Travel to tiny Berea, Kentucky, known as the arts & crafts capitol of the state.
Berea, Kentucky may be a tiny town, but it has a big reputation. Proclaimed the folk arts & crafts capital of the state, Berea easily lives up to its lofty name. Appalachian traditions remain strong in Berea. In fact, as early as 1890, there was a growing national interest in the culture and traditions of Appalachia, which continues to this day.
The village of 9000 people is also home to Berea College, a highly regarded, four-year liberal arts tuition free college. In return for their college degree, all 1,500 students must work at least 10-15 hours per week in a variety of jobs throughout the campus and town. Berea College was founded in 1855 as the South's first interracial college.
Especially noteworthy is their student craft program which employs nearly 200 students making fine handmade furniture, pottery, wrought iron, brooms and woven items. These items can be purchased from several local galleries. In little Berea, town and gown have meshed together to everyone's satisfaction.
Free guided tours, highlighting the campus, are available. Unfortunately during my visit it rained continuously, however my student tour guide and I made the rounds of campus anyway, umbrellas firmly in hand. She was obviously proud of the college and it's very rigorous standards. As you can imagine, many more students apply than actually get in this free college. Students must meet high academic and personal requirements and prove financial need to gain admission.
Be sure to stop by the old train depot at 201 North Broadway, now the visitors center, to pick up literature and plan your stay in the region. The depot was constructed in 1917, and is listed on the register of Historic Places. While there, view their short video which includes the history of Berea and good background information.
Noted for it's southern charm and hospitality, the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant provides fine lodging in Berea. The hotel need not worry about finding staff, as about 130 Berea College students are employed there, working to make your stay memorable. In addition to providing excellent service at the hotel, the students also produced most of the furnishings inside the rooms.
This historic hotel was opened in the fall of 1909 at the suggestion of the wife of the college president. Apparently, visitors to Berea were becoming so numerous, additional accommodation was needed. The hotel's dining room is famous for it's Southern cuisine, including corn pudding, chess pie and spoonbread. If you haven't yet tried fried green tomatoes, here's your chance.
When it comes to fine crafts in Berea, Churchill Weavers has been a name recognized since 1921. Carroll and Eleanor Churchill were missionaries in India before settling in this rural Kentucky town. The Churchills built, perfected and patented their own looms. As Berea's first non-college industry, Churchill Weavers continued to grow in prestige as the years passed. They're considered one of the foremost handweaving operations in the nation. They invite you to tour the loomhouse and see the entire process. You'll see the raw fibers woven into fabric of exceptional beauty and quality. The tour is self-guided and free of charge.
Berea is justifiably proud of local artist Mitchell Tolle. It's been said no artist living today captures the world around him with the sensitivity and passion of Mitchell Tolle. Last year, people from 70 nations visited his gallery, which gives you some idea of his prominence. Former President Jimmy Carter owns a work by Tolle, as does President Clinton. In the tradition of Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, Tolle paints everyday America, rural Kentucky, in particular. His evocative scenes portray real lfe, real people and real places. He has a way of translating rural living into a powerful, expressive work of art, making the ordinary, seem special. Should you doubt the claims, you're more than welcome to visit his gallery and judge for yourself.
If you journey to Berea in the Spring and Fall, the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen hold an outdoor event featuring 100 craftsmen from around the state. The guild, started in 1961, has been devoted to preserving, developing and encouraging arts and crafts in Kentucky. The Spring and Fall Fairs provide an opportunity for artisans to exhibit their crafts in a regional setting and is juried by arts professionals.
But, folk arts and crafts are only part of Berea's charm. You'll find plenty of friendly folks and tranquillity in Berea.