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As the newly appointed Extension Agent for McCreary County, Kentucky, William Elmer Boggs knew that he had his work cut out for him. He had been sent by his supervisors at the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service to the Commonwealth’s youngest county to teach its farmers how to increase crop yields, thereby uplifting them, and the entire county, economically. In his first few days after arriving, he had traveled extensively, but he had found little evidence that McCreary County could benefit from much the Extension Service had to offer. Anyone with eyes could see that McCreary County was anything but a farming community. He had observed small family garden plots, some broiler houses for chickens, a few tobacco bases, and some decent looking herds of cattle in the southeastern portion of the county, but he had seen little that would convince him that commercial farming was the way to economic prosperity in this heavily-timbered county on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
Among the many residents of McCreary County that Boggs met while getting to know his new workplace was a former schoolteacher and newspaper man named Smith Ross. In 1946, Ross and his wife, Elma, had established a small business in Pine Knot that they called Kentucky Hills Industries. The Rosses believed that a market outside McCreary County existed for handcrafts and folk art and that local craftspeople and artisans were capable of supplying that market with their own time, energy, and resources. They were proven to have been right and, over a period of several years, the Rosses had sold hundreds of corn shuck dolls, stuffed animals, dough bowls, pottery, quilts, and furniture to tourists and retail stores in the north and east.
The success of Kentucky Hills Industries was gratifying to the Rosses and appreciated by the craftspeople it served, but that success was tempered with the knowledge that the business would be short-lived if younger people could not be attracted to it. Physical impairments and a cadre of artisans and craftspeople who weren’t getting any younger made it inevitable that if a new generation did not step up to take the place of its parents and grandparents, the crafts industry in McCreary County was doomed to extinction.
After talking with Smith Ross, it occurred to Boggs that he might have a solution to the problem laid out by Ross, but he would have to depend upon a bunch of school kids to make it happen. His predecessors had organized a number of 4H Clubs in the county school system. By operating through those 4H Clubs, he could, conceivably, preserve the endangered craft industry while, at the same time, generate some needed extra income for families who were living at, or near, the poverty line. Through the 4H Clubs, aging craftspeople could pass on their skills to a younger generation and young people could learn to market the products they created. It was a risky undertaking, to be sure, and there was no guarantee of success, but Boggs was confident that it could be done. So, in classic, Elmer Boggs style, he got to work.
Boggs began his program by dedicating the 4H Club at Pleasant Run School to the manufacture and sale of handcrafts made by the students at the school. Over a two year period, the students made crafts, using skills taught by their parents and grandparents, and, in 1959, they put them up for sale at a craft fair in Whitley City. The result of the sale was overwhelmingly positive and Elmer Boggs was off to the races. He expanded his craft program to include every 4H Club in McCreary County that wished to participate. Most chose to do so, stimulated by Boggs’ infectious can-do spirit and an opportunity to share in the rewards the craft business would bring to student’s families.
By 1962, the sale of 4H Club crafts had blossomed to the point where a venue for their sale was needed. Convinced that the greatest demand for handcrafts came from tourists, Boggs turned his eyes to Highway 90 in northern McCreary County. There, on that heavily traveled route to Cumberland Falls State Park, he envisioned a store where crafts could be sold. He attended a meeting of the Eagle-Bee Community Development Club and laid out his plan. Before the year’s end, three citizens from Honey Bee had purchased four acres of land for him along the highway and deeded it to the Extension Service.
With land upon which to build, Boggs began a search for old, abandoned log structures that their owners would be willing to donate for the construction of a store building. He found plenty of them, one of which had been built in 1842. By disassembling three of them and re-erecting them on his store site, using local volunteers for labor, Boggs created a building fourteen feet wide and forty-four feet long. In keeping with mountain tradition, a long porch was added to the building. Using froes and mallets, teams of men from the community began splitting shakes from white oak logs donated by the US Forest Service. These shakes, known locally as “boards,” would be used to cover the roof. Not to be left out, the women of the Eagle-Bee Community Development Club prepared meals for the workmen and dispensed huge portions of pinto beans, cornbread, and dried apple pies to the hungry laborers. When finished, the structure looked like it had been there for a century, or more. In time, a second log structure would be built beside the store to serve as a manager’s residence.
On May 25, 1963, representatives from the Kentucky State Division of Arts and Crafts and the Arts and Crafts Guild of Kentucky met at the new craft store, along with Senator Judson S. Harmon, and Barney Arnold, Farm Editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal for the purpose of dedicating the Falls 4H Mountain Craft Center. Also on hand was Allen Davis, Poultry Specialist from the University of Kentucky, who arrived with his portable barbecue equipment to cook two hundred chickens that had been delivered for the occasion. Governor Combs expressed his regrets at not being able to be present, but extended his best wishes for the success of the project.
For sixty years now, the building built by William Elmer Boggs to provide a venue for his 4H Club members has served the craftspeople of McCreary County well, but it has evolved over the years. It has become not only what Boggs had hoped it would become, but much more. It has become a place where the traditional arts and crafts of this isolated segment of eastern Kentucky can be preserved and passed on to future generations. Although it is no longer directly associated with the 4H Club program, it, proudly continues to bear witness, through the all-volunteer efforts of a few dedicated men and women, that the arts and crafts of a bygone era in the Big South Fork River region are worthy of preservation. As an IRS 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt, non-profit corporation, it has become a Craft Center where classes are conducted regularly throughout the year and traditional mountain music and joyous laughter ring out from the front porch. It’s Spring Fling, Old Settlers Day, and Christmas at the Cabin festivals attract hundreds of visitors each year.
On May 20, 2023, the Craft Center will celebrate the 60th anniversary of its establishment. The members of the Association that manages the Center invite the public to come out and take part in a celebration that will honor not only a visionary human being, but also a generation of McCreary County kids whose grew into adulthood under his wise counsel. Take some time out from your busy schedule and pay the Center a visit. I guarantee, you will not regret having spent some time at this happy kind of place.