Connect with us

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

How Fly Fishing Saved a Veteran’s Life



Kyle Chanitz ties a fly at his home studio in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Army veteran Kyle Chanitz spent two and a half years deployed in Afghanistan, where he saw intense fighting and suffered concussions that led to seizures. When he returned to the U.S., he started taking college classes, but then dropped out to follow the jam band Phish around the country.

INside Appalachia’s story: how fishing and tying flies turned a veteran’s life around.

He spent 18 months on the road, got into drugs and spiraled out of control. 

“I had eight accidental heroin overdoses in a year,” Chanitz said. “And the whole time it was like, man, I don’t want to be doing this.”

Then one day, Chanitz was driving through Richmond, Virginia, on his way to the beach when he said he saw a sign for a Veterans Affairs hospital. He was in the midst of a methamphetamine binge and felt suicidal. Chanitz pulled over at a Walmart and convinced his meth-maker, who was riding with him, to get out of the car. Then he drove off to check himself into the hospital.

The VA moved him to a facility in Salem, Virginia, which sits at the eastern gateway to central Appalachia. After rehab, Chanitz tried to settle into life in the Roanoke Valley. He spent a lot of time in programs for disabled vets. He was learning how to garden when someone told him about Project Healing Waters, a fly-fishing program for disabled vets. 

“We take vets that have never fished, and we walk them into the middle of the river, and it just washes over them,” said Bob Crawshaw, a Navy veteran who works with Project Healing Waters. “They just relax. They just go … whoooooooo.”

The program is designed to tap into the veterans’ situational awareness—the training that soldiers need to stay alive in a combat situation, but which can become intolerable when they return home to civilian life. In Afghanistan, Chanitz was usually the first guy through the door when his unit was searching for enemy combatants. He was trained to immediately process his surroundings and detect potential threats — a stray wire, a person holding a gun or knife. 

But you can’t just turn that off after leaving the military. Even today, seven years after he got out of the Army, Chanitz said his eyes still dart around, followed by his arms and upper torso. It’s the muscle memory of maneuvering with a bullet-proof vest and rifle.

Crawshaw said that fly fishing takes those instincts and applies them to a serene, peaceful environment. 

Kyle Chanitz makes a gear change while fishing on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On the banks of Wolf Creek, in Bland County, Virginia, Chanitz watched for insects in the air and on the water, then used that information to choose a lure that mimics what’s he’s saw.

“So you see that right there on top of the water?” Chanitz said as he waded through Wolf Creek. “That’s a crane fly. I have a lot of crane fly imitations.”

Chanitz enjoyed fly-fishing and fly-tying so much that he got obsessed. He quickly got bored in the classes at the VA. He started watching Youtube videos to learn new fly-making techniques. He bought tons of gear and went fishing every week. 

Fishing also provided Chanitz an outlet to connect with other veterans. Some of them took him under their wing and became mentors. That’s how he met his future wife, Jessica.

“My dad kind of took him under his wing, which my dad does,” Jessica Chanitz said. “He’s that kind of person. But there was always something special about Kyle.”

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz married and bought a house in Roanoke. Fly-fishing and fly-tying have been part of their relationship since the beginning.

“I think at this point I know more about fly fishing and fly tying than a lot of people,” Jessica Chanitz said. “I’ve slowly gotten used to the names of the material. He can tell me about a fly and the material he’s using or the hooks he’s using, and I can visualize pretty well what he’s talking about.”

The cluttered desk in Kyle Chanitz’s fly-tying studio at his home in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Chanitz blends old-school and new-school techniques to make flies that are utterly his. For example, he’ll use a modern, neon-colored synthetic thread but mix it with natural feathers, all tied in a traditional way. He’s also developed a special blend of glues to secure his eyes on lures, which gives them extra action in the water and makes them more attractive to fish. 

His fly-tying workshop takes up a sizable room on the second floor in the Chanitz house. Both Kyle and Jessica Chanitz spend a lot of time here—he tying fishing flies and her making jewelry, including with Kyle’s old flies.

“I get kind of my own little bit of my own little creativity,” Jessica said. “I don’t have his creativity, but I take something that’s very much a sport into something that has some beauty to it.”

Jessica Chantiz displays a necklace she made out of one of her husband Kyle’s old flies. Photo by Mason Adams. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz sell their creations online mostly through social media, but it’s not their main source of income.

Kyle has benefitted from his interest in fishing and tying flies, but he’s also paid it forward by working with other vets, like Moir Edwards, another military veteran who also loves fishing. Edwards served 20 years in the Air Force as a mechanic. He learned to tie flies by reading books, but then he found Project Healing Waters, where he met Chanitz.

Kyle Chanitz (left) talks with fellow veteran Moir Edwards (right) on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Kyle has given me some flies that he tied,” Edwards said. “I try to imitate them. He’ll come in sometimes and he’ll just say, ‘Here’s a fly.’ You take it.”

This story is part of our Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folklife Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Continue Reading

Inside Appalachia

Mountain State Mead Makers Provide a Taste of Appalachia



Mountain Dragon Mazery makes nine varieties of mead. Photo: Larry Dowling, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Mountain Dragon Mazery co-founders Ruthann Smith and Tom Maltby began making honey wine — or mead — more than two decades ago as a way to marry their love of old-world traditions with their love of honey. Five years ago, they opened a tasting room and custom-made micro-factory to produce and bottle nine varieties of mead on a commercial scale. They’re part of the fastest-growing sector of the alcoholic beverage industry in the U.S.

Listen to the story

“I’ve been a beekeeper since I was three and alcohol making has always interested me,” explains Maltby, who sports a long, grey-streaked beard and brown leather fedora with feathers.

At its core mead is simply water, honey and yeast, mixed together and left to ferment, but the beverage can take many forms. Fruit, spices, rose petals and more can be added to create different varieties. Mountain Dragon Mazery, for example, specializes in a style of mead that is dry, which makes for easy drinking.

Tom Maltby checks on fermenting mead. Photo: Larry Dowling, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Historians have found evidence that honey wine was made by communities around the world thousands of years ago, something Smith and Maltby have embraced. Their blue glass bottles of mead are adorned with a dragon and red-haired maiden logo. Inside their tasting room and factory ⁠— an old neighborhood bar in Fairmont, West Virginia, that has been repurposed ⁠— a large black and orange dragon kite hangs near the bar.

“It’s been really neat to bring to the local community, and West Virginia in general, an old-world craft to the modern times,” Smith said.

In the decades since Smith and Maltby began experimenting with mead in their kitchen, the beverage, often associated with Vikings and medieval feasts, has experienced a modern-day revival. In 2000, there were less than 100 commercial meaderies nationwide, according to the American Mead Makers Association. Today, the trade group estimates a new meadery opens, on average, every three days.

“When we first opened the people would come in and say, ‘you’re making alcohol out of honey — are you sure that works?’” Maltby said. “And now we have people searching for us, sometimes driving from several cities away.”

Appalachia’s unique geography plays an especially important role in the mead crafted in West Virginia. That’s because honey, the core ingredient for mead, tastes different depending on what plants and flowers the bees had access to.

Honey, It’s Important

Maltby checks on a new hive. Photo: Brittany Patterson, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

At their farmhouse just a few miles away, Maltby tends to the hives of bees that make the honey used in Mountain Dragon Mazery’s mead. Each 60-gallon batch of mead requires 10 gallons of honey.

As their mead operation has grown, Smith and Maltby have moved most of their hives to the care of another beekeeper in the state. Four hives remain at the farmhouse.

“I believe that the Mountain State is making some of the best honey left in the world,” Maltby said. “Partly because we’re so far from primary sources of agriculture and chemical pollutants. Here we make forest honeys instead of agricultural honeys.”

Bees make honey by extracting sugary nectar from flowering plants and storing it inside a honeycomb. West Virginia’s diverse geography, mountainous terrain and relatively small farms mean that the nectar collected by bees here can be quite diverse. That changes the way honey tastes and one’s mead will taste, said Josh Bennett, owner and founder of Hawk Knob Cider and Mead.

“If you’re a beekeeper and trying to make meads from locally sourced honey you’re going to have the essence of your region in your mead,” he said. “That’s going to be dependent upon when that honey was harvested by the bees and the little microclimate that it was in, but specifically related to your local flora.”

Bennett said the types of tree and plant species in the local forest or region change the taste.

“Here in the mountains you’ve got bees away from large swathes of monoculture,” he said. “Appalachia has a lot to offer in that way and the diversity of the biosphere that we have here.”

Versatile Beverage

Hawk Knob’s barrel-aged cyser mead. Photo: Brittany Patterson, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s also a diverse drink.

“You can have something herbal, something fruity, something sweet, something dry,” Bennett said. “You can hop it up like a beer, or you can age it like wine, and there’s just a lot of versatility. You can create a lot of different types of beverages within the realm of mead.”

Mead’s versatility is both a blessing and a curse for modern day mead makers, said Rowe, with the American Mead Makers Association.

On a regulatory front, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates mead as a wine, which Rowe argues is not broad enough to cover the variations on the beverage, which can range in alcohol by volume (more commonly known as ABV) from under 4 percent to upwards of 20 percent.

“We have a segment that aligns more accurately with what the cider people or what the craft beer people are doing, and yet we’re still clumped under wine,” she said.

Because meaderies aren’t individually tracked like cider and beer is by federal regulators, new mead makers face barriers in applying for loans with up-to-date growth numbers for the industry.

And the wide variation among mead often means mead makers, like Mountain Dragon Mazery, often find themselves educating patrons about the craft beverage.

On a recent weekday, Smith gives a full tasting to the Menjivar family who stopped into the tasting room while on vacation.

Smith pours a blush-colored liquid into a small plastic cup. This variety of mead is called a Rhodomel, which is fairly unique. It’s made with wild tea roses harvested at their home along the Monongahela River and fermented with wildflower honey.

Paty Menjivar, the family matriarch, said she wasn’t sure what to expect but was curious about honey wine. She takes a sip.

“It’s really good,” she said. “Really good.”

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

Continue Reading

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. 

Continue Reading