KINGS MOUNTAIN -- There was just one porta-potty at the first Kings Mountain Art Fair, and organizer Jean Cole got stuck in it.

Ardyth Woodruff was hanging art in the loft of the old barn nearby when she saw a local man named Mr. Gildersleeve respond to Cole's cries for help. Woodruff, her daughter and a friend watched in amusement as Gildersleeve searched the field for the mysterious voice.

"He was looking at the sky like God was talking to him," Woodruff, 87, said this week. "And we just roared with laughter."

Woodruff is one of the few people still alive who were present for the bucolic community's first art festival in 1963. The fair started as a showcase for a couple dozen ladies of the Pine Needles sewing club. It was held in the barn off Bear Gulch Road and brought in about $50.

From those humble beginnings, the event has grown to become one of California's pre-eminent art fairs and the cultural axis of Kings Mountain, a sprinkling of homes atop a redwood-bristled ridge dividing bayside San Mateo County and the rural coast. The gala pays for vital public services, subsidizing the Kings Mountain Volunteer Fire Brigade and supplementing the budget of the local elementary school, and fosters bonds of friendship among the villagers.

This weekend the mountain celebrates its 50th fair. There will be a lot more artists and visitors than there were in 1963 -- and, Woodruff observed, a lot more portable toilets.

"We've come a long way," she said with a laugh. "It's just absolutely a miracle how it's gone along."


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Critical services

It was Cole who came up with the idea of making the fair an annual event to raise funds for the fledging fire department. Her husband, architect John Cole, designed a fire station for residents to build with the proceeds.

The fair moved in 1965 to a redwood grove off Skyline Boulevard donated by the wealthy Phleger family, according to Woodruff. Volunteers worked every weekend for several years to erect the rustic, mansard-roofed building that now serves as both the fire brigade's headquarters and a community center.

These days the fair, which drew about 9,000 visitors last year, pays for more than 95 percent of the brigade's roughly $50,000 annual budget. It is critical for secluded Kings Mountain to have its own fire department, residents say. In the event of a major fire, they won't have to wait for help to arrive from 2,000 feet below.

"The response time is way faster than anything you'd get coming up from the valley," said Werner Glinka, a German-born artist and member of the fair's board of directors. "That can be a matter of life and death."

Community bonds

As the fair has grown, the quality of the art has improved. Artists now come from as far away as Florida and Hawaii to take part.

Sharon Spencer is one of 137 artists and artisans selected by judges to participate this year. Thirty-three locals will exhibit their work in Mountain Folk Art, a section of the fair reserved for Kings Mountain residents.

Though she moved north from California to Washington 13 years ago, Spencer continues to bring her sculptures to Kings Mountain every year. She's established loyal customers over nearly 35 years at the fair, enabling her to sell as many as 15 pieces each Labor Day weekend.

Last week she was preparing to hitch a trailer laden with bronze to her Toyota pickup for a two-day trek from Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. She'll take advantage of a discount the fair provides artists at local hotels. Some artists are put up by residents.

"I love the area, I love the people," said Spencer. "They've always been really good to me."

The people here are also good to one another, thanks in part to the art fair. Most of the Kings Mountain's 400 or so households volunteer at the fair, residents say, bolstering ties between neighbors.

"There is a very strong feeling of community," said Glinka, 61. "I tell you, I lived for 10 years in Sunnyvale and knew two neighbors, and here I know half the people on the mountain."

Dawn Neisser, in her ninth year as the fair's executive director, said she's blown away by how far the event has come -- as an exhibition, a source of vital funds and a cultural phenomenon.

"I reflect on what this community has built," Neisser said, "and just say, 'Wow! Look what we've done.'"

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.

50th-anniversary
kings mountain Fair
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Sunday and Monday (Breakfast served 8-10:30 a.m.)
Where: Kings Mountain Community Center and Firehouse, 13889 Skyline Blvd.
Parking: Along Skyline Boulevard. Free shuttles run 1 mile in either direction of the fairgrounds
Admission: Free
Information: www.kingsmountainairfair.org