This is one of the treasures of the museum where I volunteer, the Shelton House in Waynesville, NC. It’s a wall hanging by Kate Clayton Donaldson, and it may look a bit familiar because I’ve shared other works by Granny Donaldson, as she is often called. Granny started making these hangings with crocheted figures in the 1920s, and was soon selling them through the John C. Campbell Folk School which was near her home.
This post is not a detailed story of Granny’s work, as I am in the process of research in the hopes of writing a paper for presentation or publication. I do want to use her as an example to express some opinions about how folk arts and history are sometimes portrayed.
In the recent devastating flooding in eastern Kentucky, people lost their homes and belongings, their livelihoods, and their lives. They have also lost valuable records of their history when storm waters inundated Appalshop, which held “hundreds of thousands of archival pieces from across mediums: film, photographs, artisan crafts, woodworking, musical instruments, magazines, newspapers, posters and personal family archives that have been donated to the group — all depicting life in the Appalachian Mountains.”
For a region whose story has often been told by outsiders, these records were the story of Appalachia, told by Appalachians. And this is important. From the last years of the nineteen century, Appalachia has been “explained” by people from outside the region, most often in an unfavorable light. This continues today in the book by J.D. Vance, who claims to be from Appalachia, but who is from central Ohio.
It is important that any group of people should be in control of the narrative about them. After years of letting others tell our story, Appalachians have been writing the histories that should be read, collecting the artifacts that go beyond the homestead and cabin, moonshine and feuding trope. That’s why I like Shelton House so much. It shows that Appalachians are a diverse group, who were fashionable, educated, and well-traveled. They were not a throw-back to the past, but instead were a part of the greater culture of the USA while still practicing crafts and farming and folkways.
This is Kate Donaldson in the 1930s, during the time she was making her crocheted and woven wool wall hangings. You can see that she is somewhat fashionably dressed, with no sunbonnet nor homespun. Often photos of Appalachians made by professional photographers show evidence of props, which were used to present a more folksy image. In other words, they were telling the story as they wanted it to be, not as it actually was.
I have found quite a few photos of Mrs. Donaldson that were posed on the porch of a cabin, her needlework on her lap. Seen with her is Allen Eaton (from Oregon), who in 1937 wrote a book titled, Handicrafts of the Southern Appalachians. He came to Western North Carolina in 1926, where he became an influential figure in the craft revival that was sweeping not only the Southern Appalachians, but most of the country. In this revival movement poor rural people were encouraged to take up the crafts of the past, such as weaving, basketry, pottery, and woodwork. In most places, even in the most remote corners of the mountains, looms had long been taken down and stored away as cheap manufactured textiles became available. The earliest proponents of the crafts revival had to actually find weavers, some from Europe, to reteach the skills to mountain women and girls.
I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being too harsh about the craft revival people, because a lot of good did come out of the movement. Weaving skills were saved, old folk songs were recorded and poor people had a source of cash money.
What bugs me about the whole thing is that, once again, the narrative was being presented by people from outside the region. When Allen Eaton wrote about Kate Donaldson’s work, he said that she had been shown a blanket from Italy which was used to decorate the backs of cows during certain festivals. Granny thought, “I can do that,” and set about making copies of the Italian blankets. The story became so widespread that even today, Granny’s wall hangings are more often called “cow blankets”.
Years later, in the late 1950s, Granny set the record straight through the writings of John Parris, a local journalist and collector of stories from Western North Carolina. He would visit people in the mountains who were still practicing some of the “old ways” and then wrote about them in his popular column in the Asheville Citizen. Many of the articles were then published in book form.
When Parris visited Granny Donaldson at her home in Marble, NC, she let him know she had never seen an Italian cow blanket, and that she never called them by that name. To her, they were a “pretty wall-piece”. She started making them after decorating a neighbor’s baby’s blanket that had been left at her house and a visitor from the nearby John C. Campbell Folk School saw it and thought it had retail potential.
What bothers me is that the cow story survives, though John Parris published Granny’s version of the story twice. Like I said earlier, the people in a culture can tell their own stories, without embellishment from outside the culture, no matter how well-intentioned.
If you are interested in Southern Appalachian stories, the books of John Parris cannot be beaten. Especially wonderful is Mountain Cooking, but also look for These Storied Mountains, My Mountains, My People, Mountain Bred, and Roaming the Mountains.