Lyon College Regional Studies Center
Creation and Development of the Arkansas Folk Festival
and Ozark Folk Center – An Oral History Project
Interviewee: Edwin Luther
Interviewer: Brooks Blevins
Date: June 19, 2003
Place: Mountain View, Arkansas
Blevins: This is June 19, 2003. I’m Brooks Blevins, and I’m here in Mountain View with Edwin Luther as part of the Lyon College Regional Studies Center’s oral history project on the creation and development of the Arkansas Folk Festival and the Ozark Folk Center. Mr. Luther, could you tell us when and where you were born?
Luther: I was born in Mountain View, Arkansas, December 25, 1922.
Blevins: And you’ve lived here all your life?
Luther: All my life. Yes, sure have.
Blevins: Were your parents natives of Stone County?
Luther: Yes. My father and my mother both.
Blevins: All right. What did they do?
Luther: My father was in business. He was in general merchandise for a while; he was county clerk for 22 years. And my mother was a homemaker and a deputy county clerk. And I’ve been in business. I was in the insurance business from 1952 to 1999.
Blevins: Oh, so you just recently retired then.
Luther: Yeah, just four years ago, three years ago. I’m not doing anything now but fooling with antique cars and tractors and antique engines and that sort of thing.
Blevins: All right. Well, now, tell me, did you grow up in a family that was musically inclined?
Luther: No. Me and my two brothers played in the band, but that’s it, the high school band.
Blevins: Now, you first got involved, I guess, in kind of the folk singing through the craft side, didn’t you?
Luther: Through the craft side and being on the City Council.
Blevins: Okay. Tell me a little bit about how that happened.
Luther: Well, this was . . . The government classed this as a depressed area, five counties in north Arkansas, and we began to work on trying to get some industry in, the city did, and . . . you couldn’t do it, couldn’t get anything in because we had no sewer system, and then didn’t have adequate water. We tried everything. We floated a bond issue and drilled a deep well, and that didn’t work. We were just out without anything much, you know, to improve the economy. They had a special agent with the Extension Service by the name Leo Rainey, but he wasn’t the first one. The first one was a man by the name of Sanders, and then Leo . . . He was transferred to another area, and Leo took his place, and we had several people doing odd crafts, and we decided to organize some kind of a craft organization. We got together with the people that were doing quilts and woodwork and baskets, and all these other crafts, and we had a craft show down on Main Street in one of the buildings here in town, and I think we had about thirty participants, something like that - twenty-five - and they decided to get together and have another one the next year, and they went to Jimmy Driftwood and asked him if he would put on a music show with it, and that’s how it got started. It started from there, and it was all to promote water and sewer and employment in this town, so we got together a group and sent them to Washington, and they visited with Wilbur Mills up there - he was our congressman then - and we . . . Let’s see. There was a . . . Ozarka [Vocational Technical School] was formed about that time, and Wilbur Mills told . . . John Opitz from Conway was the man who overseen this part of Arkansas, and John told me, he said, “Wilbur put his hand on the map over Stone County and said, ‘This is a number-one project.’ And he said, ‘See that you get something done.’” So he came up here and went to pushing music and the craft thing, and it went over pretty good the first time, and it wasn’t long before they hired an architect to draw some plans on a place for the music and the crafts. It went from Ernie Jackson of the University of Arkansas to . . . I don’t know who the architect was who followed him, but it followed the same plan that Ernie had set up, and they kept working and pushing, and finally . . . It was all about the water and sewer, to get industry in here, and finally got grants and a loan from the government, and let contracts and got it started. Tommy Simmons was the mayor. I think Glen Hinkle at the bank was the county chairman of the economic development group. And of course the county officials - everybody went together on it, an all-out project and it’s here today.
Blevins: Tell me a little bit about the creation of the craft guild.
Luther: The craft guild was created as a cooperative - a cooperative place - and it was linked to five counties, and then they established shops at Heber Springs, Mountain View, Salem, and Clinton . . . Had a shop at Hardy. Had a shop in each county of the five counties, and they were log-cabin type buildings. They worked well to start with, but they never were very profitable. The thing that kept the craft guild going was its craft shows, and we built up a good clientele for crafts through those craft shows. The people that were working the craft part of it did - a lot of them - did real well. Some of them didn’t do so well. And they ended up . . . We expanded the five counties to as far south as a line across the state at Little Rock, and that . . . We established shops in several different places - Hot Springs, Little Rock - and then they went state-wide, and they have craft people from all over Arkansas now. They’re having a little problem now, but they’re working it out. They’re going back to basics and starting all over again. They’ll make it work, I’m sure.
Blevins: The very first Folk Festival in 1963 . . . Tell me a little bit about that, what it was like to be in Mountain View for that first festival.
Luther: Well, the old gentlemen that always sat on the corner at Charlie Smith’s store, they talked about . . . Had some television advertisement, we had newspaper advertising, we’d had several people in here, and it was promoted pretty well, and they . . . They didn’t expect anybody to be in town, and on Friday morning of the first festival, one of the old gentlemen said, “Where’s all that ten thousand people that’s supposed to be here today?” Well, by two o’clock that afternoon, he changed his mind, because the town was full of people, and I’d like to see what some of those old boys would say today if they were still here. They couldn’t believe it. And it just kept getting bigger.
Blevins: So a lot of the local people just didn’t think anything would really happen.
Luther: No, they didn’t think anything would really happen. They said, “Why would anybody want to come to Mountain View, Arkansas, for?” Well, today that’s part of the . . . Outside of the cattle industry, I guess that’s about the biggest industry we’ve got.
Blevins: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about Jimmy Driftwood, how he was and what role he played in that early part.
Luther: Well, he didn’t want to join in, at first, and the county agent, Leo Rainey, went to talk to him and convinced him it might be worthwhile, so he joined them and he went to Washington with a group, and he formed the Rackensack Society. Now I don’t know too much about how that organization worked and how it was formed, but they had the older group and the younger group. The younger group . . . Before the Folk Center was built, they performed at the high school gymnasium, and one night the younger group would perform, and the next night then the . . . It was always the night before the festival started that the younger group performed, and they always had a crowd. Jimmy was kind of an odd character in some ways. He wanted to lead, but he still wanted to be the ramrod, you know. He caused quite a controversy a few times, but they always got it worked out.
Blevins: Now, you mentioned you were on the City Council when the Festival started. Were you still on the City Council by the time the planning for the Folk Center started?
Luther: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was on there ten years.
Blevins: Okay. Now, I know there was a lot of political division and controversy there in the years right before the Center opened. You know, there were different . . . There was a segment of the town that didn’t want the Folk Center, and then there was a part of the town that did want the Folk Center.
Luther: Well, why the segment that didn’t want it so much is it was they doubted it ever coming to be. They were skeptical of the fact that it would ever be, and until the money was approved, construction started, and . . . And there were some people that . . . We had a bond issue back in nineteen and fifty . . . three or four, somewhere in that area - I don’t remember what year - but anyway, we needed to build a new hall, a new City Hall, in 1972, and we redid the bonds and lowered the interest rate. Recalled the bonds and lowered the interest rate, and everybody in town that voted, voted for it, but one man, and we never could figure out why he voted against it, him and his wife. Two votes against it. But, oh, we had political problems, like all places, but it’s always worked out. The next time, if it’s not right they’ll correct it, the voters will.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, the company that actually built the Folk Center was a company out of New York or somewhere, Advanced Projects.
Luther: Advanced Projects out of New York.
Blevins: Did you ever have any dealings with them?
Luther: I didn’t know any of them.
Blevins: I know they were . . . sent a guy down here that I’ve heard people talk about, Ed Nantell, or something.
Luther: Ed Nantell, yeah. He was the project supervisor.
Blevins: Of course, by the time the Folk Center opened in ’73, it was already under the State Parks and Tourism Department. Did you ever have any immediate dealings with the Folk Center when it first opened?
Luther: Nothing, only I was president of the Craft Guild and we set up a sales shop over there, and that’s how we dealt with that half of it.
Blevins: Okay. Now, as I understand it, when the Center first opened, instead of doing like they do now and contracting with individual craftspeople, they actually did the crafts through the crafts guild.
Luther: The craft guild had charge of the craft program there for a while, and they had the craft show over there, and of course the craft guild didn’t make any money out of it. It got no part of the gate receipts or anything like that, and that’s what we were surviving on, so we went back to the school and then . . . Oh, I don’t remember what year it was, but we bought fourteen acres of land down on the highway and set it up down there on 14, where the offices and everything were, and had the show down there for several years, and then they decided that . . . Well, this other group came in, Working Hands of Arkansas, came in and set up down here at the school, and traffic out that way dropped off, because they went to this show down here instead of our show down at the craft guild grounds. Finally they just quit having a show. Well, they had one in Heber Springs for a while, and then they had this one down here, and then they quit both shows and they’d have a big one in Little Rock at the Excelsior there for years. I don’t know. They got into financial problems here a couple years ago. Well, last year, mainly, and they sold all that property down there, and they have kind of . . . I don’t where there are any other shops besides this one here in town or not, but they have one here on Main Street in Mountain View. I don’t know what the situation is . . . (?) . . . meetings.
Blevins: When you talk about having shows, how often were you having these shows?
Luther: Spring and fall. A spring show in Mountain View and a fall show in Heber Springs.
Blevins: Okay, and this would be like a weekend-long thing?
Luther: Weekends. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Blevins: Now you mentioned this group that I never have heard of: Working Hands of Arkansas or . . .
Luther: I don’t know where they came from. They’re still having shows down here at the Festival.
Blevins: Oh, they do?
Luther: Yeah. Big tent down here right on Main Street. I don’t know who. I see cars there from other states, so I don’t think they’re all from Arkansas. I think they’re coming in from some other places, having a way to get in on the craft thing here, the way I see it. I don’t know. They supposedly had . . . The president of the thing was here, but I don’t know who is in charge of it anymore. They cause a lot of traffic problems. I know that.
Blevins: Yeah. Now when that craft guild was first started, I think . . . The way I remember it, there was a group that went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Luther: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, yes.
Blevins: Okay, and then came back and then started looking around . . .
Luther: They went to Gatlinburg during their fall show, and then later on, after we’d got things set up and going good, we sent another group over there when Tommy Simmons was mayor, and the Craft Guild chartered a bus and took any of the craft people who would go . . . (?) . . . and we had classes in broom making and other, different crafts . . . people over in that area. We have a broom maker here making brooms now who took those classes, and he came back over here. You’ll have to ask Leo his name, because I’ve forgotten his name, but he came back over here three or four years ago - it might have been a little longer than that - and wanted to see us, wanted to talk to the people that was here when he came and taught the courses, and he had - I’ve forgot now how many - five or six . . . But Billy Ford of St. James, he asked him how many brooms he’d sold, that him and his daddy had sold. They took the coursework together, and his mother was a weaver. She and Billy went on this trip over there, and Billy . . . He told Billy . . . He asked Billy; Billy told him how many brooms . . . He asked Billy how many brooms he and his daddy had made and sold. He worked at the Folk Center, too. And he said close to a million. That’s a lot of brooms. ‘Cause they shipped them everywhere.
Blevins: Yeah. Huh. So y’all actually brought in craftsmen from over in Tennessee to come back here and teach.
Blevins: Where did you have your classes?
Luther: Well, they had some of them in Batesville and some of them up here. Had some at the basket making and . . . That was over at the fairgrounds. They taught at the fairgrounds, both places, I think, in Batesville. It was in Batesville where they had . . . (?) . . . I didn’t have any. I didn’t take any of them; I was too busy working.
Blevins: Yeah. Do you practice any kind of traditional craft yourself?
Luther: Not any more. I did woodwork for a while.
Blevins: Oh, you did? That’s how you got involved with . . .
Luther: I got in it just to promote it.
Luther: I had a wood shop, so . . .
Blevins: Now, in those early years, I guess most of the members of the Craft Guild were natives of the region.
Luther: Yes, they were. They were all natives of the five counties. It didn’t extend any farther than that, but . . . And it was doing real well, and then these others wanted to come in, but they were out of the area, so we expanded so they could.
Blevins: Well, what kinds of crafts were some of the people making that were in the Guild?
Luther: Well, making baskets, making brooms, making quilts, weaving rugs, doing apple faced dolls, woodcarvings, shuck dolls - shuckery . . . I’ve forgotten how many of the categories they had that they’d accept people in, but they had . . . Oh, they had crochet, embroidery, and all that kind of stuff.
Blevins: So now I guess the earliest days, a lot of these people . . . Those were really traditional crafts they had learned from their parents or grandparents.
Luther: Yes, I have a basket down here in my barn that my wife’s grandfather wove for a cotton basket when they was . . . his people was picking cotton.
Blevins: Is it a real big old basket?
Luther: About three feet across.
Blevins: Yeah. White oak?
Luther: White oak . . . some reed, but most of it’s white oak in this country.
Blevins: Yeah. The Folk Festival, of course, grew quickly after that first one in ’63, and I think there were a few years where they even spread it out over more than one weekend.
Luther: Yeah, they did. They tried it two weekends for a while, but that didn’t . . . I’d forgot about that, too. They did. I don’t know how long that continued, though.
Blevins: Yeah. Then in the seventies, that was a time when the hippies started coming in here, I guess.
Luther: Yeah. Man, they filled this place. They came in to this country and they went through fences and everything else to find a camping place. I’ve forgotten what year that was that there was so many here, but the police handed out two hundred and sixty-five tickets in three days. Drunk driving and all that stuff. They had them all over the place. It was terrible.
Blevins: Well, I guess that for anybody around town who didn’t like the Festival to start with, that gave them some more ammunition.
Luther: Some more ammunition, yeah, to fuss about it, but there’s not anybody fussing about it now. Aw, they fuss about parking, but everybody fusses about that. The people that try to find a place to park and the people they’re parking on.
Blevins: Now you mentioned that you went to Washington, D.C.
Luther: No, I didn’t go.
Blevins: Oh, you didn’t go. Okay.
Luther: No. Eddie Walker down here can tell you about that trip. He is . . . Well, Tommy Simmons went, Eddie Walker . . . Most of them are dead that made that trip now.
Blevins: Well, Eddie’s on our interview list.
Luther: Is he?
Luther: Well, he’d be good on that, tell you about that trip.
Blevins: Were you still on the City Council at that time?
Blevins: Okay. How do you . . . Just your opinion, how do you think the Folk Festival and the Folk Center have changed Mountain View, for the good, for the bad, for . . .
Luther: Well, if it hadn’t been for the Folk Festival and the crafts and tourism that went to it, we’d never have had the sewer system we’ve got today. And the water - we’d still have been trying to get water out of wells, and it’s changed considerably. There wasn’t a . . . I don’t know how many - I haven’t talked to the Chamber of Commerce lately - but I don’t know how many businesses there is in town and around town; at one time there was a hundred and twenty-five, and wasn’t near that many in 1950, 1960. There’s lots of new construction going on. We’ve got housing developments we didn’t have. We’ve got, let’s see . . . we’ve got six or seven - maybe more than that - housing developments that I know of, and there wasn’t anything going then, maybe a little building here and there where . . . It’s just changed. It’s still a small town, but it’s not a small town. It’s got the problems of a larger town. All the small towns anymore have money problems, but this is one that isn’t having them. We have a one-cent sales tax and we’ve got surplus money in the city’s treasury. I went on the City Council in 1952, and they had . . . In one account they had three dollars and fifty cents, and in another account they had ten dollars, and owed ten thousand dollars.
Blevins: Something was going to have to happen, wasn’t it?
Luther: Yes, something needed to happen. And no water to speak of. Summertime, we just didn’t have any water.
Blevins: Yeah. Would a lot of the wells go dry?
Luther: They’d go dry. We’d drill more wells.
Blevins: Well, the well drillers probably hated the city development.
Luther: We drilled a well down here on Oak Street, Oak Avenue, 1205 feet deep, got two gallon a minute.
Blevins: Getting kind of desperate, weren’t you?
Blevins: Well, Mr. Luther, do you have anything else to . . . Any other memories or anything you’d like to say about the early days of the Folk Festival or Folk Center?
Luther: I don’t think there’s anybody that’s ever . . . that comes up here to the Folk Festival that hasn’t had a ball. I mean, they’re coming back now on the weekends. First, they came to the Festival, then on weekends, now some of them have cabins on the river and some of them have rent places and stay all summer. They didn’t do it back then. Quite a change. And the Bank of Mountain View, I don’t know how many times over it’s tripled its assets.
Blevins: Now, does the city make any money from the Folk Center? They don’t . . .
Luther: No, they don’t take any of the money. They just leased it to Parks and Tourism to manage and pay off the indebtedness, and I haven’t heard anybody complaining about not being paid. I mean, anything said about the bonding companies that have not been paid. But it’s made a change in this area, a definite change. Some say, “Oh, it’s not for the good. It’s not for the good.” When people were working for two dollars and a quarter an hour in 1960-or whatever minimum wage was - people make fifteen dollars an hour now. Some of them make more than that. It’s had quite an influence on the whole area. We have a few people, I suppose, that have become millionaires since the whole thing happened.
Blevins: Yeah. There are some examples, like the Ironworks . . . some of those companies that have really boomed.
Luther: Yeah, there’s been quite a change. I don’t know . . . When I went on the City Council, the population was seven hundred and something. The city limits didn’t pass the traffic light that way, and Vine Street on the other end. It was a mile . . . No, it was a mile and a quarter from city limit to city limit this way, and now, let’s see . . . About four miles, maybe a little farther than that. It’s expanded. Several businesses here. Downtown has changed from the old general store-type of thing to crafts and these kind of shops, and what didn’t change before, Wal-Mart changed. Always does, small towns. Small business, out they go. I don’t think that’s too good.
Blevins: And Mountain View still has a small Wal-Mart compared to most places.
Luther: Oh, yeah, but they’ll be changing one of these days. They’ve got the biggest market setup I know of in the world. They’ll be from Arkansas. Yeah, they’ve changed a lot of things. You’ve got one general store in town, and that’s across the square - Lancaster’s - general merchandise there.
Blevins: The tourists probably go to that just to say they’ve gone to the general store.
Luther: Yeah, they do. The tourists frequent Lancaster’s store quite often, and plenty of them, because they play music right there on the corner every night. . . . (?) . . . They keep busy.
Blevins: Well, think we’re about done? I think I’ve covered the questions I had.
Blevins: Well, Mr. Luther, I thank you very much.
Luther: You’re very welcome. Now I hope I gave you . . . I gave it to you as straight as I could remember it.