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Five Generations of Crafting Tradition

(By Leslie Boyd, Staff Writer, Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC, March 9, 2005) 

     

SPRUCE PINE — Arval Woody works six days a week, making chairs that will last 100 years, as have the men of his family for the last four generations.

Woody’s chairs are made without glue or nails, just as his great-great grandfather made them. They hold together because the wood is slightly green when they’re built, shrinking as it dries.

“You can’t do this with a chair that’s glued together,” he says as he tips a chair onto one leg, then puts all his weight on it. “It just wouldn’t hold.”  

In his dusty shop in Spruce Pine sits a chair made by his grandfather 100 years ago, proof that Woody chairs are built to last.

“You know what he sold a chair like that for?” Woody said. “Three for a dollar. Course, you have to put that into perspective. You could buy and acre of land for $3.”

Woody is just one of a number of nationally and internationally known arts and crafts people in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Others include basket maker Billie Ruth Sudduth of Bakersville and Hendersonville clay sculptor Michael Sherrill.

Ada Dudenhoeffer of the Southern Highlands Crafts Guild believes the quality of the arts and crafts here is longstanding.

“People here in the mountains were isolated,” she said. “They made what they needed.”

Those utilitarian items — quilts, pottery, woodwork and more — weren’t considered art for a long time, but as people surrounded by cookie-cutter manufactured goods began to yearn for something that was unique, they looked to handmade crafts. Crafters began to produce items that were more artistic. Flour-sack quilts gave way to quilts made with fancier cloth; pottery took on embellishments and color.

 “As the mountains became more accessible, people came here and found these wonderful things,” Dudenhoeffer said. “Then you have the schools — Penland and John C. Campbell — and they attract more people, who tend to stay because they love the beauty of the mountains.”

Dudenhoeffer believes the mountains inspire the creations of artists and craftspeople.

Woody is inspired by the tradition of five generations and pride in the quality of his family’s work. Today his chairs sell for $150 to $500, depending on the size and design. The least expensive are children’s  rockers, like the two he made for President John F. Kennedy’s children.

“John Jr. gave his to a charity just before he died,” Woody said. “It was auctioned for $10,000.”

But being commissioned by the White House isn’t Woody’s proudest accomplishment. That’s reserved for the honor he received in 1995, when the UNC Wilmington Institute for Human Potential named him a North Carolina Living Treasure.

Woody’s shop is filled with machinery he invented or salvaged. A machine that digs the mortises for chair back slats was built in 1882.

 “If there’s a modern machine that does a better job than this one I haven’t seen it,” he said.

Machines to center blocks of wood before they’re turned on a lathe, to level chair legs and to sand chair parts all were built by Woody.

“There’s a little bit of everything back here,” said his wife, Nora, who works in the store in front of the workshop. We’ve got a washing machine motor and lawn mower wheels.”

Originally, when Woody was working with his three brothers, the chairs were sold unfinished and without seats. Anyone who ordered 50 chairs was offered a one-day workshop on how to finish a chair and make a seat. Back then, the brothers could make 50 chairs a day.

Today, the chairs are hand-polished and caned seats are ordered from a shop in Grand Rapids, Mich. After he was profiled by Charles Kuralt, orders went through the roof, Woody said. A woman in Germany called to ask for details on how he made his chairs and ordered some. When she visited the United States, she made a side trip to visit the store.

Woody is in his mid-80s now, still working a six-day week. But when he dies, no one will be left to carry on the tradition. The couple have no children, and none of Woody’s brothers’ children are interested in taking over. They’ve had some apprentices, Nora Woody said, but most want to work for someone else.

“There just doesn’t seem to be an interest in going into business for themselves,” she said.

 

 

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Created July 31, 2006
Revised Jan 14, 2012