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In The Mountains Of Georgia, Foxfire Students Keep Appalachian Culture Alive

Nov 3, 2016
Originally published on November 4, 2016 9:01 am

By the time a group of high school students showed up at Richard Moss' home in 1980, he was an old man in his 80s.

He was a master of shape-note singing — a remarkable old style of music he learned from his elders, who learned it from their elders in the mountains of northern Georgia.

The students wanted to document the tradition for their magazine, Foxfire.

Named after a bioluminescent fungus that glows in the hills of North Georgia on certain summer nights, Foxfire started in 1966, when an English teacher in Rabun County was having a difficult time engaging his students. Out of ideas, he let the kids design the lesson. They chose to publish a magazine that would document the mountain culture all around them.

For 50 years, Foxfire students have recorded the disappearing traditions of Appalachia, and the stories of the region's mountain folks. They've told the stories of blacksmiths, moonshiners and woodworkers.

The program's impact has rippled across the country: Projects modeled after Foxfire have popped up in schools from Texas to Maine.

And the books that grew out of that student-produced magazine became national best-sellers — out of 21 Foxfire books, 20 are still in print. They sold so well that in 1974, the proceeds were used to buy land and create a museum in the mountains dedicated to preserving Appalachian culture, the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center in Mountain City, Ga.

Set on more than 100 acres, the site is crisscrossed by walking trails and dotted with period buildings.

There's a wagon house, a blacksmith's shop, a gristmill and a church — all built or salvaged and reconstructed by students. For instance, student volunteers disassembled the 1800s gristmill, carried it to Foxfire log by log, and put it back together.

There are demonstrations in blacksmithing and basket weaving. It's a living, breathing museum, a home for traditions that are dying out — but worth preserving.

The culture of Appalachia is incredibly rich, says Barry Stiles, Foxfire's acting executive director.

"It's also a culture that's often misrepresented, a lot of stereotypes with mountain people," says 53-year-old Stiles, who has roots in the region. "And so by preserving the culture and presenting it, people become educated to the truth about mountain people."

He describes these mountain people as "very resourceful, self-reliant, hardworking, intelligent and with an amazing sense of humor" — people like Buck Carver.

"My dad was a moonshiner," says Carver's daughter, 59-year-old Kaye Carver Collins.

"When the men landed on the moon, my dad and another gentleman were out in our yard digging a big hole to put cases of liquor down in, and then they capped it off with a washtub that had grass growing in it," she recalls. "And you'd take these handles and lift the washtub up and the liquor was down inside the bank."

Kaye Carver Collins' connection to Foxfire isn't just through her father and her mother, Leona Carver, who was also interviewed by the magazine: In 1973, she was one of the high school students doing Foxfire interviews. She says the books struck a chord across America.

"No matter where you were from in this country, you could find somebody in that book that was like a relative of yours, or like your mom or dad," she says of the books' appeal. "It felt personal to everybody that read it."

Foxfire interviews have touched every aspect of life in this slice of Appalachia, from birth to death. Some are simply accounts of local lore: The first Foxfire recording is of a man who witnesses a bank robbery, while getting his hair cut.

Some entries read like a guidebook for mountain living: how to build a log cabin or split shingles. Others are words of wisdom. Students interviewed a woman they referred to affectionately as simply Aunt Addie, who told them:

I think how thankful people ought to be that they're living in this beautiful world. And I wonder how they can ever think that there is not a higher power. Who makes all these pretty flowers? We can make artificial flowers but they don't smell and are not as pretty as the flowers that we pick out there. We can't make flowers like the Almighty.

While anyone could conduct these interviews, a key part of the Foxfire philosophy is that local students — like 18-year-old Jessica Phillips, a high school senior — do the work.

"This program makes me appreciate that I can go and sit down with these people and just learn," Phillips says. "And make connections that otherwise I wouldn't make."

For instance, she recently attended the funeral for a man she interviewed last year.

Some people who grow up in small towns dream of moving to the big city. But Phillips wants to stay. Partly, she says, that's because Foxfire has made her appreciate that there's something special about this place.

And, she says, while her friends are busy tapping away at Instagram or Pokemon Go, her experience with Foxfire has taught her that it's OK to slow down.

"It makes you realize that you can take that time out ... and go sit on the porch with somebody and talk to him about their stories," she says.

Stiles, Foxfire's acting executive director, says he goes back sometimes and reads the transcripts of interviews that his grandfather and great-uncle did almost 50 years ago.

What stands out most from those interviews is the hardship. It gives him perspective.

"Sometimes I think I'm having a really bad day, and I think about some of the things people had gone through 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and I think, I'm just a whiner," Stiles says. "What am I complaining about? This is nothing compared to the flu epidemic of 1917 or even World War I or starving."

And yet, part of him longs for what has been lost. That's why he's here: to make sure it isn't lost completely.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD MOSS: (Shape-note singing, unintelligible).

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is an old style of music called shape-note singing. The singer Richard Moss learned it from his elders who learned it from their elders in the mountains of northern Georgia. Moss was an old man by the time a group of high school students showed up to make this recording in 1980. They wanted to document the tradition for their student magazine called Foxfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOSS: (Singing) And am I born to die?

SHAPIRO: For 50 years, Foxfire has recorded disappearing traditions in Rabun County, Ga. The name Foxfire comes from a bioluminescent fungus. It glows in these hills on certain summer nights. The program's impact has rippled across the country. Similar projects have popped up in schools from Texas to Maine. And the books have sold so well that the proceeds let Foxfire buy acres of land and build a museum here in the mountains.

It's a center full of walking trails with period buildings and demonstrations in blacksmithing and basket weaving. Barry Stiles is Foxfire's acting executive director.

BARRY STILES: These are my mountains. So yeah, we preserve the culture of the mountains.

SHAPIRO: Why is that particular culture worth preserving?

STILES: Well, it's incredibly rich. It's also a culture that's often misrepresented, you know - a lot of stereotypes with mountain people. And so by preserving the culture and presenting it, people have become educated to the truth about mountain people.

SHAPIRO: And how would you describe what that truth is?

STILES: Very resourceful, self-reliant, hardworking, intelligent and with an amazing sense of humor.

SHAPIRO: Resourceful, hardworking, humorous people like Buck Carver.

BUCK CARVER: Tell you about your ancestors from way back, as far back as I could remember.

KAYE CARVER COLLINS: My dad was a moonshiner.

SHAPIRO: This is Buck Carver's daughter, Kaye Carver Collins.

COLLINS: When the men landed on the moon, my dad and another gentleman were out in our yard digging a big hole to put cases of liquor down in, and then they capped it off with a washtub that had grass growing in it. And you would take these handles and lift the washtub up and the liquor was down inside the bank (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Foxfire interviews have touched every aspect of life here from birth to death. Some are simply accounts of local lore. The very first recording is that of a man who witnessed a bank robbery while he was having his hair cut.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In Meyer's (ph) barber shop, heard a gun fire. When I heard the gunfire...

SHAPIRO: Others are like instructional manuals - how to build a log cabin or split shingles, a guidebook for mountain living. While anyone could conduct these interviews, a key part of the Foxfire philosophy is that local students do the work, people like Jessica Phillips, a high school senior.

JESSICA PHILLIPS: This program makes me appreciate that I can just go and sit down with these people and just learn and make connections that otherwise I wouldn't make.

SHAPIRO: She says Foxfire has powerfully connected her to the community. She recently attended a funeral for a man she interviewed last year. Lately she's been interviewing her elders about factory work that was once prominent in this county.

PHILLIPS: Carpet factories, shirt factories - the Fruit of the Loom was here. And so I just interviewed one woman. Her name was Lucille Hopkins, and she just talked about her transitions between each factory. And it showed how it changed throughout - how Rabun County - how women were - could get jobs and how they could get jobs at each factory.

SHAPIRO: Some people who grew up in small towns dream of moving to the big city, but Jessica Phillips wants to stay, partly, she says, because Foxfire has made her appreciate that there is something special about this place. And she says while her friends are busy tapping away at Instagram or Pokemon Go, Foxfire has taught her that it's OK to slow down.

PHILLIPS: It makes you realize that you can take that time out where you think you're got to keep going; you got to keep doing this and take that time and go sit on the porch with somebody and talk to them about their stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELL RINGING)

SHAPIRO: In these hills that make up the Foxfire museum, there are about a dozen old buildings. There's a wagon house and a church with a bell. Some of these structures were moved from their original locations, others built from scratch using traditional techniques.

The trails draw locals and tourists from outside Rabun County like William Henry and his wife, Connie. These days they live near Atlanta. The place reminds William of the way he grew up in the countryside.

WILLIAM HENRY: We had a house with no indoor plumbing. You were looking at the same boards from the inside that you saw from the outside.

SHAPIRO: Cold in the winter, hot in the summer.

W. HENRY: You wake up with snow on your blankets in the winter and leaves on your blankets in the fall.

CONNIE HENRY: I grew up the same way, and he's only 59 years old.

W. HENRY: Fifty-nine, yeah.

C. HENRY: So yeah, we know a lot of kids that would find this hard to imagine, all right.

SHAPIRO: There are no historical re-enactors here, just artifacts and old buildings. The acting executive director, Barry Stiles, leads us inside of an old gristmill from the 1800s.

STILES: Let me turn my light on so you can kind of see the gears.

SHAPIRO: Oh, look at these gears. Each one's about 6 feet tall...

STILES: And you can see...

SHAPIRO: ...With wooden teeth.

STILES: ...Wooden teeth. And you can actually see the pencil marks where they were laying out where each teeth goes.

SHAPIRO: Volunteers disassembled the mill, carried it here to Foxfire log by log and put it back together.

STILES: This is not something that's made in a factory. You know, this isn't something that's made in China. These aren't things that are run through a saw mill. It's a person and an axe spending hours and hours just creating this one log right here, this one beam.

And I have great appreciation of what it takes because I do this work from time to time when we repair buildings, and it is very intense. This is the hardest work I ever do in my life - is hewing a log. I know - it's like being in the Olympics. It's that physical.

SHAPIRO: Sometimes Stiles goes back and reads the transcripts of interviews that his grandfather and great-uncle did almost 50 years ago. And he told me what stands out most from those interviews is the hardship. It gives him perspective.

STILES: Sometimes I think I'm having a really bad day, and I think about some of the things people had gone through 50 years ago, a hundred years ago, and I think, I'm just a whiner.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

STILES: What am I complaining about? This is nothing compared to the flu epidemic of 1917 or even World War I or other things or starving.

SHAPIRO: And yet part of him longs for what's been lost, and that's why he's here - to make sure it isn't lost completely. When he feels that longing, he can walk into the blacksmith's cabin and bang out an iron tool.

STILES: I'm going to put it on here. There we go. You got to strike while the iron's hot.

SHAPIRO: That's Barry Stiles of the Foxfire Center. To see photos from the Foxfire archive, go to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.