Maria Runyon may have spent most of her 87 years in Manhattan (“New York is the only place to live,” she pronounces with elegant, imperious diction), but her childhood was pure Western North Carolina.
“Aunt Lucy used to take me with her back into all those old hollers,” Runyon recalls, the word “holler” sounding foreign in her mouth. “The ‘roads’ were barely more than foot trails, but somehow, Aunt Lucy’s Model T pickup truck would make it.”
During the 1920s, Runyon and her aunt, Lucy Morgan, traversed the hollers and coves of Mitchell County, searching for women interested in learning to weave. “No one had any money in those days, but somehow — and I don’t know where she got this idea, she was very much a visionary — Aunt Lucy decided mountain women could earn money by selling their weaving and pottery (it was pronounced ‘pot-tree’ back then, by the way) to tourists.”
Aunt Lucy was proven right. “Somehow, she got the weaving sold,” Runyon relates. “And when the first moneys came in, there was this famous check for $84. Lucy set out in that little Model T to take [mountain weaver] Mrs. Ellis the $84. Before she got there, everybody on that mountain knew about that check — and you have to realize, this was a community where the nearest neighbors were a mile apart, not even shouting distance,” Runyon recalls with a laugh. “But everyone found out about that check before it ever reached Mrs. Ellis’ hands.
“For the first time, people — women, what do you think about that? — were earning money. And I guess a little business was started,” says Runyon.
That business was the Penland Weavers and Potters. “It was never really called this, but it was, essentially, a producers’ co-op,” explains Robin Dreyer, publicity director for what is now the Penland School of Crafts. “So that was a group of local women who were producing hand-woven goods and some pottery in their homes. They were supplied with materials by the co-op, and Penland Weavers and Potters marketed their goods.”
As Penland became more successful, Morgan invited guest instructors in from around the country. One of them was Edward Wurst, “a leading expert on hand-weaving from Chicago,” relates Dreyer. “He came for several weeks in the summer of 1928. Somebody wrote a magazine article about his having been here, and before long, Miss Lucy started to get inquiries from people in other states, wondering when Mr. Wurst would be back and if they could attend his classes.”
And so a little school was started, too.
From Brasstown to the world
At about the same time Maria Runyon and her Aunt Lucy were trekking around Mitchell County, Olive Dame and her friend Marguerite Butler found their way to Brasstown, N.C., in Cherokee County. Dame and Butler had just returned from Europe, where they’d been studying Denmark’s “fokehojskoles” — folk schools that had helped transform the Danish countryside into a major creative force. Dame’s late husband, social missionary/humanitarian John C. Campbell, had envisioned a similar transformation of the Southern Appalachians. Dame and Butler were determined to carry out his vision.
“Folks in this area was real pleased that they wanted to start the school,” relates 79-year-old Mercer Scroggs, the son of Fred O. Scroggs. The elder Scroggs played a vital role as liaison between the people of Cherokee County and the two women from Massachusetts (by way of Europe). Fred Scroggs owned the general store in Brasstown, as his son does today. “He got the word out to as many people as he could,” explains the younger Scroggs. “About 200 people showed up for the first meeting. Now, considering how sparsely populated this area was back then, that was a lot of people. That would be a lot of people today!”
With the resounding support of the community, Dame and Butler opened the John C. Campbell Folk School in 1925. Like Penland to the northeast, John C. Campbell began as a way to help locals make money; soon, however, students from across the country were coming to both schools.
“No doubt, the school has brought people to Brasstown who never would have come here otherwise,” says Mercer Scroggs.
Publicity Coordinator Keather Weidman agrees. “We get folks from all over. A lot of our students still come from this area: North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina. But we get people from all over the country — and the world. There’s a woman here this week from Japan.”
The same is true at Penland. “Aunt Lucy had a real international focus,” says her grand-nephew, Ralph Morgan. “She really believed in the power of craft to unite people from different cultures, that people would forget their differences through the process of creation.”