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Exploring Kentucky | Berea: Handcrafted Heaven

By Katherine Tandy Brown

AMP Berea is a free weekly celebration of Appalachian culture in the downtown Artisan Village district of Berea 5-10 p.m. Fridays from July to September.
AMP Berea is a free weekly celebration of Appalachian culture in the downtown Artisan Village district of Berea 5-10 p.m. Fridays from July to September.

There’s good reason why Berea is known as Kentucky’s Folk Arts and Craft Capital. Not only can you peruse and purchase lovely handcrafted treasures here, but its craftsmen share their secrets through classes that teach you how to create your own imaginings.

Located on I-75, this small, folksy town welcomes guests at either of its two interstate exits. Should you hop off at Exit 77, you’ll practically drive into the sprawling Kentucky Artisan Center (KAC), an arts and travel resource extraordinaire. A “footprint” of Berea proper, the 25,000-s.f. limestone center is a great place to begin exploring. In addition to statewide arts-related tourism information and trip-planning assistance, this contemporary building features an expansive array of woodcraft, paintings in varied mediums, fiber wearables, hand-thrown pottery, intricate quilts, wrought iron, music, Kentucky Proud edibles and books about the Bluegrass, its history and its folk art.

Plan to stretch your legs, browse awhile and grab coffee and a muffin for breakfast, or lunch on soup, salad, a sandwich or homemade hot lunch at the KAC Café. Be sure to save room for some bourbon bread pudding or Derby pie.

The other exit – 76 – leads straight into this Kentucky Trail Town and several concentrated areas of artists’ studios, art-and-craft-rich shops, eclectic eateries and the Berea College campus.

In Artisan Village, a number of studios are marked as those of working artists, where you can witness the fascinating creative process and chat up the creators at their easels, looms, wheels and kilns. Some offer classes, where you can learn to make jewelry, create glass giftware or paint your own ceramics. In the village you also can nibble on Kentucky Proud gourmet fudge, watch musical instruments being crafted (they’ll give you lessons, too) and wander through Berea’s beautifully renovated 1917 railroad depot, which now houses the town’s visitor center.

In the center of town, College Square is the place to find more specialty shops, intriguing galleries, coffee shops and restaurants, including the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant, circa 1909. Built by the college’s woodwork department and using student-made bricks, the venerable landmark is known for its Kentucky fare served family style. Dishes that are particularly popular include the spoonbread and the “chicken flakes in a bird’s nest.” Order it; you’ll love it!

For a lighter meal a few doors down, family-owned Papa Leno’s has been serving pasta and hand-tossed pizza to hungry diners for 37 years.

The square is the place to snap up fine Berea College Crafts (BCC), the culmination of 123 years of traditional Appalachian craft making, which forms the backbone of this educational institution. Berea College charges no tuition but requires each student, who must qualify through financial need, to learn a craft and work weekly hours throughout their stay. BCC helped form both the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and the Southern Highlands Craft Guild.

Reflecting the town’s principles of embracing interracial culture, sustainability and conservation, the college was founded in 1866 as the Berea Literary Institute. In the 1890s Berea College President William Frost established the institution’s Fireside Industries to market crafts made by people at home in the Appalachians, encouraged craftsmen to move to the area, and then founded the Student Craft Industries, which continue today and include woodcrafted items, furniture, broom making, weaving, jewelry and ceramics. His wife, Nellie, conceived the idea that grew into Boone Tavern, which after undergoing an $11 million renovation, is now a LEED-certified green facility.

The Berea College campus is across from College Square. Student craft studios are open to the public on weekdays for self-guided tours; student-led tours are also available. Student crafts can be purchased several places, including the Log House Craft Gallery, the Shoppe at Boone Tavern and online. You’ll want to hoof it around the quaint square and peek into its shops and galleries.

One “don’t miss,” even if you’re not remotely musical, is Warren May Dulcimers. The ever-personable Carroll County native – one of 10 children – is nationally revered and has been making gorgeous furniture and dulcimers (more than 16,000 at last count) for 40-plus years.

Hang around Berea and soak up knowledge at the college’s free convocation series, shake a leg at Berea’s contra dances, and tap your toes at ongoing jam sessions. Stay overnight at Boone Tavern, or at one of several bed and breakfast inns near College Square.

Annual events include the 35th annual Berea Crafts Festival, July 8-10, at Indian Fort Theater, a lovely spot nestled in the Appalachian foothills. A short climb up, a rock formation called the Pinnacle affords a panoramic view of Berea and its hilly environs. And the Berea Spoonbread Festival is rife with fun, crafts, music and – of course – luscious eats. This year’s 20th celebration takes place Sept. 15-17.

If all this crafts immersion tickles your creative fancy, Berea offers several options for making your own. On an ongoing basis, the HOW Program consists of hands-on workshops for visitors to learn more about trade crafts such as glass blowing, jewelry making, sculpting, stained glass, et al. Another opportunity rolls around each July, this year the 7th through the 23rd, when you can participate in workshops that range from creative writing, dulcimer playing and blacksmithing, to sustainable living, culinary arts and theater in the Festival of Learnshops.

To make certain visitors have ample options, the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen’s Visual Arts Academy has weekday and weekend classes taught by their talented members. And just in time to create heartfelt handmade gifts for the holidays, there are the “Make It, Take It, Give It” workshops that last from two hours to 12, depending on their focus, be it jewelry, fiber arts, woodworking or making a Christmas ornament or a Santa. Try your hand at one of Berea’s creativity classes. Who only knows? You might unearth a cottage industry of your own.

Find out more about this crafty destination at visitberea.com, where you can download a Berea Travel Planner, or call (800) 598-5263.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]