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3:15 AM Mon, Sept. 24th

Days Past: Sharlot Hall’s Folk Arts Fair: Keeping pop culture alive since 1974

Dennis O’Reilly, Furniture Caner Extraordinaire. (Courier photo)

Dennis O’Reilly, Furniture Caner Extraordinaire. (Courier photo)

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Panning for gold at Folk Arts Fair, June 2016. (Sharlot Hall Museum/Courtesy)

Dr. Ken Kimsey had an idea. Angie Henrie had the drive to bring it to life. The result was Sharlot Hall Museum’s Folk Arts Fair, which will energize the institution’s normally quiet grounds next week for the 44th straight year.

Dr. Kimsey had taken over as director of the museum in 1973, and was looking for various ways to encourage its growth. He had grand plans to enlarge the facilities by adding new exhibits and new buildings. But how to get more people to come see these things? More importantly, how to educate visitors about their significance to the past and their relevance to the present? His answer: create an education event open to the public that would give people a feel for the past while providing an enjoyable experience.

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Ken Kimsey, Director, Sharlot Hall Museum, 1974-1975. (Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum, call number PO-0140PB)

The result was the first Folk Arts Fair, held in the autumn of 1974. The Curator of Education at the time was Angeline (Angie) Henrie. She was tasked as the Fair Coordinator to decide how to implement Dr. Kimsey’s grand idea. Ms. Henrie enlisted the help of volunteers to demonstrate crafts which had all but disappeared, such as needlework, tatting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, gold panning, leather working, wood carving and powder horn making.

In a 1978 interview, Ms. Henrie estimated that there were about 25 participants demonstrating the various crafts during the first fair. She said about 500 visitors attended the event. By 1977, these numbers had mushroomed to 165 crafters and several thousand visitors. The event became so big that Angie formed a volunteer committee to plan, coordinate and implement the Fair.

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Myra Pettit selling popcorn at Folk Arts Fair, June 1978. Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum, call number PO-0373P

Demonstrators came from all walks of life. Some were policemen and firemen, some worked in offices, some came from local farms and ranches. Some learned their crafts from their parents, who learned from their parents, and so on. Others did research and talked to seniors they knew who learned the skills long ago. They all shared an interest in and love for “the spirit of the pioneers,” and a keen desire to keep the skills alive and pass them forward.

After the initial Fair, the next few were held in the spring. In 1978 construction issues around the campus forced it back to the fall. Since 1979, it has been held exclusively in the spring, as a harbinger of the area’s active summer season.

Activities have come and gone over the years as practitioners of the crafts have done the same. Things like china and card painting, sheep shearing, apple-head doll making and soap making have been replaced by chair caning, Dutch oven cooking, corn husk doll making and hair art.

As the Fair grew in popularity, it was used as an opportunity to introduce or re-introduce new facilities, or old ones that had been renewed. In May 1976, the Bashford House, which had been moved onto the grounds in 1974, was opened to the public with a special dedication ceremony after a painstaking restoration. The Governor’s Mansion’s doors were re-opened at the 1983 Fair after its own restoration between 1981 and 1983. The old building was transformed from a “cabinet of curiosities,” with Sharlot’s collection spread about in a haphazard fashion, to a modern museum showplace with thematic rooms presented much as they appeared in the time of Governor Richard McCormick based on his wife Margaret’s detailed diary, along with corroborating documentation from contemporaries.

But it is the folks who volunteer their time and expertise to demonstrate the “old ways” that bring the Fair to life. People like Dennis O’Reilly, who has shown the lost art of chair caning for visitors at the museum’s gazebo for decades; Bill Neely, who shows off his magnificent talent for carving beautiful wooden figures; and Janet Travis, who perpetuates the unique art of needle tatting, along with coordinating the Prescott Antiques Auto Club’s impressive display of vintage cars in the museum’s upper parking lot.

These and many other demonstrators will be on hand to give us a tantalizing peek at the ways of yesteryear during the 2017 Folk Arts Fair at Sharlot Hall Museum on Saturday and Sunday, June 3-4. Fair hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is just $9, $5 for members, and children 17 and younger get in free. Dr. Kimsey and Ms. Henrie would be proud!

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.