Lyon College Regional Studies Center
Creation and Development of the Arkansas Folk Festival
and Ozark Folk Center – An Oral History Project
Interviewee: Kay Thomas
Interviewer: Brooks Blevins
Date: June 25, 2003
Place: Mountain View, Arkansas
Blevins: This is June 25, 2003. I’m Brooks Blevins, and I’m here at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, with Kay Thomas as part of the Lyon College Regional Studies Center’s oral history project on the creation and development of the Arkansas Folk Festival and Ozark Folk Center. Ms. Thomas, could you start out with a little background information? Could you tell us where and when you were born?
Thomas: Okay. I was born July 30th, 1950, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Blevins: Did you grow up in Little Rock?
Thomas: I grew up in Little Rock, yes.
Blevins: All right. Central High or one of the other Highs?
Thomas: I went to Woodruff Elementary School, which was just a few blocks from downtown Little Rock, and went to Cloverdale Junior High and then moved to McClellan. It was Mabelvale and became McClellan High School.
Blevins: Okay, and college?
Thomas: No, I did not attend college. I moved up here when I was . . . It was a month before I turned eighteen, so I moved up here in 1968.
Blevins: Okay. Well, let’s back up just a little. Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you made your first trip to the Folk Festival in ‘66. Is that right?
Thomas: That’s right. My father played the fiddle, and I grew up liking old-time music really well, and you know, in the fifties and sixties, the folk music boom was also the popular music of the day, so I was listening to all of that at the same time Peter, Paul, and Mary were just real popular, Joan Baez, and there’d be an occasional something that I would pick up that my mother would say, “Your grandmother sang that. Where did you get that?” you know, and it would be from something I’d heard, you know, on records or radio, but it was out of that interest that all of us had, my parents and I came up here. We also went to the Rackensack programs at the Arts Center in Little Rock, where Mountain View musicians . . . The Rackensack Folklore Society was very active then from Mountain View, and they had a chapter in Little Rock. George Fisher was their president at that time, so we would attend those sessions, and we became acquainted with a lot of Mountain View people that would come down and perform, and that’s how we started coming up here, and I’m pretty sure that 1966 was the first Festival that we attended. We slept in our car, and it was, you know, torrential rains, but I was hooked. You know, that was it. I really loved the place and the music, and . . .
Blevins: So your whole family came up in ‘66?
Thomas: My mom and dad and I came up.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, you mentioned your dad was a fiddler. Do you play instruments or anything like that?
Thomas: I play the fiddle and the guitar, dulcimer.
Blevins: Okay, and you started that at a young age, I would expect?
Thomas: Yeah. I started trying to play guitar . . . We didn’t have much money, and I didn’t have a case or anything, but my dad got me an old . . . It was a ‘K’ guitar. The action was really high on it, but I went to Reed Music Store when it was right in downtown Little Rock, and I’d go for lessons to learn chords, and I think my dad had great hopes that I’d be able to back him up, because after coming off of farms and things in south Arkansas is where they came from. They’d moved to Little Rock in the 1940’s, and so many Saturday nights - almost every Saturday night - he would drag out his fiddle, and he’d play “Redwing” and “Soldier’s Joy,” and they knew quite a lot of songs, and it was really funny. He never . . . I just knew that he enjoyed it an awful lot, that he didn’t have anybody to play with, but it was a ritual, you know, where he’d get his old fiddle out, and he kept a kind of a red flannel cloth over it, and he’d be . . . rosin flying, you know, and it was an old screeky, scratchy thing, but I don’t know . . . Those tunes were just ingrained, you know, from listening to him play and knowing that that was just really special to him, and he’d just play for a little while, and we’d watch “Gunsmoke,” pop some corn, and call it a Saturday night.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, what was your father’s name?
Thomas: His name was . . . His initials were L.E. Finley, and everybody called him Lonnie, but it was a nickname. It was Lawrence Eldred.
Blevins: Lonnie makes perfect sense.
Thomas: Perfect sense. That’s right. Then he was just a farmer, and his family, I think, originated in Glasgow, or came to this country to Georgia from Glasgow, Scotland, and some of them played fiddle, and there was just a lot of old-time music, and my dad was a wonderful father, and he was forty-five when I was born. He was born in 1905 in Indian Territory, so he’s a good storyteller and a good kind man, but . . . He would rock me to sleep as a little girl, and he would sing . . . I probably had . . . I don’t know how many kids were rocked to sleep with things like “On the Royal Palm in the Ponce de Leon was Laughter Bright and Gay,” and “With a Mighty Crash the Two Great Engines Met,” and “In the Minds of Those Who Lived is a Scene They Can’t Forget.” There were all these train wreck songs, but that was fairly normal to me, was ballads and songs, because he would sing whatever . . . You know, whatever. “Ben DuBarry was a Brave Engineer. He had his throttle wide open; didn’t have any beer.” That was another one.
Blevins: That would have been unusual for people your age, I guess, to . . .
Thomas: It’s a funny set of songs to go to sleep on, but I loved it.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, you mentioned that in ‘68, I guess after you graduated high school, you moved up here, and what prompted you to move to Mountain View?
Thomas: Well, I married and moved to Mountain View. You mentioned Glen Ohrlin earlier. I married Glen Ohrlin.
Blevins: Oh, okay. Well, I didn’t know that.
Thomas: So that’s what prompted me to move up here.
Blevins: All right. No, I didn’t know that. So you moved out to Dodd Mountain.
Thomas: Dodd Mountain. That’s correct.
Blevins: All right. And you had, I guess, met Glen through the music.
Thomas: Through the music.
Blevins: And what did you do when you got here in ‘68?
Thomas: For a while he had a ranch, and for a year or two I just stayed there at home, but then I went to work at the shirt factory, which had come to Mountain View. I went to work in a dress shop in Mountain View after that, worked for Dr. Beck for a short period of time before 1973, when the Folk Center opened, and it was Lynn McSpadden who contacted me about . . . and I think I was at the dress shop at that particular time, and he wanted me to be shopkeeper for the Guild.
Blevins: Okay. Now, before we get into that, tell me a little bit about what Mountain View and what Stone County was like in 1968, especially, I guess, for someone from Little Rock with a different perspective.
Thomas: Well, it was a dirt road - at least partially dirt - on Highway 9. I remember it wasn’t . . . I believe it was in 1968, because I moved up here in June of that year, and either ‘68 or ‘69 that they went ahead and finished the road, but dirt roads and outhouses - which we had an outhouse - wells . . . You know, all of that was totally foreign to me, but I liked it. I liked the community, you know, and the atmosphere. I liked the people. I just really, really enjoyed . . . From the get-go, it was like home to me, so there really wasn’t . . . I do remember somebody saying, “Let’s go to Batesville,” and I used to think, “Well, what’s in Batesville?” and finally I understood, after . . . There really were very few stores and things at the time. Everything was just right on that courthouse square and you know, the hardware store - Ramsey’s Hardware - was right down on the square, and Risner’s Grocery Store - two older brothers, you know - right on the square. There was no Wal-Mart, there was no chain store. I remember when Piggly Wiggly came in, and things like that were a big deal, and so when you went to Batesville, that was the nearest place you could go where there were more shopping opportunities and great selection and that kind of thing, so I got to where I understood what they meant, “Let’s go to Batesville.”
Blevins: Yeah. Go to a big town.
Thomas: Right! But I was really content to go every once in a while. I didn’t have much withdrawal from things like that. I really, really liked . . . the genuineness, I guess, of the life. I liked it a lot.
Blevins: Well, of course, in the late sixties and early seventies the kind of ‘back-to-the-land’ movement was popular. Some of that was intertwined with the hippie culture a little bit. Were you attracted to any of that as part of this?
Thomas: I suppose, although I wasn’t much of a ‘back-to-the-land’-er . . . and in philosophy, probably wasn’t much of a hippie, either, but in popular dress or culture or, you know, that kind of thing, it being the big thing of the day, probably yes. Certainly, stepping out of the mainstream and fairly rebellious, you know, against everything that would have been normal at the time. My family was fairly horrified at what I had done.
Blevins: Yeah, I can imagine. I can imagine that. Now, kind of going ahead to what we started to get into, you mentioned that Lynn McSpadden had contacted you and asked you to be the . . . secretary, or bookkeeper for the Guild, or something like that?
Thomas: Actually, more like a storekeeper or, you know, a shopkeeper, because at the time, in ‘73, the Ozark Foothills Handicraft Guild had an outlet, a shop here at the Folk Center, and they had the contract to supply crafters. There was a lady named Leola Hickey, I believe, who was secretary for the Guild, and we were in the same office. Which the Guild office was where the jewelry shop is now, here at the park. It’s the northwest corner shop on the lower level, and the state had some folks that worked in there. Bill Daum represented the state, and Les Richardson represented Guild interests, and so that was a shop where both areas shared some crafts oversight, and so I didn’t function as secretary, but I managed a shop. The only outlet here for retail sales of any kind that early year was by the Guild.
Blevins: Now how did . . . I know that for the first year or two - maybe year or two - of the Folk Center’s existence that the contract was with the Guild and everything was handled . . . How did that work? How did the artisans get paid, or did they, or what?
Thomas: Well, I wish I could give you more detail on that. I know that Ms. Hickey was the one that wrote . . . you know, would write them their checks. The Guild was a non-profit organization, and they had to set up some kind of a wing or, you know, an entity that could be the profit-making end of that, for music and for crafts, and I honestly can’t tell you how individuals were paid out of the Guild for the work that they did that first year, as far as salary. I do not remember how that worked. Not being the one that did that particular work, I just don’t remember, you know, if they wrote them checks. I’ve heard people say, on the music end of it . . . I’ve heard people say, you know, that they split gate sometimes, and it would be just minuscule amounts of money for . . . You know, a dollar fifteen for an evening performance or something, but I don’t remember any salary, what they paid crafters and how they did that. I remember some of the people that were here - Guild people that were here - in that first year, but I don’t remember their salaries.
Blevins: Well, who were some of the people you remember, and what was their craft?
Thomas: One of the people I remember was . . . There was a man named Jack McCutcheon, and he was a chair maker from the Mount Judea area. The Gibsons were here early on. Don Gibson was here for a little while. Woody Gannaway and Janet Gannaway did baskets. Herschel Hall was a basket maker here. Sloan Leslie was a gunsmith here. And Ollie Gilbert was in our . . . There was a songs and such building, and they featured a lot of singers and musicians in there. There was Jimmy Ford, and Billy Ford did brooms; they were from Pleasant Grove. Jerry and Sherry Chisholm were woodcarvers. Mel Broder was in the candle shop, Mel and Linda Broder. There was a lady named Jensen who was in . . . She did things with wood. She was an early Guild member. Her son, Jerry Jensen, still does beautiful woodcrafts, spinning wheels and that kind of thing; still lives in this area, but she would make little pigs out of white walnuts, and little skunks, and “wood pretties,” I think she called them, but Ms. Jensen was there. And there was a lady named Lawrence, Ms. Lawrence, from . . . Seems like to me she was from Melbourne, and she did shuckery - corn shucks - and there was a couple named Honeycutt, Oneida and Roy Honeycutt, and he did furniture and she did shuckery, because if you were open, you had to have more than one person per shop, you know. If you were on a seven-day-a-week schedule, we had to have at least two or three people in a shop. Clarice Chitwood was a weaver here from Pleasant Grove area, St. James. Dorothy Ford, Bill Ford’s mother . . . The broom maker’s mother was a weaver here also. Lucy Johnson worked in the weaving shop. Ms. Branscum - Ida Branscum - was a spinner. Ross Roper was a blacksmith. I’m sure if I thought for a while . . .
Blevins: That’s several people that you’ve recalled. Were a lot of these people older people who probably didn’t have a steady job anywhere else?
Thomas: At the time, you know, ‘73, ‘74 and 5, along in there, the backbone of the workforce on the craft grounds . . . People were in their sixties, seventies. They were off of farms, most of them, so they were coming in here, and this wasn’t their prime income. A lot of the crafts were secondary. It gave them an additional income to their farm income, and I might say here, I did not understand the value at the time. I liked them, but it seemed normal. It seemed like they’d always be here. I liked them and just loved them at the time, but I . . . Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think how wonderful it was to have known them - you know, people like Clarice Chitwood and the Fords - what really fine folks and what a window into another life they were, you know, and we here at the Folk Center, we can capture the skills, and we’re still training people to weave, but there’s no way to capture the life that they came out of, and they were just superb people. You know, real resilient and real generous in spirit, just wonderful folks.
Blevins: Yeah. Well, that’s similar to what Elliott Hancock was saying this morning, that from the music standpoint, that those first couple of years and the performers that the Folk Center had those first couple of years, that will never be recreated because . . . You know, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You had the people who the Center was sort of built around, and all you can do now is try to continue the traditions and recreate it to some extent, but that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Thomas: Yes, it is, and I just didn’t realize. When it starts to slip away, then you start to realize how special it was. I’m really thankful to have been around people like that.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, I guess it was after just a year or two that the Folk Center changed and went to contracting with individual craftspeople . . .
Thomas: And musicians. Yes.
Blevins: . . . and musicians. Did you stay with the Guild then when they left, or did you come to work at the Folk Center?
Thomas: I stayed with the Guild. I want to see if I can remember. We had a resale outlet, and it was on top of the hill here at the park, and it was next to the blacksmith shop, and we carried books and brooms and, you know, all of the things that craftspeople were making, and at the time, they wanted no sales made inside a craft shop, the theory being they didn’t want anybody hawking their wares, they didn’t want anybody feeling pressured to buy anything, and they wanted the individual just to be worried about showing you how something was done, you know, and talking about how things were made and interpreting Ozark life. So we were the outlet, and when the park was opened, of course, the state kind of inherited the park. Advanced Projects had designed it in another way, more like a folk school, so it quickly had to adapt to some other form, so they hadn’t put a resale outlet into their plan. As you came in the door where our current gift shop is, it was half that size, and it was, you know, glass cases with brochures, a tourist information center, and that kind of thing - no retail facility there at all, and . . .
Blevins: Okay, so by the time you came to work here for the state in ‘76, the Center was operating more or less like it is today, with individual contracts and all that kind of stuff.
Thomas: Yes, with individual contracts. That’s right.
Blevins: And you came to work, managing the gift shop, basically?
Thomas: That’s right, yes. I was a clerk, and the ordering, and - we were really on a shoestring - and so whatever needed to be done, you know. Oneida Morrow was here. We had a ticket booth inside the gift shop, so we were selling tickets as well as craft items, and we were ordering books and expanding our gift shop, and it wasn’t long until we doubled the size of the current gift shop, and you know, we just were doing the growing process of trying to make a better retail outlet for all of the craft people, the crafts community. You know, we started trying to concentrate on doing things that would help the crafts community in doing good practices that wouldn’t alienate anyone. There was no sense to sell anything for less money, whether you were . . . and I never detected that anyone was trying to undercut anyone else.
Blevins: Well, tell me a little bit about what it was like to be at the Folk Center that first year, 1973 - what that atmosphere was like, the people coming in . . .
Thomas: Well, of course, in ‘73 - and I still think of this sometimes - there was hardly a blade of grass when the park opened. It was pretty wild compared to looking around now at all the plants and flowers and foliage, and that’s one of the things that . . . I look at old photographs sometimes, and the barrenness of the place looks so funny to me, but truly, it was just barely got open, and so there was no landscaping. It was just clay in places and mud, and it would rain and, you know, it was very barren. The buildings were just all the same, you know, so it was a little bit difficult for visitors - always has been - to know where they were, because everything looked the same, the same siding, same eight-sided buildings everywhere you went. And again, it was such a new thing. It was such an experiment, you know, that it was hard to . . . I don’t think anybody had a frame of reference for it; it was a kind of flying by the seat of your pants, and that’s the feeling I remember almost everywhere. It was pretty uncharted water. So there were . . .
Blevins: Yeah. I don’t remember what the question was, but you probably answered it. How much of that - I guess the declining interest . . . And you mentioned earlier that the original people, of course, are all gone, I guess, all the original craft people . . .
Thomas: Yes, they are.
Blevins: . . . and how much of that declining interest, do you think, has to do with the natural disappearance of the authentic people and many times, I guess, the replacement of them by people that even visitors can tell aren’t native Ozarkers or . . . the real deal.
Thomas: This is just sheer opinion. I don’t think that it has a huge impact. It has some; I’m sure it has some. But the shift away from . . . Oh, to me, a lot of the value system and everything associated with ‘the life’ . . . What I’m seeing is people that want to pass on things to their children that they consider to be of value when they’re trying to give them an understanding that life has not always been so easy. They’re trying to impart something else to children, you know, that there’s to be a gratefulness here, you know, that people who settled this part of the country faced some formidable obstacles, and that they’re to be respected, and that life was not always going to a Wal-Mart, or life was not always fast food, or life was . . . You had to take care of what you did, you had chores, you worked hard, and there was very little free time, you know, and when they’re wanting them to learn those kinds of things, they come to the park and, a lot of times, we’re seeing the children that were brought here by grandparents and parents are bringing their own children here. I run into that fairly often.
Blevins: Yeah. Now, have you worked continuously at the Folk Center since 1976?
Blevins: Okay. Now tell me, you started off as the gift shop manager, I guess - something like that . . .
Blevins: . . . and then what other things have you done at the Folk Center?
Thomas: What happened . . . This sounds really bizarre when I think back on it. I mentioned to you there was a programs director. Jack Quaill was our general manager when they approached me about, you know, buying crafts and managing their gift shop in ‘76. There was a gentleman named Bud Bell who was their programs director. Charley Sandage had been the first programs director here, and at that time, programming was just anything different, like Harvest Festival in the fall. It was your special events, and it could be music or crafts. It was music and crafts, I should say. It was any kind of young people’s program. And that soon got to be more than one person could handle, so . . . I believe it was in 1977 that Jack Quaill decided he would split crafts and music, and Bud Bell happened to be a musician. He played frailing banjo. He worked on the night shows in particular, but just because that was his main interest. He was an artist as well and had good skills in several areas, but he would emcee and do those kinds of things, so it just fell to a natural dividing place that, if he was going to have someone be in charge of music, it would be Bud, and then he just said to me, “I want you to manage the craft area. I need Bud to manage the music. It’s too much for one person to do.” So he split our duties along those lines, and I just started scheduling demonstrations and special events on the craft grounds, and again, we were just growing a folk center. You know, what someone decided we ended up with . . .
Blevins: Well, you mentioned the Committee of One Hundred and the apprenticeships. Does that still go on at the Folk Center?
Thomas: Yes, it does. And it’s branched out into the music roots program, so they’re not just helping crafts stay alive. They’re helping music stay alive in the schools also here, and that’s fairly new in the last . . . I’d say three years. But this year we’ve done blacksmithing already. We’re doing one today. It’s a coopering day, where they were doing staved vessels. One day a week is very typical when you’re trying to match schedules between those that can teach and the person that can take the class. Sometimes you’ll be able to do one day a week, sometimes two - whatever. We just work on that individually, but what we try to do is the area that we . . . You know, our bench is not very deep in coopering, so that’s one of the things that determines where we run a class. If it’s an area that . . . Quilting is an area where it’s fairly easy to get into quilt classes of all kinds - which I’m so glad - you know, whether it’s appliqué or whether it’s fabric dyeing or . . . all kinds of classes associated with fabric shops. You can get that information out there, pretty good information and pretty widespread, so we seldom have an apprenticeship in those kinds of things. It’s harder to find blacksmithing, knife making, white oak basketry - we’ve done white oak basketry this year, also - so we’ve concentrated on need, greatest needs. We’re trying to use the money that they supply us to its greatest benefit, so we’re careful in those regards, you know, so we don’t just offer anything anybody wants to take. We’re trying to find people that want to keep white oak basketry alive, and then put our monies into those areas, where the need is greatest, and that’s kind of how we determine, from year to year, what we need coming on in the future for crafts.
Blevins: Okay. You’ve lived here in Mountain View for thirty-five years now.
Thomas: Funny when you say it like that, but the math works out.
Blevins: Yeah. In your estimation, what has the Folk Center meant to Mountain View and the Stone County area?
Thomas: Well, I think it’s been extremely valuable, and I think that it’ll be extremely valuable in the future. I think our Ozark Cultural Resource Center is going to be more and more valuable as time moves on. There are some wonderful interviews there. There are things there already that . . . I think it’s almost . . . I see someday that people, that’ll be the closest tie they can get - folks that are interested in the Ozarks and in the past and ways of doing things and history. Those kinds of facilities are going to be the tie because, you know, like we were just talking earlier, already we’re getting far . . . You know, once removed, twice removed . . . As it gets farther and farther away from firsthand experience, those facilities will be more and more important, and I think the park has done as a close job to its intent, maybe all that a place can do . . . I just think there’s limitations, like we mentioned earlier. There’s only so much that you can capture. But how many people are making white oak baskets now because of workshops and instruction and just the interest that people would never have even thought about it if they hadn’t passed through and seen it and thought, “Well, you know, I could do that. That thing’ll last a lifetime. I’d like to do that.”
Blevins: Well, do you have any other concluding remarks or memories that you might like to add to the discussion?
Thomas: I guess the only thing that I would mourn is I wish that there were a way to capture more of the . . . I don’t even know how to put it into words, but . . . I really liked the hardiness of the people, those original folks. And they did teach me a lot of things just by proximity, and I wish there were a way to keep those kinds of things alive. I honestly don’t believe there is, but they were so . . . They were used to tough times, so they didn’t expect there to be a cure for everything or an answer to everything. They had just a lot of common sense and a lot of grit and determination, great good senses of humor, and a generosity of spirit that just struck me as being extremely healthy. They wanted to give you what they had. They loved that you found it valuable, that just the ordinary - their ordinary life - there was a lot of beautiful things here when cultures collided, sometimes, because you could find somebody from - you know - urban environments that maybe were kind of burned out with the impersonal in life, and they stumbled on here and good grief, they could talk to somebody and before you knew it, they might even be at their house having supper, you know, and they were just blown away, in the phrase of the day, that people would so readily help, give, you know . . . I hope that the Folk Center . . . Some kind of feeling here will also keep that alive, but that our care and concern and our generosity will continue to come through, because I think that’s really a big part of the legacy those original folks gave us, you know, through music and crafts. It was about community and it was about helping folks and having a good time, and I’m not saying there weren’t any rascals, but boy, I didn’t meet very many - of those original folks, you know. Life had made them pretty good, pretty good people.
Blevins: Thank you very much, Kay Thomas.
Thomas: You’re welcome.