Kentucky’s rich heritage of locally made art is as old as the Appalachians―and it’s still being practiced.
Think Kentucky and visions of finally honed crafts can’t be far behind.
Born of necessity, Kentucky’s crafts tradition began in the hills where Appalachian families stitched quilts, wove fabric, and handcrafted furniture. With the rise of emporiums and cheap foreign labor, crafting turned from a necessity into an art form.
Today, highly prized handcrafted items from Kentucky represent some of the finest in the country and often come with a hefty price tag―but not all Kentucky craft prices are heart-stopping, and there are seemingly no end of places to purchase locally made treasures for all budgets.
While there are craft shops and artisan’s studios sprinkled all over the state, one of the finest areas in the Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky is around Berea, widely known as the “Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky.”
Berea is well known for its craft history and traditions as well as the wealth of talented artisans, fine craft galleries, and shops located throughout Old Town (Artisan Village), College Square, and Chestnut Street.
Berea is home to a thriving population of weavers, instrument makers, furniture artisans, jewelry designers, glass workers, potters, painters, sculptors, and musicians.
If you can’t find some sort of craft to suit your fancy in Berea, it probably doesn’t exist. The town may be small in numbers, with a population of approximately 15,000, but it is big where crafts are concerned. Scores of students and craft professionals turn out beautifully made items in Berea and there are dozens of shops that sell their top-notch creations.
Our first stop was the Berea Welcome Center, housed in an historic L&N Railroad Depot built in 1917. Here we picked up information and maps that helped us plan our tour of the area.
From there it’s an easy walkabout around the Artisan Village including a peek inside the Promenade Gallery, Gastineau Studio, and Fiber Frenzy.
Then it was onto the Log House Craft Gallery, a showcase for Berea College crafts that include weaving, pottery, wood, brooms, and furniture. From there we wandered the Berea College grounds and nearby Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant and adjacent shops. Just off the lobby, the Berea Students Craft Store sells exquisitely crafted items produced by talented Berea College students, ranging from a simple rolling pin to a drop-leaf dining room table.
An historic Berea hotel, Boone Tavern was built in 1909 at the suggestion of Nellie Frost, the wife of the College president, William G. Frost. As the reputation of Berea College grew, so did the number of guests that Mrs. Frost received, reaching a total of 300 guests in one summer. Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant—named for Appalachian hero Daniel Boone—has been hosting visitors ever since, including the Dalai Lama, Henry Ford, President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, and Robert Frost
Our next stop was the Kentucky Artisan Center at Exit 77 (one exit north of the town center) which showcases innovative works in four to five special gallery exhibitions each year. You can shop for works by over 700 Kentucky artisans. Free admission and free parking that include long pull-through sites designed to accommodate big rigs.
Then it’s back to Boone Tavern for a delightful lunch of Hot Browns, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce. The Hot Brown—a Louisville tradition with worldwide appeal—was originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926. It was created to serve as an alternative to ham and egg late-night suppers. The Hot Brown has been featured in Southern Living, The Los Angeles Times, NBC’s Today Show, ABC News with Diane Sawyer, Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, and The Wall Street Journal, and is a regular entry in many of the world’s finest cookbooks.
Following a stop at the Berea College Farm Store it’s back to our campground. The Oh! Kentucky Campground & RV Park in Berea is easy-on, easy-off I-75 at Exit 76, and can accommodate rigs of all sizes. Our pull-through campsite (# 63) was in the 75-foot range and level with utilities centrally located, and reliable Wi-Fi.
No doubt about it, Berea, Kentucky is a perfect place for RVers interested in local customs and crafts. Plenty of folk art, combined with two local campgrounds in lovely surroundings, is a sure recipe for a memorable trip.
Crafts make us feel rooted, give us a sense of belonging and connect us with our history. Our ancestors used to create these crafts out of necessity, and now we do them for fun, to make money and to express ourselves.