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July 2006
Volume 1, Number 7

Embracing Tradition, Celebrating Success: Home Craft Days

Melissa L. Potter

PosterIt happens every October: The campus of Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, bustles with activity amid crowds of people. The sound of old-time and bluegrass music echoes through the mountains overlooking the school, while the smell of comfort food permeates the air around it. Yes, it must be that time of year again, time for Home Craft Days in southwestern Virginia.

Fall 2006 will mark the 35th year of the festival, which draws thousands of visitors annually. Home Craft Days takes place every year during the third weekend of October, with a free concert kicking off the activities on Friday night. On Saturday and Sunday, exhibitors, artisans, and other vendors are in place at booths where they sell or display their particular craft or culinary specialty.

Home Craft Days began small, as a folklore class project at the college. Faculty member and local folklorist Roddy Moore came up with the idea for a free festival that would serve the community. It featured just a handful of craftsmen and women, artists, musicians, and dancers. 

While Morris and his class probably never dreamed the idea would become the huge event it is today, that first festival was a great success and started a celebration that has continued for more than 30 years. Home Craft Days has grown immensely since its inception, yet the college still strives to stay true to the spirit and concept of the original festival.

“We have tried to keep it what it was in the beginning,” says Sue Ella Boatright-Wells, Dean of Continuing and Distance Education and Workforce Development, the office that now organizes and oversees the festival. More than 200 vendors are present each year, including 30 different food vendors. About 30 musical groups also perform over the Home Craft Days weekend. 

BroommakerA number of individuals travel great distances to be a part of the celebration, with some crafters and food vendors coming from as far as Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Maine. Most of these participants hear about Home Craft Days at other festivals across the country or through word of mouth from individuals who actively travel in festival circuits.

For the craft portion of the festival, all demonstrations are juried and must be handmade. Traditional crafts are used as much as possible. The food is also a staple of the event, with cuisines ranging from mountain-made favorites such as soup beans and cornbread to foods with an international flair like teriyaki chicken and egg rolls. 

There is a variety of food, but you won’t find items such as hamburgers, hot dogs, or pizza. This is because Home Craft Days features traditional foods, provided by local groups such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, churches, and a number of civic organizations. The festival is a big fundraiser for these nonprofits, particularly for those who prepare and serve food items. Over time, the food portion of the event seems to have become as popular as the crafts.

Also ranking high in terms of popularity among guests is the variety of musical acts that perform over the course of the festival weekend. Janette Carter, John McCutcheon, Will Keys, Ed Snoderly, and Sparky and Robin Rucker are just some of the notable music performers who have graced the Home Craft Days stage over the years. It is not about money for the individuals who perform at Home Craft Days: Every year, there is a waiting list of musicians clamoring to play the festival. Most would tell you that they come because of the love of music and because they want to be a part of tradition.

In fact, so many musicians, as well as storytellers, have performed on the Home Craft Days’ stage that a compilation CD, Thirty Years of Music and Stories, was created, funded in part by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The recording features a number of the festival’s most memorable performers and represents some of the many individuals who have made Home Craft Days a celebration of the best in traditional music, storytelling, and crafts.

MusicThe musical portion of the event has proven so successful that MECC was prompted to give the festival its own spin-off of sorts. Last summer, the college hosted the first-ever Mountain Music School, inspired by the popularity of Home Craft Days and its salute to Appalachian culture and music in the region. 

The school, which will be held July 31 through August 4 this year, brings together students of all ages for a week of learning, music, and fun. It is dedicated to the preservation and continuation of Appalachian music. The Mountain Music School offers ear-training classes in beginning old-time fiddle, claw-hammer banjo, folk guitar, mandolin, and dulcimer. MECC plans to add classes each year if there is enough interest or if certain classes are requested by students.

The creation of the Mountain Music School is one more example of just how large Home Craft Days has become. However, no matter the size and scope of the event, organizers hope always to maintain the community service aspect of the event. Although the festival is solely sponsored by MECC, it is not limited to the college. It is a community event. It takes a lot of people working together to make the event happen every year. 

For example, each year, nearby Mountain Empire Older Citizens (MEOC) provide buses and drivers to pick up Home Craft Days visitors at various sites around the town of Big Stone Gap. Community organizations like MEOC have bought into the idea of the festival, partly out of good will and partly out of the realization of the economic impact Home Craft Days has on the area. The event brings visitors to area hotels, RV parks, and state parks, as well as other local businesses.

Apart from the money poured into the surrounding area during the festival, a more important impact has been made on the people of far southwestern Virginia. Home Craft Days has helped a generation of individuals preserve their heritage. Traditional crafts, foods, and music are not used just as a novelty for the event. They are used to pass on a history and way of life to those who may not have known a time when household goods were handmade or old-time music was one of the few forms of entertainment.

The festival, now a tradition in itself, will continue to enrich the region that MECC serves. As the college works to bring opportunities to area students, Home Craft Days will carry on in bringing opportunities and fun to area residents. Thus far, this commitment to service has reaped countless rewards, especially for the people of southwestern Virginia.   

Melissa Potter is a Public Relations and Marketing Specialist at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Photos were  provided by Neka Wilson, Photographer and Graphic Designer at MECC.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor