Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991


The Modern Business of Crafts

By Terry Bloodworth



Craftsman Terry Bloodworth is a Master Glassblower at Silver Dollar City, Stone County, Missouri.

During my research and interviews for this piece, 1 heard the following terms used to refer to persons engaged in hand craft work in the Ozarks: craftsmen craftspeople craftspersons craftfolk crafters craftworkers After trying first one and then the other, l finally gave up and decided to use all of them. lf your own favorite term is not included, please feel free to complain to the editors of OzarksWatch.

Terry Bloodworth.

Within recent years the Ozark hill folk have become aware of the commercial value of their handicraft. Many have abandoned their small farm patches and settled along the principal roads. Such a group are the Ozark Basket Weavers whose bright, clean baskets, strung on wires paralleling the highway, are in sharp contrast with their drab, listing shacks.
The WPA Guide to 1930s Missouri

While modem day Ozarkers may bristle (or chuckle) at this condescending attitude toward our fathers architectural shortcomings, the WPA writer probably got the big picture right. The highways, and the visitors they brought to the area, were to be the means by which the Ozarks crafts industry was to develop and flourish. But roadside sales would not for long be an adequate outlet for marketing the baskets and other items created by Ozarkers. As roads improved and lakes developed, the number of tourists visiting the southwest Mis-souri-northwest Arkansas area burgeoned. In addition, as the region gained popularity as an attractive place to retire, a new and relatively affluent clientele swelled the population. If the crafts created by Ozarkers were to be marketed effectively, new channels of distribution needed to be developed. And indeed they were.

Crafts in action Silver Dollar City, in Stone County, Missouri, near Branson, has, from its beginning, been identified with crafts.

"I opened the first woodcarving shop in the country at Silver Dollar City in 1962," claims Branson woodcarver and crafts promoter Peter Engler. "When I started selling woodcarvings to [Silver Dollar City founder] Mary Herschend, there wasn't a tourist business as we know it today, and there was no crafts business at all"

In 1960 Marvel Cave Park had added a small group of old-timey buildings, in large part to give visitors a place to mill about while waiting for the next cave tours. The six building "village" was called Silver Dollar City. "Mary had put these buildings up, but wasn't sure how to make the best use of them. I suggested she put working craftsmen in them and let visitors see things being made."

Engler felt that demonstrating craftsmen would bring the "themed" buildings to life and give the fledgling Silver Dollar City a unity and focus. He envisioned it as a functioning community of craftsmen. Tourists soon began coming to see live craft demonstrations, to visit with the craftspeople, and frequently take home what they had seen made. The concept of "crafts in action," as it was dubbed, became an integral part of Silver Dollar City's identity.

The crafts demonstration soon became a highly marketable attraction, as well as an excellent device for selling merchandise. Effective and colorful demonstrators, such as the late Lloyd "Shad" Heller, Silver Dollar City blacksmith and "Mayor" were used as spokesmen and billboard models. By 1991, Silver Dollar City's colony of resident craftspeople (a mixture of Silver Dollar City employees and lessees and their employees) number around sixty. Other area attractions have recognized the value of the "crafts in action" concept and have successfully utilized it. Mutton Hollow Craft Village and the daytime operation at Shepherd of the Hills Farm are two Branson-area operations which use craft demonstrations both as entertainment and to enhance sales of craft items.

The Ozark Folk Center near Mountain View, Arkansas takes a slightly different tack. There the demonstrations are kept separate from the retail sales area. The Ozark Folk Center, which receives state funding, strongly emphasizes the historical aspects of the traditional crafts shown there.

In another tweaking of the formula, Engler's Block, on highway 76 west of Branson, brainchild of Peter Engler, offers various shops and galleries with a wide range of hand crafted items, along with an eclectic blend of woodcarving and crafts demonstrations both upscale and down home.

Crafts festivals

All over southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, hundreds, probably thousands, of people, men and women, young and old, make their livings, or supplement their incomes and pensions, by building parking areas and vacant lots. Many of the items offered at these "satellite" shows are of the "hobby" or "home craft" type.

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Local "fests", "festivals", "days", "reunions", "jamborees", etc. now dot the Ozark hills in spring and (especially) fall. These usually have a rustic or traditional theme and flavor, and provide yet another market for travelling craftfolk. Visitors to these events are less likely to spend large sums on craft items, so a professional crafter must"make a circuit" of many such shows. This fall, one Stone County blacksmith was booked at small town crafts events every weekend from Labor Day until mid-November.

Craft Guilds and training

In the traditional sense of the word a "guild" is an association of craftsmen or tradesmen who have joined together to uphold standards and regularize training. Most twentieth century Ozarks craft guilds do not operate in this way, but function chiefly as marketing entities.

According to Linda Van Trump, executive director of the 300-member Arkansas Craft Guild, her group markets handmade goods through the guild's four retail shops in Little Rock, Eureka Springs, Hot Springs, and Mountain View. Additionally, the Guild sponsors craft shows and sales in both Little Rock and in Mountain View. Ms. Trump states that the retail outlets and shows combine for a total income of approximately $700,000 for guild crafters.

Although no formal training is offered to Guild members, a cooperative work program does provide assistance and advice to individuals wishing to establish a craft business.

The Mountain Woodcarvers Guild once inducted eight new carvers per year into a formal training program, but the recession of 1982 stopped that, says Guild President Ron Conn of Branson. Currently, the Mountain Woodcarvers Guild concentrates on marketing the sales of its 42 members, a figure down from a high of 72 in the early 1980s. Retail sales account for some 80% of total sales of guild carvings.

The 175 member Silver Dollar City Craft Guild began in 1978 as a way to improve the theme park's quality of handmade goods and to provide support to craftsfolk by giving them new markets for their goods, says David Pruett. Pruett is merchandise manager responsible for Craft Guild operations.

The method chosen to open new markets was to organize craft shows in shopping malls. The first such show was in 1979 in Kansas City. For 1992 over 30 shows are slated. Most of these mall shows are within Silver Dollar City's primary midwest market area, although the Guild has done shows as far afield as Clearwater, Florida. "It's a high quality, turnkey operation. We set up the booths and displays and maintain strict guidelines for costumes and products." says Pruett.

In 1990, Guild members reported sales totaling $1.5 million over a 27-show season. Members pay booth fees and a percentage of sales as they would at craft festivals. Because of theme requirements, guild crafters must employ materials available in the 1890s in their products and limit the use of modern displays and lighting.

David Pruett is acutely aware of the value of using Ozarks crafts to enhance an attraction's image. He says, "We have our name out there before the public in our primary market area. Craft shows present a quality image to the people we want to impress."

It appears that Ozarks craftspeople today get their training largely as in years past--from a relative or a family friend. This is particularly true in the female-dominated needle crafts. Some larger Ozarks attractions hire and train apprentices in-house, and the Apprenticeship Program of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center (see page 10) brings together a limited number of master craftsmen with students. Most Ozarks potters seem to have learned their trade at college ceramic arts courses while many craftfolk in jewelry and related trades have attended industry-sponsored workshops and seminars. Also, Ozarks crafters are quite capable of self-instruction and adept at applying skills they already know to crafts they want to learn.

The buyers and the crafters

A survey of 1990 tourist-related spending in the Ozark Mountain Country area of southwest Missouri shows total retail sales of $110 million. Of that, 23 %, or more than $25 million was in sales of hand-crafted goods. At Silver Dollar City alone, crafts generated $4 million in sales during the 1990 season.

And just who is spending all that money on crafts? A 1990 survey suggests that the most likely buyer of Ozarks crafts is a woman between the ages of 45 and 65. The same study shows that approximately one fourth of the four million vacation visitors to Ozark Mountain Country are very much interested in crafts and will purchase a craft item even if they buy nothing else.

The statistical evidence of female buyers dominating the Ozarks craft market supports what crafters, organizers and buyers have known for years. "The women do the shopping and men take up space on the grounds," says Georgie Berns of Reeds Spring, Missouri. "I see women shopping in pairs or in groups." Berns is a longtime craft festival goer who visited five of the dozen or so northwest Arkansas craft shows slated for the weekend of October 19-20. The female consumers' hegemony over Ozarks crafts is evident to the most casual stroller through any area craft event, major or minor. With the exception of a few overtly male-appeal crafts, i.e. knife making, it is the taste of the female buyer that is catered to. Which brings up the issue of just how the tradition of Ozarks craftsmanship has been changed by attempts to keep up with the fickleness of the buying public. "Traditional" crafts such as quilting, white oak basketry, blacksmithing, and the like retain most of their classic characteristics of style and craftsmanship. The traditional flavor of these crafts is an undoubted part of their appeal. "Minor" decorative crafts, whether based on needlework, painted decoration or woodwork "handicrafts," seem very susceptible to the vagaries of stylistic whims, i.e. the "country-blue everything" craze of the mid-eighties. Some of the "novelty" handicrafts seen at smaller roadside craft events and outlets may appear startlingly trite and untraditional at first glance, but such gee-gaws, whimsies, and front lawn gimcracks are actually part of an ancient hill tradition, the making of something amusing or entertaining from castoff materials. It is a source of amazement to see just what an Ozarker with clever hands, a little spare time and an empty two-liter soda bottle can create.

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The Ozarks craftspeople of the last decade of the twentieth century are engaged in businesses (there are too many variables to use the singular) with roots in rustic traditions, skills and values. Some of these crafters consciously attempt to preserve ancient techniques and styles, others wish to "keep up with trends" and seem unaware that there ever was an Ozarks craft tradition. Bill Young, general manager of the Ozark Folk Center, profiles the craftspeople at that facility as a mixture of Stone County, Arkansas natives who have remained close to home, returnees, and newcomers to the area. This mixture reflects the diversity of backgrounds seen in Ozarks craftspeople throughout the region. The retired military couple from Minnesota who settle in the Ozarks and then take up woodworking to fill their time and earn extra dollars at a few small craft shows are Ozarks crafts-people. So is the Searcy County, Arkansas, native, a fourth-generation metalworker who plans to teach his son those skills. Both types exist in a delicate balance of cultural and economic pressures.

Whether they practice traditional crafts or not, contemporary Ozarks craftsfolk share at least one trait with their forebears--inventiveness. Most crafters must hustle and struggle in ways that would befuddle and exhaust most folk. One couple in their fifties put 10,000 miles on their van working twenty craft shows and one large festival in addition to operating a retail outlet six months of the year and leasing a booth in a big-city shopping mall. They made all their own goods in their "free time."

Some craftsmen appear only at mall shows, others only at major festival events, and still others sell only to wholesale clients. Most, however, mix their markets, vary their marketing strategies, and generally do whatever they need to get the job done--and make some money.

Tom McGrath, Director of Merchandise at Silver Dollar City, sees a bigger market for Ozarks crafts in the future: but that market, he is afraid, will not necessarily demand better quality products. McGrath believes there is a need for a "coalition of marketers, craftfolk and others that would support premiere work." He sees no large scale formal training of craftspeople without major public and private sector cooperation and investments. The chances of that happening, admits McGrath, are small.

A rather casual survey of visitors to a Branson area craft-oriented attraction, conducted by this writer, revealed two strains of response to the question, "Why do you buy Ozarks crafts?" After sifting out the generalized ("They're pretty," or"It' s nice"), and the vague ("I like crafts"), two themes appeared to dominate: 1) Ozarks crafts are seen by their purchasers as "genuine" or "real." It is not clear whether this "reality" is a reflection of the buyer's perception of the Ozarks as a bastion of traditional rural values or a more direct evaluation of the intrinsic value of the goods themselves. 2) Ozarks crafts are seen as a bargain. The terms "reasonable" and"fair prices" showed up often in this survey. It is reasonable to assume that many purchasers of Ozarks crafts are buying more than the material goods--they are buying the aura of simplicity, beauty and honesty they see, or think they see, in the Ozarks itself.

So the commerce in Ozarks crafts remains. Whether the goods are sold as souvenirs, decorative accents or cultural totems, they sell and in great numbers, to millions of customers. The bright, clean, white oak baskets of the WPA Guide are still on sale, but just about everything else has changed.

Photos by the author.
National Crafts Festival, Silver Dollar City.

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