Crafting with the Hands and the Heart

Brasstown farmer W. J. Martin, Sr.
Brasstown farmer W.J. Martin, Sr. supplemented his income with woodcarving he learned at the John C. Campbell Folk School in the early days.

Photo: Doris Ulmann

From basketry to broom making to blacksmithing. From spinning to soapmaking to storytelling. From weaving to woodcarving to writing. The John C. Campbell Folk School offers these courses and many more. And the year 2000 marks the 75th anniversary of this special school in the far reaches of western North Carolina.

Started by Olive Dame Campbell and her friend Marguerite Butler, college-educated “yankee ladies,” the school was named to honor Mrs. Campbell’s late husband. The Campbells had spent time in the area in 1908–1909, surveying social conditions in the mountains, and believed the quality of life could be improved by education. And they wanted to preserve and share with the rest of the world the wonderful crafts, techniques, and tools that the mountain people used in everyday life. They dreamed of a school that would create better social and economic conditions and would serve as an alternative to higher education facilities that drew intelligent young people away from the family farm.

Mrs. Campbell and Miss Butler realized they could not impose their ideas on the mountain people, so they worked to develop a genuine collaboration. The dream came true in 1925 when the local Scroggs family donated 75 acres of land and the people of Cherokee and Clay Counties pledged the most valuable thing they had — their labor — to get the school off the ground.

Though the John C. Campbell Folk School specializes in crafts, nearby Murphy native and school director Jan Davidson notes, “We’re a crafts school that’s not object-oriented. It almost seems like a clash of terms, but that’s the core of the difference between us and other places that teach crafts. Our concern here,” says Davidson, “is primarily that people have a sense of discovery of themselves — and that they do it in the company of other people.”

So while you won’t find a course called “Discovering Yourself” in the catalogue, you will find that the school aims to engage both the hands and the heart. More than 450 week-long and weekend classes are offered year round on the 372 acre farm-campus.

The centerpiece of the school is a testament to craft itself. Keith House is a handcrafted structure complete with hand-wrought door latches, woven-seat oak chairs, and iron wall sconces. Starting out as the community gathering spot, Keith House has grown over the years to include administrative offices, library, classrooms, and student housing, just as the programs at the folk school have grown from instructing local folks to serving the worldwide community.

As Davidson tells it, “In the beginning this school was started by people from ‘off’ — that’s what we call people who aren’t from around here. People from ‘off’ came here to civilize the mountain people and … to run this school. Well now,” he says with a grin, “the school is run by me and mostly other people from here, and people from ‘off’ come here to get civilized.”

A 75th anniversary celebration was held at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown on Saturday, July 22. A “dinner on the grounds” pot luck feast was complemented by informal jam sessions, for those who want to pick a few tunes with old and new friends, and storytelling sessions of folk school history and personal experiences. Studios were open for demonstrations, and the exciting new History Center and Classroom Building was open for viewing as well.