B. Terry Ratliff

B. Terry Ratliff, Artist, Woodworker and Chair Maker; Floyd County Kentucky: 

“I’ve been making chairs for over 35 years, maybe longer if you count it out. I was inspired to make chairs when I went to buy some chairs on Conley Fork of Ball in Knott County. I went to buy some chairs off of ole Irvine Messer. He pulled a spiral bound notebook off the wall. He told me “I have a chair or a basket I made in every state in the union’. Then he showed me the book. ‘These people here are still waiting on a chair or a basket’. I bought the chairs then thought that there might be something to this.

I was raised a poor white boy here in Appalachia. At 12 years old, mom and dad moved to Indiana. It’s what takes most folks away from here; dad needed a job. He worked in factories up there. The coal industry has been boom and bust, has been since it first started. You would be rolling in it in April and shot down in May. In the forties it was strikes, unions getting established. Lately it’s been, what they claim, environmental cutbacks, but it's about natural gas, the cheapness and availability is what a lot of it is.

In a way, it was a lot of hardship, but in another it was a growing experience. I got to go to high school up there. I got a good taste of prejudice; I guess that’s a good word for it. I was the little hillbilly boy. Hillbillies are the only people you can still make fun of, poke fun at. They (other students) made derogatory statements and I was put down. 

From Indiana, I got an opportunity to go to school down here and I came back. I got the opportunity to go to the community college and then transferred to UK. I took it on as a job and finished in four years. Got my bachelor's degree and worked a few years in community mental health here in Eastern Kentucky. Not long after that, during the Reagan years, they had a big cutback and I lost my job. (Mental health) is also a boom-bust business, they empty the institutions out for a while then fill them back up. There is no easy solution to the mental heath problems that the country has.

I got laid off and started building.

I had been kinda helping a fellow build a log house and the job was about up. At that time, I started building my own log house and I started making furniture. I called it Smurf furniture. Big long slab tables with legs on them. Looked like something on those little Smurf cartoons. Then I was encouraged to begin making hickory bottom chairs along the lines of what Herb did. I changed it up just a little bit by strictly using hand tools. I didn’t use any power tools for the first eight years I was in business. 

I only used a shaving horse, a drawknife and after eight years, I began using a drill press to make the holes in the chairs to help out a little bit. And now, after 35 years I’m still making handmade chairs, just the way they have been made for thousands of years before the machines took over. I learned from oral traditions. I got out there and I wanted to do it so bad I felt I had to. The more people that told me I couldn’t, the more I wanted to do it. I took that as a challenge. 

I take pride in being from here. There are so many good things about this culture, from having a good work ethic to having heritage, to all the special things that set us apart from the rest of the world, from dancing to music to the way people treat one another. All in all people are good to each other around here and that’s why I choose to live here. I live here by choice. I think I could live about anywhere but I still live right here where I was born and where I got raised a lot. I’m still getting raised at 60 years old. 

But I feel like I live here by choice. A lot of it is because who the people are and how everybody treats one another. There’s bad apples in every bunch. I think there are a lot fewer bad apples here (in the mountains). I think that if you just greet someone with a smile and stick your hand out they will give you the shirt off their back. If they thought you were in need they would do everything they could to help you out. It ain’t that way everywhere. 

Since the war on poverty we have had folks come down here to help these poor Appalachians out. They come from Minnesota and Wisconsin among other places. They used to bring them out to my house to visit. My house was a treat. I fed them fresh lemonade and homemade cookies. Ever so often I would ask them, I’d say, don’t your people up there need a little help? You think we could have some missionaries here go up there and help your people out some? I don’t know how many people got it. Not sure who got it but I would like to get a group of people together and go up there, send them up to Milwaukee, send them up to Wisconsin and help those poor people up there out because they’d make you think there wasn’t any up there. It just sets a little funny to me. 

I’ve worked wood long enough to know it flows right up out of the ground like the flow of a stream. If there is an adversity there, if someone’s tacked bob wire to it, if there is a big rock there close to it, it will swallow it, surround it and make it part of it. In ways it makes that tree stronger. I feel the same way about adversity, about negative stuff that comes into your life… It’s hard to do. Your first instinct is to get the hell away from it but if you can, embrace it, deal with it. It can become part of you and make you stronger. If you allow yourself, you will grow over it and you will be stronger when you are done with it. You won't be weaker the next time it comes around. It won’t hurt near as bad."