Friday, March 4, 2016

From Kentucky to Chazy: Anna Ernberg and the Berea Fireside Industries

Advertisement from the Plattsburgh Sentinel
In August 1926, the Redpath Chautauqua arrived in Plattsburgh, bringing a variety of musicians, lecturers, and other entertainers to the North Country. The Redpath Chautauqua was a descendent of the original Chautauqua Assembly, established in 1874 in Lake Chautauqua, New York to combine recreation with religious instruction and informative lectures (if this sounds familiar, it’s because it was also the inspiration for the Catholic Summer School at Cliff Haven). In 1904, Keith Vawter started the first circuit or tent Chautauqua, in which a group of performers traveled together on a set route from town to town, staying a week in each location.

On the fifth day of Redpath’s stint in Plattsburgh, August 19, Anna Ernberg gave a lecture and demonstration of dyeing, weaving, and handcraft. The advertising in the Plattsburgh Sentinel gave no further information about Ernberg, perhaps assuming that audiences would be familiar with her. As the head of Fireside Industries at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, Anna Ernberg was one of the most visible proponents of the Appalachian weaving revival in the early 20th century.

Coverlet given to Alice Miner by Anna Ernberg
Having completed her lecture but with another day to go before heading to the next stop on the circuit, Ernberg and her son Axel spent the following day in Chazy, visiting Heart’s Delight Farm and taking a tour of the Alice T. Miner Museum conducted by Alice herself. As she later wrote of her visit, “It was more than delightful and we are both very grateful to you for your kindness and hospitality.” As someone who was working for “the revival of the Arts of our grandmothers,” Ernberg was impressed by Alice’s efforts in collecting examples of textile art “and arranging it all so true and beautiful.” To show her appreciation, she sent Alice a “kiver” for her collection—a coverlet in the Blooming Leaf pattern, made using the “Summer and Winter” weave, which differs from the overshot in that it produces a reversible fabric, light on one side (for summer) and dark on the other (for winter). The coverlet is made from three panels and is shaped to accommodate a four-poster bed.

Anna Ernberg weaving on the small counterbalance loom
she designed and introduced to Berea, 1912
Born in Christianstad, Sweden, in 1874, Anna Ernberg emigrated to the United States with her husband when she was in her twenties. She lived in New York and taught weaving at Pratt Institute and Teachers College. In 1911 (now a widow with two young sons) she was invited by Berea College president William Goodell Frost to run the school’s weaving program. In addition to the work she did as an instructor, supervisor, and designer, Ernberg was a tireless fundraiser who traveled to major cities throughout the northeast to sell the products of Fireside Industries. She was a popular speaker with women’s clubs, patriotic organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, church groups, and art organizations. By 1917, she had raised enough money to fund a new building called the Log House, which held the looms, spaces for finishing work, sales areas, and an apartment for Ernberg and her sons. In 1930, she was chosen by Ida Tarbell as one of the 50 outstanding women in America, a list that also included Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Mary McLeod Bethune, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Amelia Earhart.

Ernberg directed Fireside Industries for 25 years and turned it into a reliable source of income for the college. When William G. Frost became president in 1892, he introduced the free tuition policy that continues today. Students needed to work to contribute to their tuition as well as room and board expenses. He also had learned that coverlets were an excellent promotional tool and were much appreciated as gifts to donors. Selling woven textiles would make money for the school and would become central to the school’s public image.

From the Berea Quarterly, 1912
When Berea College was founded in 1855, it was both coeducational and interracial. However, in 1904 the Kentucky legislature passed a law prohibiting integrated education. Although the college challenged the law and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the school lost the case and from 1908 until 1950 (when the law was changed), Berea admitted only white students. In the 1910s and 20s, the supposed “pure Anglo-Saxon heritage” of Berea students became a selling point with potential donors. Many people believed that the isolated regions of the Appalachian Mountains were home to Americans who closely resembled the original 17th- and 18th-century English settlers. These mountain folk, it was hoped, would help to counterbalance the influence of African-Americans in the south and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe nationwide.

An example of the way Berea emphasized the links between
“southern highlanders” and early colonists
Because weaving was so closely associated in the popular imagination with the colonial era, Fireside Industries and other Appalachian weaving programs strengthened the perception that mountain residents represented (as Woodrow Wilson put it) “an unspoiled stock...of the original stuff of which America was made.” These images of the noble mountaineers existed side-by-side with stereotypes of Appalachians as feuders and moonshine-makers, which educators like Frost worked hard to dispel. Mountain folk were only “backward” because of their isolation, he argued; education and economic opportunity would “uplift” them and allow them to take their rightful places as useful citizens.

In an article on coverlet weaving in the south that appeared in House Beautiful, author Mabel Tuke Priestman praised the domestic weaving revival for being “a very important step in the labor movement, as it gives employment to those living in rural districts, who have few interests in their monotonous lives, and saves from oblivion a beautiful craft, distinctly American in its conception.” Anna Ernberg and Alice Miner certainly would have agreed with this sentiment (whether weavers themselves had the same ideas about their “monotonous” lives is another question). Woven coverlets represented all that was good about the past—diligent work, self-sufficiency, thrift—in a form that was aesthetically pleasing. By bringing these pieces into the modern home, collectors hoped to transmit some of the values associated with them into the present day.


If you are interested in learning more about the Appalachian weaving revival, Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Philis Alvic is an excellent place to start. For an earlier assessment of the craft revival, try Allen H. Eaton’s Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, originally published in 1937. Appalachia on Our Mind by Henry D. Shapiro is the classic work on the place of the mountain South in American consciousness. In All That Is Native and Fine, David E. Whisnant examines how the “cultural missionaries” who came to Appalachia created their own version of folk culture.

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