The Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce is now in its 64th year of coordinating the Arts & Crafts Festival in Fairhope. It was originally started as a tour, planned to coordinate with the Mobile Jaycees’ Azalea Trail and Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations, with the idea that visitors attending these major events in Mobile would be attracted across the bay, thus allowing visitors and local residents a chance to see some of the many talents of Eastern Shore residents.
According to Chamber records and newspaper articles, the first Arts & Crafts tour took place February 22 to February 28, 1953. All exhibits were inside store windows and consisted of a wide variety of interests. The tour schedule included entertainment and craft demonstrations and lasted for an entire week. Although some artists did sell items, the majority of the "tour” consisted of exhibits for viewing only.
In 1965 the tour expanded to include exhibitors and activities from the cities of Spanish Fort and Daphne. The week’s opening ceremonies were held in Spanish Fort and ended with a play in Fairhope. The Chamber reported 4,150 visitors; 52 exhibitors and demonstrators were highlighted, in addition to another 41 artists who participated.
In 1967 there were more than a hundred displays, exhibits, and demonstrations. There was still no entry fee, but all participants were asked to pay a 10% commission on their gross sales. By 1975 craftsmen displayed works and methods in “Craft-Houses” (which were created out of vacant buildings). For the first time in 1978, the show was condensed to three days. This was also the first year craftsmen were placed on the sidewalks, rather than in buildings and businesses.
In 1983, the first prize money was awarded. The Best of Show recipient was given $250 and booths were moved from the edge of the streets to the middle. The Mary McGrath Award was established in 1984. We approach this year’s show with much of the same excitement and enthusiasm that previous festivals and tours shared.
In 1997, the 45th Annual Arts & Crafts Festival was first named one of the top 200 Festivals in the United States by Sunshine Artist Magazine. The Festival has received this same honor in the following years. Artists who participate in shows all over the United States vote upon this award. In 2007 the show was ranked #10. In 2011 the show was ranked #26. The 2013 Festival was ranked #2 in the state of Alabama and #23 in the Nation.
As one may see from this history, the Festival has changed in many ways; its exhibitors are no longer only locals; they come from across the United States. We no longer charge the exhibitors commission on their sales, just an entry fee. The number of visitors is now in six-digit figures, and the activities taking place in conjunction with the Festival have grown by leaps and bounds.
The Arts & Crafts Festival’s purpose remains the same to promote good will and festivity to Fairhope and the Eastern Shore, to provide working capital for the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce and to exhibit for show and sale the highest quality artwork and craftsmanship available and to host the Festival in the loveliest area in the world.