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Documentary depicts creation of Village of the Smoky Hills

The Founding Mothers included, front, from left, Jean Grimes, Judy Grage, Faye Ellis, Flo Hedeen and Karrie Kapsner, back, JoAnn Benjamin, Jo Mattson, Kathy Grell, Denise Deitchler, Sharon Dailey, Catherine Wolter and Lorelei Kraft. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Work on the Village of the Smoky Hills spanned five weeks, five days, inspiring the film's title. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

A quarter century ago, a village emerged in the Smoky Hills with an engaging array of handcrafted art, hands-on activities and music.

The grassroots initiative was spurred by an abysmal economy. In the early '80s, the area's unemployment rate soared to nearly 20 percent, come autumn.

And founder Lorelei Kraft had ascertained through her candle-making business a "pent-up demand by tourists to see crafts being made."

The intrepid entrepreneur determined the time had come to channel area talents, "without the need for factory smokestacks and acid rain."

With the aid of a dozen Founding Mothers, all of whom were social activists of the era, construction began. No roads existed; no power had been extended to the site. A septic system and well were yet to be.

But in less than six weeks, the Village of the Smoky Hills materialized on 67 acres of forest west of Osage.

By the end of the first year, the Village sold the handwork of over 200 artists, employed 60 and added an estimated $500,000 to the local economy.

The Founding Mothers forecast - hoped for - 20,000 visitors; 100,000 arrived the premiere season.

'She Who Sees Far'

Wednesday, "Five Weeks and Five Days," a documentary created by Kraft and produced by a Fargo studio, will premier at Park Theater. The film portrays the village's emergence in and the women spearheading the construction of the buildings.

Kraft has sent invitations for the film's debut to the women and men - husbands and contractors - who were instrumental in the creation of the village.

"But I'm still looking for Al Hutchins," she said of the lead carpenter, who "almost fell off his chair laughing" when she told him of the timeline.

Kraft went to see Hutchins immediately after purchasing the property in March 26, 1984. Just over $250,000 in capital had been raised via bank loans and the Founding Mothers themselves.

Kraft showed Hutchins her sketch of her eight-cabin plan (which would evolve to become 11).

"No way," he said.

She was undaunted, perhaps, she subsequently ascertained, because girls were not allowed to take a shop class in high school. "I didn't know what it takes," she said of woodworking.

The concept for a renaissance of cottage industry began to gel the previous fall, in 1983.

Kraft introduced her idea at a baby shower with friends, meeting an enthusiastic response.

Work began April 16, 1984. She rented a warehouse in Osage, with two carpenters creating pre-fabricated walls and flooring sections. They delivered the product via a roadway behind the land, the Founding Mothers - aided by husbands and kids - moving the pieces through the woods.

She documented the progress via photos and home movies. Public television and other media arrived to film the village sprouting in the forest.

May 27, working down to minutes from "deadline," the village was complete.

The crew of unlikely weekend carpenters had succeeded in a project that building experts considered impossible.

The "mountain" on the site, reportedly the highest point between Winnipeg and the Gulf of Mexico, was aptly christened "She Who Sees Far," a tower affording a view across the prairie and beyond.

Premiering Wednesday

The documentary, Kraft's first sojourn in filmmaking, is an engaging retrospection. It was prompted by the deaths of two Founding Mothers, Jean Grimes and Kraft's mother, Catherine Wolter.

"I will pass away, and so will the story," Kraft reasoned.

Initially, she'd decided to write a book, boxes of magazines and newspapers holding stories on the enterprise, including the Village newsletter.

But she viewed a video of the women erecting a wall and determined "it has to be on video."

She was able to gain public television and other media footage from stations that arrived to witness the village's evolution.

After eight rewrites of the script, with assistance from longtime employee Isle Armstrong and friend Patti Clark, and nine days in the studio, "Five Weeks and Five Days" is ready for release.

The documentary's premiere will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16 at Park Theater by invitation. Former employees, musicians and others are invited to request a ticket (732-8484).

If interest warrants, she will stage a reprise, likely in January for public viewing. And DVDs may be available soon; contact her for information.

The Village of the Smoky Hills was in operation seven years.

"As the years went by, life took the Founding Mothers on separate paths," Kraft said.

But she's pleased with the wilderness retreat that now exists at the location.

"Todd and Kelly Payne have retained its original integrity," she said of the current owners. "They have truly created the beginning of another dream."