Lenoir City Arts and Crafts Fest grew from homemade goodies and clothes-pinned art
Artisans today bring a broad range of crafts and products to the Lenoir City Arts and Crafts Festival. The only stipulation is that they have to hand-make or embellish the items they sell.

Mike Gibson, Special to the News Sentinel

Some five decades ago, a handful of Lenoir City ladies — members of the city's year-old Suburbia Club — gathered at Lenoir City Park for a small arts show that served as a fundraiser for their fledgling organization. They cooked all of the food sold at the event themselves, and displayed the art — mostly drawings and paintings — with clothespins in what was titled the Clothesline Art Show.

Things have changed in so many ways since that early incarnation of what is known today as the Lenoir City Arts and Crafts Festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary on June 2 and 3 at Lenoir City Park.

"We no longer have to fry the chicken and bake all the pies, for one thing," laughs Festival Publicity Coordinator Sheri Arden of the GFWC Suburbia Women's Club, today's incarnation of the original Suburbia organization.

Indeed, the 20 members of GFWC Suburbia would be hard-pressed to crisp enough drumsticks to satisfy the 8,000 to 10,000 expected to turn out for the festival. It's a job better left to the vendors; and Arden says this year the festival is at or near capacity, with well over 200 crafters, vendors, and other booths prepared to set up shop.

"When we started producing a festival guide a few years ago, it added to the publicity of the event," Arden says of the festival's latter-day growth. "We've held our own when many festivals have gone by the wayside. We've continued to have great support from both crafters and vendors, and also from the community. We feel very blessed."

This year, the festival has a theme: since it's the Suburbia Club's chief fundraiser, this celebration of its first half-century has been dubbed Fifty Years of Southern Giving. Says Arden, "Our role has always been as an advocate for women and children. If there's a need, and people can make us aware of it, that's what we're here for."

Some of the club's regular programs include scholarships at Lenoir City High School and an adult scholarship for Roane State Community College. Other past and ongoing programs include donations to the Lenoir City Library; Angel Tree gifts; donations to the HOPE resource center; donations for a parks and rec swimming pool cover; Children's Hospital donations; among many other projects.

Needless to say, the festival has come a long way since those early days when a few pretty pictures flapped in the wind at the city park. For one thing, the array of wares vended at the festival is almost breathtaking, says Entries Chair Jody Cusick, from pottery and basketry and leather goods, to a newer trend toward more practical crafts and goods.

One of Jared Weaver's canjos, a relative of the traditional mountain dulcimer.

"There's a ton of jewelry," Cusick says. "We could make a whole show out of people making jewelry. And we've also got more and more people with patents of their own; things like baking sheets, grill cleaners… sometimes these are things you might not think of as crafts. But to them, it's their crafts. They've made their hobby into a craft."

WaaDee Hudson out of Sherman, Texas, is one such craftsman. A retired phone company employee and full-time grilling enthusiast, he started using his son-in-law's machine shop to make his own pepper grillers — stand-up grills used to grill hot peppers, shrimp, and small birds, mostly in the Southwest.

"I decided there just might be a market for it," he says. "It's something fun to do in retirement, to travel and enjoy myself and get out of the Texas heat."

He says he has 33 different grill designs now, including several in the shape of states; and yes, one of those states is Tennessee, which should be available when he makes his first visit to the Lenoir City on June 2.

Jared Weaver isn't a Lenoir City newcomer, nor is he a newcomer to the fair; he's a native, and this will be the fifth time he's vended his dulcimers and canjos at the summer festival here.

What's a canjo? Weaver explains that it's essentially a "one-string version of the mountain dulcimer. Only instead of a sound box, it has an aluminum can for a resonator."

The type of aluminum can used to make the canjo gives the instrument visual, as well as sonic character. "Some people ask specifically for beer cans," he chuckles. "I use Spam cans sometimes. They have a pretty good sound. Each can has a different sound, a little different character from another one."

Lenoir City has been a good showcase for his canjos, which start at $30, he says. "Most people really enjoy them," Weaver says. "It's always a pretty good show, the crowd's good, and it's a nice location."

But even folks who don't have canjo — or even mountain dulcimer — breakdowns playing on their Ipods should find something to satisfy at this year's Lenoir City Arts and Crafts Festival. Because one other way organizers are celebrating the festival's 50th is by hosting a full slate of musical acts throughout the daylight hours on both June 2 and 3. Working with the planners of the Maryville Fall Festival, the Suburbia Club has scheduled a roster of performers that traffic in folk, bluegrass, Americana, country rock, western swing, and traditional Appalachian music.

According to Arden, the festival has hosted only a smattering of music once or twice in years past, and not nearly to the degree represented by this year's roster. "This is the first time with staging, the first really big attempt," she says. "If it works out, we'll continue to build on it next year, maybe add some night-time events.