Alex Stewart was a fourth-generation cooper, following an essential craft in the isolated rural mountain Hancock County, Tennessee, community where he was raised. His great-grandfather was a cooper. His grandfather, Boyd Stewart, opened a cooperage in 1860, and his father, Joseph Stewart, took over the family trade in 1880.
As a child, Alex watched his grandfather and father splitting, shaving and bending wooden staves and bands into churns, buckets, piggins (buckets with staves extended for handles) and tubs. Prior to the advent of crock churns and galvanized tubs and buckets, people in the mountains depended on the cooper's woodenware for their household containers. Farmers and merchants needed wooden barrels for storing and transporting goods — wet barrels for liquids, such as water, whiskey and molasses, dry barrels for flour and grain.
Stewart made his first wooden vessel in 1912, and over the years he worked hard in the coopering trade, cutting and seasoning his own cedar wood in his small sawmill and forging tools in the blacksmith shop on his farm. "I've made all my tools — matter of fact, everything I've got," he said. "My grandfather, I learned this from him. He made everything — wheels, anything that could be thought about, he made it, and I got the pattern off of his. And my daddy, he worked at it as long as he lived. I've been doing it since I was old enough to do it."
In addition to coopering, Stewart was a chair maker, blacksmith, basket maker, musical instrument maker, bowl and rolling pin maker and whittler. "I can make anything that can be made out of wood, and I don't use nails or glue. It's better than the stuff you buy, and it makes me feel good, too.... Reckon what the young folks today would do if they had to do what I've done just raising my family and trying to get along? I've smithed and wove and had a fine cabinet shop and even ran logs to Chattanooga. Why, there's been time my clothes would go stiff in five minutes from the cold! We'd be lashing logs to run, and the wind would freeze the spray while it was soaking your pants and shirt."
In the early 1960s, with the increasing availability of metalware and the difficulty of finding good wood, his business began to decline. However, John Rice Irwin, owner and operator of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, became interested in Stewart's work and tried to persuade him to continue his coopering. Stewart agreed on the condition that Irwin supply the timber, and the exhibition of his work at the museum in Norris brought him wider recognition.
In 1976, Stewart was invited to participate in the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., with his apprentice, Bill Henry, from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Later, his grandson, Rick Stewart, then 16, apprenticed himself to his grandfather. "I just thought it's a thing I should do," Rick said. "It's been in the family so long. It's going to lose out of the Stewarts."
By the early 1980s, advancing age forced Alex Stewart to retire, but he never lost interest in the coopering trade and continued to work as long as he was able. About his lifelong commitment to his craft, he said, "I just delighted in it. Anything you delight in, it ain't any trouble for you to do it."
Anderson, Clay, Andy Leon Harney, et al. The Craftsman in America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1975.
Henry, Bill. "Alex Stewart: A Personal Reminiscence." Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (June 1981) 67, 2: 48-66.
Hufford, Mary, Marjorie Hunt, and Steven Zeitlin. The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Irwin, John Rice. Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1985.
Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 3. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Press, 1975.
Woodside, Jane Harris. "From Farm to Festival: Crafts in the Clinch River Valley." Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (winter 1987) 53, 4: 118-129.
Alex Stewart: Cooper. 16mm, color, thirteen minutes. Produced by Tom Burton and Jack Schrader. Johnson City, Tennessee: East Tennessee State University, Instructional Media Center.
Alex Stewart, 1983 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts