The Founding of Arrowcraft

Although Pi Beta Phi’s primary goal in establishing its settlement school was to bring high quality education and health care to the people of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the fraternity was also interested in providing residents with improved economic opportunities. Thus it was that during the 1914-1915 school year, Settlement School Head Resident Caroline McKnight Hughes began purchasing baskets, woven coverlets, and other handcrafted items from local families, and then selling these items to Pi Beta Phi Alumnae Clubs on their behalf. “In other localities in the Appalachian Mountains,” she noted in the March 1916 edition of The Arrow of Pi Beta Phi, “this work has been successful namely, Eastern Kentucky, and the western part of both North and South Carolina, and why not in Eastern Tennessee? In all four states one finds the same class of people, so what has succeeded in one should succeed in another.”

Her confidence notwithstanding, McKnight-Hughes soon learned that doing business in Southern Appalachia was a proposition fraught with difficulty. To begin with, mountain craftspeople had little experience with -- and little respect for -- credit, and so were apt to demand immediate payment for their wares, regardless of whether the settlement school staff possessed ready cash. For that matter, having had virtually no experience with organized, factory-style labor, many mountain craftspeople objected to the settlement school’s insistence that they focus their energy on producing one particular item, or that they adhere to strict production/shipment schedules. And finally, there were problems arising from the mountaineers’ predominantly agricultural way of life -- namely that, as subsistence farmers, they were forced to place family survival before profit, and hence agricultural labor before handcrafting. It was not uncommon during the early years of the Industrial Handicrafts program for there to be a surge in crafts production following the fall harvest season, followed by a long dry spell as the spring and summer planting began.

McKnight Hughes’s successors inherited many of these problems, and because of them, struggled to keep the program afloat. Demand, it seems, was seldom a problem, for Pi Phis across the nation were eager to purchase authentic Southern Appalachian handicrafts. But the task of locating suitable craftspeople -- that is, craftspeople who were skilled enough to meet customers’ expectations, were willing to mass produce items, and were willing to deliver said items up for shipment in a timely fashion -- proved a constant source of bedevilment for the Settlement School Staff. At one point in 192?, Head Resident Evelyn Bishop went so far as to place an ad in Sevier County’s main newspaper, TheMontgomery Vindicator, pleading with weavers, basket makers, and other craftspeople to make their presence known. In most cases, however, she resigned herself to purchasing whatever goods were available, regardless of their quality, and then filling orders as best she could.

Fortunately, during the summer of 1925, the Settlement School acquired the services of full-time Weaving Instructor Winogene Redding, a dynamic leader who took it upon herself to affect a top-down reorganization of the entire vocational handicrafts program. Her first move -- instituting weaving classes for high school girls and adult women -- had the desired effect of generating interest in weaving. By June of 1926 there were approximately thirty mountain families weaving for the school. Second, and more importantly, she instituted a set of firm rules that weavers (and other craftspeople, for that matter) would have to abide by if they wished to do business with Pi Beta Phi. Gone were the days of informality and “spot cash”; weavers would instead acquire materials from the Weaving Department, use these materials to complete woven articles in their own homes, and then return the items to the school on a pre-arranged day. If the woven goods met Redding’s quality standards -- which were admittedly strenuous -- the department would accept the goods and the weaver would be paid in cash.

Redding ’s attempt at standardization paid off; in two short years, the settlement school’s vocational handicrafts program had grown from an informal gathering of artisans into a bustling, highly-profitable cottage industry. So successful was the program that in 1927, teachers Harmo Taylor and Lois Rogers -- with Evelyn Bishop’s and Redding’s blessing -- opened a permanent handicrafts store on the settlement school campus. The store, named Arrowcraft in honor of Pi Beta Phi’s primary symbol, served as a showroom for the woven goods, chairs, baskets, and other handcrafted items produced by local artisans. It was, more importantly, a handicraft distribution center, from which point items were collected, boxed, and shipped to the program’s primary customers, the Pi Beta Phi Alumnae Clubs.



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Arrowcraft Shop accepts weaving, 1977

Arrowcraft Shop, 1927

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Basket makers, 1945

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