The seeds of the Center were planted by Sara Starr and Grace Foster, but it germinated when the first members joined and became involved.
Tillie Webster was one of the first crafters to participate in Sara Starr’s crochet lessons. She had learned to crochet from her mother, but raising five children had caused the ins-and-outs of the craft to leave her memory. She heard about the lessons on the radio and called the Community Action office in Clinton to sign up. Learning to crochet from lefty Sara was a challenge, but she persevered and soon she was selling her items. When students outgrew the limited space, Tillie decided to start summer classes for the neighborhood children in her home, thus planting the seeds for the Kids Craft Camp.
Miriam Moles met Grace Foster while working to establish a Girl Scouts troop in the Lone Mountain area where she lived. She and her husband had moved to Tennessee in 1942 from Ohio. She sold all her electric appliances before the move, knowing that they were moving into a community with no electricity, but she kept a treadle sewing machine and this helped win over her neighbors, who were a little shy at first, as Miriam began doing clothing repairs for them and giving them lessons in sewing. She was also an adept crocheter and soon was selling her items in Sara’s craft show booths. It wasn’t long before she added stuffed toys, sun bonnets and other crafts to her repertoire.
Lee Billips joined the Center in 1973. She taught Head Start in Andersonville and received a newsletter from Community Action that a new pottery class was forming taught by Gertrude “Oddy” Curtis, a potter who had recently moved from New York to Oak Ridge. Lee added the information to her own newsletter and got Head Start mothers Jerry Coltham and Cleo Robbins to join the class also. As soon as school was out for the summer, Lee took her three children with her to the weekly pottery day. The group gently exploded after that.
In March of 1974, the Center Potters acquired a kiln as a gift from Rima Farmer who was moving. In April of that year they also built a sawdust kiln at the home of Geraldine Miller. Jeanie Cole, a friend of Oddy Curtis and a fellow potter, joined the group. In July, the Potters sponsored a workshop by internationally-known potter Charles Counts who helped the group make a kick wheel. It was used by the Center Potters at the Museum of Appalachia for many years.
In 1972, the Community Craft Center gained an official home when an old store on Highway 61 became vacant. They rented the front room from Mr. William Sharp for $25. The Grand Opening of the Community Craft Center was June 2-3 of 1972. Total sales that month were $91.35. That would be $593.77 in 2021. In August, the group rented a second room for $40, half of which was paid by Good Neighbors of Norris for use of part of the big room, and that fall Mr. Sharp put a new roof on that room.
The only heat in the building came from a wood stove and winters in the building were very cold. Some members could never learn to build a fire, so could never tend the store in the winter. Lee Billips wrote that the quilters were well-acquainted with wood stoves, though, and always had a good fire in the stove and shared a hot lunch on winter days. They also shared with her when she worked the desk during her Christmas break.
The Potters used the two rooms across the back of the old store for glazing their pottery. The store never had indoor plumbing so they brought jugs of water with them whenever they came to work. The only sink was a dry sink that had no water running to it and drained onto the floor. These rooms were also the site of monthly meetings and covered dish meals. Lee Billips said, “the potters just gulped hard and tried to clean up extra carefully before those events.”
These were the humble beginnings of the Appalachian Arts Craft Center, but there is much more history to explore so stay tuned.