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John C. Campbell Folk School Makes Charmed Destination
By Jeff Warren, Courtesy of the Mountain Rambler

 Fred Scroggs was a man with a mission. Storekeeper at Brasstown, a tiny crossroads village in the mountains of western North Carolina, Scroggs heard Marguerite Butler was at Murphy hunting a place to start a school. It was the early 1920’s. Scroggs went to see her. Butler's school idea was a dream shared with Olive Campbell. Truly it was Campbell's idea first. With her husband, preacher/educator John C. Campbell, Olive had traveled Appalachia by wagon in the wee years of the 20th century.
    

From Georgia to West Virginia the Campbell’s rolled, studying economic conditions in the mountains and documenting people they met on their way. Olive committed the experience to a journal. Mountaineers were leaving the hills just then, migrating to wage-paying jobs in urban areas. Many left the work of field and farm for long hours in textile mills at places where their unique cultural background brought them shame instead of joy. The Campbell's realized the importance of place to mountain folk. The couple sought to begin a mountain-based school for adults that could equip mountain people to achieve economic success without leaving the land. John Campbell died before that vision became a reality, but Olive kept on. Teamed with friend, Marguerite Butler, Olive traveled overseas to study the folk school model of Danish philosopher Nicolai Grundtvig, a model that emphasized a non-competitive learning environment.

 

The ladies were back in the United States and hunting a location for their school when Fred Scroggs met Butler at Murphy. Butler explained it was to be a folk school patterned on Grundtvig's instructional philosophy. Self-taught and well-read, Scroggs knew about Grundtvig. Brasstown was the place for such a school, he told Butler. She agreed to visit.
When she arrived at the village, Butler encountered a church house full of Brasstown folk clamoring for the school to settle in their neighborhood. Two hundred residents turned out to greet her and voice support for the school.

 

A donation of 25 acres for the campus by Lillie Scroggs, the storekeeper's mother, helped convince Olive Campbell and Marguerite Butler that Brasstown was the place. Today the John C. Campbell Folk School, named in honor of Olive's husband, covers 300 acres at Brasstown, land acquired piecemeal since the school's founding in 1925.

 

The work of the school continues, much of its training still tied to place, the soul of the school still linked to Appalachian culture. If ever you've seen a course catalog for the folk school (at your local library, perhaps), then you know the catalog as a magazine-sized listing of craft-oriented classes from blacksmithing and pottery to broom making, jewelry crafting, fabric art, music, and painting.

 

That brief list just scratches the surface. You also find natural studies, needle work, photography, soap making, spinning, and storytelling. (There’s yarn spinning, and then there’s yarn spinning, you might say.)  Anyway, there is a lot to choose from––enough, in fact, to make it hard to choose.

That is why you need to go see the place. Most courses are a week long, but day visits are welcomed. A day visit provides a chance to see what goes on at the school and to gain a feeling for how it happens. The best plan when making a day trip to the folk school is to call ahead. Talk to the office to learn what classes will be in session the week you visit and to make a lunch reservation.

 

A clanging bell announces the midday meal at Noon:15, sounding much like a locomotive pulling into the station. It's all aboard for some fine dining family style. Diners eat round multiple tables, the meal brought on a single platter to each table.     It's like you have tummied up to the table on The Walton’s, but seating is on chairs instead of benches. You will be sitting down with students and instructors, the lively conversation as refreshing as the fare.

 

Both in the morning and afternoon, you are free to visit classes in session. Visitors are expected. It's good not to enter while any formal lecture is underway. I was told instructors sometimes post a sign indicating visitors are temporarily barred, but I saw none of those on my rounds. Students and instructors tend to be more relaxed toward week's end, so you might plan your day visit with that in mind. A Thursday is perfect.
The school asks that you limit classroom visits to about five minutes. If you want more time than that (and you probably will) you'll just have to enroll in a class and go back for a week. Some classroom environments require that safety glasses be worn. The blacksmithing studio is like that. Look for a sign posting that requirement near the door and a wooden box containing safety glasses for your use.

The downstairs of the dining hall is a craft store, where you can purchase works by local artisans. You'll find beautiful things: handmade jewelry; pottery items; enameled medallions; wood carvings and more. Be sure to see the Christmas nativity sets carved in wood by the Brasstown Carvers.

 

Just visiting the folk school campus is a pleasure. Walking trails lace the property. You are bound to encounter interesting and creative folk as you make your way from one place to the next. Walking at mid-morning, I ran upon Ron Coburn of Mineral Bluff, Georgia. Mixing paints, Coburn worked at an easel, capturing a pasture landscape on canvas. We talked briefly. I left him at work and walked on into the landscape he was capturing.

 

Coburn_1.JPG

 

Photo Caption:
Artist Ron Coburn of Mineral Bluff mixes colors toward the finish of a landscape painting on the campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School at Brasstown, North Carolina.

 

 

 

The path crossed a field of new-mown hay, long and flat where it lay on the ground. There was a stream somewhere below and a backdrop of mountains at every horizon. As I returned uphill across the pasture, the hay smelled sweet, drying in the sun. I was heading back toward lunch when the sight of two gardeners busy picking raspberries drew me aside to capture their photograph. These were Amanda Branch, a member of the school staff, and Megan Maffettone, a student on a summer work-study program. Megan's gardening covers tuition, she told me. Her classes include music, pottery, and writing. Campus life includes Friday concerts and Tuesday dances. That’s with Appalachian music and folk dancing.

 

Every place I touched on campus, I was touched by the kindness, the gentleness of persons encountered. I began to think it a charmed place, filled with a beauty bound to settle its peace on folk who sojourn there and brushing off onto visitors wherever they draw close enough to sense it. Sound silly? You will have to visit to understand.
    

Marguerite Butler never left. As home to the John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown became Butler's home also. She married instructor, Georg Bidstrup, in 1936. Today their resting place at Little Brasstown Baptist Church is just a short walk from the school campus. It seems Fred Scroggs was right about that. Brasstown was the place.

For more information on the John C. Campbell Folk School, phone 1-800-365-5724 or check the website listed below:
www.folkschool.org




     

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