Weft of Center

Mary Large, shown with a grouping of handmade baskets marketed to tourists as souvenirs, had been involved with Hull House in Chicago before moving to Tryon to help locals struggling with a new cash economy to become self-sufficient. Historical photos used courtesy of Tryon School of Arts and Crafts.

“With the modern and much smaller looms and the more modern designs, much interest has been awakened in the new, while the old will not be allowed to be forgotten.” Aficionados of mountain craft may find themselves nodding along with the sentiment, imagining old traditions under fire from contemporary gadgets and fast-paced living. There’s just one catch in that train of thought — the quote comes from nearly a century ago, in a 1919 issue of Polk County News and the Tryon Bee.

The early 20th century marked a revival of interest in handcrafts throughout Western North Carolina, with the founding of organizations such as the Penland School of Crafts, John C. Campbell Folk School, and Allanstand Craft Shop. As local historian Mike McCue points out, however, those old-fashioned skills were almost as exotic to the local craftspeople of the time as they were to the tourists and city folk who bought their wares.
“By 1910, the mountain people already had access to manufactured goods, just like everybody else did. They weren’t making baskets to carry eggs — they bought tin pails from the general store,” says McCue. These mountaineers often had to relearn the lost techniques of their grandparents from people outside the community. In Tryon, that education started with Mountain Industries, which McCue will be discussing at the Tryon Arts and Crafts School on November 16.

Western North Carolina was making national headlines for its crafts way before the current scene. In fact, the first heyday was more than 100 years ago, according to historian Mike McCue, an expert on Mountain Industries of Tryon. Photo by Paul Stebner

The first nonprofit crafts enterprise in Polk County, Mountain Industries was founded by Mary Large, about whom much remains unknown. McCue emphasizes that Large came to Tryon with a mission beyond crafts alone. Originally from Kentucky, she’d been involved in Hull House, the organization founded by Jane Addams that helped working-class European immigrants living in Chicago. He describes Large as “part of a community of publicly spirited, college-educated women who wanted to help the less fortunate.”

To that end, Mountain Industries followed the “settlement house” model Large had learned in the big city. (They were assisted locally by Ralph and Emma Payne Erskine, who owned a for-profit craft-furniture factory in the area.)
Far more than a crafts school, the house served as a library with newspapers and books, a social hub with daily afternoon tea, and even a basic medical clinic. “If somebody hurt his foot or needed medicine, he could come in and get treated. It was a general social-services center as well as a crafts center,” explains McCue.

Crafts entered the equation as an economic-development strategy. “People in the mountains realized that society was progressing to a cash economy and that ways to earn money were important,” McCue says. Mountain Industries focused on basketry and woolen goods, marketed as souvenirs for tourists. “It was just like today: cosmopolites would come to Tryon, stay in the hotels, enjoy the mountains, and buy something to take back,” he says.

Those visitors took Mountain Industries products back to homes across the U.S. — including the most famous house of all in Washington, D.C. Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was a Georgia native who appreciated the work of the Southern craft revival. When the Wilsons moved into the White House, she decorated one of its bedrooms as the “Blue Mountain Room,” with Mountain Industries weaving in a place of pride: a cover for a bed once occupied by Abraham Lincoln.

In later years, Gertrude Stone of Tryon directed the operation, no longer a nonprofit, and it ceased sometime early during the Depression. (Barbara Oklesen, who lives in what was once Mrs. Stone’s house, will join McCue for the November event.) Eventually, Mountain Industries was succeeded by other enterprises in Tryon, most notably the well-known Tryon Toy Makers and Wood Carvers. Its story has received comparatively little attention compared to similar regional ventures such as Biltmore Industries (now comprising a museum and Grovewood Gallery on the grounds of the Grove Park Inn). McCue hopes his research and talk will put it back in a well-deserved spotlight. “Mountain Industries helped Tryon become such a vital place,” he says. “It was a revival for everybody.”

Mike McCue and Barbara Oklesen will lead a conversation about the history of Mountain Industries at noon on Thursday, November 16, in the gallery area of Tryon Arts and Crafts School (373 Harmon Field Road). Free. No reservations are necessary to attend; to be part of the discussion panel, call Cathy Fischer at 828-859-8323 or e-mail director@tryonartsandcrafts.org.

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