At 73, Neal Thomas goes into the woods by his home near Wendell. He chops down a 7-foot-tall oak that he carries on a shoulder to his workshop, where, with a sharp, flat blade, he peels away strips of oak one by one.
Thomas weaves the oak into sturdy baskets that only toughen with age, lasting at least as long as he has been making them: 50 years. The work is hard; his calloused hands often bleed.
“I wish somebody would take it on when I’m dead and gone,” Thomas said. “You ain’t going to see no more of them. They’re gonna be gone.”
Thomas is one of about 100 crafters at the N.C. State Fair’s Village of Yesteryear, but his craft, like many others, could soon fade away.
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A signature attraction at the State Fair since 1951, the village is home to a family of crafters who meet each year to teach their skills from morning to night to thousands of people. Their crafts were once trades, passed down from generation to generation, including blacksmithing, pottery, wood carving, rug hooking and candle making.
“We’re seeing limited interest in it in the future,” said Pam Earp, a Johnston County resident who is director of the village. “And we’re afraid some of these crafts may not survive because there may not be anyone to take up the next generation of craftsmanship.”
Thomas learned to weave oak baskets at 23, when the elderly craftsman who lived nearby asked for help. Thomas took on the craft when his teacher died, but Thomas’ four children aren’t interested. After 8 hours of work with no end in sight, they want to do something else, he said.
“They said they don’t want to mess with it,” he said. “Too hard work.”
Relief wood carver Paul Rolfe of Raleigh faces a similar problem. Rolfe taught himself to carve in 1974 using methods from 200 years ago. His two daughters aren’t interested, but he understands why.
“It’s very, very difficult to make a living out of it,” he said. “You have to have the right blend of the skill and the talent and, more importantly, the marketing skill.”
Hobbyists are keeping the skill alive, but Rolfe hasn’t found an apprentice yet and has no one to pass his tools down to.
Preserving traditions and following through
The village’s educational mission is apparent as one walks among the booths, where the crowd watches the spinning potter’s wheel and children play with wooden toys their great-great-grandparents could have owned. But the teaching mission of the village only goes so far, in the same way that taking a class to learn a craft only teaches so much.
Tim Smith of Clayton, who weaves chair bottoms, said finding a dedicated apprentice is the key and the challenge.
“I can teach someone the craft, but having them follow through, learn from me, work in the village ...” he said, trailing off. The skill takes years to learn; he apprenticed for nine years, and that dedication is hard to find.
Heather Earp, Pam Earp’s daughter, said crafts need to continue between generations.
“We have a lot of crafts that require a lot of working knowledge that you can’t replace with teaching,” she said.
Heather Earp sees education as an important step in preservation. She’s a high school science teacher at West Johnston High School and is creating educational materials for field trips to the village.
“It’s really hard to find young people who are interested,” she said, so the first step is getting them to care, like she did after her mother first joined the village.
For Pam Earp, keeping these traditions alive allows people to connect with their family history, where skills used to be passed down from generation to generation. Visitors to the village often come across new versions of crafts seen at home, such as the old quilt made by a grandmother.
“To them, it’s nothing different than something you can buy now,” Pam Earp said. “We want them to understand it was handcrafted by someone in their family.”
Tinsmith Peter Blum III of Elkin learned the craft from his father and grandfather. His apprentice, a man he met by chance at a cookout, is even writing a tinsmithing guide as he learns the skill from Blum.
Blum, 79, said continuing the tradition honors the past; his family came to the South on the great wagon trail from Pennsylvania in the 1700s.
“There’s many an unmarked grave on that wagon road,” he said. “So we are here today. That’s the present they gave us freely, and through what we do at this village and these crafts, we honor these people.”
As for Thomas, he is afraid his knowledge to make woven oak baskets will die with him.
“I don’t feel good about it,” he said. “Ain’t nothing I can do if nobody will take it on.”