Closer Look

Lucy Morgan: A true ‘Gift From the Hills’

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Catherine Haithcock

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, geography or history buff, or if you have simply lived in Western North Carolina for a spell, you have probably heard of Siler Bald, Joanna Bald, Rufus Morgan Falls, or St. John’s Episcopal Church. What is not glaringly evident is that all these landmarks share one commonality: The Morgan-Siler family tree. But there is one Morgan that you cannot find in any nomenclature. Hers is a legacy better expressed through knowledge and craft, and those who knew her called her “Miss Lucy.”

On Nov. 9, a presentation hosted by Nantahala Hiking Club focused on Lucy and Rufus Morgan, original founder of the club. Historical details were shared by Foxfire Museum of Appalachian Culture, based in Mountain City, Ga.

Lucy Morgan was born on Sep. 20, 1889, in a small log cabin in the Cartoogechaye community of Macon County.

MACON COUNTY native Lucy Morgan (1889-1981) revived and taught the art of weaving and founded the Penland School of Crafts. She is buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye community.

She was the sixth of nine children. Her oldest brother was the Rev. Rufus Morgan – for whom the falls are named.

After attending a private school in Hickory, N.C., operated by her aunt, Lucy obtained her teaching certification at the Central Michigan Normal School in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. But her most significant achievement was still waiting for her back in the mountains of her home state.

In 1920, Rufus wrote to Lucy requesting her assistance. “Rufus was an Episcopal minister and the Diocese [of Western North Carolina] asked him to go to Penland, N.C., tasked with developing a school, which became very successful,” said Susan Leveille, great-niece of Rufus and Lucy, and also a skilled weaver. “Rufus was the kind of minister that believed the best way to teach Christ was to set an example.”

But Rufus, with his wife and two children, was leaving for South Carolina, and Lucy agreed to help manage The Appalachian Industrial School that her brother had founded eight years earlier in his absence.

She arrived in Penland by train on the first of June. Penland, located 2.9 miles away from Spruce Pine, N.C., was an isolated township at that time, and remains so today. “If you haven’t been there and you went there today, you would be sure you were in the wrong place,” said Leveille. “It was a train stop, a post office, and a general store … but that was the beginning of her introduction into that wonderful, rural community. And out of that grew her love of weaving.”

Weaving, according to Leveille, was a skill and a craft that was almost dead by this time. “There weren’t people weaving much at all; they all wanted store-bought,” she said. “[Weaving] sort of skipped the generation Lucy had grown up in. She had never learned it her whole life and she just felt like it needed to be taught again.”

Rufus had written to Lucy about a woman in the community known as “Aunt Susan Phillips” who knew how to hand weave. “She lived some distance away from the school, Rufus had said, but he didn’t say how far,” Lucy recalls in her memoir, “A Gift From the Hills.”

So, Lucy began to walk in the general direction to Snow Creek hoping to find Phillips, stopping and confirming with travelers and homesteaders along her route that she was going in the right direction. “And there she was indeed, 94 years old and planting corn,” Lucy wrote. The distance to Phillips was a 15-mile round trip, confirmed by a pedometer given to Lucy by a teacher at The Appalachian School.

After their meeting, Lucy was more determined than ever to help revive the craft of hand-weaving. “I thought of those beautiful specimens, each worthy of immortality in some museum, and of what a tragedy it would be were the art of creating such things lost to the succeeding generations,” she wrote in her memoir.

Her pursuit of hand weaving did not stop there, however. Lucy was elected to accompany an Appalachian student by the name of Bonnie Willis to Berea University in Kentucky, per her parents’ request. “They made some sort of arrangement where Lucy went to chaperone [their daughter],” said Leveille. “While she was there, Lucy decided this was where she could learn how to weave. Lucy was a real tiny thing and she had a real southern way of getting some things she wanted, so she was enrolled in the weaving program.”

According to her memoir, Lucy met “Mrs. Matheny” during her time at Berea; Mrs. Matheny was teaching the women in the community to weave and then she was selling their work for them. “I suppose I would say, if I had to put my finger on the time and place, that the idea of establishing an institution such as the Penland School of Handicrafts was born then and there,” Lucy recalls in her writings.

Lucy purchased three looms before leaving Berea and had them shipped by train back to Penland. When she returned, Lucy met with Bishop Junius Horner with the intent of getting the school on board and reviving the weaving industry. Her desire was to keep one loom for herself and give the other two to women in the community so that she might teach them to weave. The bishop did not approve, so Lucy elected to use her personal retirement savings of $615 to carry out this vision.

One of the looms went to Bonnie’s mother, “Mrs. Willis.” Lucy tasked Mrs. Willis to make rag rugs and promised to pay her for the finished product. “Mrs. Willis said everyone who lived along the road on the way back to their house knew how much money she had gotten paid ($23, according to the memoir) because [her husband] stopped and told everyone,” recalled Leveille. “The next day, there were seven women at Lucy’s door before she had breakfast, and they wanted to learn how to weave, too.”

All of this renewed excitement for weaving continued to grow, and soon even the men in the community were involved. “These [husbands] were jacks of all trades; they knew how to do pretty much everything,” said Leveille. “They would take measurements [of the looms Lucy had purchased], and they went and built their wives a loom. And, that started the cottage industry. They would get together periodically and [Lucy] would teach these women the steps they needed to do, and out of that grew this institute where people could come in and learn.”

That institute was the Penland School of Handicrafts (now called the Penland School of Crafts) – located around 115 miles from Franklin. Founded by Lucy in 1924, it remains in operation today, providing those of all ranges of experience – from beginner to master – a means to learn weaving, pottery, glass-working, leather-working, and more. In fact, students nationally and internationally attend classes at Penland. And, front and center on Penland’s website’s history page is a photograph of Lucy and background about how she founded the school.

“Lucy wanted the school to reflect the community it was in,” said Leveille. “She wanted people to learn the skills that had been utilized in that larger community and make something with their hands that they were proud of.”

Lucy died in 1981 at the age of 91, but she continues to be recognized today for helping to revive mountain heritage crafts. She and Rufus Morgan are buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Cartoogechaye community.

Lucy Morgan’s memoir, “A Gift From the Hills,” can still be purchased online, and photographs and writings of Rev. Rufus Morgan’s are on display and available at the Macon County Historical Museum on Main Street in Franklin.