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Kentucky's Berea College: a magnet for lovers of crafts

Berea College has long been recognized for its student craft industries - broom-making, ceramics, weaving, and wrought-iron work - that not only help the students earn their way through school but also serve as Appalachia's heritage. Frost-belt folks driving to and from Florida frequently stop off in this country town for campus tours, strolls through the gift shop, and lunch at the college-run Boone Tavern Inn.

Little more than an hour from the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, and just minutes from I-75, the interstate that slices Kentucky from Cincinnati to Knoxville, Berea is still a worthwhile detour from even the most pressing travel schedule. Anyone with more than a passing interest in native American crafts will find a visit particularly rewarding.

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Not only is Berea a perfect introduction to Appalachian culture and the place to load up on beautifully handmade items at a steal of a price, but it is also a country town that saunters to decidedly rural rhythms. A hand-lettered sign in the drugstore window declares ''We have White Shoulders'' (perfume). Waitresses at the local pizza shop still explain spumoni ice cream. And folks play Chinese checkers in the lobby of the inn. It is a place happily devoid of kitsch. A visit can last an hour or a full day, but highlights should include the following:

* Boone Tavern Inn. A stay here is like visiting Grandmother's house. Rooms are clean, cheerful, full of handmade furniture, and very reasonable. Rates for a double room start at less than $30. The dining room - dinner runs less than $ 15 - boasts Kentucky cuisine of the fresh-trout-and-spoonbread variety. Breakfasts are full, country-style affairs. There is no tipping allowed: 90 percent of the staff are students learning hotel management skills. They all seem duty-bound to address everyone in respectful tones.

* Student Industries. Of the roughly 1,500 students attending the college, 80 percent are from the southern Appalachian area. But all students, regardless of background, earn their room and board through the college work program. Campus tours of the craft shops are available Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The crafts, including hand-woven placemats and napkins, brooms, and hand-thrown ceramics, are available for purchase at the inn's giftshop.

* Appalachian Fireside Crafts. The largest craft cooperative in Kentucky has its gallery and retail shop located on Berea's Main Street. The store - a former restaurant and bank complete with stainless steel safe and track lighting - is a bit of New York's Upper East Side adrift in the Kentucky hills. The handmade items - full-size quilts and cherry highboys to hickory bark birdhouses and rag dolls - are beautifully displayed along with rotating exhibits of local artists' work. Proceeds directly benefit the cooperative members, and prices are drastically below retail shops elsewhere.

For instance, wool rag rugs priced here at $200, recently sold in a nationwide department store for 10 times that amount. Other good buys include crib quilts, traditional Kentucky egg baskets, ceramic bowls, and two-foot-tall men carved from buckeye wood. The gallery is open every day until 9 p.m. and a catalog is available.

* Churchill Weavers. One of the largest producers of hand-weaving in the country, this workshop is a two-minute drive out of Berea and a must for anyone with an appreciation for this art. Free, self-guided tours of the actual weaving operation are available and the salesroom is full of richly colored, reasonably priced rugs, draperies, and throws - all woven on the premises. A recent visit also yielded mohair shawls for less than $70 and hand-woven wool sweaters at $30 .

* Appalachian Museum. This is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the introductory 18-minute slide-tape program may strike some as simply amateurish. But a careful perusal of the toys and tools of turn-of-the-century Appalachia assembled under the auspices of Berea College cannot help but augment one's appreciation for the rugged mountain residents who made nearly everything by hand. The unsentimental black and white photographs by Doris Ullman are worth the price of admission - $1 - alone. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer and until 6 p.m. in winter.

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