Crafts, coopering and more: Frontier artisans will share at Somerset festival

Robin Cordek remembers learning how to sew at the knee of her grandmother.

“I’d be underfoot, so she’d give me something to do with a needle and thread,” Cordek said.

The Davidsville resident now uses that nearly lifelong hobby to help educate others on the frontier life of southwest Pennsylvania. Cordek, who makes period clothing, and her husband, Jim, who makes wooden candle keepers and other historical boxes, are among the 125-plus craft artisans, musicians and entertainers at the annual Mountain Craft Days at the Somerset Historical Center on Sept. 9 to 11.

Founded in 1970, the three-day event interprets the frontier heritage of the region by preserving and demonstrating traditional crafts from the 1700s to the 1900s that “may be lost due to not being practiced anymore,” said Mark Ware, executive director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Somerset County. The society is co-sponsoring the event, along with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“It’s not your normal craft show,” Ware said. “We only have two of any one medium; we won’t have 40 potters.”

Artisans will include coopers, log hewers, bobbin-lace makers, blacksmiths, ironworkers and storytellers.

“A lot of education, a lot of fun, a lot of good traditional food from the region,” Ware said.

Stone masons will be working on the lime kiln that the historical society built recently and will “fire it up” to burn lime, according to Ware. The end product can be mixed with sand and then made into a paste with water to become authentic lime mortar that the society will use to repair historical buildings that are deteriorating.

Some wares will just be on display, but some are for sale because many of the products can be used in today’s homes, Ware said.

Cordek said she and her husband have been a part of Mountain Craft Days since 1996. They plan to demonstrate, answer questions and sell a few of their wares. Both have researched their work to ensure that they are as historically accurate as possible.

“It’s always an ongoing study,” she said. “When you think you’ve got it right, you find something.”

She started with the 1860s, tried the 1880s for a time, and now “I’ve gone backwards” to the 1700s.

“I love the 18th century; it is more squared and simplified,” she said, noting that a shirt from that era is made mostly from cuttings of squares and rectangulars and not a lot of curves.

Cordek started out just making caps and bonnets; now she makes clothing of all types, including a quilted petticoat that took 300 yards of silk quilting thread.

“I mostly do this for a hobby, but sometimes I look for a challenge,” she said, chuckling. “There’s a learning curve.”

Cordek isn’t completely a purist. She will use a modern sewing machine for parts of a project “because of the convenience of getting it done quickly,” she said. “But things that are exposed, like buttonholes, eyelets, they are all hand done. Sewing by hand is therapeutic for me.”

Cordek said her husband is considering expanding his line of woodwork to reproduce Soap Hollow Furniture that was produced from about 1830 to 1890 in Somerset County. Eight specific cabinetmakers were associated with the Soap Hollow School of cottage craftsmen, and the name apparently came from the brown soft soap produced in the region that lies in a hollow.

Jim Cordek was to attend a special school this weekend just to study inlays, according to his wife.

The Somerset historical society is active with assisting craftsmen, including tinsmen and coopers, in expanding their knowledge and skills “so we can perpetuate the crafts and keep them alive,” said Ware.

Ware said he became “fascinated” with coopering in the early 1970s after finding a few men in the area who had kept alive the craft that was married to the local maple syrup industry; those wooden buckets were used to catch the sugar water that went into the syrup’s production.

“I got to work with them and then I did a week at (Colonial) Williamsburg,” Va., he said. “There is this unbroken tradition.”

For 20 years, the historical society has sponsored weekend-long classes every year to keep the cooper craft going. Purists, they don’t use power tools and a local machinist with a shop has figured out how to reproduce the proper hand tools to make barrels. Those tools, including a scorp and a hollowing knife, can be found on the historical society’s website, and interest has stretched to Europe, according to Ware.

“Even though we’re a small museum, we can offer some really great educational opportunities,” he said.

Starting with the Mountain Craft Days.

Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.