In 1963, a Kings Mountain sewing and craft group called the Pine Needles decided to have a craft fair in a big barn on Skyline Boulevard near Bear Gulch East. Local resident Ardyth Woodruff was there helping her mother-in-law, a Pine Needles member.
“We put straw all over the barn floor, because we thought that was folksy,” she says. “Someone had the idea of asking the artists who lived here to put their paintings upstairs, and that’s how it started. We didn’t make much money that first year.”
Woodruff, who is now 87 years old, went on to create many of the first posters for the fair (including the one from 1969, which served as the model for this year’s commemorative poster), to serve as a co-director of the fair with founding member Jean Cole for 15 years, and as the outside exhibition chair for another 10 years. She still shows up every year.
When asked what makes the fair unique, she answers without hesitation, the volunteer spirit.
“Initially what made up the volunteer spirit was to have the fire brigade. Forestry could only put out tree fires, not structure fires. People were passionate about getting equipment and getting people trained. And we did it. Nobody else owns our fire department. We own it.”
Her pride is palpable.
Woodruff says that new people on the mountain are drawn to volunteer at the fair by the need for fire protection and the desire to support the local school, but that they continue to volunteer because they love the fair itself.
Although the fair has grown over the years, many things are still the same.
Woodruff recalls, “The school children sold lemonade and popcorn. The teenagers thought it was fun to try to flag people down.”
To this day, the school children of Kings Mountain, and many from the Coast who attend Kings Mountain School, can still be seen selling popcorn, cookies, and cleaning the lunch trays.
The fair has long since moved from the old barn to the firehouse and community center that was built with money from the fair, and instead of straw, the paths are lined with sawdust, but the atmosphere is still decidedly folksy.
Dawn Neisser, the current executive director of the fair, says that the single biggest change that the fair has undergone, though, was the transition from a local arts and crafts fair to a juried fine arts fair. Once the fair became a juried event, the professionalism and the quality of the art both increased dramatically.
The creation of the Mountain Folk Art was also an important step historically, “So we didn’t lose the local flavor,” said Neisser.
Don’t expect any dramatic changes in the near future, though.
“We are trying to keep that rural, fine art feel," said Neisser. "For the last 15-20 years, there’s been a focus on improvement, testing new food in the grill, introducing the shuttles. Every area has tried to make the process smoother.”
Patrons of the 50th annual fair will notice the milestone, however.
“The excitement for the 50th is very high for everyone: the volunteers, the artists, and our patrons,” said Neisser.
She adds that fairgoers can expect a more festive air this year, as some 400 volunteers celebrate this anniversary. And if you look at the artist’s name tags, you’ll notice some sort of recognition for their history at the fair.
In the process of planning special celebrations for this year’s event, Neisser compiled a list of all the volunteers that she could find from over the past 50 years, mining old community newsletters for the information. The grand total so far: more than 1,300 volunteers.
“When you stop and think about it, we’re all sort of in awe of what this collective community has done. You don’t find many things that have lasted that long with that much community effort, and in a joyful way,” said Neisser.
This year’s fair will be held Aug. 31, Sept. 1, and Sept. 2. Artist booths are open from 10am to 5pm; breakfast is from 8am to 10:30am; lunch from 11:30am to 4pm.
The fair is held at 13889 Skyline Blvd, about six miles south of Highway 92. Admission is free. Park along Skyline Blvd, and take the free trolley from marked stops, one mile north and one mile south of the main fair entrance.
For more information, visit the website:www.kingsmountainartfair.org.