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  • by Tom Eastman

Timeless Crafts, Tireless Efforts

Fifty years is a milestone of longevity for any organization, particularly for a non-profit group dedicated to the arts in a rural state such as New Hampshire. The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and its local North Conway chapter, Conways' Home Industries, are celebrating a half-century of education and economic development of the arts and crafts in 1981, featuring a number of local and statewide festive events and exhibits as part of the Golden Anniversary know as Jubilee 50.

Locally, there will be retrospective exhibits, craftsmen touring in schools, a house tour in the Fall, and special dinners to salute those who have helped the organizations grow from their early beginnings as seasonal shops into the year-round cultural centers they are today.

That period of growth has seen the Conways' Home Industries (CHI) and the League undergo a number of organizational and economic changes over the years, many of them marked by challenges and some controversy. Throughout those years, however, both groups have remained committed to raising New Hampshire crafts and craftsmanship to the highest aesthetic levels while providing work for residents of the state in home industries, native handcrafts and the arts.

The League traces its roots to the 1920s when a craft shop was opened in Center Sandwich under the leadership of Mrs. J. Randolph Coolidge and a group of handcrafters. Not far away craft classes were being conducted at the time by the Rotary Club in Wolfeboro. A joint venture seemed a logical progression, and soon the two groups joined forces and lobbied for the creation of a state-wide organization for the arts and crafts, an idea which had been considered by many for a number of years. In May of 1931, appointments to a committee to study the proposal were made, leading to the establishment of a Commission of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts. New Hampshire thus bears the distinction of being the first state in the union to support crafts.

The Commission undertook a survey to determine the possibilities for such an organization, and also defined their values with regards to quality of works, individuality of expression, and the development of competent instructors. The results of that work were presented in a report to Governor John Winant in September of 1931, with the commission commenting that a statewide league should be formed, independent of government. The formal establishment of that organization occurred in February 1932 as the League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts, with Mrs. Coolidge serving as president. The organization's name was later changed to the League of new Hampshire Craftsmen in 1968, opting for a name which had been the groups original choice in 1931.

Mrs. Coolidge and a Mrs.Colin of North Conway were responsible for the establishment of the local North Conway shop in the early 1930s. The country was entering the Great Depression at the time, an economic condition which Mrs. Coolidge and the League thought could be helped by providing craftsmen with opportunities to sell their work. Mrs. Coolidge was confident that the Mt. Washington Valley was the home of many talented craftsmen who had ample amounts of time to work on their crafts in the off-season, the winter in those years prior to skiing's development in the area. The two women interested others in founding a craftsmen's outlet shortly thereafter, christening the group as the Conways' Home Industries.

Money was tight then as it is today, and the survival of the outfit often depended on the support of the more affluent members in the early days. As current CHI member Carole Schueler recorded in a historical article written for the group, business was not always brisk for the new shop, then located in the Kearsarge Hall's Valley Inn annex where the Forbes Sunoco station now stands in North Conway. Phyllis Foster Greene of North Conway remembers those first years from her own experiences as the shop's first manager with school friend Edith Barnes. The girls were given lunches every day for their efforts for the two years that they managed the shop, and were even given bonuses the second summer of $10 each. Mrs. Greene recalls that the owners of Kearsarge Hall - Edna Ricker and Mary Kinney - often came into the shop to inquire about business for the day. "If nothing had been purchased, they would buy something to make a sale for the day," Mrs. Greene noted, underscoring the way Council members were often the shop's best customers in the lean years.

Items featured in the shop included baskets, knitted garments, wrought iron works created by blacksmilth E. Clotman of Conway and the wood works of a Sandwich resident. Mrs. Greene remembers that craftsmen in Sandwich contributed many of the works carried by the shop, while others had their works shown in North Conway under the assistance of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Local works were also distributed by the League as well to other shops in the state which had been established. Standards were high for the works, all all items featured in the shops were required to pass the tests of a jury, a requirement which continues today.

The North Conway shop was open only during summers in those early years, often starting out the season in May with a balance of ten dollars or less on the books. The shop was moved in 1936 - or thereabouts - to the studio once belonging to Benjamin Champney, founder of the White Mountain School of Artists in the 1800s. Ten dollars was the amount which the group paid to Champney's daughter for the site, a sum which was more than reasonable. Throughout the rest of the Thirties, the shop continued to grow as the local council sought to gain local consignors and to increase the variety of crafts sold at the North Conway outlet. Members of those early councils included such prominent Valley figures as Mrs. John Shedd, Mrs. Frank Kennett, Mrs. Harold Shedd, Mrs. Henry Hubbell, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Towle, among others. Later members included woodworker and president Rodney Woodard, Ervin Farrington, Deborah Goldman, and many other devoted volunteers.

The League has had many homes throughout the years, as funds were insufficient to purchase a building and various locations were tested, always on a rental arrangement. Following its extended stay at the Champney studio on South Main Street, Conways' Home Industries moved in 1948 to a building know as the A.D Davis barn across from the Eastern Slope Inn, and then to the Mason family's playhouse in 1950 where the Superintendent of Schools now houses his office. Other locations included a building owned Joe Jones on the site of what is now the Chez Alain restaurant. They remained there until 1956 when the group was forced to find a new home once again. They found it when they leased the present site from Elmer and Abbie Downs under an agreement which called for a 100-month occupancy at $45 per month. According to CHI historian Carole Schueler, the lease was written as a contract between the Downs and the League of Arts and Crafts instead of with the Conways' Home Industries. The parent organization provided financial backing, while the CHI was required to pay utility fees, the shop manager's salary (no longer a meager $10 bonus or free lunch), and craftsmen's commissions. Any surplus was to be sent ot the League's headquarters in Concord to help pay off Conway's debt.

During that period of constant moving in the late 1930s and 1940s, the North Conway shop streamlined its operations, often using methods which are amusing in retrospect. Managers were paid small salaries over the summer, and sometimes received a bonus of $25 at the most after all the bills had been paid and $10-$15 had been left in the treasury for next year's opening. Some years saw business much better than others, however, such as in 1946 after the was when a balance of $214.84 remained in the bank. The manager's salary was increased as a result, but the bonus was discontinued.

When expenses exceeded the income in the early 1950s, the manager would take a "vacation" of sorts so that the shop could either be closed or run by council members who volunteered their time. Such actions illustrate the commitment of the individuals involved with the organization, devising a multitude of unusual methods to keep the shop financially solvent and operating. Those efforts in the 1960s included an occasional exhibit or stand at the local lodges in the Valley by members of the council of the works from the shop. As Carole Schueler stated, "It was a matter of the council members bringing the business to the people when the people weren't coming to the shop."

Arrangements had been made in the fall of 1945 to operate a winter shop for the Conways' Home Industries in space in the Dondero Block in North Conway. Prior to that time, knitters sold their goods through the "Eastern Slopes Ski Crafts" shop started by Mrs. Harvey Dow Gibson, wife of one of North Conway's more civic minded and helpful sons.

CHI continued to remain open for the winter and summer during the 1950s, although it closed for the slow periods in late fall and early spring. During the late 1950s, the CHI flourished in their permanent home in the Downs building on Main Street. Sales increased, craft classes, which had always been a major aspect of the CHI and League's educational goals, continued to be offered, and guest lecturers presented discussions on various subjects pertaining to their art and craft work. The local group purchased an additional building in the early 1960s and later acquired the smaller building and grounds through the assistance of the League. The League was also experiencing periods of growth and maturation during 1950s under the guidance of its director, the late Dave Campbell. Campbell pursued year-round markets for the craftsmen of the state in an effort to make it viable for them to support themselves solely through their craftwork without sacrificing standards.

Conways' Home Industries now shows positive signs of growth and new direction following an unstable period of recent years, according to CHI president Joan Sherman. Financial troubles and difficulty stocking local craftsmen's works led to the parent organization's takeover of the North Conway shop for a transitional period of five years in 1978. While still a controversial matter between local CHI members and the League, Joan Sherman and others have been actively working to resolve the differences while working together to plan for the shop's future. As the CHI president noted, "There was a time of bitterness when the League stepped in, some of which lingers. They did undertake a number of positive measures, however, such as the physical plant improvements which had been needed for some time. Merchandise was upgraded and brought in from other parts of the state to give the shop an extensive stock of work as well. The shop is now showing increases in business, thanks to the League's work and the management provided by shop manager Sally Schipellite."

The educational programs offered by the Conway's Home Industries throughout the transition period have also been strongly supported, leading Mrs. Sherman to look ahead positively as both groups mark their half-century of existence. "Presumably, at the end of the period in two years, the shop will be given back to the locals if we can prove that we're financially able to do so. We're currently working toward that goal, bringing new enthusiasm into the organizaiton, and continuing to offer the best possible classes with local craftsmen," the presicent continued, commenting that the time had come for the groups to patch their differences. "We're holding a dinner party on Sunday, March 15th, to honor past and present League and CHI members for their work. I'm conficdent that the results will be positive for all."

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