Originally created 05/17/98

Crafters relish road existence



The first inkling of daylight was still hours off when John McMurray weaved his way through the portable neighborhood of recreational vehicles, trailers and trucks.

It's one of 22 camper cities Mr. McMurray and his wife, Lee, will live in this year as they traverse the country selling their handcrafted silver jewelry off folding tables at crafts fairs and festivals.

The McMurrays are part of a band of vagabonds whose income, friendships and future are tied to this roaming existence in places like Canton, Miss., and Scottsdale, Ariz.

Nobody knows for sure how many people work the craft circuit full time, because no license is needed and there is little regulation, said Janice Hunt of Carolina Shows, an organizer of crafts shows in the South. The American Crafters Association estimates the number is in the thousands.

"It's a culture all of its own. You have to live it ... to truly appreciate it," said Mrs. McMurray, 63.

The McMurrays, who spend only about two months a year at their home in Jackson, Ga., arrived the day before Augusta's annual Springtime Made in the South show to scout their location -- a corner booth in the center of the show -- and set up their see-through plastic displays on folding tables.

Mr. McMurray parked their trailer, a 33-footer with all the comforts of home, in a sea of trailers arranged neatly into rows. Many of the residents had already set up their satellite dishes, folding chairs and portable awnings.

By early evening, couples were strolling through the neighborhood, looking for friends.

Early the next morning, the McMurrays went to work putting their handmade jewelry into cases, arranging and rearranging until they were satisfied with the effect. Their workdays during a show are 12 hours long.

Mr. McMurray, 67, stopped to greet old friends as he pushed a cart filled with his jewelry.

"Gotta earn my keep," Mr. McMurray said to one man, who nodded in agreement.

The McMurrays, married 47 years, punched the clock at 9-to-5 jobs most of their adult lives. Mrs. McMurray was a teacher, her husband a salesman for an oil company.

Weekends and vacations were dedicated to seeing the country with their children in a travel trailer. To liven up the trips, they started rock-hunting. Their first jewelry-making was a family project using the rocks they found. It was a way to spend time with their children, Mrs. McMurray said.

When they retired, they decided to try to make a go of it on the fair circuit.

Crafts fair vagabonds must compete with each other to be able to show their wares. The McMurrays had to send an application and pictures of their jewelry to the Augusta show's organizers before they were accepted.

In 10 years on the circuit, the couple has been through three trailers, each bigger than the one before.

They've spent Thanksgiving under a tarp, eating turkey on a folding picnic table with fellow artisans. Most winters they're in Arizona, and most summers they're in the Southeast.

It's an endless journey that's never boring, they say.

During a recent fair in Harrisburg, Pa., the McMurrays were nearly flooded out of their trailer by heavy rains that came in the middle of the night. The water rose to the door of their camper before it started to recede.

"You know when you live like this that sometimes ... things like that happen. If you know it's going to happen, you can just drive to safety. This time, we were caught off guard," Mrs. McMurray said.

The bad weather kept people away from the show, so the McMurrays packed up their trailer and headed for Raleigh, N.C., for a few days of rest.