In this installment of “24 Hours in …” our writer visits Berea and gives you the scoop on what to do, where to eat, what to see and where to stay. You’ll discover that you don’t have to travel far to have an awesome mini vacation in our great Commonwealth.
Known as the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is home to artists and craftspeople known around the globe for their talent. This town at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is populated by just more than 13,000 people, swelling by about 1,600 when Berea College is in session. The town came into existence directly as the result of the college’s establishment, so you can’t really appreciate one without knowing the history of the other.
In the mid-1800s, local politician and ardent abolitionist Cassius Clay gave Rev. John Fee some land, where Fee established the first unsegregated, coeducational college in the South. He named the college Berea after the Biblical city, and used the motto “God has made of one blood all peoples of the Earth” to show that all were welcome.
Although the first few decades of the school saw unrest, with the U.S. Civil War, Reconstruction and racism, by the 1890s, Berea College was deeply rooted in the community. It was around this time that people began to take notice of the rich culture of Appalachia and the talent and craftsmanship abundant in the mountain people.
The college president began inviting artisans to move to Berea, and the college started a weaving program. As time passed, the town became home to artists and talented college alumni who stayed in Berea to hone their craft.
Now that you know why Berea is so arts- and crafts-oriented, it’s time figure out how to take it all in.
Where to Start?
To start off your 24 hours, you’re going to need a good breakfast. If you are looking for a stick-to-your-ribs-type menu, head over to The Dinner Bell Restaurant, which has almost 30 years of experience serving up traditional favorites such as pancakes and eggs, and local favorites like fried bologna, grits, and of course, a side of gravy. But if your typical breakfast consists of a fancy coffee drink and a decadent berry scone, then Berea Coffee & Tea Co. is for you. Warm and inviting, this artsy shop serves terrific sandwiches and pastry treats.
When visiting Berea, it’s good to start your adventure at the College Square section of town, as the shops there tend to open earlier than those in the Artisan Village. Since the shops are all in the same area, it makes for easy walking.
One of the premier shops in College Square is the Log House Gallery. As the college became established and its reputation for arts and crafts was becoming notable, it needed a way to sell the merchandise students were producing. So in 1917, the Log House Gallery opened. Originally used as a weaving workshop with a gift shop on the second floor, it has evolved into a gallery featuring hand-woven textiles, pottery, brooms and furniture made by students.
Although you might not be in the market for a handmade wooden dulcimer, you would be missing out if you didn’t pay a visit to the Warren A. May Woodworker shop. Warren May, who is in the shop most afternoons, is happy to tell you about the exquisite dulcimers he crafts from native central Kentucky woods, like walnut, cherry and tulip poplar. Alongside his dulcimers, which have achieved worldwide recognition, is an equally fascinating collection of handmade wood tables, desks, benches and kitchen accessories.
Since you are in a college town, you might need some swag to wear home. At the Berea College Store, you’ll find all the offerings of a typical college bookstore such as textbooks and school supplies, but what makes this one different is it also sells arts and crafts made by the students. Plus, it carries a huge selection of hoodies and T-shirts sporting the college logo, all at reasonable prices. Sign up to take a campus tour while you are there.
Just around the corner is The Promenade Gallery, which specializes in handmade one-of-a-kind items. Owner Tara Bellando and her husband personally select everything in the store. “Because our items come from all over the country, we give people a different experience than some of the other shops in town,” Bellando said. “We don’t want to duplicate what they have, but we want to stretch out and bring our customers even more kinds of art.”
At Student Crafts on the Square, you will find Berea College students practicing their craft. A mix of demonstration and gallery space, the store sells only items made by students in one of the five disciplines: broom making, ceramics, jewelry, weaving and wood. In addition to becoming a master craftsperson, students learn marketing and business skills. Stop by and have a chat with them while they work.
As you approach midday, you might start to think about lunch. And if you detect the heavenly scent of garlic in the air, it is because you are right around the corner from Papa Leno’s. This homey restaurant serves up memorable Italian food. Whether you are in the mood for made-from-scratch pizza, mouthwatering garlic breadsticks or meat lasagna, you won’t leave hungry.
An alternative to Italian cuisine is the Berea College Farm Store, one of the oldest student educational farms in the country. The store carries seasonal fruits and vegetables, and also offers pork, beef, chicken, goat and fish, as well as honey, herbs and eggs. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday, and you can find a tasty assortment of sandwiches, salads, soups and wraps, all created with ingredients from the farm.
“Berea College has 500 acres dedicated to farming,” said Sean Clark, farm director. “This store is an opportunity for our students to see the entire food chain from start to finish.”
After lunch, if you are running short on time and need a one-stop shop to find an amazing collection of Kentucky art, head out toward I-75 to the Kentucky Artisan Center, which serves as both a rest area, with the cleanest public bathrooms in state, as well as a huge showroom of art. Each piece is made by a Kentuckian and displayed gallery style. If you stop in on a Saturday, you’ll likely see a demonstration by a local artist, so you can get a lesson in printmaking, gourd birdhouse making, or even wood turning. If you’re in the mood for a gourmet coffee, a hearty sandwich or just an afternoon pick-me-up, the on-site Café and Grill might be just what you need.
There are several after-lunch choices of activities and, with careful timing, you might be able to fit in everything. Your choices include visiting some working artist studios in town or hiking the rugged but beautiful Berea Pinnacles.
Option one takes you back to town, to the part of Berea known as the Artisan Village. Make the Berea Welcome Center your first stop—just look for the adorable historic L&N Railroad Depot. The building has been restored to its original glory, but now, instead of heading out of town, you’ll find information about heading into town. Pick up maps, tips, advice and brochures and take a few minutes to admire the grand building.
In this part of town, you will find working studios and can watch the artisans create. Spanning just a few blocks, Artisan Village is easily walkable. Berea has done a great job of placing signs in the windows of the working studios to identify them.
“The working artists’ studios are something that makes Berea truly unique,” said Kerri Hensley, executive director of Berea Tourism. “To be able to watch the artists as they do their art is fascinating and something that you don’t see every day.”
Next to the visitors center is a barn-shaped building called Honeysuckle Vine, which contains several studios. Watch Dinah Tyree work her magic with watercolors to create beautiful landscapes and Kentucky images with her delicate brush. At Images of Santa, artist Lindy Evans sculpts faces from clay and turns them into lovable versions of Mr. Claus and his elves. An amazing amount of detail goes into crafting the jewelry and metalwork at the Lindsay Gallery. Husband-and-wife team Bob and Judy are happy to show the intricacies of the jewelry they create with semi-precious stones, enameling and beadwork. Be sure to spend some time at Hot Flash Beads with artisan Jimmy Lou Jackson, who works at the back of the shop. She is a master of the ancient art of lampworking, which means she melts and manipulates glass to create beads that are each a tiny work of art. Take a look at her gorgeous hand-painted silk scarves, too.
Next door is Gilliam Gallery and Studio, where Diane Gilliam welcomes you as she might welcome an invited guest. She is loaded with talent, so you never know what project she will be working on when you stop by, but chances are good it will have something to do with stained glass, painting or photography. Browse around her gallery and let her tell you the story behind each piece.
Weaving, a craft synonymous with Berea for many years, can be found at Weaver’s Bottom Craft Studio. Owner Neil Colmer graduated from Berea College with a degree in weaving more than 40 years ago. The studio has several looms in action, making placemats, towels, throws and rugs. This craft is mesmerizing. While you are there, watch Neil’s wife, Mary, as she masterfully crafts traditional Appalachian corn shuck dolls.
If you’ve never seen glassblowing or even if you have, stop by the Weston Glass Studio and watch Michelle Weston perform her magic on 2,000-degree molten glass. A master of her craft, she is in her element making gorgeous glass pieces.
Just a few blocks away is the home of Gastineau Studio, where Ken Gastineau and his wife, Sally, work with pewter. Ken creates spectacular jewelry, napkin rings and ornaments, but he is best known for his pewter drinkware and mint julep cups. The shop has a visitor area in the workroom, so you can watch as Ken spins his creations on a lathe.
Although Berea has strong ties to its history, the city also looks to preserve its future and ensure that new artists are given a chance to succeed. An example of this is the Berea Artist Accelerator program, which selects recent graduates from Berea College and offers them both studio and gallery space, instruction in running a business, and a small stipend to live on for 16 months. The storefront for this program is called Gallery 123 and features a wide variety of mediums, from woodworking to pottery to glasswork in many different forms. In the front of the shop is the gallery space, and in the back you can wander through and chat with the artists as they work.
“This program will help preserve Berea’s future by helping vibrant, new artists excel in their craft,” said Hensley, the tourism director.
Also not to be missed in this part of town is the headquarters of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. The oldest juried membership organization in the state works to preserve and promote Kentucky’s rich art culture. Although its work comes from all over the state, the gallery in Berea highlights the best of the best, showcasing the finest examples of Kentucky art.
Option two for your afternoon takes you outdoors. If you want to commune with nature, take a hike up the Berea Pinnacles. Although it is a trek of moderate difficulty, it is worth every step as the views from the top are breathtaking. The whole loop trail is about 6 miles, so set aside several hours to get to the top and back down. To find it, take Prospect Street/Route 21 east out of town, about 3 miles. You’ll see a parking lot for Indian Fort Theater on the left and that is where you can get started. Wear comfortable shoes, and bring water and a camera.
According to Danny Isaacs, an outdoor enthusiast and the city’s director of business development, the Pinnacles are a perfect half-day hike. “Whether you are watching the sun rise over the Appalachian Mountains or the sun set over Berea and the rest of the county, it is a very rewarding hike,” he said.
To add to your adventure, the city is working on a mixed-use trail that will run from the center of town out to the base of the Pinnacles. Isaacs says it should be in place by the end of this year.
Wrapping Up the Day
Whether you spent your afternoon traipsing through art galleries or hiking the Pinnacles, you probably have worked up quite an appetite. Although every aforementioned eatery serves dinner, no trip to Berea is complete without a meal from the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant. Start off your meal with complementary spoonbread, a traditional Southern dish similar to cornbread, but sweeter—especially when slathered in melting butter. After that appetizer, you can’t really go wrong. The menu offers entrées such as lamb meatloaf and rabbit potpie, as well as more traditional choices like steaks, chicken and pork chops. The chef uses locally grown items, specifically from the Berea College Farm, whenever possible.
Due to a recent change in the law, alcohol is now being served by the drink in several Berea restaurants. Enjoy a large selection of wines, local craft and domestic beers and, of course, Kentucky bourbon along with your meal.
For lodging, Berea has all the economy chain hotels near the I-75 exits, and there are some adorable bed and breakfast inns, both in town and out in the country. But to get the real feel of the community, you probably should stay at the Boone Tavern Hotel. Although it opened in 1909, it has all the modern amenities you need to be comfortable, but all the enchanting history you will love. Rooms feature handcrafted wooden furniture made by Berea College students. In the lobby is what at first might look like a modern-day foosball table, but on closer examination, you will find Skittles, a classic wooden spinning-top game. Berea College students have been crafting these game boards since the late 1920s. After playing in the lobby, stop by the gift shop, where you can purchase one to take home.
Berea sits at the crossroads of central, southern and eastern Kentucky. It almost feels like the front door to the mountain region—as if you could open it up and see Appalachia on the other side. It is this unique mixture of cultures and talents that makes Berea the destination it is. Locals will make you feel welcome, but you will leave with a definite appreciation of the history and art of the town and college.