By Brandi Underwood
Cars jammed the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center parking lot Friday, the first day of the 49th annual Arts and Crafts Fair, the core event of the 17th annual Appalachian Festival.
The spoils of 108 different vendors sprawled across table tops, propped against partitions and some food sellers scooped their stock into sample-sized servings for passers-by to pick up and pop into their mouths.
“We have had a steady turnout all day long, and we were a little surprised. Friday is usually not quite as big. Saturday is our busiest day, but it’s been busy all day today,” said Ellen Taylor, president and CEO of BRCCC.
The reasoning for hitting the fair on its opening day was pretty straight forward.
“Better selection,” said Yvonne Harp of Fayetteville, who left the fair with a hand-painted wooden Santa sculpture.
Christmas decorations are a popular commodity at the fair, but items of all sorts can be found while wandering through the labyrinth of eclectic booths.
Wayne King brought his Datil Sensation hot sauces from Bristol, Va., to spice up the fair’s selection. King grows all of his own peppers, and his Datil pepper-spiced sauces range from salsas to jellies to salad dressings, with 12 different products total.
King explained that he likes to sample his products because he wants people to know what they’re getting, “and the flavor sells it,” he said.
Andrea Acord and her grandmother Nancy Acord, of Wyoming County, both self-proclaimed fans of heat, didn’t shy away when King pulled out his Viper sauce, spiced with scorpion and ghost chilies. King playfully refers to the sauce as “the bad guy.”
“Now this one’s going to be hot,” King warned, before handing the hot-sauce-laced tortilla chip to Andrea.
“A lot of hot sauces will have the heat but don’t have the flavor, but that has both of them so it’s really good,” Acord said, after sampling the Viper.
2013 marks King’s seventh year at Appalachian Festival, but he’s been growing his own peppers for about 50 years, he said. During the year, he zigzags to fairs and festivals all over the East Coast. Last weekend, King said he sold more than 300 bottles at the Blacksburg, Va., Steppin’ Out Festival.
While pepper-spiced jellies may not be the norm for many people’s palates, King explained that their versatility makes them good on more than just breakfast fare.
“Jellies are getting popular on foods now. You can put them on pork chops or chicken breasts or glaze a ham with it,” King said. “They used to put pineapple rings on ham. I do it with the jelly and just spread it on there.”
If your fingers get sticky from the spicy jelly samples at Datil Sensation, arts and crafters can head over to see Judy Kessel at her Willow Wood Soaps stand. Retired teacher and Beckley native Kessel has been making homemade soaps for 25 years, which began as an effort among three friends to start selling a craft to make some extra money.
“In the beginning we buried a lot of soap in backyards,” Kessel said, laughing. “Because, you know, soap is caustic if you mess it up, and it can burn you pretty badly.”
After perfecting the recipe, Willow Wood Soaps participated in its first Arts and Crafts Festival 25 years ago, and has been returning each year since.
Top sellers include clove bud and blackberry sage scents, as well as the hunting soap for men.
Packaged in a camouflage cloth, the hunter’s scent leaves the user smelling like leaves and dirt, Kessel explained.
“That one was my son’s idea. He used to take leaves from the backyard and crunch them up and put them in his hunting clothes,” said Kessel.
Now, those who lather up with the woody scent can camouflage themselves even better when hunting season rolls around.
With handmade and primitive items comprising the essence of the Appalachian Festival theme, the distinct cultural flair draws visitors from all over.
Penny Harris, of Pittsburgh, drove down to the fair with her sister after catching wind of the event from friends.
“We heard it was wonderful. We heard they had so many unique things that we can’t find at home, and that’s absolutely true,” Harris said.
“This is our third run to the car. We might have to buy another car to take this stuff home,” she said, laughing.
The Arts and Crafts Fair will run today from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Other Appalachian Festival events include:
-- Artists demonstrations and a juried art exhibit from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Cynthia Bickey Gallery inside Beckley Art Center on Johnstown Road.
-- The gallery will also host a make and take workshop from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in which adults and children can create a small watercolor painting to take home.
-- Participants can make and take a traditional mountain craft at the Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia from 10 a.m. to noon.
-- A coal mining photo exhibit by George Bragg will be on display at Crossroads Mall.
-- The big event of the evening will be the Taste of Appalachia, a block party showcasing the flavor and music of Appalachia in Beckley’s Historic District. In addition to cuisine from local restaurants, there will be performances by Clinton Collins & the Creek Boys and the New River Jazz Band in Uptown Beckley at Main and Neville streets from 6 to 9 p.m.
-- Another evening activity is the Historic Beckley Ghost Tour, which explores local history and unusual happenings. The tour takes from 60 to 90 minutes and starts in front of the Raleigh County Courthouse.
-- A variety of activities in the New River Gorge National Park are available as well, including ranger-led activities to learn more about nature.
-- Craft demonstrations of textiles and turned wood will be available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Sunday at Tamarack.
-- An Oldies Car Show by Shade Tree Car Club will be Sunday at Crossroads Mall; registration is from 10 a.m. to noon and the show will be from noon to 6 p.m.
-- Tours of Historic Wildwood House, home of Beckley’s founder, Gen. Alfred Beckley, showcase materials dating back through the 19th century and a doll collection. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m.
-- Tamarack’s weekly Sunday@Two performance will feature Bobby Maynard and Breakdown.
For more information, including ticket prices, visit www.appalachianfestival.net or call the Beckley-Raleigh Chamber of Commerce at 304-252-7328.
— E-mail: bunderwood