March 1, 2010
Filed under Destinations
“Where the bluegrass meets the mountains” – I’m in Kentucky, a place called Berea. It’s just off Interstate 75, 40 miles south of Lexington. About 10,000 people live here, but that number is changing constantly as it’s among the fastest growing communities in the state. By decree, Berea is the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky. And therein lies the attraction of this town and the reason for its extraordinary growth. The sounds of industry here are not factory whistles, or big trucks rolling through town. They are the sounds of a weaver’s shuttle, the cutting of jeweler’s saw, the woodworker’s plane, the bellows of a metalworker’s hearth, or even the melodic tones of a dulcimer. Its economy, supported mostly by tourists and discriminating shoppers, is based on the premise that there is always a market for quality and handcrafted items, especially if they are one of a kind. But there is more to this story: Berea has a liberal arts college that’s free – students get a tuition-free education in return for work, both at the school and off campus. It all began here during the incubation period of the Civil War. Reverend John Fee opened a church that was anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-rum and anti-sin. Those he didn’t anger here in the South with his anti-slavery message, he likely alienated with at least one of the other three. Still, he had 13 parishioners. But he had a stubborn faith, so he pressed on preaching against slavery. His message pulled in supporters who gave him land and endowments. In 1855 he established a school open to all races. He wrote of a college “giving an education to all colors, classes, cheap and thorough.” Thus the foundation for Berea College was laid, and with it, the town of Berea. The interracial college struggled to survive, where in time and place segregation was a way of life. In 1904 the state outlawed education of blacks and whites together and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. But in 1950, things changed and the school again opened its doors to African-American students. For a kid to be accepted at the school, the income of his family must be below a certain level. Those who qualify pay no tuition during their four years here. A student told me that he thinks of Berea as a one-generation college. “If my kids qualify to go here, a qualification based on my income, that means that out there in the world I didn’t do so well.” To describe Berea as a “college town” brings up images of football-Saturdays, beer parties at fraternity houses and high jinks usually associated with college kids. Berea College has no football team, no fraternities or sororities and the town is dry. Aside from carrying a full academic load, every student has a part-time job, which leaves little time for being a “college kid.” I asked a young freshman about that. He said, “You might hear that an exciting Saturday night here is a tailgate party in the Wal-Mart parking lot – pop and Doritos.” Looking me straight in the eye, he said, “Don’t believe it.” The school is not just the focus of the town; it really is the town. The school owns much of it. For example, it owns the Boone Tavern – a 58-room hotel, built in 1908. It’s furnished out of the College Woodcraft Department. The dining room is staffed 80 percent by students. Shops in Berea sell things that are available nowhere else. Tourists looking for touristy stuff, like things made in China, best just keep on drivin’. Welcome to America’s Outback.
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Next month Bill will be in Tennessee.