Our story begins in 1975 when Niki Negus began working at Towne of Historic Smithville in South Jersey. Although she was raised in Princeton where her father was a professor of graduate level 18th century German literature, Niki had found her way to folk and fiber arts at Stockton College, where she majored in Early American Crafts and Culture, a combination of art, history, and business. She had originally intended to be an animal behavioralist, but upon failing chemistry, she took a year off from her studies to apprentice under a weaver and spinner in Batsto, New Jersey, learning all sorts of wonderful things about fibers and how to turn them into something new. So after developing a new major and upon graduation, she found her way to the Towne of Historic Smithville. Smithville was a community of craftspeople and actors designed to transport people back in time to the Federalist Period of American history. Niki was hired to be a demonstrating weaver and spinner. She dressed in period costume and worked her craft while talking to visitors as if she were from 1825. Our story begins here in Smithville because this is where she met Gary Giberson, who was the demonstrating duck decoy carver at the village. Gary was a talented artist and a natural performer. Niki was thoroughly captivated by him as he spoke to the crowds, carving away on his schnitzelbank (a traditional carving bench). Gary soon took a liking to Niki and began courting her in costume. He would bring her wildflowers and chocolate eclairs, and to give himself an extra edge, he would sneak into her studio and take a wedge out of her loom so that it shook while she was weaving. Naturally, she would have to call on the village carver to fix it, and he would whittle a wedge on the spot that was the perfect fit. She was very impressed, unaware that Gary knew what size to carve the wedge because he had taken out the original. Before too long, the two fell in love and were married. Niki joined Gary on his property in Port Republic, New Jersey, a 33 acre plot of land, which has been in his family since 1680 when it was granted to his ancestors by the King of England. The couple started a family and worked for the owners of Historic Smithville, even after it closed.
In 1986, Niki received a phone call saying that her great aunt Millie was dying in Florida and she would have to fly down right away if she wanted to say goodbye. So Niki and Gary packed up their three girls (Amy, Megan, and Robin) with all their favorite toys, brought them to their grandparents' house in Princeton, and flew down to Florida, leaving Gary's eighteen year old son Gregg (Niki's step son) alone in the house. In the middle of the night, the wood-stove overheated and the house caught on fire. Thankfully, Gregg was able escape safely, but before the fire company arrived, the house was ablaze. The walls burned from the inside out, leaving the house completely in ruins. Upon the family's return to Port Republic, they found that there was little left of the home where Gary was born and had lived all his life. Where could they even begin? The people of Port Republic all came together to support the Giberson family. They found them a house to rent in Port Republic. They made meals for them and donated food and clothes. They threw a shower for the family, giving them pots and pans and grocery store gift certificates and furniture and everything else they needed. The Gibersons were overwhelmed with gratitude. As they began to rebuild, they wanted to give back to the community that came to their aid in their darkest hour. So they decided that instead of putting back the original house, they would add a classroom where Niki and Gary could teach others the crafts and skills and history that had brought them together. So in 1988, Swan Bay Folk Art Center was born. Out of their new home studio, Gary taught decoy carving, and Niki taught basket-weaving classes. (She had to retire her loom when her oldest daughter relentlessly played it like a harp.) They taught classes for children, teaching history through hands-on activities: sewing, carving, colonial games, tea parties, doll-making, and shorebird painting. They cleared some land and put up fences for a small flock of sheep so that Niki could give spinning demonstrations and the children that visited could feed the sheep. Gary and Niki's three girls even joined in by teaching alongside their parents and helping to care for the flock. From the ashes of the 1986 fire, a whole world of discovery and artistry was born, and traditional crafts were rediscovered and shared with new generations.
This is the environment in which I was raised. My name is Robin, and I am the youngest of Gary and Niki's girls. My parents always encouraged us to find our passion, follow it, and share it with others, and I am deeply thankful for their encouragement to live outside of the box and to trust history and tradition to point us in the right direction. I will always feel a debt of gratitude to my parents, and especially to my mom, for their example and for the skills that they have taught me. My mother has taught me to spin and knit and felt and dye, all from the wool from our own sheep. She has welcomed me into the rich history of fiber arts and traditional crafts. Just about everything I know, I learned from her. So when I saw this giveaway, I felt that I should enter in my mother's story, hoping that her passion for history and fiber arts would be as inspiring to you as it has been to me. After twenty years of caring for a small flock of sheep, I know that my mother would be ecstatic to add angora goats to her farm. Not only will she be able to diversify the fiber crafts she creates; she will also care deeply for the animals, as she does for everything she touches. I cannot think of a more appropriate way for me to show my gratitude to her than by offering you this story, in hopes that you will award my mother--a richly experienced, equipped, and deserving shepherdess--with the angora goats.
Swan Bay Folk Art Center is still in operation today (www.handsonhistory.com). Although Gary has mostly retired from carving due to arthritis in his wrists, Niki continues to teach classes to adults and children and hosts school groups and scout troops on the farm.
And because posts are more fun when they have pictures, here are a few for your viewing enjoyment:
I'll keep you posted about the giveaway. I think that people get to vote on the winners, so I'll be counting on you when the time comes to get my mom some goats!
Little shee-eep, get ready for some new roommates! :o)
Little shee-eep, get ready for some new roommates! :o)
Update: I just read on the blog that's hosting the giveaway that there were 61 applicants for the goats! I still think our chances are good. I'll keep you posted.