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These Grand Central Communities Honor Their Heritage

Mountain View, Arkansas

Internationally acclaimed as the Folk Music Capital of the World, Mountain View prides itself on preserving the Ozark Mountain music tradition. In one night, as many as 3,000 string musicians will descend on the courthouse square for an all-night jam session. It’s not in the title, but Mountain View equally celebrates folk artisanship and has become a regional hub for craftsmen.

The artisan community exists largely because of the Ozark Folk Center, a state park designed to promote mountain music and crafts. Located on a mountain just north of Mountain View, the center hosts a craft village, where artists demonstrate their skills in several workshops. Blacksmiths, potters, fiber artists, woodworkers, gunsmiths and several other craftsmen encourage groups to crowd around and ask questions while they work.

“We have this nucleus of artisans and musicians that has become generational in some cases,” said Folk Center superintendent John Morrow. “And we continue to bring folks from outside of the area who settle here because of the culture.”

Groups could spend a few days at the Folk Center alone, but Morrow suggests they make time to see the thriving downtown artisan community as well. The Arkansas Craft Guild is based in Mountain View, and those artists show off their work in the Arkansas Craft Gallery on Main Street.

Several artists who exhibit their work at the gallery have organized one of the most popular rural studio tours in the nation. The Off the Beaten Path tour directs groups to 30 studios scattered in the hills around the valley. In its 15th year, the tour runs every third weekend in September and serves as a model for artisan communities around the nation.

The guild also gave rise to the downtown Arkansas Craft School, which offers classes in media like glass and clay. The highly accomplished faculty offers nearly 45 weekend workshops that groups can attend April through November.

North Topeka Arts District

Abandoned after the devastating floods of 1951, North Topeka’s business district became notorious for disrepair and high crime. Tourists and locals alike avoided North Kansas Avenue.

A two-block stretch has been transformed in the span of a few short years into what is today the thriving North Topeka Arts District, known locally as NOTO.

Nikki Sloup, co-chair of the NOTO board, said the dramatic turnaround came much faster than organizers anticipated. “Everyone’s getting behind this,” Sloup said. “There’s so much to see and do, and we’re growing exponentially.”

Artists have flocked to North Kansas Avenue from across the Midwest, and nearly 30 now call NOTO their permanent home. Originally built in the late 1800s, business facades and interiors have been restored to their High Victorian glory and transformed into galleries, boutiques, cafes, eateries and antique shops. Many artists work from second-floor studios where they can watch the lively street below.

Groups are best served by visiting NOTO on weekends, when the district hosts meet-and-greets with artists, gallery tours and antique crawls. Weekends are also the best opportunity for visitors to attend workshops in an array of media.

The first renowned artist to commit to NOTO was Barbara Waterman Peters. Visitors can watch her work in Studio 831, where she is joined by many more artists. Another important stop is the 80-foot mural that backs into an alley off North Kansas Avenue created by Philadelphia muralist Isaiah Zagar.

“We really have tremendously talented artists to celebrate and want to give them a platform to amplify their work, to give them a stage and an area where they can be celebrated,” Sloup said. She expects NOTO to overtake two to three more blocks in the coming decade.

College of the Ozarks

Grand Central’s future artisans are perfecting their skills in 90 open workshops at College of the Ozarks, just south of Branson. The college, which provides on-campus work for students to fully fund their educations, invites groups to stop in to see their progress.

“What’s interesting is that it gives students the opportunity to create and make beautiful things, but to do it in a way that benefits them,” said Richard Cummings, associate professor of art at the college. Many students graduate to become successful artists and art teachers, he said.

Students give free guided tours of the campus, or groups can wander at their own pace. Every tour includes a stop at Edwards Mill, a fully operational replica of an 1800s gristmill powered by a 12-foot-diameter water wheel turned by runoff water from nearby Lake Honor. Inside the mill, some students grind whole-grain meal and flour while others work in the weaving and basket studios. Similarly popular are the stained-glass studio, the pottery studio and the fruit-and-jelly kitchen, where groups can expect demonstrations and free samples.

“People can talk one on one with students, or students can give talks to whole groups at a time,” Cummings said.

The Ozarks’ high level of craftsmanship is on full display at the Williams Memorial Chapel in the center of campus. Students took years to build the architectural gem made of limestone, wood and stained glass.

In addition to creations by students, the art department brings in works from around the world. The Boger Art Gallery draws crowds with rotating exhibits from nationally prominent artists throughout the year.

The college is also proud of the Ralph Foster Museum, which houses thousands of pieces dedicated to the history of the Ozarks. The eclectic collection has everything from Thomas Hart Benton’s historic cover for “The Grapes of Wrath” to the original clunker used in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”