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The Little Apple: Once known for orchards, Clarksville's now center for arts, crafts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 21, 2011 - Caron Quick is aptly named. An artisan and owner, along with her husband Ralph Quick, of the Windsor Chair Shop on North First Street, Caron is quick to smile, quick to laugh and quick to tell a visitor just how friendly, close-knit and hard-working the artists' community in Clarksville is.

"We're all friends, we help each other," she says. "We're family." Later, in passing, she casually underscored that point, noting that she also manages Dawn of Creation, just down the street.

No surprise, but Dawn Beckwith, a jewelry maker, mosaic artist and the owner of Dawn of Creation on South First, couldn't agree more. "I love this community so much," she says. "We have really talented, nice people here. I am happy and proud of what we are doing. We have really jelled in the last couple of years." Beckwith has had her shop in Clarksville for 3 and 1/2 years, and two years ago, she opened the Coffee Bean, a popular coffee shop that has quickly become a community gathering place.

The Quicks have been in Clarksville for 11 years, one of the anchors of the artistic community along with Mayor Jo Anne Smiley and her husband, Wayne, who run an antiques shop. What drew the Quicks to Clarksville? "We couldn't imagine ourselves making Windsor chairs in a strip mall," says Caron Quick. "We wanted a historic setting."

And they certainly have that in Clarksville. The picturesque river town, about 75 miles north of St. Louis on Highway 79, goes back to 1817 although no one knows for sure whether it was named after the explorer William Clark or his older brother George Rodgers Clark. Apple orchards were once one of the the town's economic mainstays -- and the heritage of apples, ciders and vinegars lives on in the annual autumn AppleFest.

Today, the town, on the National Register of Historic Places, is known mostly for the bald eagles who winter there and the community of roughly 20 artists and artisans who work, show (and often live) there year round.

If You Build It...

Last year about this time, photographer Kevin Massiglia was "looking for Mark Twain." He was reading "Life on the Mississippi" and planning a visit to Hannibal.

On the way to Hannibal, he stopped for lunch in Clarksville, happened to meet the mayor and "fell in love" with the town.

He visited Clarksville a few more times, and by Mother's Day weekend had opened his own gallery and studio. The newest artist in town, he just signed another year's lease on his gallery and now has his eye on a house around the corner.

"It's been great, wonderful, with the group of artists we have," he said. "There's a nice variety and the town is really supportive."

One of the reasons Massiglia could commit so quickly and easily is that many buildings in the small quaint downtown have been lovingly renovated and then sold or rented at reasonable prices. Massiglia's landlord is the nonprofit Historic Clarksville Inc., which offers properties to prospective buyers in "turn-key condition," to quote Quick.

Erin Garrison, who runs the Great River Road Pottery Shop on South First Street., is on the Historic Clarksville board. A large, anonymous donation at the end of '80s funded the purchase and renovation of several dilapidated downtown properties, she said. Once restored, they were sold and the money plowed into more renovations.

Furniture maker John Whitt, who owns the Bent Tree Gallery, came to Clarksville eight years ago. He recalls being impressed by "all the restored storefronts. The store we moved into looked brand-new."

Those restorations were part of an organized effort to attract artists. Whitt remembers that "at the time I came, there was a grant" to market Clarksville to artists. That no longer exists, so recruitment is more informal. "We have artists we've talked to; we just hope that something works out," says Whitt.

Adds daughter Stacy Whitt, who makes leather purses and clothes, "We would like to find some more artists and grow." She's excited that "there's an artists' group brainstorming" ways to do just that.

Upturns, downturns, ebbs and flows

Making a living as an artist is rarely easy under even the best of circumstances -- and the ongoing economic downturn has posed a challenge. "The economy has been rough on everyone," says Beckwith.

Some juggle a number of options. In addition to her store in Clarksville, Beckwith is opening a new one in Jacksonville, Ill. (A store in Grafton recently closed.) Massiglia does commissioned photography, shows at art fairs, graphic design work and is redoing his website. Without her website, Stacy Whitt says she doesn't know that she could survive making leather purses and clothing.

Others rely on an established reputation. Whitt has been making furniture for 29 years; he started out doing "wholesale to high-end stores in Colorado. He gave that up, though, "because we were never getting to meet our customers." Whitt estimates that only about 20 percent of his sales come from the web; the rest come from the store. He does say, though, that people who have seen his work at Best of Missouri at the Missouri Botanical Garden often make their way up to Clarksville.

The Quicks have a national reputation for making museum-quality Windsor chairs. Every year since 2004, Early American Life magazine has named them as one of the Top 200 Traditional American Craftsmen. Not surprisingly, about half of their sales come from the web.

Of course, the artists also benefit from the festivals and events that Clarksville hosts. Massiglia, for example, was pleasantly surprised, he said, by the number of people who came by during January and February, normally a dead time, because of the eagles.

In addition to weathering bad economic times, the veteran artists have also had to weather, well, the weather -- especially the flooding of 2008. Beckwith tells a dramatic tale of a race against time to move out her heavy kilns through a 3-foot opening in the wall of sandbags. Because of the risk of flooding, which the town faces again this year, Beckwith never moved her kilns back in.

While the Quicks had a wall of sandbags in front of their store, which was, of course, closed to the public, they did continue to work inside. For Whitt, it took several months for things to return to normal after the flood.

The flood took a toll, says Mayor Smiley, and not all of the town has completely recovered. Combined with the economic challenges, that has left some downtown storefronts empty.

Still, through floods, recessions, the passion for their work is what sustains them, and helps sustain the town, and that's a good thing. "There's no retirement for an artist," says Caron Quick.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.