Pam Earp spends her vacation the same way every year, taking a trip back in time in an effort to help future generations remember a little something of their past.
No, Earp is not some sort of modern-day Marty McFly, and she is not part of any Back to the Future type of adventure.
Earp is a community college administrator in Johnston County, N.C., who spends her vacations each fall making corn husk dolls at the Village of Yesteryear at the N.C. State Fair. Earp also serves as the director of the Village, recruiting other craftsmen willing to spend 11 days demonstrating their skills with traditional hand crafts such as basket making, rug braiding, pottery and quilting.
“Our purpose is to educate the public on traditional hand crafts,” says Earp, who is dean of foundational studies and academic support at Johnston Community College. “We try to keep these traditions alive. We have multiple generations here in the Village, passing that tradition down.”
The Village of Yesteryear has been part of the State Fair for 63 years. Earp is only its third director, having assumed the leadership post in 2009 after having worked as a craftsman in the Village for more than a dozen years.
Earp still spends her days at the fair showing visitors how she makes corn husk dolls, but also is responsible for taking care of any needs other craftsmen in the Village may have. It is a demanding schedule for Earp, who often puts in 14-hour days during the fair, which began its 2014 run this week.
“This is what I do on my vacation,” she says. “I’m worn out when it’s finally over. If I feel that we have exposed families and children to our mission, than we have done our job.”
For much of her time working at the Village, Earp was also juggling graduate courses at NC State. She earned a master’s degree in adult and community college education from NC State in 2007 and is finishing her doctorate in the same area this year. There have been occasions, Earp says, when she had to go directly from her work at the Village of Yesteryear to graduate classes at NC State – dressed in the pioneer garb that she and other craftsmen wear while working in the Village.
“You’d be surprised,” she says. “You don’t really attract that much attention going across State’s campus.”
Unlike many of the craftsmen in the Village, Earp did not learn her craft as a child from her mother or grandmother. Earp was on her honeymoon 36 years ago when she purchased a kit to make corn husk dolls. She quickly learned, though, that she didn’t enjoy following the directions in the kit, and figured out her own way to make corn husk dolls. She now specializes in what she calls “proper Southern belles” that are popular with some collectors.
“When I look at a doll, they remind me of people,” she says. “I always name them.”
Earp says it’s not uncommon for older visitors to share stories about growing up with their own corn husk dolls, often as one of their few toys. “I love the interaction with people,” she says. “I love the excitement and the look in their eye — they remember seeing those at their grandmother’s house.”
Earp explains how she works with wet corn husks and string to make the bulk of her dolls. “Corn husks dry differently,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a little tilt to the head, sometimes the body moves a little bit this way. So they become who they want to be in the drying process.”
Craftsmen at the Village are expected to spend their days demonstrating their crafts to visitors, and sales are a secondary consideration. Earp is joined in her booth by her mother and daughter, who started making corn husk dolls after Earp learned the craft.
“We believe in making sure the next generation understands the importance of traditional handcrafts,” she says, “and the importance that it played in North Carolina and within their own families.”
Earp acknowledges that it can be a challenge to engage younger generations, who are often more accustomed to the instant gratification of cell phones and video games than the time and patience required to create something with your hands.
“We try to connect it to their family history,” she says. “Maybe it’s something in your home that your grandmother had, a quilt or a basket.”
On the rare occasions when Earp gets a bit of down time during the fair, she likes to stroll over to order some Al’s French Fries and enjoy them while sitting in the empty grandstands. “It is quiet, cool place to sit,” she says. “There’s nothing going on and you can just take in the rest of the fair.”