In addition to the beauty of the Smoky Mountains and the excitement and fun of Dollywood, one of the main reasons people visit this region is the abundance of arts and crafts. Isolated by its own mountainous beauty, life in the Smokies once necessitated resourcefulness and handiwork.
Necessity of yesterday has inspired and paved the way to the tradition, creativity and distinct cultural heritage we treasure today. In fact, the arts and crafts of the Smokies is partially responsible for helping launch the tourism industry from which we now benefit.
Dollywood employs people who demonstrate mountain crafts such as blacksmithing, wood-carving, glass-blowing, and candle-making. Guests of the park can wander through Craftsman’s Valley to witness the artisans and craftspeople at work and at times, even take part in the experience themselves. Thankfully, the artists also sell their beautiful wares so we can take a piece of the Smoky Mountains and Dollywood back home with us!
For many years, candles served as a major source of light. Even after the invention of the light bulb in 1879, not every home immediately had electricity, especially in the remote areas of the Smokies. Candles are still used as light sources, but today they are more commonly used to inspire romance, relaxation, honor, worship, and even to simply give your home a warm, beautiful glow with their lovely scents, colors and shapes. So, the tradition of candle-making in Appalachia carries on today.
Old Flames Candles, named after Dolly’s song “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” is one of my favorite shops at Dollywood. This beautifully-scented, candle-lovers’ paradise offers Dollywood guests a chance to observe demonstrations of candle-making and carving, like the “cut and curl demonstrations.” And even more special, for a small fee children and adults can participate in a special “candle-dipping” experience, taking home one of your very own creations as a souvenir of your day at Dollywood.
Throughout Appalachia, you’ll find modern day candlemakers that take their craft very seriously, and Kearan at Old Flames Candles in Dollywood is no exception. Kearan is a “third generation” candle-maker at Dollywood, trained by Betty Dye, who passed away just a couple of years ago, in her mid-90s. Kearan told us that she “came to Dollywood with Dolly,” beginning her career there the year Dollywood opened in 1986.
I recently got to go on a tour where we paused for a few minutes to watch Kearan’s “cut and curl” demonstration.
We were all mesmerized, standing transfixed as she dipped and dyed and cut and curled the wax form for the beautiful autumn-themed candle, which I later doubled back to buy for myself after the tour ended! Without missing a beat, Kearan continued her work while simultaneously entertaining us with heartwarming stories on the history of candle-making and her own history at Dollywood.
Some of the fascinating things we learned included:
- The candle form she begins with nearly doubles in size as it is dipped over and over (from 60 to more than 90 times!) in layers of colored wax. Every time it is dipped in the hot wax, it also has to be dipped in cooling water.
- The wax in their decorative candles is petroleum-based, but they also use soy wax for most of their scented candles in jars, tins, and baskets.
- The large vats of wax are kept heated at a temperature that range from 140º to 200º–so don’t stick your fingers in!
- Old Flames Candles is a “production shop,” so they try to make as many of the candles they sell as they possibly can.
- Kearan carves her candles with a very special knife that is more than 40 years old, handed down to her from Miss Betty who trained her. Miss Betty’s name is etched on one side of the handle, and when Kearan retires from Dollywood she plans to etch her name on the other side of the handle and, per Miss Betty’s request, leave the special knife for the next candle-making artist.
- Dolly has been known to order more than 150 candles at a time to include in gift baskets for her friends during the holidays or at other times throughout the years. When that happens, Kearan and the other employees find themselves working constantly during shop hours to fill this big order. It’s a good thing Kearan finds this work soothing and relaxing!