A! Magazine for the Arts

Mary Helton is seen here with her pet chicken. Helton, a basket maker,  was one of the first members in Holston Mountain Arts and Crafts Coop- erative. (Photo by Bill Blanton)

Mary Helton is seen here with her pet chicken. Helton, a basket maker, was one of the first members in Holston Mountain Arts and Crafts Coop- erative. (Photo by Bill Blanton)

Holston Mountains Artisans celebrates 50 years

June 29, 2021

In 1971, Rees and Kathy Shearer came to Abingdon, Virginia, from Georgia, where they had been Vista workers. When they got here, they met Eric and Sara Reese and shortly thereafter Holston Mountain Arts and Crafts Cooperative came into being in spring of 1971. The Cave House (the co-op’s shop) followed in the fall. Bringing the co-op to fruition was the job of Rees Shearer and Eric Reese, but their wives were involved every step of the way and are still involved.

Eric Reese recalls meeting Rees Shearer, “Rees was a conscientious objector, and his draft board had told him to move back to Virginia and work for an approved non-profit. I was working at the Progressive Community Club (which became People, Inc.). It was a fairly new organization and employed local people who didn’t necessarily know what they were doing. I fell into that category. I got my job right out of college and was supposed be working on job development.

“Rees called our office looking for work. My boss told him we didn’t have any openings at the time, but he’d like to talk to him. Then he told me to show them around and that his name was Rees Sheerer. I saw a couple I didn’t know coming up with stairs, and I knew that it had to be them. I walk over and say, ‘Hi. I’m Eric Reese.’ He thought I was saying ‘Hi. I’m Eric, Rees.’’

That amusing, slightly confusing introduction resulted in a 50-year friendship.

“Eric brought Rees and Kathy home. They slept on the floor, and we decided we liked them,” Sara Reese says.

“Eric knew youth counselors through his job, and that’s how we got in touch with ministers and Churches in Action,” Rees Shearer says. That group sponsored Shearer, so he and Reese could work on their idea: a craft cooperative. The Progressive Community Club paid Eric Reese and gave him funding to purchase crafts from those who couldn’t wait for their work to be sold to others.

“When they got here, I was looking for a way to be productive. They had left a co-op in Georgia that we ended up modeling our co-op after.

“The early days we spent recruiting. You couldn’t have a co-op without people in it. Once we started getting people, we needed boundaries, rules and a shop. We divided the area into four regions: Bristol, Abingdon, Saltville and Damascus. We divided the list we had of people who made things by hand and set out to go visit them and convince them that coming together as a group made more sense than sitting in your backyard whittling and practically giving your product to friends and family,” Eric Reese says.

Many of the crafters were selling their wares at below market prices. The focus of the co-op, especially for Reese because of his job, was to help low-income people. Shearer was not limited to recruiting low-income people. But they were both dedicated to reducing poverty, promoting the handcrafts of the area and educating the public on the value of handwork.

One example of this is Mary Helton, a basket maker. Eric Reese and Kathy Shearer went to visit her after Reese heard about her from an acquaintance.

“From the get go, she was a delight,” Eric Reese remembers. “She called us ‘young’uns’ and invited us in. We told her what we were doing, and she said, ‘maybe.’ We asked to see her work, and they were beautiful white oak baskets. She’d go out in the woods with an ax and a hatchet and cut down her own white oak trees, drag them back to the house and throw them in the creek to keep them moist. When she started splitting, she’d start with an ax, when it was smaller, she’d switch to a hatchet and then a pocketknife and continue to cut strips and keep them in the creek.

“The PCC had given us a small amount of money to buy things from people who couldn’t wait to get their money until after the craft had sold. She was selling baskets for $10 to people who came to visit from social services or a church. We suggested we’d buy some things while we were there, and we’d pay her double what she was asking. She said, ‘I like you children, but you sure don’t know anything about business.’ From the first week, we were backordered on her baskets,” Eric Reese says.

Helton gave demonstrations of her craft at events at the Cave House and “everyone loved her,” they say. After people saw what went into the baskets, they understood why the co-op had encouraged her to raise her prices.

As Eric Reese and Rees Shearer continued to meet with crafters, they had a few people sign up at each meeting.

The first venture was participating in the first flea market held as part of the Virginia Highlands Festival in August 1971. They borrowed a tent, set it up and slept with the crafts because they couldn’t afford to replace anything that went missing, and they had a $100 quilt, which they sold.

“After the flea market week, we moved to a church parking lot. Bob Porterfield came through and said, ‘I like this idea, why don’t you rent my house?’” Eric Reese says. The house he was referring to was the Cave House. While they were negotiating, another member of the co-op who knew Porterfield convinced him to let them use it rent free in return for repairing the house. That agreement continued until the co-op moved to its present location.

Co-op members also began to sign up to help repair the Cave House. Their first shopkeeper was Ed Morgan, who later became the mayor of Abingdon.

The co-op remained in the Cave House until 2010, when it moved to Park Street to the former jail. The Cave House needed maintenance, and they couldn’t get grants because they didn’t own the building or have a long-term lease.

Their sales weren’t just limited to the Virginia Highlands Festival and the Cave House. Reese and Shearer and co-op members took the crafts to shows. The shows were very successful. At one point, they were doing two shows in the same week in different cities. They always tried to take craft people with them to do demonstrations.

While other co-ops, including the one Shearer helped form in Georgia, folded. Holston Mountain Artisans has lasted 50 years and has a membership of 130.

“I think the fact that we started as a co-op and worked to make it clear that this was the members’ business is part of the reason. They owned it, hired the manager, decided the markup, served on the standards committee, mowed the lawn and fixed things. People realized it wouldn’t work if everyone didn’t do their part. A lot of people said, ‘We don’t know anything about a business.’ We replied, ‘It’s time to learn,’” Rees Shearer says. They needed to learn to run it themselves, because as Shearer pointed out, “the goal of an organizer is to work yourself out of a job.”

“There were other crafts groups and many of them were sponsored by agencies like the Progressive Community Club and gave up control. In contrast, we were happy to accept funding from the, but we never gave up control. When the parent organization ran out of money, their co-ops closed,” Eric Reese says.

Plans for the future include resuming classes and teaching children about crafts and continuing to showcase the plethora of talent that abound in this region.

For more information, visit www.holstonmtarts.com.