Kentucky co-op brings extra income to mountain artisans

The first exhibition at the new Save the Children crafts center in Westport features Southern crafts by members of the Appalachian Fireside Crafts Inc. cooperative of Booneville, Ky.

In just 12 years this cooperative has grown from a one-product (pine-cone wreaths) $3,000 business to a self-supporting retail and mail-order operation with an annual income of $200,000 for its crafts producers. These producers consist of 180 families who live in 11 eastern Kentucky counties and in one Tennessee county, an area in which the rate of unemployment is high, many people are on welfare, and incomes are among the lowest in the nation. Yet the area is rich in hand skills and traditional mountain crafts, which have now opened an avenue for rural economic development in the area.

The Save the Children coordinator in the region, Jerry Workman, trains new craftsmen and gives technical assistance to producers in selection of materials, design, and color combinations. He buys materials for them at wholesale prices, oversees quality control, helps develop new markets, and works on a one-to-one basis with many of the craftsmen.

The basic approach of Appalachian Fireside Crafts is that participating families make a variety of crafts items in their homes, using traditional designs, natural materials, and native skills. Completed items are marketed by the cooperative, and craftsmen are paid immediately from funds made available through the Save the Children sponsorship program.

If one member of the family has a job, or grows a garden, or does some farming, the supplementary income from crafts made by other members of the family may make possible a new heating system, electricity, or running water.

Today, these families are producing wreaths, dolls and flowers made from corn shuck, handsewn bonnets, quilts, splint baskets, bowls, barkcovered bird houses, and beautifully made native wood cabinets.

Crafts production for income has prompted many young people to carry on the traditional craftsmanship of the Appalachian Mountains. This cooperative is a prime success story for the agency, and serves as a model to inspire other craftsmen.

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