The two-hundred-year-old family farm in Traphill overlooks the Yadkin Valley and is home to Sunset Farm and Sunset Fiberworks. Where treasures are tucked away in the humming of the loom house, where bees in the apiary dance in the late fall sun, where chimes play a peaceful song only a mountain breeze can play and where the threads of fiber arts, farming, and history are woven together to create a story of rich heritage. Owned by John and Mary Freas, John is a beef farmer, beekeeper, and woodworker and Mary spends her time as a weaver, spinner, and fiber arts teacher.
Although the farm had been in John’s family for over two hundred years, he and Mary didn’t make their home there until the late 90’s when Mary moved to the farm to take care of her horse. Working as a software developer and computer programmer, John remained in Raleigh until 2001 when he moved to the farm and continued to work remotely for a year and then retired in 2002.
Growing up on a farm and participating in 4-H projects, John Freas wasn’t very fond of the farm life and readily admits he didn’t like working in the garden.
Mary laughs and says, “John was not going to be a farmer.”
John agrees with his wife, smiling and says, “My Dad had an interesting life. When he was a kid he went to live with his uncle in Canada who had a farm and that’s where he developed his interest in farming. He went to NC State and got a degree in agriculture and he taught veterans how to farm. He also had a little farm–24 acres that we lived on in Walnut Cove. So one of my 4-H projects was growing corn and another one, growing beets. We always had a milk cow and we would sell some milk and he had chickens and we would sell some eggs. But we always had a garden. That’s the way I grew up. I didn’t like going out into the garden and working but once we moved here, we had the pasture, and I bought the herd of cows from the man who was renting the pasture.”
After moving to the farm, John’s dislike of gardening softened and he and Mary planted a big garden and produced enough produce for their family as well as some to sell at the Farmer’s Market.
“I told him he would never get my loom house built if he continued growing these big gardens,” Mary says with a chuckle.
John laughs, “The closest I have to a garden now–we have asparagus that comes up every year by itself and a muscadine vine and a fig bush.”
Sparked by a 4-H project as a young boy, John’s interest in beekeeping grew even though his experience as a first time beekeeper wasn’t what he had hoped for. After moving to the farm, John has grown the apiary to 32 hives, is an active member of the Wilkes Beekeepers Association and occasionally sells his honey at local farmers markets.
“When I was a little kid we would go and spend a week or two with my grandmother and her brother who was Rufus Morgan, a priest that lived in Macon County,” John says. “He had bees and I was fascinated how he could work with the bees.
“For my 4-H project I decided to be a beekeeper. It didn’t work out. The bees left,” he says with a laugh. “But once we moved here, I started keeping bees and I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. I have 32 hives and this year I got 400 quarts of honey. I started selling at the market early in my career with bees but I soon had more customers than I did honey, so I had to stop going to the market. And this year I had more honey than I did customers. But we have individuals who call us wanting honey, so it all works out.”
While in college, John was a member of the NC Volunteers where he learned building and construction. When the homeplace at Sunset Farm burned in 1970, John used the skills he learned to rebuild the log cabin. Since then he has also constructed the loom house for Sunset Fiberworks.
“We had a log raising the first day we tried to put the logs together,” explains John. “We had several people coming and I was supposed to tell people what to do and I didn’t know what to do myself. So, we got one round of logs done. I just started coming up on weekends and doing what I could. A few weekends some people from our church would come and help. We would have camp outs and picnics. And they helped some. I let people come if they wanted to. But for the most part I did it myself.”
Mary Freas has been weaving and spinning for almost 35 years and in the past has sold her work at consignment shops and markets, but what she really enjoys most is teaching and sharing her knowledge with others. With a desire to learn to weave along with a promise of a special loom–Mary set out to learn to weave from Joanne Noland. Mary’s experience there with her teacher inspired her to create and model her own loom house the same.
“Joanne Noland taught weaving at Haywood Community College,” Mary explains. “She was a very good weaver and a family friend. She let me come to her house between quarter breaks when she had a week off–colleges used to be on quarter systems rather than semesters. She said just come and stay in my guest room and we will do it. I’ll teach you to weave. I knew what a loom was and I knew about shuttles, but that’s about all I knew. I was dying to learn so I also read a few of her weaving books in the evening. It was such a good experience that I decided to set up my place in the same way.”
Mary’s promise for a loom of her own came from John’s aunt. And the loom that John’s aunt promised Mary if she learned to weave was no ordinary loom. This particular loom belonged to John’s great-aunt Lucy Morgan who founded the Penland School of Crafts located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it was the one Miss Morgan took to the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair to help market mountain and heritage crafts during the Depression. Although it wasn’t the loom Mary learned to weave on, she still continues to weave and teach others how to weave on this historical loom.
“Back in the 30’s there was a depression and people were having a hard time making ends meet around Penland,” explains John. “My great aunt Lucy Morgan founded the school of crafts in Penland and she wanted to find ways to market the things people were making. The World’s Fair was being held in Chicago so she had a truck arranged and made a miniature log cabin–put it on the truck along with this loom. And a gentleman who played the banjo went with her. And they took it to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. The man out front played the banjo to attract people to come and see her operate the loom and see her weave. And this helped to sell the things they had made. My aunt received it from my great aunt Lucy and she agreed to give it to Mary if she would learn how to weave.”
“I told her (John’s aunt) about three different visits that I wanted to learn to weave,” says Mary. "And about the third time she said, well I have a loom but I won’t give it to you unless you learn to weave first. Then I was embarrassed because I wasn’t hinting that she would give me a loom. I didn’t know she had a loom.”
Sunset Fiberworks Loom House is filled with different looms and spinning wheels and the fiber studio is set up for individual classes and on occasion for small groups. Sunset Fiberworks is featured on the Blue Ridge Craft Trails which helps visitors to find studios where they can visit an artist and observe them working in their studio and learn more about their craft. In addition to classes, the Loom House is available for students.
“My loom house has a bedroom upstairs, a kitchenette and a bathroom so a person can come and spend a week here learning,” Mary explains. “And you can learn all you need to know in a week and still have some time for breaks. Two friends can come if they don’t mind sharing the space or we do have an air mattress."
“My classes are individual," Mary says. "I basically want to do what the person feels moved to do. I do have some limitations just because once you start something on a loom, it’s your loom until you finish. You can’t take it off and put it back on so we have to plan ahead of time. It’s also more fun to have in mind what you want to do and consider the time you have to spend.
“I tried doing a group thing but I just couldn’t do it. People are so different with their abilities and their interests. It just works better with an individual. I did have two sisters come together because it was one of the sisters’ birthdays and they wanted to make something on her birthday. And they brought a picnic lunch and they were able to make mug rugs and one sister made a long mat. I had a lady come from Florida and she spends part of the year close by. We have become good friends. She bought a loom of her own and we talk back and forth and discuss weaving and other things. I meet such nice people doing this and it is fun.
“When we first moved here, John had a garden and started his bees, so we both ended up with a booth at the farmer’s market. I sold some of my things there. We did that for a number of years. But I don’t do any of that anymore. I have put some of my work on consignment and I have some items in my shop here. But I had rather spend my time teaching and to see people have fun while they are learning.”
For more information about Sunset Fiberworks and how to contact for classes, please visit the Blue Ridge Craft Trails website at https://www.blueridgeheritage.com/destinations/sunset-fiberworks/ or on their website at https://www.sunsetfiberworks.com/
A humble and heartfelt thank you to John and Mary Freas, owners of Sunset Farm and Sunset Fiberworks for sharing their time and story with Farmer Rhodes Granddaughter.
All photos by Tathel Miller and copyright of Farmer Rhodes Granddaughter