By Gina Malone
When it comes to the promotion of itself as a destination, the little town of Dillsboro has the history and the people to back it up as a true center of Appalachian craftsmanship. Inside the cozy tourist cabins that make up Dogwood Crafters, 85 artists display everything from stained glass to cornshuck dolls, many of the goods qualifying as heritage crafts. Just up the hill, Susan Leveille Morgan runs Oaks Gallery at Riverwood Shops. It is with her family that much of the region’s crafting history got its start.
When she attended Penland School of Crafts at age ten, determined to learn weaving, Morgan had family tradition on her side. Her great-aunt was Lucy Morgan who, in the 1920s worked with local women in Mitchell County to develop their weaving skills into a means of supplementing their incomes. In 1929, the initiative evolved into Penland School of Crafts. Susan’s aunt, Frances Cargill, ran the Nonah Weavers in Cartoogechaye and her father, Dr. Ralph Morgan, paid his way through medical school by crafting pewter, a skill he had learned at Penland. He and Susan’s mother Ruth opened Riverwood Crafts Shop in Dillsboro, so that artists could live and work in and near their shops creating, selling and demonstrating handmade goods such as pottery, weaving and jewelry.
“The older I get, the more treasured I feel my heritage to be,” Susan says. “The family that I come from was, of course, none of my doing, but it sure did set the stage for my life. And the man I married made it flourish.” She and her husband Robert Leveille, have run several businesses in Dillsboro, including Riverwood Handweaving. A lifetime member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, her weaving and teaching of the craft earned her the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2014.
Dogwood Crafters began in 1976 with just 12 crafters and a lease on what had once been tourist cabins on a downtown street. Ten years ago with many more crafters as part of the cooperative, the group got the chance to purchase the building, which they accomplished through grants, fundraisers and a loan that was paid off in short time. “Those beginning people brought it from nothing to the building here today,” says Brenda Anders who serves as current president and has been a member since 1978. Today, a third tourist cabin as well as an addition on back, along with the original space, house beautifully crafted items arranged by category: children’s toys, Christmas ornaments, kitchen goods and much more.
“Dogwood is more than an outlet for local crafters to sell their crafts,” says fiber artist Claudia Lampley. “It is a family of sorts that encourages us in exploring and developing our skills as craftspeople.” Three generations of Tony Cariveau’s family are members. His mother-in-law Ramona Eddy, at 91, is a master woodcarver. Her daughter Janis is also a woodcarver, Tony creates crafts involving cordage and their son Barrett makes chainmaille jewelry.
“It still amazes me at the amount and quality of what we have to offer,” says Diane Nutty, who hand knits stuffed animals. Joyce Lantz moved to Dillsboro more than 10 years ago. “Dogwood means the world to me for the outlet it provides for so many and the good work that it does for this community.”