The Seed and the Story: Violet Sory and the ARVAC Crafts Co-Op.

From the Courier. Image donated by Sory’s granddaughter. Sory is the middle person on the first row.

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

A few months ago in this column we discussed the formation of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) organization, an outgrowth of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.  Organized much like a domestic version of the Peace Corps, VISTA sought to provide lasting and locally based solutions to struggling communities around the nation.  In its early days VISTA volunteers traveled to low-income areas organizing against rampant poverty and public health concerns. In the later years the goals shifted to long-term, locally based solutions and local volunteers.

The goal of any VISTA program was to become self-sufficient.  The ARVAC agency, a branch of the VISTA program founded in Yell County, was a model of such success.  ARVAC still serves the area today, providing much needed services including a food and seed bank, home energy assistance, and the Single Parent Scholarship Fund, just to name a few.  Perhaps one of the most innovative programs was ARVAC Rural Folk Crafts Inc.

Founded in 1975 under the direction of Bob Atkinson and Lou Vitale, the co-op allowed traditional crafters the opportunity to band together to sell their wares.  Setting up central shop in Russellville, the organization eventually became a separate non-profit corporation in 1980, thus fulfilling the organization’s goal of group-supported self-sufficiency.  In the process the crafts co-op provided a space supporting both the crafters and the crafts themselves, helping to keep alive traditions of white oak basket making, quilting, and doll making.

After first writing about ARVAC and putting out a call for stories, I was contacted by the granddaughter of one of the craft co-op’s early board members and craftswomen, Violet Sory of Delaware. Her granddaughter, Connie Shepherd, explained that Sory first began sewing to make clothing for her children. She ordered a treadle sewing machine from Montgomery Ward with money saved from picking cotton near Dardanelle. She later acquired a Singer treadle, which she eventually converted to electric.  It was this later machine Sory used to make the Raggedy Ann and Andy and other rag-style dolls for the crafts co-op.  Shepherd recalls her grandmother also making sock monkeys, braded rugs, and even a wooden doll cradle.  Before the crafts co-op, Shepherd explained, her grandmother had never worked outside the home and thus had no retirement or insurance. Like so many like so many people who entered the co-op, selling handcrafted dolls helped Sory pay into the social security system, thus ensuring a small retirement.

While living with her granddaughter Sory mentioned her regret at never keeping any of the dolls she made for the co-op.  By this time, Shepherd explains, “She could not see well and her hands were twisted with arthritis.” Shepherd, a seamstress herself, offered to make the dolls if her grandmother would share the pattern. I still have the pattern “in my head,” Sory replied and walked her granddaughter through drawing it out.  Shepherd made her grandmother a set of dolls, even including some of the old buttons her grandmother had saved for the eyes.

Sory passed away in 2000. Her influence in the craft co-op was immense, and her photograph and name are listed in a 1980 article as one of the original board members. Other original board members included Juanita McFadden of Morrilton, Mary Rhoades of Gravelly, Bettyann Shain of Clarksville, Sharon Wyatt of Casa and Shirley Ross of Ozark.  In part due to her grandmother’s inspiration, Shepherd took a course to repair handmade dolls and now repairs dolls for family, friends, and the public.

Was someone in your family involved in the craft co-op? I’d love to hear their story and keep record of it for future generations at the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife Oral History, and Community Action.  Extra special thanks to Connie Shepherd for sharing her story!

To learn more about the ARVAC program as well research into the VISTA program throughout Arkansas check out Marvin Schwartz’s 1988 book, In Service to America: A History of Vista in Arkansas 1965-1985.   To see our first column about this topic click here.