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17 Oct 2016 - 16 Jan 2017

Mountain Gateway Museum & Heritage Center
24 Water Street, Old Fort, NC 28762
Phone: 828-668-9259 Fax: 828-668-0041

OLD FORT, NC -- The process of making utilitarian objects by hand, using only natural materials and simple tools, fascinated William A. Barnhill at an early age. In 1914, inspired by Horace Kephart’s then-new book, Our Southern Highlanders, the 25-year-old Philadelphian came to Asheville, where he established a commercial photography business.
But Barnhill’s passion was to hike into the mountains around Asheville and take candid images of the people living there and crafting everyday necessities with their hands. He did that for three years, unaware of the Appalachian crafts revival occurring at that time. In 1959, he produced prints of those images for Pack Library in Asheville, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress. Some of them appeared in American Heritage and Life magazines.
But in 1982, Barnhill donated the negatives of those photographs—along with numerous scrapbooks and other items—to Mars Hill College (now Mars Hill University), where they now are housed in the Southern Appalachian Archives.
Appalachia a Century Ago, Craft Through the Lens of William A. Barnhill is a traveling exhibit developed by the Southern Appalachian Archives and the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill University that showcases some of Barnhill’s photographs, particularly those that documented the process of making bark baskets. The exhibition will open this Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, and will run through July 30, 2017.
Many cultures have some version of a folded bark basket. In Southern Appalachia, they were traditionally made from a rectangle of outer bark cut from young poplar trees. The bark was scored, folded, and laced together with strips of the inner bark of hickory or poplar, white oak splints, leather strips, or other handy materials. While some baskets were made to last, this type of basket could be made on the spur of the moment as a container for berries. A video in the exhibit stars WNC naturalist, herbalist, storyteller, and basket-maker Doug Elliott demonstrating bark basket making.

One of the baskets featured in Appalachia a Century Ago was made by David H. Penland, a Confederate veteran. Barnhill visited “Uncle Dave,” as he was known, and photographed him in 1915 at his home in the Beech community of Buncombe County. At the end of the photography session, Penland gave Barnhill the bark basket displayed in the exhibit.

Three others bark baskets, as well as some basket-making tools and material in this exhibition, are on loan to Mountain Gateway Museum from Bill Alexander, a bark basket maker and collector in Knoxville, TN. Alexander also donated funds to create this exhibition.

For more information about the Barnhill exhibit, please contact RoAnn Bishop at Mountain Gateway Museum either by phone at 828-668-9259 or by e-mail at

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Mountain Gateway Museum & Heritage Center is the westernmost facility in the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ Division of State History Museums. Nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the banks of historic Mill Creek in downtown Old Fort (McDowell County), MGM uses artifacts, exhibitions, educational programs, living history demonstrations, and special events to teach people about the rich history and cultural heritage of the state’s mountain region, from its original inhabitants through early settlement and into the 20th century.

As part of its education outreach mission, MGM also assists non-profit museums and historic sites in 38 western NC counties with exhibit development & fabrication, genealogical research, photography archives, traveling exhibitions, and consultations.

Located at 24 Water Street in Old Fort, Mountain Gateway Museum is open year-round. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 5 p.m.; and Monday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.