Fun and learning to be had at Mountain Craft Days
BY KAYLA PONGRAC
Our Town Correspondent
In 1970, five artisans gathered in the parking lot of the Somerset Historical Center with the notion that their traditional crafts might be lost if others didn’t take up an interest in them.
They saw a need to perpetuate traditional crafts, to help ensure that people could have the opportunity to see a tinsmith or a bobbin lacer at work, turning raw material into an object that could be of use.
The founders of Mountain Craft Days shared a goal that has become a reality because this year marks the 50th anniversary of Mountain Craft Days.
This year’s festival is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 6 to 8 at the Somerset Historical Center.
Times have changed, but over this year’s festival weekend, people of all ages can step back in time. They can purchase fresh cider and then observe artisans carefully and skillfully working with wood, metal, paper and more.
The festival is meant to be as fun as it is educational.
“From the very beginning, if you were an artisan who was going to participate in Mountain Craft Days, you had to be willing to share your knowledge and skills, not just sit and sell,” said Mark Ware, executive director of the Somerset Historical Center.
Some of the festival’s vendors have never set up to sell anything at all, Ware added.
“Some of them, like the stonecutters in the Landis family, come just to demonstrate their craft,” he said, remarking that back in pre-industrial times, men and women took up various trades (such as stonecutting) not as a hobby but as a necessity.
More than 125 vendors are participating in this year’s anniversary festival.
Ware said Mountain Craft Days is a tradition not only among festival-goers, but also participating artisans.
“We’ve had artisans who have been here for more than 30, 40 years,” he said. “Many of them have bonded, so they like to get together in the evenings to socialize.”
One family in particular, Ware said, is fulfilling a promise they made to their grandfather.
“The Baumbarger family’s grandfather used to come to Mountain Craft Days,” Ware said. “Before he died, he made the family promise that they would continue with Mountain Craft Days because it brought the family together every year to make cider.”
Ware’s own family has been involved for over 40 years as well; they make and sell their signature apple butter.
Speaking of apples and long-term participation, representatives from Somerset Welfare League will be serving their apple dumplings once again this year.
Ware mentioned that this year is “one of the largest years that we’ve had in several years for artisans and food vendors.”
A few new artisans will be on the grounds, including one who makes items out of heavy leather and another who creates silhouettes from paper.
Ware said Somerset Historical Center gets young people involved, too. They’ll be grinding and roasting coffee beans, baking in Dutch ovens and churning butter all weekend.
Somerset Trust Company is sponsoring a young apprentice activity that will be overseen by Laurel Arts employees; this activity will teach young people the art of nature printing, Ware said.
“There are lots of things to do for young and old at Mountain Craft Days,” Ware said.
There’s also a lot of food to eat.
“A lot of people like to joke that they ‘eat their way’ through the festival.”
All of the food vendors on the grounds will be representing non-profit organizations, and they’ll be selling items such as ham and chicken pot pie, corn on the cob, kielbasa and sauerkraut.
Ware said all of the buildings on the grounds will be open. These include the Visitor’s Center and Jacob Emerick Cider Press, among others. On display in the Visitor’s Center is a traveling exhibition from Heinz History Center titled “We Can Do It: WWII” that “explores Western Pennsylvania’s incredible impact on the home, industrial, and battle fronts during World War II,” according to www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
Entertainment-wise, performers (including dulcimer players and folk musicians) will be sharing their talents on one of three stages.
Storyteller Bill Stump will return to Mountain Craft Days. So, too, will fiddlers and square dancers. Regarding the latter, Ware said Bill Rearick will once again bring his family (over 25 people) to demonstrate how to square dance “in the old style.”
Even a man portraying a rat catcher and a magician specializing in “historical magic tricks” will be out and about on a quest to entertain festival-goers.
Many people will observe and appreciate. Others, however, might become inspired to learn. That’s why, every year, artisans donate an item to be auctioned off at 1 p.m. each day of the festival. Proceeds from those three daily auctions benefit a special fund at Somerset Historical Center that covers all the costs associated with a person learning a specific traditional craft. He or she must then commit to demonstrating the craft at future Mountain Craft Day festivals.
“Let’s use bookbinding as an example,” Ware said. “If someone wants to learn the process, we can provide money for the classes and the tools. Our tinsmith went to Canada to learn tinsmithing, and he’s still doing it after 15 years.”
Anyone interested in learning a traditional craft is asked to contact Ware at the Somerset Historical Center at any time for more details.
It’s the demonstrations — the spinning, the dying, the churning, the Pysanky egg decorating, the rail splitting — that Ware said helps make the weekend what it is.
That, and the setting.
“(The festival grounds are) a mix of forest and meadow, so it lends to the overall atmosphere,” Ware said. “The artisans can really spread out, and it’s also nice and shaded.”
Ware said Betty Haupt, one of the festival’s founders, is credited for taking the festival from the parking lot to the woods.
“She said, ‘I’d like this to be in the woods,’” Ware said. “At the time, most craft shows were in buildings. Some people laughed, and they said that no one is going to attend a festival in the woods. But Betty said, ‘If they want to see me spin, that’s where they’ll find me.’”
Follow her into the woods they did.
Ware, who has been involved at Somerset Historical Center for over 40 years (he’s spent nine years serving as the organization’s executive director), said the festival continues to grow year after year. And Ware himself has benefitted from the perpetuation of traditional crafts, having learned coopering from some of Somerset County’s early coopers back in the 1970s.
“The same skills the founders brought to the festival are still being practiced,” Ware said. “The chain has never been broken.”
For more information about Mountain Craft Days, visit www.somersethistoricalcenter.org or call 814-445-6077. Tickets can be purchased at the gate. The event will be held rain or shine.