In the fall of 2005 I found a message on my shop’s answering machine from Kelly Mehler, who had seen my Fine Woodworking article on designing built-ins and wondered whether I’d like to teach a cabinetmaking class the following summer at his school on the outskirts of Berea, Ky. I was single at the time, running my business with one employee and dividing my evenings and weekends between finishing my house (installing wooden floors and trim, framing and drywalling stud walls to subdivide the attic, painting) and establishing a garden. I’d recently turned 46 and had no grand vision for how I wanted the rest of my life to look; it was all I could do to keep things together emotionally and financially day by day. So Kelly’s invitation was like a ray of sunshine. I leapt at the chance to teach and chose the week of my 47th birthday for the class to ensure I’d have something cheerful going on.
I was thrilled to find the school located in an idyllic setting at the end of a long gravel drive. Surrounded by rolling hills and forest, it was a two-story building with tall windows and plenty of natural light. There was an enviably equipped machine shop on the ground floor, a bench room above and air conditioning — a serious boon in the Midwestern summer. As an instructor, I stayed in the delightful cabin next to the shop, while Kelly and his wife, Teri, lived just up the hill in an old log house built for Swedish weaver Anna Ernberg, who had been hired decades earlier to lead the weaving program at Berea College. The class was small, the people friendly, the food great. I could not have imagined a happier introduction to teaching.
Over the next several years I taught a few more times at Kelly’s school. One year, he and Teri invited me to join them for a Fourth of July party at the home of some friends whose house was high up on a hill with a great view of the fireworks display. A bunch of people at the party worked for Berea College, and I was fascinated to learn a bit about the institution, which is committed to educating the young people of Appalachia and — astonishingly — tuition-free. What a concept, especially at a time when so many students go tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars into debt for a college degree!
Fast forward a few years. Kelly and Teri had retired and sold their property to Berea College, which re-opened the shop as the Woodworking School at Pine Croft, with North Bennet Street School alum Andy Glenn at its head. Andy contacted me to ask whether I’d like to teach in the summer of 2020, and we settled on a week-long class on my version of Voysey’s 1898 design for a two-heart chair. We also agreed that I would give a presentation one evening about English Arts & Crafts furniture for students and members of the local community who might be interested. The topic seemed ideal because I could see all kinds of parallels between the values upheld by Berea College and the philosophy of John Ruskin that had given the Arts & Crafts movement its spark. For example, Ruskin held that traditional craft work, pursued in circumstances that allow the individual craftsperson some freedom of expression, poses challenges, requires endless learning and allows for wholesome satisfactions, all of which Ruskin thought essential to a fully human life. Nor did Ruskin wish a fully human life only for those of his socio-economic level, but for all.
That class would have taken place a few weeks ago. But as with so many other events this year, it was cancelled, along with the other classes at Pine Croft scheduled for 2020. Berea College was among the first to send students home and end on-campus activities in March, the decision based on the institution’s avowed commitment to the kinship of all people and the dignity of all labor. Such respect implies “an obligation for each other’s safety and wellbeing.” said Aaron Beale, Director of Student Craft, when I spoke with him recently. He added: “We are lucky we’re in a situation where we can make those decisions. It seemed clear that we couldn’t start the summer with those early classes in May and June, and it seemed unlikely that there would be a miraculous change” going into the later months. It was a hard decision to make; Andy had worked hard to pull together a group of instructors for the inaugural season, but Aaron said “it didn’t seem right to string people along for something that wasn’t likely to happen at all,” considering that classes would have involved people traveling, then being taught in confined spaces.
Despite the cancellation, I wanted to learn more about how Berea College’s commitments expressed so many of Ruskin’s convictions regarding education and work. So I arranged a conference call with Aaron, Andy and Chris Miller, associate director and curator of the Appalachian Center.
Founded in 1855 by John Fee, a Presbyterian minister who was an abolitionist, Berea College originally focused on providing an education to freed people of color. That mission changed in 1904, when the college was forced to segregate by the Day Law. The college, Aaron told me, “elected to focus on the education of white students from Appalachia here in Berea, and split its endowment to also form The Lincoln Institute in Shelby County, Ky.” This school operated as an all-black boarding high school from 1912 to 1966.
“At that time, a college education was far rarer than today,” Chris elaborated. “It was considered elite. Berea was a pioneer in educating common people, whether freed slaves, children of farmers, whatever. One of the ways we differed from other colleges providing a liberal arts education: we had a more progressive idea of what education means.” Leaders of the college’s policies integrated the ideals of the Sloyd and YMCA movements, which focused on educating the whole person. Early in the 20th century they ran an outreach program — a preacher would preach a sermon, then someone might provide the latest instruction on planting beans, followed by someone else discussing Shakespeare. (Returning to echoes of Arts & Crafts values, this was not unlike the broad range of character-enriching programs offered to members of the local community by Englishman C.R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicrafts when it moved to the Cotswolds, west of London: the idea was to provide education for everybody and for the whole person.)
Since then, the leaders of Berea College have continually experimented with how to put those same ideals into practice. Today, for example, in addition to programs in agriculture they have emphasized organic and sustainable local agriculture. Another example: the college has a four-year liberal arts nursing degree — nursing is not typically taught in the context of the liberal arts. There’s a program in technology and applied design, and all students in the business school have to take the liberal arts core. A program called “Entrepreneurship for the Public Good” responds to the urgent need to create sustainable businesses in Appalachia, ideally to encourage students to stay in the region instead of leaving. “We expose them to an ethic of service,” Chris said, “because it infuses the institution.”
Since 1892 the college has been tuition-free. How do you manage that? I asked. The greatest factor in making it possible is a $1.2 billion endowment. Unlike most colleges with substantial endowments, which re-invest interest income back into the endowment, Aaron pointed out that Berea College “puts 100 percent of the return…to work for students, paying their tuition and offering the other programs that make Berea so special.” Another significant factor is that most students qualify for federal, state and other financial aid. One of the most unusual features of Berea College is its student-run income-producing enterprises, such as the college farm store and the Boone Tavern, which the college built in 1909 to house visitors and still operates today. From its inception, the tuition-free education has also depended on income from the sale of student-made products in the crafts of wood, weaving, ceramics and broom making. Beyond attempting to generate income for tuition, these enterprises broaden the range of educational offerings to encompass hands-on skills that are rarely taught at academic institutions of higher education.
Despite all these sources of tuition-supporting revenue, the college must still raise $4 to $5 million annually through an appeal to donors known as “The Berea Fund.”
The college also has a Forestry Department — appropriate, considering that the institution owns nearly 10,000 forested acres held in a carbon sequester program. It’s the oldest privately managed forest in Kentucky and one of the oldest in the entire United States. Berea College has been a pioneer in managing forest sustainably. They log in the least-damaging way — with horses — and just hired a second team of horse loggers. Although the college does not offer a degree in forestry as such, its forestry studies are run through the agriculture department. Wendy Warren runs the forestry outreach center and lives in the cabin where instructors at Kelly’s woodworking school used to stay.
“It really is all about the forest,” added Aaron, returning to the reasoning behind the college’s purchase of the Mehlers’ home. “The [Pine Croft] property is about 15 acres and borders the college forest on two sides. We didn’t want to see that property subdivided into 15 properties.” The Mehlers’ former home also included two structures that tie in with the college’s mission: the main house (now a bed and breakfast, which fits the mission of bringing people into the forest) and the woodworking school, which furthers opportunities to live up to one of the college’s principle missions, a commitment to the dignity of all labor, not just white-collar professions.
Berea and Craft
The town of Berea, which grew up around the original college, has long been recognized as a center of craft and cultivated a market for tourists interested in buying work that’s locally made. In recent years, Berea’s approach has shifted from simply promoting the sale of completed objects to exhibitions of craft in process, as well as encouraging visitors to participate in the making. This, too, factored into the opening of the Woodworking School at Pine Croft. Although Berea College has long had a woodworking department with staff instructors, Pine Croft would allow the college to bring other craftspeople who teach into the area. “The college has been limited vis-a-vis student craft,” Andy explained. “There are typically 20 to 25 students; most have never held a woodworking tool before their first day. Pine Croft allows us to expose our student population to master craftspeople and brings master craftspeople into the region, which is important to the mission of college. Again, it’s about the dignity of labor. Woodworking is a trade that deserves respect. Bringing high-quality work to the area is another way the college sees itself partnering with the region” — to which Chris added: “It helps people see that Appalachia is not just a ‘deficit situation,’ but has a lot to offer the world.”
Andy’s job goes well beyond teaching; he’s also responsible for making products for sale — rolling pins, cutting boards and a wooden stool with a hickory bark seat, the last of these made with wood and bark from the college forest. The proceeds from sales help support the costs associated with tuition.
“My job is to train the students so that we can make the crafts,” Andy explained. This is not as simple as it sounds. The most profitable way to make these items would be by adopting some modified form of assembly-line production, in which each student would master just one part of the process instead of learning the whole. But that would be inconsistent with the college’s commitment to training students for their own benefit in addition to giving them a way to help support their own tuition. It’s a challenge to convey the richness of handcraft while being as productive as possible.
“It’s a real tension,” Aaron acknowledged. “Andy has two jobs that are compatible, but both extremely demanding — running wood craft, the woodworking component of the student craft program, but in addition, Andy also is the head of the Woodworking School at Pine Croft. Andy really does do two separate full-time jobs.” As with the other student craft programs, the goal since the 1890s has been to run an enterprise to support the running of the college. Aaron conceded that for the past century, these programs haven’t made a profit; in fact, they regularly run a deficit. But instructors and students do still approach the work as a business; they face real production demands, as opposed to the ethos in most craft schools, which allow students a temporary respite from the financial and time constraints of regular jobs so that they can really focus on mastering skills. Andy has to teach and provide an environment that links up with the college’s mission, all while turning out saleable goods.
The wood craft program also takes special orders, which make up between 30-40 percent of their work. These jobs have run the gamut from simple recycling bins with solid wood doors to pieces of fine craft, such as a recent run of 18 chairs in the Federal style for the president’s home on campus. Andy and the students will also build a 17’-long table. In addition, Andy has increased the use of hand tools. The same elevation of appreciation for material culture applies to the other craft departments. As Andy put it, “We’re making items that have a story to tell, that we can be proud of and that link to the college values.”
With students off campus (there would ordinarily be about 20 of them helping), Andy is running the shop’s production with his shop assistant, Natalie Brown, who gained her woodworking skills during a residency in art at the University of Iowa.
Andy joined the staff in 2017, when he was hired as head of wood craft. He and his family had been living in Rockport, Maine, where he worked as a woodworker after teaching and working in other capacities at North Bennet Street School.
Woodworking has always been an integral part of his life. Both of his grandfathers had wood shops; one worked on a 150-acre farm outside Ashland, Ohio, while the other, who lived in Ashland and worked as the town milkman, had a small basement shop where Andy spent a lot of time making things.
Andy graduated with a degree in business economics from the College of Wooster, Ohio. In 2004, straight after college, he and his wife, Sarah, got married. They moved to Cambridge, Mass., so Sarah could pursue a master’s degree at the Longy School of Music. Andy found work as business director for a school but realized the job involved too much administration for his liking. “I was chasing numbers all day,” he laughs, recalling himself thinking “’Look at my hands. There are no callouses anymore!’ In a weird way I recognized I just wanted to work with my hands.”
North Bennet Street School was two miles from where they lived; he took some classes, then went through the cabinetmaking and furniture program from 2006 to 2008. While he was a student, he also did a significant amount of teaching, worked as caretaker for the building and helped create the curriculum for (in addition to teaching in) a middle school program that was a partnership between NBSS and local public schools.
Despite all of this extracurricular work, he had to take on some debt. He found himself graduating into the Great Recession, which was daunting, but says “I was still excited. Still am. Which has served me well as a woodworker.”
Sarah graduated with a degree in violin performance, then went on to work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant manager of Education and Community Engagement.
Meanwhile, Andy had become friends with Freddy Roman as a student at NBSS. When Freddy left his part-time employment with Phil Lowe at the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, Andy took over his role.
His next job was back at NBSS. At that time, he says, the school “was in an old structure, three buildings cobbled together to make one. I was on site for troubleshooting and routine (and after-hours) care. There were annual issues with fires in the sewer.” Having someone on site was critical. He also did such mundane jobs as taking out the trash and says “I loved every moment of it…. The school moved around the time I left, though it only moved a few blocks within the North End neighborhood of Boston. The new school building was renovated and outfitted to house the growing school.”
Andy and Sarah had a daughter, then a son. As the school was getting ready to move to a new location, Andy moved on to a position with a shipyard in Belfast, ME. “The dream was making wispy shavings on wooden boats. The reality was, I was a wearing a Tyvek suit grinding fiberglass. It was the job. In a weird way, I enjoyed it, but I only enjoyed it because I left it. Those people put in hard days and they love boats. Boats are something in your blood. They would come to work on these boats and ships, talk boats at lunch, and go home to work on their own boats.”
Next he got a job at a cabinet and furniture shop, Phi Home Designs in Rockport, ME, which made high-end residential cabinetry and furniture commissions. Andy did both. “That was a great position and a great education.” After leaving that job, he started doing his own work, piecing his income together from multiple sources, including commissions outsourced by other shops. He also taught at NBSS one week a month. “That was going well. I was working hard. But it wasn’t working for our family for me to be gone a week per month. Sarah was at home with the kids in midwinter. My travel and unpredictable schedule put too much stress on our young family.” They were open to something different.
Had they stayed in Maine, Andy would have had to get some kind of more stable employment with benefits, almost certainly not in woodworking. “I love woodworking,” he explains. “But it’s definitely secondary to family. I was really excited and grateful when the job opening came up in Berea.” He started the job in the summer of 2017.
“The students here are wonderful,” he says. “There’s very little entitlement. The students are grateful for the opportunity. They’re thankful to be at the college. Most of the students who work in the shop — you never know how they’ll use these skills going forward.”
Andy wrote to me separately that when it’s safe to resume classes at Pine Croft, Kelly Mehler will return to teach (and just generally be around the place) as often as he likes. Andy, too, will be teaching a number of courses. He asked me to point out that in choosing visiting instructors who are deep in knowledge, skills and expertise within the field of craft woodworking, he and his colleagues bore in mind the interracial and coeducational ideals and commitments of Berea College. “Our goal is to put together a roster that is representative of the woodworking community,” he wrote. “Much like Kelly created, my hope is that the school is a welcoming and special place for people to gather to learn woodworking.”
“I’m proud of the schedule and of our visiting instructors for the first season,” he added. “I’m certain the strength of the visiting staff came together because of the school environment and community that Kelly and Teri created. Peter Galbert and you [i.e., the author of this post] had taught at the school before. Megan Fitzpatrick cut her first dovetails with Kelly at the school. [Megan clarified that they were her first dovetails cut entirely by hand and noted that she has visited the school on multiple locations and loves the place.] I am grateful that Michael Puryear, Cathryn Peters and Brendan Gaffney were open to joining us for our first year.”
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.