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Artisans converge at Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival

September 28, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - If weaving Dennis Purcell's handmade baskets on sale this weekend at the Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival near Harpers Ferry doesn't appear challenging enough, try finding the healthy white oak tree needed to make one.

Good luck - or you can travel to the 32nd fall edition of the biannual festival sponsored by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and purchase one.

Purcell, a beef cattle farmer, said Friday that he needed confidence for "the longest time" to find the right trees.

For starters, you have to find timber on a hill's north side, where trees grow faster and stronger than the south, Purcell said.

The tree should be at least 30 years old, with bark that is "tight and smooth" and free of wind damage or twists. A little moss on the ground around the tree trunk is a healthy sign.

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The festival, which features about 200 arts and crafts vendors, continues today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Sam Michaels Park

"I think it's important that we don't forget our heritage," Purcell said after shining a little light on his own upbringing in the Ozark Mountains more than 1,000 miles from his home in Salem, Mo. "I feel at home here."

"I'm the old wood butcher," Purcell said after demonstrating how he creates a basket handle.

A few large white tents away, potter Pam Parziale had her hands in the "mud."

"There's not a pot here that I've made or Pam's made, it's a collaborative," said Parziale's husband, Ren Parziale.

The Leetown, W.Va., residents boast they are the only artisans left from the festival's infancy.

"We've outlived everyone else," Pam Parziale said.

Over the years, the couple said they have been able to support themselves with a pottery business that's been buoyed by local patrons.

"The county has been so supportive," Ren Parziale said. "We couldn't do it otherwise."

Acknowledging times are getting tough for craftspeople to make a living, outgoing Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary M. Via encouraged the community to continue supporting the festival, which she said recognizes high quality workmanship.

"It's a wonderful place to get a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift," Via said.

John Alexander and his son, Micah, were selling broom corn sweeps made with golf club handles, fishing poles and peculiar pieces of wood. One handle had been chewed on by a beaver, Micah Alexander said.

Their sweeps, Alexander said, are for "different people" or work well as gag gifts.

"You can knock one out in 20 to 30 minutes," Alexander's father said.

Susan Tharpe of Hedgesville, W.Va., left the festival grounds with three large gourds for fall decorations.

"It's always a nice day to walk around and see what's here," Tharpe said. "Some of the vendors we've bought from multiple times."

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