Elk provide the raw material for jewelry in Knott

VEST — Barbara McBride was new to the jewelry-making end of the volunteering and fund-raising at Beckham Combs Community Center. But she was getting the hang of it, what with the twisty wires and sparkly gems.

Then Genevieve Combs, the director and brains behind the jewelry enterprise here, handed her some latex gloves.

"We're going to go collect some beads," Combs said.

"We're what?" McBride asked.

Combs pointed to the oblong yet oddly shaped shiny black objects that go on almost every earring, bracelet, necklace, bookmark and hatband that rolls out of here, because that is the thing that makes them special.

Volunteers hunt for it because they are selling a natural resource, something God has put on their doorstep. Literally.

It's elk droppings, freshly deposited in piles around Knott County, the Elk Capital of the East, a gift so determinedly planted there for the picking and the plundering by 11,000 unpaid laborers that it would be wrong to ignore it.

"The first handful was the worst," McBride says now, explaining the experience of handling the pellets that are surprisingly small (they average about an inch long) for an animal so large (the elk average about 600 pounds).

"At first it was fresh and wet," McBride said, making a face of minor disgust. Mind you, she is talking while she is fashioning the finished product pellets into earrings that she will soon cheerfully don for a photograph.

"The trick is not looking very close," said McBride, now a poo-picking professional. "Once it's dried for a few weeks and sprayed with polyurethane, it's just like anything else. "It's just a state of mind."

Outside the community center, the elk wander among swing sets, four slides and two dugouts. The gates are open to them; they have made their own entrance as well.

Used to be that Combs trekked into the mountains to gather beads. Not so now.

"They deliver," she said, laughing.

Combs took a jewelry-making course at Knott County School of Arts and Crafts in Hindman. The guy who taught there said he thought she was good. He especially liked the things she was doing with elk horn and with elk as inspiration.

Then he told her about how "out West, they were making things out of moose doo. I said, 'Really?' and he said, 'really.'"

Combs got a few friends on board, and they made a few hatbands for Knott County's Trail Ride. Truth is, they didn't sell all that well, but the weather was bad.

"We practiced and got better," Virginia Deck said.

Then the women at Combs' doctor's office saw the inexpensive jewelry and offered to help sell it, and "we had to get more product."

That was when McBride had to go on her first bead hunt.

The elk walk right up to the community center these days. They graze most winter mornings before the sun comes up and linger long after a sensible beast might have thought better of staying.

The winter has been hard, forcing the elks to come down from the mountains to eat lawns, the bottoms of landscaping trees, whatever, Combs said.

She's fine with that: "They have to eat, too."

And they have to shed their antlers — they do so yearly — and Combs would just as soon they did it in the former schoolyard so she and her minions can pick those up easily and make key chains, rings and knives.

Inside the community center, the three women who make the jewelry have arrived so they can have the pleasure of watching their elk partners in this work.

"We just wear our eyeballs out watching them," said Virginia Deck. "They don't seem to be afraid of us. If we left the door open, they'd probably come right into the gym."

They'd have company.

Any money earned from the elk-doo jewelry goes to support the center, which is a toy-collection center at Christmas, houses a community Thanksgiving dinner, holds cancer screenings, has an exercise room, is an emergency shelter, is available for rent for parties and offers wonderful chili on Saturday nights.

The jewelry has gone over well so far at Elk Expos and at the local trail ride, but Combs knows some people are squeamish about it.

"It's organic," she likes to tell them. "There is nothing wrong with that."

The squeamish are clearly not from around here. McBride's head is down, working hard on her latest piece. She is thumbing through the pellets. She appears to be comparing them.

You have to ask why.

She is trying to get a matching set.

Earrings, you know.