Pennies for the Old Guy


I WAS WALKING along Boylston St. one day recently when I noticed a listing of "The Appalachia Shop" at the entrance to the new Garage shopping complex. I thought about my mountain ancestors, who were making quilts and selling mules a couple of generations ago, and about what LBJ said of the problems of mountain people, and then decided to find out what this bit of supposed craft and likely underdevelopment was doing in the middle of Harvard Square's trendiest new investment.

Returning along the long ramp which leads into the Garage I brought a svelte, sensitive, Southern friend of mine and a few journalistic plural pronouns. We found the Appalachia shop in a small open booth near places that push Polish and Central American crafts. It was full of stuffed animals, handmade cutting boards, quilts encased in plastic, patchwork pillow kits, brightly colored hearth brooms, and a couple of striking cardboard carton displays of something called "Jack Guy Folk Toys."

Jack Guy Folk Toys are little constructions of wood, corn cob, and cane which come in little bright boxes, either already assembled or as kits. In the shop, they were stacked up under a couple of large color photos of Jack Guy himself, wearing an outlandish shirt of more colors and materials than Joseph's coat, bibbed over-alls, and an immense sort of Hoss Cartwright style black hat with bead-work band. The hat suggested a renegade Indian trader. Jack Guy's hair is cut rather too neatly for a hill person, but his face is pretty convincingly weathered. In the pictures he holds a gee gaw whimmy-diddle or a flipper-dinger, and in inset photos he shows how to use them. The rest of the toys are things like bull roarer, idiot sticks, ball tossers, and plain old cornshuck dolls. Each one of them is "A genuine" item or "a rare authentic artifact." Despite extensive instructions on the back, it's very hard to say just what these toys do, or why.

The one they seemed to be pushing hardest was called the flipper dinger. It is made of "over 100 years of family tradition, some good native mountain wood, and a great deal of puttin' together time." A flipper-dinger is made of a short length of cane something like an Indian peace pipe with a wire basket instead of a bowl. The basket has two wire rings, one higher than the other. Hanging from one of the rings is a little ball made from the light core of a corn cob, with a wire hook in it. The idea is to gently support the ball with your breath, and raise it from one ring to the other and back again without it falling out.

In the display the flipper-dingers are piled up in boxes with different slogans on them. The slogans say "Don't share your flipper-dinger with anyone else but me," "Being away from you is like having a flipper-dinger without a ball," "Mother never told me about flipper-dingers," or "It's not just anybody who gets to play with my flipper-dinger."

Two of the other--less challenging--toys are the idiot stick, a contraption composed of two sticks, designed simply to make somebody think there is a rubber band connecting the two, when there's not. Then there's the mountain I.Q. test, a triangular board with pegs in it that have to move about. These items all sell for about two dollars.

We talked to the nice lady in the shop. We were worried about what all these toys suggested about the intelligence of mountain people and the amount of time they seemed to have to kill. My friend even found the advertising here "sordid." And together we wondered just who to think was being exploited, poor people of Appalachia being used by some carpetbagger capitalist, or gullible Yankees whose fleecing we should applaud.

But most of all we were interested in this Jack Guy guy. Frankly, we didn't believe he existed, except as an advertising model. Imagine them inventing this old guy "Guy." And all the gaff it tossed around about his starting the toy line: "Back in the 1950s, Jack Guy got concerned because the art of making folk toys was disappearing from his native Blue Ridge Mountains..." The publicity went on to talk about how the toys had now spread throughout the country and even into some "furrin'" countries. (A few paragraphs later they say there were some sold in "foreign" countries too.) And as for the principles behind these devices why "even some top scientists haven't been able to figure that out."

The lady at the shop didn't know much about Jack Guy beyond what the ads said, but she said that sometimes schools teachers would come in and buy one of the kits and then go find the same kind of materials for their kids to make their own whimmy-diddles or bull roarers.

SO WE GOT on the phone to Blue Ridge Cottage Industries in Boone, North Carolina, the distributors, to see what we could find out. Like whether they use a hot-shot New York advertising firm. They don't said a gentleman there. They have their own vice-president who learned advertising skills in Raleigh and who designs their packaging. Their firm is only two years old and had taken over distribution from Jack Guy--there really is a Jack Guy, and he lives in Sugar Grove, N.C., and he is very helpful and informative, the man said, but after half an hour he might be boring.

Then we finally got hold of Jack Guy himself. We were embarrassed to tell him that we hadn't believed in his existence. He told us on the phone that some three or four hundred people in forty-five families make all the goods at home, usually only working a couple of hours after dinner, and that they are paid by the piece to a total of about $500 a year per person. They are mainly people who farm in the daytime. We asked him where he got the ideas for the toys and he said that he knew of a few of them and "there was a couple of old men around here who knowed of five or six others. They warn't all named with the same names. We thought of some of these names to fit the toys.

"We started out in 1959 with three people," he said. "Then later the agency come in. We got racks now in Atlanta, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and they been pickin' up real great in the last couple of years. These toys are made by authentic local Blue Ridge people, entirely in the home. There isn't no factory. They can make most of em with just a pocket knife, in a little shed beside the house or just inside." Are they packaged at home too, or in a central place? "Well, no, we got a little place near Beach Creek, a central place where they're packaged." And do the people gather the materials or what? "Well they either gather 'em or we help him, give 'em materials. We go around usually and teach the people how to do these toys. We're not really an industry, but we're getting bigger."

We thanked Mr. Guy very much, and he told us to have a nice day now.