berea-college traditional brooms-and-other-handmade-household-accessories

Founded in 1855 by an abolitionist minister as the South’s first interracial and co-ed institution, Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, remains a model on so many fronts. For one thing, it’s an esteemed liberal arts school that is tuition free. To make that possible all students hold jobs on campus, and for more than two centuries those work-study options have included learning practical crafts to help sustain the area’s artisan traditions—Berea is in Appalachia, and 8 out of 10 student come from the region—and to earn money for the school.

At Berea, there are workshops in weaving, woodworking, ceramics, and broomcraft. We’re been longtime fans of Berea’s brooms—see Julie’s Domestic Science dispatch from 2010—and recently checked in to hear how the school is faring.

Director of business development, Susan Buckmaster, responded: “We were the first college in Kentucky to send our students home because of the pandemic. Only our international students remained, so we went from 1,600 students to around 150. We lost all but two of our crafts students: we currently have one in broom making and one in weaving. Production for our 2020 catalog is being done by the department supervisors who teach these skills. It’s a tough time for us.” Even so, Berea’s online store remains open, offering handcrafted household classics at very fair prices. Come see—shown here are students at work and some of our favorite things they make, plus a look at intriguing things to come.

Photography by Justin Skeens, courtesy of Berea College.

Work in Progress

Savannah Smith, Jamie Schlabach, and Sophia Gueye use traditional shave horses to carve spindles for the Berea Basket and legs for the Forest Stool.
Above: Savannah Smith, Jamie Schlabach, and Sophia Gueye use traditional shave horses to carve spindles for the Berea Basket and legs for the Forest Stool.

The stool is made of ash from the school’s 9,000 acres of forest, which are under attack by emerald ash borer beetles: “For the stool,” Buckmaster tells us, “we cut down healthy ash trees before they’re destroyed. The trees are removed from our forest by draft horses so as not to disturb the sensitive ecosystem with heavy machinery.” Scroll below to see the finished stool.

 Heather Rapien practices making turned bowls in the wood shop.
Heather Rapien practices making turned bowls in the wood shop.