Arts, Crafts, & Folklife Photographs

 

History of the Photographs

In 1937, the Tennessee Department of Conservation (TDOC) was established “to work toward a program of restoration, development and conservation of our renewable and non-renewable natural resources.” Encompassing various existing divisions and commissions, TDOC added several other divisions, including a “Conservation Education Section.” A new magazine, Tennessee Wildlife (today known as The Tennessee Conservationist), was created by TDOC as a forum for sportsmen’s interests and to showcase Tennessee’s natural and cultural history.

The most efficient way of highlighting this natural and cultural history was by publishing images taken across the state. TDOC hired its first photographer, Paul A. Moore, in 1937. Other photographers employed by this department over the years were James L. Bailey, Wallace Danley, Al Marsh, Dan Grice, Bill Shipley, Bob Ferguson, Dave Murrian, Bill Cox, Aubrey Watson, Charles Jackson, George Hornal, Jim Robertson, and Tim Frazier.

The photographic unit of TDOC was shuttered by 1980. Today, The Tennessee Conservationist utilizes the services of freelance photographers and other sources.

 

The Region

Although many people understand the term “Appalachia” as only the mountainous portion of East Tennessee and other states, photographs from the towns of Tullahoma and Jamestown also lie within the Appalachian geographic area. The counties shaded blue in the map below are defined as Appalachia by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Some of the places represented in the photographs and falling within this region are Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, both in Sevier County; Tullahoma, in Coffee County; Tellico Plains, in Monroe County; and Jamestown, in Fentress County.

The images in this collection reveal the Appalachian region’s rich tradition of arts and crafts. Though much of the Appalachian portion of Tennessee was historically isolated from the more industrial Eastern United States and the state’s larger cities such as Nashville and Memphis, development from the “outside” began in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Coal mining and logging proved to be lucrative economic factors that drastically and indelibly altered the region.

As the region became more industrialized, the rest of country gradually became aware of the rich cultural traditions of Appalachia. The photographs in this collection, mostly taken in the 1930s and 1940s, often appear to be staged demonstrations of crafts that had been nurtured in the region for several hundred years.

 

Regional Traditions

Many photographs in this series illustrate the Appalachian legacy of handicrafts, such as woodworking, broom making, chair making, weaving, sewing, whittling, and pottery. Viewers of the collection will also find visual representations of the Southern Highland tradition of music, exemplified in the picture of the man fiddling for his friends in a rural Tellico Plains general store.

Music of the Southern Appalachians, as recorded by acts such as the Carter family, embodied an authenticity and organic quality that was quickly embraced by the rest of the nation. The Carter family—A.P., Sara, and Maybelle—supplemented ancient songs of the hills with their own pieces, fashioned out of the hardship that was so familiar in mountain life.

Several of the photographs in this collection portray families or other groups of people engaged in these representative crafts or other pursuits. Tasks such as basket weaving or chair making were often embraced by all members of a family. This shared experience provided income for the family unit as well as important social interaction with one another in the days before television, radio, and other diversions. This family or other group interaction can be seen in several photographs, such as the men splitting logs together or the ladies sewing baseballs with one another.

The region experienced resurgence in the craft tradition in the 1890s, as outsiders “discovered” Appalachian culture. Several folk schools were established in the early twentieth century to foster the native craft tradition. As several photographs in this series illustrate, native Southern Highlanders realized the market for the products that outsiders considered intriguing forms of folk art. Several of the images in this series show individuals demonstrating their crafts to others, perhaps with intention to sell such items as baskets, pottery, etc.

In Tullahoma, the Worth baseball factory provided much-needed income for residents during the Great Depression. The factory, which had originally produced horse harnesses and collars, was producing nearly 7,000 baseballs per day when these photographs were taken in 1938. The baseball company allowed women to sew the baseballs at home, as seen in several photographs in this collection. Performing their work in the home allowed women to earn money while taking care of children and household duties.

A photographic overview of the Appalachian region would not be complete without some depiction of the vernacular dwelling style. The log cabin in the image is built of hewn logs joined at the corners in a dovetail fashion. The roof of the cabin is constructed of hewn shingles placed uniformly across the entirety of the roof, further demonstrating the region’s penchant for fine workmanship. As was typical, a small lean-to type addition has been constructed at the rear of the edifice, probably years after the cabin was originally built. Few windows, if any, adorn the cabins. Most cabins would also boast a chimney on one or both ends of the structure, although this is not evident in these particular photographs.

 

The People

Several pictures depict regional celebrities. Alvin C. York shown one year before the hit movie “Sergeant York” was released, became an international hero during World War I. York captured 132 prisoners in 1918 at the Battle of the Argonne, and he was awarded with prestigious medals from America and several European nations. After the war, York returned to his rural home in Pall Mall, Fentress County. Using his iconic status as war hero, he became an advocate for the educational improvement of his native Cumberland Plateau region. The Alvin C. York Collection includes selected items relative to the life of Alvin C. York including photographs from Fentress County in 1940.

John Robert Hull was the uncle of another Tennessee hero, Cordell Hull. Cordell Hull, active in politics since the age of 19, was best known as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. He also earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in founding the United Nations. This photograph of J.R. Hull was taken seven years into his nephew’s tenure as Secretary as State, and just one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into World War II.

Wiley Oakley, of Gatlinburg, was a famous Smoky Mountain guide and storyteller whose services were employed by thousands of visitors to the area that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He also traveled widely to speak about the mountain region, and he served as a consultant during the formation of the national park. Tennessee Congressman J. Percy Priest, who delivered the eulogy at Oakley’s funeral, called him the “living spirit of the Great Smoky Mountains.”

Tennessee native Homer Ledford displays one of his handcrafted dulcimers. Ledford was a legendary dulcimer maker whose crafts are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. The bluegrass musician honed his craft at the John C. Campbell Folk School and at Berea College, and later founded the Cabin Creek Band. He lived in Winchester, Kentucky, most of his life.

 

Bibliography

Blethen, H. Tyler and Richard A. Straw, eds. High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Eaton, Allen H. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1937.

Kephart, Horace. Our Southern Highlanders. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.

McNeil, W.K., ed. Appalachian Images in Folk and Popular Culture. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Miles, Emma Bell. The Spirit of the Mountains. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.

Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Zwonitzer, Mark and Charles Hirshberg. Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

 

 


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