The Appalachian way of life that is now known for its artistry, folklore, moonshine, and hillbilly ways were not for “looks” but necessity. While many make a living off of the tales of our ancestors and their craftsmanship they were simply working to survive. The days of online shopping were nowhere near nor heard off.
Settlers moved to the Upper Cumberland before 1800 and things like home decor and furniture were not on every corner like they are today. Each piece in their home was truly hand-made. If they wanted it or needed it, they had to make it. Chairs, quilts, tools, musical instruments, pottery, wooden bowls, baskets, jewelry, clothes, and so on were handcrafted. Those who could perform such trades often passed on their tricks to the younger generations of their family, and many today are still tradesmen in their family’s craft.
Back before we could simply go to the store and buy a sweater or hat, farmers had to raise goats and sheep for weaving. Women used the flax wheel to spin their own clothes using the wool harvested from their animals. Cotton did not grow well on the rocky mountain of the Plateau and as a result, the Appalachian women took to weaving. They even dyed their clothes using walnuts, maple bark, madder, copperars, and stone dye.
From 1824 to 1938 parts of the Upper Cumberland became known for their stoneware. The trade began with the family of Lafever from Kentucky. They brought their trade down and created expert pieces in pottery known as the “crock trade.” The process began as clay was dug from the Caney Fork. Once dry, the clay was mixed in a mill with other clays of red, white, and blue. The clay was then formed on a home-made wheel. After enough objects had been created to fill a kiln, firing took place to harden the items. Salt glazing was placed on them after firing to ensure durability. They made anything from crocks to dinnerware to pipes or even lamps. Today these antique Appalachian pieces are set out in homes all over the south as decoration.
One of the most well-known art forms in Tennessee today is quilting. Many of us have those special pieces hanging in our homes that our grandmas or aunts created by hand. The craft originally came from Europe but today it is a true southern tradition. In the days of the Appalachian frontiersmen the trade was a household skill vital for survival, especially in cold winters. Scraps of clothes and old blankets were saved because they could eventually be used for a nice heavy quilt. Many quilts have unique patterns: Double Wedding Ring, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Log Cabin, Double Irish Chain, Grandmother’s Fan, Overall Boy, Sunbonnet Baby, Star, Sunburst, Friendship, Drunkard’s Path, and Crazy. A couple of women in Cumberland County made names for themselves in the quilting community: Ms. Nancy Page and Ms. Inez Wrenn.
Women in the early 1900s were known for taking anything and making it something of resource. Nothing was wasted. In the Cumberland County, Mrs. Homer Roy and Mrs. Ridenour were known for their unique corn shuck hats. Mrs. Roy sold hers in the Homesteads while Mrs. Ridenour became popular all over Tennessee.
The Cumberland Plateau had made its own individual mark in craftsmanship through the Tabor Family. Mr. Frank Tabor was known for his ladder-back chairs made of oak. He sold them in Rockwood and Crossville. He made them by hand using an ax, adz, maul, drawknife, and plane. Prior to making chairs the family made wagons.
Mr. Tabor’s chair making process is told as follows:
“To make a chair, Tabor first hewed out a log with an axe. Sections of log were split and further shaped on a shaving horse, and the spokes were dressed down with a drawknife and carving knife. Wood chisels expertly tapped with a hand maul hewed with legs. The slats for the chair back were split and shaped on the shaving horse with a drawknife and plane. Pieces of the chair were driven together with mallets, without nails, screw, or glue. The finished structure was then bottomed with white oak splints. Simple, functional, and strong, the chairs were held together by the tension created as the wood continued to cure, made sturdier by the tight split oak bottoms. Tabor chairs proved so sturdy that a popular saying in the region was, ‘Always club your enemy with a Tabor chair cause it won’t shatter when you flail him.’ Frank Tabor made chairs until his death in 1968.” (Birdwell & Dickinson, Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland, p. 251-252)
The depth of Appalchian craftsmanship runs deep in Tennesseans. We see it everywhere: in Homestead houses, in our churches, in the Cumberland County Courthouse, and in every barn on each backroad. Never let appreciation for those that came before us and their work go unseen.
- Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland, Birdwell and Dickinson
- TN Virtual Archives