On Saturday, May 4, more than 1, 000 guests visited the historic Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery for Southern Makers, a festival-style celebration of Alabama craftsmanship and artistry. The riverside venue was filled with artists, farmers and craftspeople from around the state. Proceeds benefited E.A.T. South, a health-focused non-profit that promotes sustainable food production in the Southeast.
“Everything you see at Southern Makers is homegrown and handmade, ” says creative director Andrea Jean. “If you’re an artisan, chef or maker of any sort, you’re welcome here. It’s about preserving Alabama’s past in a modern context.”
Southern Makers formed as a follow-up to last year’s Alabama All Star Food Festival, expanding to feature artists and business spanning a broad range of talents and products. The event was created and curated by E.A.T. South, design consulting firm Matter, and architecture-engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood Inc.
“This sort of statewide event previously didn’t exist anywhere, ” says brand identity expert Anna Lowder. “After the success of last year’s food festival, we decided to expand on the idea.”
Lowder, who works at Matter, helped gather the multitude of craftspeople and businesses that participated at Southern Makers. “So much of the search process was word of mouth, ” she says. “We spoke with a lot of creative people from up and down the state. That way, we were able to find regional artists that might not be well-known beyond their own town. By having everyone at a central location, new connections are made that bring the state closer together.”
The venue was divided by region, with Gulf Coast and southern artisans at the south entrance of the shed, central Alabama represented in the middle, and north Alabama gathered at the end. Although the shed was host to numerous established names like Belle Chevre, Natalie Chanin and the Billy Reid Pop-Up Shop, there was plenty of new and relatively undiscovered talent present. “Some of these makers are well known with far reaching business, ” says Jean. “Others will enjoy new exposure here. That’s the plan.”
The first maker on display was Thomas Hines, custom guitar maker. Prior to making his own instruments, Hines played bass in a band. Now based in Brewton, he prefers to design electric guitars, mandolins and basses using high-quality woods. “I take custom orders and can tailor make the instrument to the buyer’s preferences, ” he says. “The guitars are made from beautiful exotic woods, so they all come in a natural finish.” Each instrument features attractive, rich colors and detailed carvings. Several instruments were set up for guests to play.
At the center of the shed, Kathleen Champion set up a booth for Ex Voto Vintage. Owner Elizabeth Adam’s one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry is made from antique pieces found around the world. “Hand crafted items aren’t as common now, but we don’t want them to become lost to time, ” says Champion. “There’s value in taking the individual care and attention of such a detailed process.”
Toward the back of the shed, guests stopped to watch George Jones Jr. work at his handmade trap wheel. A fourth generation broom maker from Florence, Jones is impressively self-reliant. Virtually every part of the broom, from the brush to the ornately carved handle, is sourced by Jones himself. “I grow the straw and cut the trees in Florence, ” he says. “The techniques I use are from the early 1900s, and these brooms are meant to be used.”
Farmer Al Hooks and his son, Demetrius, brought several crates of produce from his farm in Shorter. In addition to promoting his farm and processing plant, they hoped to sell their crops, including turnips, onions, greens and strawberries. “You can find this produce all over Alabama, ” says Hooks. “We have it in Walmart, Whole Foods and Freshfully in Avondale.” Restaurants like Brick & Tin and Jim ’N Nick’s also buy from the third-generation farmer.
Although the assorted greens garnered attention, Hook’s strawberries were the fastest moving item on his table. He emptied crate after crate as hungry guests made their way through the shed.
Some businesses in attendance did not expect to move substantial amounts of merchandise during the event. Craftsmen like John Phillips, of Phillips Metal Works, came to make connections. “This is a good way to get in front of the public, ” he says. “Even if we aren’t here to sell, we have the chance to meet other professionals and make an impression on the public.” Phillips sees Southern Makers as good publicity for his metal working business, which creates contemporary steel designs for the home and commissioned works for the public.
There were plenty of food samples to go around at the event. Alabama barbeque was well represented, with the likes of Dreamland and Jim ’N Nick’s. Guests received a taste of the Gulf’s seafood via Wintzell’s Oyster House. “It’s the best way to advertise, ” the oyster server says. “We just let the gumbo do the talking.”
Lek Tiemkongkanchna offered authentic Thai food from a small stand outside of his own restaurant. Lek’s Railroad Thai Restaurant has become a Montgomery staple, located within the Union Station itself. He believes that Southern Makers fosters a sense of community among its participants. “It’s good for Montgomery and it’s good for the whole state.”
At the far end of the shed, a stage showcased live entertainment. Soon after the event began, Fire Mountain, a folk/rock band from Troy, tuned up to provide Southern roots music while guests filed in. The Pollies and Tim Lee 3 also performed that evening.
The Southern Makers Stage also held the Year of Alabama Food regional BBQ Sauce Competition. Out of six competitors from Alabama’s south region, Phil’s BBQ of Eufaula took top honors. Several authors took the stage to read excerpts of the Southern Voices production presented by Cloverdale Playhouse. Many guests took a break from browsing the booths to listen to the storytellers.
The unseasonably cool but sunny day was considered a success by organizers, who were optimistic about the inaugural Southern Makers event. “Attendance was beyond what we expected, ” says PR coordinator Abby Basinger. “We sold over 1, 200 tickets before the event started. We’re already starting the waiting list for next year’s makers.”
Basinger is confident that this year’s turnout suggests an even bigger production in 2014, with more quality makers. “We’re finding the best talent that Alabama has to offer, ” she says. “That’s what brings so many people here. We’re celebrating the creativity that surrounds us.”
For more information visit southernmakers.com.
Thomas Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
text by Thomas Little • photos by David Bundy