SAY THE snowstorm did it. The Great Blizzard of '83 that blacked out the American Craft Council Craft Fair's public sale days turned on a light for Jerry Wachtel and some of his cohorts in the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.
"My wife and I and some other people from the neighborhood used to go to the craft fair every year," recalls Mr. Wachtel, who was then president of the association. The year of the storm, "we had a great time walking over to the convention center, but when we got there the place was like a morgue."
There were no customers for the craftspeople, some from long distances away, who had set out their wares for the only two days the fair was open to the general public. Since many craftspeople depend on those sales to help finance their trip, or at least to lighten the load on the way home, the lack of buyers was a disaster.
The residents walked around talking to the craftspeople, says Dick Leitch, current association president, "and they were bemoaning the fact that this was awful and how expensive it was to stay in the hotel."
"And it came to us in a flash," Mr. Wachtel says, "that maybe we could do something to help for the future."
What Mr. Wachtel and his wife Renee and many others have done, in the years since the storm, is open their homes to the craftspeople who travel to the annual fair in Baltimore -- which opens today and runs through Sunday. The guests get free accommodations, and guests and hosts both, in almost every case, acquire enduring friendships.
"Jerry and Renee have become our best friends," said Leanne Corrie. She and her husband Guy are glass crafters in Oakland, Calif.; they've been staying with the Wachtels every year since the host program began. "It quickly went beyond just a place to stay."
The first year there were about 25 hosts; this year there are "probably anywhere from 70 to 90," says Marianne Freedman, a Federal Hill resident who's been a craft-fair host since 1989. She has been helping the neighborhood group set up a data base to match and keep track of all the hosts and artist guests. "I've lived in Baltimore all my life," she says. "This is something that makes the people who live here feel good about the city and the people who come here feel good about it."
"Going to a big show like Baltimore and getting to stay at a home makes a real difference in just getting through the show," says Doris Louie, the San Ysidro, N.M., tapestry weaver who is Ms. Freedman's regular guest. "You can go home and it's like going to a friend's."
"We could stay at a hotel," said Ryan Surving, "but it just isn't the same." He and his parents, Natalie and Richard Surving, are ceramic artists from Millsburg, N.Y., who have been staying with Len and Betsy Homer for the past few years. "It's as if we have a friend we can stay with."
Some hosts and guests are matched on the basis of questionnaires by the association, but others, like Mr. Homer, are drawn to particular artists through their work. He acquired one of Natalie Surving's sculptural pieces and, when he realized some exhibitors had to dismantle their booths and leave their valuable work sitting in a truck, he stopped by to ask if they needed a place to stay. He laughs at the recollection. "We told them we had a garage and they were delighted."
"Everyone seems to think it's a great thing," said Dick Leitch. As they have for the past several years, Mr. Leitch and his wife Leslie will hold a wine and cheese party, sponsored by the neighborhood association, to which all the hosts and their guests are invited.
"It's a really neat idea, that people will open their homes to us," says the Leitches' regular guest of recent years, weaver Lynn Thor of Tunnel, N.Y. "It's almost like a vacation."
"Of all the shows I do, I probably have the most fun in Baltimore," says Gil Stengel, a ceramics craftsman from Louisville, Ky. "The Federal Hill neighborhood is wonderful." This will be Ms. Stengel's second year with host Ginnie Streamer, who last year took Mr. Stengel and his brother around Cross Street Market.
"They were thrilled with it," Ms. Streamer says, "and they cooked this wonderful seafood meal."
She is intrigued by the craftspeople and the skills they bring to their work. "They're artists," she said. "They use their craft as a way of expressing art. It goes way beyond the technical expertise."
And she has a great appreciation for the rigors of the craftsman's life and the sophistication of the artists.
Most of the crafts people she has encountered or played host to have been in their late 20s or early 30s. "They're still struggling," she says. "It's very expensive and very complex to be on that [craft fair] circuit, putting the booth together and dealing with all the marketing stuff, as well as doing their craft."
"Shows are really stressful," says Beth Fein, a jewelry maker from Oakland, Calif., who has stayed with Gene and Lois Feinblatt for several years. Staying in a private home "makes the show so much better. They take you in just like you were family. It's just a really supportive atmosphere."
Mrs. Feinblatt says she's recommended the program to a lot of people, "because it's such a rewarding experience. You get to feel like they are members of the family. And they feel the same way."
It's true that for some artists, the host housing makes the difference in being able to come to the fair, but it's more than a material difference, Ms. Fein says.
"It gives me a more complete picture of Baltimore. Most shows you just get to see the hotel and the show. But you really get some inkling of what Baltimore's about," she says. "And it's really become one of my very favorite places."