First Balsam Bee Benefits Cowee School

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First Balsam Bee Benefits Cowee School

By Deena C. Bouknight

The overwhelming scent of Fraser fir wafted from the auditorium of the Cowee School and Heritage Center as more than 80 gathered for the first Balsam Bee. Hundreds of balsam-filled pillows and sachets, along with holiday Fraser fir swags, were constructed Nov. 27, to be offered during Saturday’s Cowee Christmas, a free admission arts, crafts, and music event to benefit the Center. 

Balsam Bee organizer Claire Suminski, who serves on the board of Cowee School, explained the motivation of the event with the aid of a short slide presentation. Last summer, she and her son, Jerome, visited Big Moose Community Chapel in the Adirondack Mountains. Suminski grew up on the Southern edge of the Adirondack Park in Glens Falls, N.Y. She learned that Native Americans and European settlers in the Adirondacks used the native Balsam pine needles and pitch for medicinal purposes, bedding, pillows, etc. At Big Moose Community Chapel in Herkimer County, N.Y., a balsam bee has been an annual event for more than 80 years. 

Suminski timed her visit to the area to attend the Big Moose balsam bee to learn the process so that she could emulate the activity at Cowee School. 

“At least 100 people, ages 3 years to 100, were at Big Moose when we went there,” said Suminski. “Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves. I wanted that for our community.” 

She returned to Macon County with a plan she conveyed to the board of Cowee School. Also a supporter of the project was the Arts Council of North Carolina. After much preparation and family and volunteer involvement, the Tuesday evening event became the first annual Balsam Bee. “My hope is that it will continue on for years and years. Eighty years from now I hope my grandchildren will be doing it.” 

Suminski explained that at least 12 overly mature Fraser firs – up to 25 feet in height – according to her husband, Joe, were felled on the private farms of Pat Cabe and Elena Carlson. “The trees had gotten too big to sell as Christmas trees,” she said. The limbs were stripped on site. Some were saved for making swags while others were chipped and then sifted through screens to make a fine, aromatic balsam filling for pillows and sachets. 

At the first annual Balsam Bee at Cowee, participants gravitated to different stations, sewing, stuffing, adorning, wrapping, etc. 

Kathy Bischof, a quilter for 15 years, decided she would use her skills at the sewing machine to assemble the front and back of the pillows so they could be stuffed by others. “The main purpose is to get these items ready for Saturday,” she said. 

“I still have a balsam pillow I picked up in Asheville 40 years ago,” said Fran Moore, who volunteered to affix bows to the Fraser fir swags. “And it still smells good.” Suminski told those in attendance that she learned pillows and sachets stuffed with balsam maintain a fresh piney scent as long as they are occasionally misted or placed in a steamy bathroom; the faint moisture revitalizes the balsam. 

Suminski asked Greta Hearst, who teaches at Patches Sewing Studio, to assist pre-Balsam Bee with serging the edges of pillow squares that were screen printed by Gooder Grafix. During the Balsam Bee event, Hearst aided participants in sewing pillows closed after they were stuffed with the fragrant balsam. 

Designs on pillows included deer or bear with Cherokee syllabary writing. 

“I’m just so pleased to be a part of this,” said Hearst. “It’s just such a pleasure to work with Claire because her enthusiasm is so contagious. Our kids grew up together and this is just a continuation of our work together in the community. I have a blast making things like this.”  

“It’s such a wonderful smell,” said Suminski. “It’s rare to hear anyone say they don’t like the smell of a Fraser fir. It’s welcoming. It brings joy. It reminds of spending time in the woods and of Christmas, too.

“It was time consuming, but it was a labor of love for all involved,” she said. “It’s just an old fashioned, family togetherness activity, like Cowee Christmas. That’s why I wanted to do the Balsam Bee. It’s about community … serving together and making something together.” 

Anyone participating in the Balsam Bee could purchase pillows, sachets, or swags on the spot or wait until Saturday’s Cowee Christmas event, which takes place in the historic school building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monies generated from items made during the Balsam Bee will benefit the management and upkeep of the former stone-constructed grade school, built in 1943, which is now a center for pottery, textiles, history, music, dance, fine arts, and more.

During the Balsam Bee, three dulcimer musicians, John Hawk, Phil Myers, and Sally DeLawter, played on stage. Participants were also treated to chili, made by Cowee School’s kitchen manager Jim Kinard, and other donated dishes and desserts. 

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