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Inside Appalachia

Traditional Handmade Furniture: Passing Down the Craft



Eddie Austin sanding a piece of wood in his shop. He took over Jim's wood shop just over two years ago. Photo: Caitlin Tan

Families all across the world pass on traditions and it is no exception in Appalachia.

Traditions like making apple butter in the fall, or celebrating Christmas morning at mamaws, or picking ramps at that secret spot in the spring, or even just going to church on Sunday.

But for one family in Lincoln County, West Virginia, the tradition is building furniture.

Jim Probst has spent over 40 years hand making furniture. Over the last 20 years, he has passed down that tradition to his son-in-law Eddie Austin.  

Jim Probst in his house, which is filled with his traditional furniture. He started building furniture in the ’70s when he moved to West Virginia. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Jim is now retired, but he built himself a “retirement workshop” at the end of a muddy road down a small hollow in Lincoln County.

Inside it smells of fresh ash wood. It is cozy with a wood-heated stove. West African music plays softly from the stereo.

At the back of the room there is a smooth finished, spiral wooden staircase that leads to a loft. The steps are patterned with a dark, walnut wood; all of which Jim built.

Since Jim is retired, he still maintains a shop for work on the occasional piece, but mostly just for fun.

“There’s a woodworking tradition that seems to have started in Lincoln county,” Jim says. “And who knows, Eddie’s got two kids and his son says he’s gonna be a woodworker, farmer.”

Although Jim loves woodworking, the work is not easy. He puts hours upon hours of labor into each piece of furniture, and it shows.

A chair Jim built. His chairs typically sell for $800. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The pieces are exquisite. Smooth finished curves, often in a deep cherry wood. But that hand crafting makes the pieces expensive – money that not a lot of people have.

One of Jim’s chairs can retail for $800.

He moved to West Virginia from Indiana with his wife during the back-to-the-land movement in the ‘70s when many young, artsy people moved and bought land in the state.

Jim loves West Virginia – the nature, solitude and low crime rates. He considers it his home and says he would not live anywhere else.

As a child, he had learned basic woodworking skills from his father, but the craft of furniture making is something he’s largely taught himself.

“I was accustomed to that if you wanted something you could build it yourself,” he says.

During his 40-year career, Jim became a nationally- recognized furniture builder. He has been featured in magazines and two books.

His sleek, minimalist style caught the eye of wealthy buyers and several high-end furniture festivals. These things helped put him on the map.

“We were in shops in Seattle, one in Colorado, a shop in Chicago, shops in New York, Atlanta, out in Martha’s Vineyard,” he says.

Passing it Down

Today, most of the work is done by Eddie.

Eddie Austin using his dovetail machine. The machine is a 1920’s model, and it is one of Eddie’s favorites. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It started with a girl,” Eddie says.

He is referring to Jim’s daughter Emma.

“I was 17 and I had a job as a full-time dishwasher at a local restaurant,” Eddie says. “They said, ‘We’re closing the restaurant, here’s your last paycheck, we wish you the best.’ I’d just started dating Emma and she came home and told her dad. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you get him to come into the wood shop.'”

Eddie started by sweeping floors, but over time he became a top builder for Jim, and eventually married his daughter.

Two years ago, after working together for two decades, Eddie bought the shop from Jim.

Eddie now runs his own business, EA Woodworks, out of the original woodworking space.

Much like Jim, Eddie loves West Virginia. He was raised in Lincoln County, and as an adult, he has never doubted raising his family anywhere else.

He says he cannot identify with the phrase “the struggle to stay,” a phrase media sometimes uses to describe the state’s declining population of young adults.

“A lot of us West Virginians grew up without a running bathroom in our home, and we were able to overcome things like that,” Eddie says. “And so, it really irked me that people found a struggle to stay. It never was struggle for me, it was just a time to dig deeper.”

Eddie dug deeper by learning to woodwork. It has been the reason he could stay in Lincoln County.

Jim’s spiral staircase in his retirement workshop. He hand built it out of ash and walnut wood. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A lot of that is thanks to Jim.

Connected But Different

The connection between the two shows in their work. Both create pieces that are sturdy while still upscale and elegant.

The differences, however, really shine through in their work spaces.

Jim’s retirement shop is quite uniform. The focal points are the actual wood structure of the shop, whereas Eddie’s shop highlights his extroverted personality.  

There’s a lot of color. His door is painted purple. There is a wall dedicated to street signs with tree names, like “Maple Street” and “Oak Avenue.”

Music with Appalachian roots is often playing. A favorite of Eddie’s is Kentucky artist Tyler Childers.

Decorations in Eddie’s wood shop. He says he likes to keep things fun to remind him of why he is furniture building. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Eddie has also changed what was once Jim’s furniture showroom for clients. It is now a laid-back room with a table, chairs, snacks and many colorful drawings from his kids.

Inside Eddie’s Space

There are three other rooms in the shop that serve different purposes in the furniture building process.

“The middle room is actually the room where our lumber comes in,” Eddie says. “We go through 10 to 20,000 board feet a year.”

That is roughly 50 average size trees per year.

The next room is where he spends a lot of his time, and it’s where Eddie first learned a lot of his wood working from Jim. Wood pieces are cut here, sanded and glued together. A lot of the large machinery is in here, like Eddie’s dovetail machine.

At about 1,000 pounds, the 1920’s model dovetail makes joints to connect drawer sides together. The joints themselves kind of look like birds – hence the name dovetail.

The machine roars when Eddie puts a wooden drawer inside of it.

A planer machine in Jim’s shop. The planer makes all the wood the same thickness. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The third room is the finishing room, where pieces are painted with a finish and left to dry.

The Tradition Lives On

A lot of Eddie’s clients are within the tri-state region including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. His pieces are no less expensive than Jim’s, but he says the price point isn’t the focus of his work.

“It doesn’t necessarily matter how much money they make a year or who can afford it, as much as who can appreciate it,” Eddie says.

Although ultimately a lot of people do not have the money for an $800 chair, Eddie does have an order list for six months out, much like Jim did.

Still, Jim says furniture making is much a labor of love.

“You never want to look at what you’re making on the hour because it’s going to be horrible,” he says. “You have to love what you’re doing, and you need to marry well.”

Despite the aspects of financial uncertainty associated with the business, Eddie maintains that the quality and lifetime warranty of his furniture keeps customers coming back.

Jim says Eddie is enhancing the business aspect of the shop while still maintaining the history of the craft.

“I never really have enjoyed the business part of being in business,” Jim says. “I truly think Eddie is better at the business end of business than I ever was.”

The 7-foot oak table in Eddie’s finishing room. Last touches, like a paint finish, are done in the room. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Much like it was for Jim, Eddie says it is important to pass down the craft.

Eddie now teaches woodworking classes at a work training program based in Wayne County. One of his students has even gone on to work in the industry.

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that explores alternative cultures and economies. To listen to the full episode click here.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Inside Appalachia

Craft Brewers Work With Farmers For Unique Ingredients



Craft breweries are popping up all over the region. In West Virginia alone, there are 27 breweries and three quarters of them opened in the last five years.

Sam Fonda, from Weathered Ground Brewery in Raleigh County, West Virginia, has almost 3,000 gallons of soon-to-be-beer fermenting and another 1,000 gallons aging in oak barrels nearby at any given time. That may sound like a lot, but his typical batch is 220 gallons, and that gives him the chance to experiment.

In addition to the basics of water, malted grains, hops and yeast, small craft brewers all over the region are experimenting with locally sourced ingredients to give their beers a unique flavor. Today, you can find West Virginia beers that contain traces of coffee, berries — even tree branches.

Sam Fonda adding malt from North Carolina into a recent batch of beer. Photo: Janet Kunicki/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Weathered Ground buys malted grains from the mountains of North Carolina, as well as hops, fruit, and flavorings from local farmers. Working with his neighbors is a source of pride for Sam.

“That’s why using local is so much fun. Because you can have this personal relationship with your suppliers. It’s almost always more expensive. Sometimes double really, but that’s just kind of the price you pay for doing what you want to do. So, we’re happy to pay a little more for the flavor we’re going to, as well as supporting local,” Fonda said.

One of Fonda’s suppliers is JR Ward, a hop farmer and full-time underground coal miner who lives just 20 miles or so down the road in Fairdale. JR loves the farm he has built, with 3,000 square feet of vegetable garden and a quarter acre of hops.

“Years ago, I couldn’t tell you what a hop was, didn’t even know they looked like, did not like craft beer. Then what really made me going forward was a few years ago we had layoffs in the mines and the hard times and I never want to leave here because this is just a piece of heaven to me. And it’s beautiful land, I just started looking into stuff and hops caught my attention,” Ward said.

He currently supplies Weathered Ground with enough hops for 440 gallons of beer in two batches. They are: “Lost Ridge Pale Ale,” named for JR’s farm, and the second is a nod to JR’s other job. It’s called “Hop Farmin’ Miner.”

JR Ward stands in front of his hop yard. Over the next few months, the hops will grow up the ropes behind him and will be ready for harvest. Photo: Eric Douglas/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Starting next year, he plans to expand to five full acres of hop yard on his property and is working with a friend to plant an additional five acres on a nearby farm. That will make Lost Ridge Farms one of the largest hop growers in the state.

Besides hops, Weathered Ground sources local fruits and just about anything that tastes good according to Sam Fonda.

“We brewed an IPA a few weeks ago with birch branches, and then the flavor that comes from birch just unreal, so a lot of people don’t think about that kind of thing when they think about beer, but back in the day, that’s kind of what beer was, what materials do you have on hand,” Fonda said.There is a growing movement throughout Appalachia for beverage makers to use locally sourced ingredients. It may cost more, but brewers like Sam Fonda believe in the process and so far, they’ve been successful using that business model.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring the alcohol culture and industry in Appalachia. 

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Inside Appalachia

The Appalachian Home Brewers Who Brewed Craft Beer Before It Was Cool



Appalachian Brew Club members cheer to 10 years since the club formed. They meet every month to talk and taste beer. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

Peanut butter stouts, guava sours, hazy double IPAs, pomegranate ales – these are just a few experimental beers to come out of the craft beer craze in recent years.

According to the National Brewer’s Association, this expanding industry started in the 1990s but didn’t gain momentum until 2010, making it relatively new. Today there are more than 7,000 commercial breweries in the country.

In West Virginia, that growth came even later. In the state there are 30 craft breweries, but in 2011 there were just five.

A beer on tap at restaurant and bar El Gran Sabor in Elkins. Beer comes to be through six stages – milling, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting and conditioning. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

All the craft breweries started with a home brewer – someone who experiments in brewing at home, and usually it’s a person who genuinely loves the science and craft behind beer.

Homebrewers in West Virginia have been experimenting with beer for decades, and they have been collaborating in community-organized home brew clubs.

There are 13 clubs in the state, one of which is in Elkins. It formed in 2009, and they call themselves the ‘Appalachian Brew Club.’

“When you’re around other brewers, you pick up learning how to brew in a really short time. It’s a super-fast starter for people,” Jack Tribble, Appalachian Brew Club co-founder, says.

He has been brewing since the 90s. He and several other members like to get together at one another’s homes to brew.

On this day, they have met up to brew a New England IPA.

DIY Beer

In the kitchen, the stove is covered in giant, stainless steel pots, and the counters are filled with different yeast strains and a variety of grains. There is an oversized Gatorade cooler nearby for pouring beer into, which allows the liquid to steep in the grains.

Scott Biola lifting the grains out of the wort. After this step the liquid will be transferred to the giant pot on the stove. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

The room is filled with a distinct, yet polarizing smell. Jack gives his thoughts on the aromas.

“I think it has a sweet cereal smell that has a grainy backbone to it. It smells great,” he says.

But longtime club member Rick Newsome says it is an acquired scent.

“Brewers love the smell. Walk into a big brewery and they’re brewing a porter and it smells heavenly. Unless you’re my wife,” Newsome says.

While the club brews, they sample other regional beers.

A lot of people enjoy beer, but these guys love beer. For Rick Gauge, it is like a creative science.

“It’s a great bunch of people to hang out with and talk about beer and they, like me, nerd out about the specifics and the details and not just oh this tastes good, but why? What hops are used and what’s the malt bill like?” Gauge says.

There are six stages in the brewing process – milling, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting and conditioning.

The Elkins club is at the end of the mashing stage, where the enzymes from the grains are converting to sugar. At this point, it is not quite beer, but a sugary liquid called Wort.

They are trying to get the Wort to an exact temperature. Too hot or too cold and the beer changes type.

“How geeky do you want to be?” Newsome says. “There are two enzymes that convert those starches into sugars – alpha amylase and beta amylase. Beta works in a range from 140 to 150 degrees. Alpha works from 150-160.”

In simpler terms, he is saying in order to convert the yeast to sugar the liquid needs to be between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a club, they get together several times a year to brew, but they meet up once a month just to talk beer. Clinton Hamrick, one of the members, says home brewers tend to be on the cutting edge of new styles.

Tammy and Clinton Hamrick enjoy a beer on the bar crawl. The Appalachian Brew Club members all say Tammy can “out-brew them all.” Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

“The home brewers I think are a little more on the leading edge of what’s going to be popular this summer or the following year,” Clinton says.

It is a lifestyle. They even plan their vacations around beer, calling them “beercations.”

“We go with brewers and meet brewers over there and have a really good time, and all of a sudden they are pulling out stuff from the backs of their refrigerators and we have a really good time,” Jack says.

They also brew beers for competitions.

Homebrew Competitions 

Homebrewers recently competed in a competition in Morgantown, called the Coal Cup Homebrewer’s Competition, which featured stouts and porters from regional homebrewers.

Inside the hotel conference room where the competition was held, judges quietly sip beers. They are voting on several categories – most boozy, coolest growler and weirdest flavor. In another room, members of the public gather to taste beers for the people’s choice competition. 

Jason Croston, a homebrewer in the Morgantown club, is competing with a Christmas porter and Bourbon barrel porter. He says brewing beer is something that has been passed down in his family.

A beer entered in the People’s Choice at the Coal Cup Homebrewer’s competition. Some of the categories included most boozy, coolest growler and weirdest flavor. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

“My dad actually grew grapevines on the side of our house and used to make wine. And one of my grandfathers was a brewer way back. It’s in our family history and it’s in our blood,” he says.

There are two types of homebrewers – those who want to pursue opening a brewery and those who do not. Jason is the former. He hopes to open his own brewery one day, and even has a name picked out.

“I grew up in the backwaters in Cheat Lake, hence the name of my brewery when I do open –‘Backwaters Brewing,” Jason says.

But not all homebrewers want to take that path. Chris Eberlin from Cumberland, Maryland says brewers can lose their freedom with regulation. He gave an example of his friend who makes experimental beers.

“He’ll just grab roots off the ground and throw them in and maybe some bark off a tree, and sometimes you get duds and sometimes you get really good flavors,” Chris says. “The big challenge with commercial beer is you have to appease a big group of people. As a home brewer, I have the ability to go crazy because I’ve only brewed one to five gallons of beer. So I can make something horrendous and dump it and it’s only a little bit of time and money I wasted. But as a commercial brewer that could be the difference between life or death.”

All the home brewers spend the day tasting each other’s beers, waiting to hear how they placed in the competition.

Overall, the Appalachian Brew Club place second in the Coal Cup competition.

The Bar Crawl

The Appalachian Brew Club members during their bar crawl in Elkins. They like to try all kinds of beers to keep their palates up to date. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

Back in Elkins, the brewers club members go on a bar crawl to taste some of the local beers on tap. On this day, they start at a local restaurant and bar El Gran Sabor.

Clinton Hamrick tastes a new beer on tap.

Rick Newsome has brewed beer on and off since the 90s. Today’s burgeoning craft beer industry had yet to take off in the 90s. Photo: Caitlin Tan/WVPB

“It tastes like figs, little bit of raisin, woody, sweet, slight caramel – it’s good,” he says.

Whether it is making their own beer, trying other beer or taking part in competitions, home brewers simply love beer. Unlike commercial brewers, these guys are not in it for the money. They cannot legally sell you a beer, but they will try to excite your palate.  

“I genuinely believe there is a beer out there for everyone,” Rick Gauge says. “People who say they don’t like beer, I make it my personal mission to find them a beer they like. Beer can taste like anything. The people that say they don’t like beer just haven’t tried the right one.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring the alcohol culture and industry in Appalachia. 

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Inside Appalachia

Breastfeeding is Natural, But for Many Appalachian Women, It’s Not ‘Easy’



Emma Pepper plays with her son at their home in Charleston. Pepper struggled to breastfeed for six weeks before switching to formula -- a decision she says she wishes she would have made "much sooner." Photo: Kara Lofton, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months after birth, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, citing research that says breastfeeding is healthy for infants. It protects against diseases, obesity and stomach issues, helps the mother lose weight and decreases the risk of some cancers. But although breastfeeding is “natural,” for many women, it’s not “easy.”

When Emma Pepper got pregnant, she was totally on board with breastfeeding — until her son was born.

“He could never quite latch properly,” she said. “And he was actually born on a weekend in the hospital and so the lactation consultants weren’t available to support me in the very beginning.”

Pepper lives in Charleston, West Virginia. West Virginia Public Radio reporters called 14 hospitals in the state and only two had breastfeeding consultants available around the clock, even though it’s common for women to struggle with breastfeeding after giving birth.

Unless doctors and nurses have undergone special training, they may not have the expertise to help new moms learn to breastfeed. Only four hospitals in West Virginia require formalized breastfeeding training for nurses and doctors on labor and delivery floors. These hospitals have a “baby friendly” designation from Baby Friendly USA, a World Health Organization and UNICEF program designed to improve the role of maternity services worldwide.

The hospital where Pepper gave birth is not one of the four. Pepper said she was told by a nurse to keep her son for more than an hour on each of her breasts to try to get him to latch. By the time she was discharged from the hospital, she said her nipples were raw.

“It ended up making my breastfeeding experience just more challenging overall,” she said.

A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 60 percent of women don’t breastfeed as long as they intend to. This is because of latching problems, concerns about infant nutrition and weight, the need to return to work, or because they don’t have enough support as they try to figure out breastfeeding.

Kailey Littleton, a pediatrician and board-certified lactation consultant in Weirton, West Virginia, said a lot of women she sees have problems breastfeeding.

“Because the information is not great and a lot of the ‘help’ that women get is not the best for them, things tend to go awry,” she said.

Littleton said she hears stories from women about how friends and family or even doctors and nurses have encouraged them to supplement with formula. But supplementing with formula can impact breast milk supply, making it harder to breastfeed. She says many women are also told some pain is normal — but she says it’s not — and that pain is the sign of a bad latch.

When Pepper was discharged, her son still wasn’t latching properly. The doctor recommended she supplement with formula. Pepper was okay with that, but she still wanted to breastfeed. She worried that if she didn’t, her son would be sick more often.

In the meantime, she was being urged on by a lot of people. Her friends, her therapist, even her hairdresser, asked her if she was breastfeeding.

“And so I felt an extreme amount of just societal pressure to be able to live up to that,” she said. “And as a result of that, I made some pretty extreme demands on my body in order to be able to fulfill that wish that I had for him.”

Pepper said she spent hundreds of dollars on pumps to increase her milk supply. About a week after giving birth she also connected with a local lactation consultant who suggested a strict regimen: breastfeed, then supplement with formula, then pump to increase milk supply. But Pepper said she was either breastfeeding or pumping around the clock. It wasn’t sustainable.

“I felt such an enormous sadness that I was wearing this pump all of the time, and I couldn’t hold and bond with my baby while I was wearing it, and I only had a limited amount of time for maternity leave,” she said.

After about two months, Pepper would have to return to work. She struggled to breastfeed for six weeks, then the lactation consultant recommended she switch to formula.

“Receiving that advice from her was part of what gave me the confidence to go ahead and switch to formula feeding when I felt I had exhausted every single avenue available to me to make breastfeeding work,” said Pepper.

It’s a decision she said she wishes she had made earlier.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.

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