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Volume 24, Number 3 — March 2017

Back Country Makers: William M. Plummer

William Plummer on the bicycle he made.
William Plummer on the bicycle he made.
Additional photos below »

William M. Plummer Inventor and Cabinetmaker

By Betsy White | A! Magazine For the Arts | July 31, 2013

The man on the bicycle is obviously pleased with his perch. He should be, because he made it. Bill Plummer not only made bicycles, one of which was included in a 1950 exposition in Atlanta, he also made a motorcycle and even an airplane.

It is, however, not only his mechanical inventions that illustrate his creative genius. He made furniture — tables, stools and a cupboard — as well as a stunning banjo decorated with stars that was included the 2006 publication, "Great Road Style: The Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." The elaborately fashioned phonograph case pictured here may be his masterpiece and is, in fact, in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bill Plummer was born about 1873 in Smyth County, Va., the son of Claiburn and Seenah Plummer of Marion. In 1897, he married Magdalene Floyd, and they moved to Jeffersonville, Va., now known as Tazewell. Bill worked as a sawmill engineer there, and it was in Tazewell that he and Magdalene started their family, a large family that eventually included 10 children. It wasn't long, however, before the Plummers were back in Smyth County, where they lived the balance of their lives in Marion. Bill worked as a machinist in the local automobile industry. It was about this time that he began to make the objects that would become his legacy, defining his creative flair and mechanical skills as well as an obvious zest for life. Many people called him an inventor, and they may have been right. Looking over his various jobs during the course of a long career, one can draw the conclusion that a talented individual was working and learning from his trades, bringing the skills and knowledge each provided to his ultimate gift as a creator of unique objects. Bill Plummer died in 1943.

"William Plummer, Inventor and Cabinetmaker" is taken from "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." This is the 12th in a series of articles related to this new book by Betsy K. White. Featuring more than 200 color images, it is newly published by the University of Tennessee Press. "Backcountry Makers" is White's second book on the history of the region's material culture. The first, "Great Road Style: the Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" was published in 2006 by the University of Virginia Press. "Backcountry Makers" is now available locally in Abingdon at Zazzy'Z Coffee House & Bookstore and at Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway or online from the University of Tennessee Press or Amazon.com.

Topics: Art, Crafts



Plummer's elaborately fashioned phonograph case is in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photograph by James H. Price)