shop [and] Miss Butler’s excellent criticism.  Mrs. Campbell, of course is the inspiration without which the Industries could not move.” Although most carvers worked at home, typically, they came together at the school each week to share techniques and deliver their work.

The carving was done in the home and brought to the school where it is inspected for quality of craftsmanship and perfection of line and form.  It is then finished and marketed by the School.  These weekly visits are more like social gatherings or study groups, as sitting around the table whittling affords excellent opportunity for friendly discussions which vary from international questions to local problems of health, farming, the weather, family life and so on.  Friendly criticism is exchanged and helpful suggestions offered. 7

Carving
Ben Hall
Carving
John Hall
 

By 1933 carving had become the mainstay of Brasstown artisans.  Weaving was already being made and sold out of the Spinning Wheel and Allanstand Cottage Industries in Asheville.  While carving was successful at Pleasant Hill in Tennessee, Pleasant Hill students did not present any competition to the Brasstown carvers in terms of sales.  As the Brasstown carving cooperative grew, Louise Pitman’s report was increasingly filled with optimism and praise. 

Miss Frances Goodrich, the pioneer in preserving and encouraging mountain handicrafts, has written: “The carved animal form Brasstown seem to me one of the most interesting developments in craft work in the mountains that I have known of.  They are beyond praise.”  They certainly express the individuality of the makers, each of whom feels strongly as to the personality of the mules or horses, hogs or rabbits.  Even the shops are asking for their favorites, so we must keep track of the likes and dislikes of our customers. 8

In 1933 an exhibition of Mountain Handicrafts brought the work of the Brasstown carvers to the nation’s capitol.  The John C. Campbell Folk School displayed a few weavings and a number of “hanks” of vegetable dyed wool, no doubt made by Louise Pitman.  Granny Donaldson’s “animal blanket” and Nina Bryan’s maple breadboard were on display, but not for sale.  The catalog listed carved geese, both “mad” and “sober” mules, horse, oxen, hog, rabbit, dog, goat, and a full logging outfit.  Brasstown carvings caught the attention of the President and First Lady Roosevelt.  A Washington D.C. newspaper reported that Eleanor Roosevelt visited the exhibition six times and bought “a whole flock of geese, woodcarvings of applewood and holly wood.  Many were the farm animals individualistically carved.”  Brasstown carvings fit the newspaper description and, indeed, through the introduction provided by the exhibition, the Roosevelts purchased additional carvings from the folk school. 9

In 1935 Louise Pitman’s annual report expressed confidence.  Carvings were no longer placed on consignment in sales shops, but instead were sold outright.  Within a few years Brasstown carvings were selling in 48 shops.  The best ones were the three shops operated by the Southern Highlanders, Inc., a marketing organization developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.  The TVA ran a storefront in Chicago, one in New York’s Rockefeller Center, and one at the dam in Norris, Tennessee.  While Pitman’s 1935 report seemed to favor an approach to operating in a “more businesslike manner,” by the following year, the issues that separated creative work and business were evident. 

The conflict between art and business strikes us in two ways.  The man, who depends upon carving of the support of his family, (there are one or two), must be able to count upon a certain amount; the best shops with whom we deal prefer to buy in quantity, we have learned that even our best carvers are limited in the amount which they can produce; if they hurry the quality drops.  Somehow we must reconcile the two angles of the work; we realize that we must be business-like, but we cannot ignore the artistic basis upon which the crafts are developing. 10

What did local people have to gain from joining the carving cooperative?  Most were farmers in an area where opportunities to earn a cash income were scarce.  Outside work often required moving away from home.  In 1936 Ben Hall reported that he would rather carve than work at building a TVA dam and noted that carving enabled him to buy glasses for his son.  In the 1930s, Hall was one of Brasstown’s most prolific carvers, joined by his two brothers John and Elisha.  Other notable carvers working during that decade included W. J. Martin, Hayden and Bonnie Hensley, and Nina Bryan.  Louise Pitman described a typical week.

I wish you might have seen the group of men who gathered in the craft room last Saturday morning.  They had walked from Warne, about eight miles away, and most of them were members of the Hall family.  In the absence of a craft teacher, Mrs. Campbell came in to guide and suggest as the new carvers proudly displayed hogs, mad mules, geese and rabbits.  For two hours or more they whittled and sanded animals, which Mrs. Campbell and I happily watched. 11

By the 1940s, 45 carvers received pay for their work.  Among them were Glenn and Hope Brown, Jay Morris, Avery and Nolan Beaver, Carmen Fleming, Ray Mann, Doris Reece, Ruth Hawkins, and Jack Hall.  A 1942 roster lists their income for the year.  Ben Hall was paid the most—$758.00.  Hayden Hensley, who had earned nearly all of his income from carving in the 1930s, was paid a mere $5.00.  The ebb and flow of numbers continued with overall growth into the 1940s.  There were 25 regular carvers (out of 69 craft workers) in 1936; by 1939 that number had grown to 72.  While carving was initially considered to be an occupation for men and boys, women entered the cooperative in increasing numbers, especially during World War II.  With men leaving for the armed services and the defense industry, many of the newest carvers were women.  In 1946, women were the majority of carvers for the first time with 33 women and 18 men carving.  Since that time, and into the present, both men and women participated. Part of the success of the Brasstown Carvers was due to the fact that their work was small and affordable.  The school also recognized the advantage they had in being “first in the field in small animal carving.” 12

Brasstown Carvings
St. Francis and the Nativity
are still being made today

Carvers in and around Brasstown tended to focus on particular types of figures.  Hensley was known for geese; the Halls were known for their mules.  Rufus Morgan, an Episcopal minister affiliated with the Appalachian Industrial School, asked Olive Campbell if the carvers could make him a St. Francis.  Ben Hall took a book from the library to see what a traditional St. Francis looked like.  Carving teacher Murrial Galt Martin designed them, Jack Hall roughed them out, and St. Francis became a staple form for the group.  Other characteristic figures included a full nativity scene.  Individual crèche figures were the specialty of specific carvers.  The first figures were made out of apple wood, but holly became the preferred wood for its resemblance to ivory.  Today’s figures are made of buckeye and basswood.  Unlike the St. Francis, nativity figures were designed by the carvers rather than by Murray Martin.  Ben Hall made the first set, but Martin said his baby Jesus “looked like an old man.”  Hope Brown, having had babies of her own, started to carve the baby.  She added a cat to the baby’s cradle. 13

Post-war America was a different place, and the situation for craft production in the upland South changed as well.  A significant event for the Brasstown carvers was a fire that burned the school’s woodshop in December 1944.  For some, the situation was worse than others.  Hope Brown, whose work had been an inspiration to many, lost her patterns in the fire.  Unable to continue carving, she and her husband Glenn Brown moved from Brasstown to find work in a Marietta, Georgia bomber plant.  The school’s annual reports for 1945 and 1946 emphasized change.  Besides the fire to deal with, Louise Pitman left the school after almost 20 years.  Still, things were looking up; there were a record 80 craft workers listed for the 1944-45 school year, with 49 of those being carvers.  Over the next decade the school produced two booklets featuring the carving enterprise.  In the early 1940s, they printed “Wood Carving at the John C. Campbell Folk School.”  In the 1950s, the school printed a booklet that gave the craft co-op the name that would follow them through multiple generations and into the 21st century: “The Story of the Brasstown Carvers.” 14  

- M. Anna Fariello, 2008

 


1. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1932, 9. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] April 6, 1929, 3.
2. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] April 6, 1929, 3-4. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] May 7, 1932, 9. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1930, 2
3. John C. Campbell Folk School 10 [school newsletter] (Oct. 1930), n.p.
4. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1931, 8.
5. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] May 7, 1932 8 -10.
6. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1933, 13.
7. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1933, 13. Pat McNelley, The First 40 Years: John C. Campbell Folk School (Atlanta: McNelley-Rudd Printing: 1966) 29.
8. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1933, 14.
9. A Catalogue of Mountain Handicrafts by the Members of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1933) 15. “Bargains lure Mrs. Roosevelt/ First Lady Buys Handicraft Works for Christmas Gifts,” unnamed Washington DC newspaper, Nov. 9, 1933.  “President Roosevelt Expresses Interest in Craft Work Wood Carvings Occupy Places in White House,” Asheville Citizen, April 8, 1934.
10. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1935, 9. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1938, n.p. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1939, n.p. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1936, n.p.
11. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1935, 7-8. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1940 n.p.
12. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1936, n.p. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1945 page 2. [John C. Campbell Folk School Annual Report] 1946, n.p.
13. Interview with Murrial Galt Martin, 2002 by Anna Fariello at her home on the grounds of the Campbell Folk School.
14. John C. Campbell Folk School, The Brasstown Carvers (1990).  “Wood Carving at the John C. Campbell Folk School,” (Brasstown, John C. Campbell Folk School, circa 1940).  “The Story of the Brasstown Carvers…the oldest and the youngest,” (Brasstown, John C. Campbell Folk School, circa 1952).