From coal to furniture
One of the hardest-hit industries during the Great Depression of the 1930s was coal mining. World War I provided a boost to the industry, but following that conflict there was a major decline in demand in the 1920s, and many miners found themselves out of work. The AFSC undertook a child-feeding program in the mining districts of Appalachia during this period. The coal mining industry never completely recovered from this downturn, and the 1930s economic collapse made matters even worse.
In 1932, Herbert Hoover asked the AFSC if it would take money left over from the American Relief Administration Children's Fund and start a feeding program in the mining districts once again. The Service Committee agreed to do this, but it soon became apparent to those carrying out the project that more than just feeding needed to be done. It appeared the mining industry might never fully recover from the economic collapse of the time. Miners were underemployed, if employed at all. Most knew only mining and felt inadequate in attempting any other form of employment. For many reasons miners and their families were reluctant to leave the place where they were born and had lived all their lives.
AFSC representatives sent to carry out projects in the coal areas became aware of handwork and various crafts associated with the region. If the miners could be trained to turn out such items for sale, it was felt they might be able to supplement any income they still earned from work in the mines, or shift from mining altogether.
Through various contacts, representatives of the AFSC met with a man named Bob Godlove. Staff people were shown chairs made by his family dating back to 1760. All his dimensions and designs were in his head or on a series of measuring sticks with pins driven through at the proper places. He agreed to visit a place called Crown Mine where the AFSC was working with unemployed miners. He trained them in his techniques, and a number of his initial trainees became skilled woodworkers. Eventually the woodworking shop was moved to larger quarters in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the project was named the Mountaineer's Craftsmen Cooperative Association (MCCA).
The AFSC then had to try to find a market for the furniture and other crafts that were being produced. The Service Committee was fortunate to find Edith Maul, a woman who began to work tirelessly to sell the items produced by the workshop. Driving a small truck loaded with samples of the miners' work, she visited various Friends gatherings and sold the furniture and other handcrafts being turned out. Today, some of the furniture produced by the Mountaineer's Craftsmen Cooperative Association is still in use in the office of the AFSC's general secretary.
A newspaper article from 1938 indicated Edith Maul was loading her truck when a burly truck driver stopped, looked sadly at her and said, "Lady, I looked all over for someone like you 20 years ago, but I married someone else." The roads of the 1930s were nothing like the modern roads over which people drive today. Maul had to contend with all kinds of weather conditions and drive a stick shift truck with no power steering. She drove her truck more than 100,000 miles, many of them in the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Her remarkable dedication resulted in demand for the MCCA products. At times, demand was far greater than the supply. From 1933 through 1936, a total of $43,000 worth of furniture was sold.
As Clarence Pickett states in his book, For More Than Bread, "…the true value was human rather than economic. Hope was returning and confidence was rising that men displaced by industry were still capable of creating values and beauty." The beauty of the products of the Mountaineer's Craftsmen Cooperative Association are still being enjoyed in many places today.
Written by Jack Sutters