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Crafting for the 21st Century

 
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It used to be roots and herbs and crops and chickens that folks brought to the Mast General Store in historic Valle Crucis for trade. Today, the items "traded" are more along the lines of baskets, birdhouses, bread, homemade butter, and hand-turned bowls. Although the products may have changed, the intent is still the same - the Mast Store provides a marketplace for local and regional residents and artists to present the fruits of their efforts.

"Crafting is quite a productive cottage industry in the mountains," said Sheri, a life-long resident of Watauga County. "Recently, the spotlight on crafts has shone even brighter through the work of Handmade in America. We really have some talented people practicing skills and making goods that can't be found just anywhere."

One of those items you can find at any of the Mast General Stores, but probably not anywhere else, is a Gout Rocker, made by Cove Creek resident Pat. It was once the prescribed treatment for a painful foot ailment, but now it is a popular addition to any rocking chair as well as an interesting conversation piece. Consisting of two rockers on curvaceous legs and a thin upholstered cross-piece, the rocker looks something like a child's rocking chair that was left unfinished.

"The idea initially came from Harllee Rothenberger. She used to see 'gout rockers' come to the Mast Store, but they were a little chunkier than the ones you'll see today. Harllee took the design and incorporated a few dressier elements to make an improved piece," said Pat from her Cove Creek home.

Not much is known about the actual origin of the gout rocker. Harllee having grown up in plantation country had heard of them as a child, and her father, who was a pharmacist, had spoke of them. It just seemed like a natural progression to move from a stool to a rocker because it's just that much more comfortable when sitting in your rocking chair and having your feet rock along with you.

"Much of what we did was trial and error in the beginning," said Pat with a grin. "We experimented with everything - even a stain concocted of Varsol compounds and walnut hulls for coloring. Once we tried filling an order with a new kind of wood. We tried every way imaginable to dry the wood out - including zapping it in the microwave. As it turned out, we had to buy a whole new shipment of wood to complete the order."

From its humble beginnings using common hand tools, the ladies added pieces of equipment to make their job a little easier. But that didn't mean sacrificing quality or wasting materials.

"Harllee left me a great gift in these rockers and her friendship."

"I'm a fanatic for craftsmanship. If I don't feel like it's put together well and will stand up to usage, I won't let it out of my shop," explained Pat. Her shop includes a number of "jigs" and templates used to speed up the process, but even with these time-saving apparatuses, each rocker has its own unique character and look. "No two gout rockers are exactly alike."

Harllee passed on a little over two years ago, a victim of cancer, but Pat points out, "Everyone that we encounter leaves a part of themselves with us. Harllee left me a great gift in these rockers and her friendship." This could also be said of craftspeople, who pass on a little of themselves in every piece of art they make.

Pat, who lives with her family and her father in Cove Creek, North Carolina, is a teaching assistant at Watauga High School in the Vocational Arts area.

Gout rockers are not the only product that Mast Store carries with a little bit of local history to them. Traditional sun bonnets - those like Caroline Ingalls wore on the television show Little House on the Prairie - have been made for the Mast Store by a member of the same family for the last 37 years.

Reba said, "I remember my grandma Coffey tellin' me 'git something on your head. If you'd jest wear a bonnet or somethin', your hair won't turn gray.' I guess she was right, 'cause when she died, she didn't have hardly a gray hair on her head." Reba has taken some of those words to heart - not necessarily the wearin' of a bonnet, as her gray hair can attest, but the makin' of a bonnet. She has been making bonnets for the Mast Store for some 10-12 years using patterns that are at least 50 years old.

"I got into making bonnets when Mack's mother, Clemmie, came to stay with us after a spell in the hospital. She had some already started, and I helped her finish them up." Clemmie made bonnets for the Mast Store for probably 25 years and dealt with Howard Mast. After one time helping Clemmie, she and Reba took to making them together.

Reba recalled that she started sewing when her mother sat her down with some quilt scraps and got her started. "She also tried to teach me how to make bedspread lace, but it kinda bugged me. I stuck to sewing." (However, she has been know to tie a few lengths of bedspread lace, too.)

Reba and her husband Mack are both natives of the area. She was born on Dutch Creek in April, 1924, not too far from her present-day home and went to school on Dutch Creek before graduating from the Mission School (now the Valle Crucis Conference Center). Mack was born on Clark's Creek in October, 1924 and went to school in the original Valle Crucis School (located behind the Original Mast Store in Valle Crucis and now housing Beaumont Pottery).

She hopes to pass along the bonnet-making business to her granddaughters, who live just a hop, skip, and a jump up Dutch Creek and to get them interested in her other mountain crafts - and those of her husband.