Kathy Cunning Shearer '69 and Rees Shearer '68

Crafting Social Change
October 1, 2011
  
Kathy Cunning Shearer ’69 and Rees Shearer ’68


Bill Phillips

In 1971, Rees Shearer was serving as a Vista volunteer in Georgia when he got a New Year’s greeting from his draft board stating he had sixty days to find an alternative service job to fulfill the requirements necessary to maintain his conscientious-objector status. So, on short notice, he moved to rural Washington County, Virginia, to start a craft cooperative with his wife, Kathy Cunning Shearer. That was the beginning of a lifetime commitment by the couple to preserve and improve the quality of life in southwest Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains.

Experiences at Duke helped awaken the Shearer’s interest in constructive social change, they say. Classroom professors opened their eyes to the tragedy of the Vietnam War and human-rights issues, and the peaceful Vigil at Duke in the spring of 1968 showed them that civil group action could effect positive change. (The Vigil, prompted by the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., focused on better pay and treatment of Duke’s black service workers.)

The craft cooperative, known as the Cave House and located on Main Street in Abington, brought the quilting, woodworking, and pottery skills of mountain folk—including the newly formed Holston Mountain Artists—to a wider market and increased their incomes. It became an important stop for tourists visiting the legendary Martha Washington Inn and Barter Theatre.

By the mid-’70s, the Shearers were living on a small farm, keeping bees and raising goats, rabbits, sheep, and ducks. To this they added their own batik cottage industry, while raising their young son. As they lived this “back-tothe- land” experience, their desire to be involved in the economic and political life of the community mounted. Rees helped educate county residents about American policies affecting Central America and other peace, justice, and energy issues. Kathy worked with a local welfare-rights group of lowincome women and collected oral histories from farming people.

Starting in 1977, citizens in nearby Brumley Gap, Virginia, found themselves fighting a hydro-electric pumped storage dam—a project that would have flooded their valley. Rees worked with the citizens on their “Not by a Dam Site” campaign, which combined mountain folksiness with Bible verses as residents of the small valley hand-lettered Old Testament warnings on sheets of plywood planted in their yards. Eventually, the power company abandoned the project.

Some years later, while working as a school counselor, Rees learned of a plan to privatize Interstate 81 in Virginia and turn it into a $13 billion eight-lane conduit for tractor trailers. It took seven years of grassroots campaigning, but the company proposing the project withdrew and the project collapsed. He also started an advocacy group for an electric-powered rail alternative to truck fleets. His organization’s website—www.steel interstate.org—is now the networking site for a national rail revival movement.

Kathy has worked for many years with families in remote, impoverished areas. A major part of that work was directing the Indoor Plumbing Project for a four-county area. At the end of the twentieth century, nearly 350 homes in Dante, the former headquarters town of a major coal company, were still discharging raw sewage into the local creek. Home by home, she worked with the residents and local officials to devise a plan to install a public sewer and bring the plumbing up to standard.

During this project, she grew close to the families in Dante, and they poured out their life stories to her. Realizing these were stories worth saving, she began collecting them along with all the photos that people had begun pulling out of dusty shoe boxes. The result was the voluminous oral history, Memories of Dante: The Life of a Coal Town, published in 2001. The success of that book was followed by two more oral histories written, edited, and published by Kathy on the state’s towns of Cleveland and Wilder. Kathy established Clinch Mountain Press to handle her publications as well as other fiction and nonfiction works on mountain life.

The Holston Mountain Artisans craft cooperative marks its fortieth anniversary this year, a testimony to the Shearers’ enduring contribution to the quality of life in southwest Virginia.

Phillips ’67 is a lifetime North Carolina resident involved in education, folklore, home building, writing, and photography.