In the early days of the John C. Campbell Folk School’s Fall Festival, participants roasted a pig on an open spit. All day and all night, community members David Hyatt and David Gribble would brave the October chill to stoke the coals. Then come supper, mommas and daddies would corral their babies, and an entire town would break bread.
A homespun shindig dedicated to mountain culture, the Fall Festival returns to Brasstown Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6 and 7, with food, music, dance and more than 200 artists. Program director Keather Gougler says this will be the Folk School’s 44th year hosting the event, which has become a seasonal staple for locals and visitors alike.
“Our goal is to bring folks from near and far together for a fall celebration of our Southern Appalachian heritage,” says Gougler. “You’d be surprised by the number of out-of-state license plates in our hayfield parking areas.”
But the Fall Festival has and always will be rooted in distinctively down-home sentiments. In the early 1970s, for instance, the entire festival was in the Open House, a one-room pavilion located next to campus vegetable gardens, and featured a small number of craftspeople showing and demonstrating their work. Those days, local entrepreneur Andy Ward netted enough cash as the only food vendor that he and his wife used their profits to put money down on land. Then, in 1994, just days before the festival, a tornado tore through town, downing a couple hundred trees and the school sawmill.
“Without putting out a single cry to action, people came with Jeeps, mules, chainsaws and draft horses and helped clear the land,” says Gougler. That same year, pigs escaped from the petting zoo and were running wild until another group of volunteers caught them.
Above all, the Fall Festival is about camaraderie, says Folk School Executive Director Jerry Jackson. But it’s also about the makers and their crafts.
“By connecting craftspeople with new audiences, we hope to deepen the understanding of the crafts and cultural heritage of our mountain region, thereby preserving these important traditions,” says Jackson.
This year, more than 200 local and regional artists will be selling products: “Pottery, felting, handspun fiber, quilting, wearables, rugs, plants, topiary, painting, collage, paper, prints, book arts, blacksmithing and sculpture,” Gougler lists, breathlessly.
The fair includes juried and nonjuried sections and demonstrations in forms such as woodcarving and spinning. Guests can also tour the Quilting Exhibit, a display with some 50 quilts made by Folk School instructors, and the Visual Arts Exhibit, which includes works by local painting, drawing, photography and mixed-media instructors on the main level of Davidson Hall. And if there’s still time left over, guests can learn more about the school’s adult programs by touring the campus’ art studios.
Of course, the weekend will be anchored by continuous tunes — “We’ve always had music,” says Gougler — with old-time, bluegrass, folk and gospel from North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. The entertainment will be spread across two on-site venues: the Festival Barn and Shady Grove stages. Good vibrations continue offstage as well, with The Jones Brothers in the Community Room of Keith House on Friday, Oct. 5, 7-8 p.m., and a Saturday night contra and square dance with caller Charlotte Crittenden and the band Reelplay, 8-11 p.m.
And then there’s the dancing. Attendees get a kick out of traditional mountain dancing, with clogging from The Campbell Folk School Cloggers and The Kudzu Kickers, and Morris dancing by the Brasstown Morris Dancers. Though most are acquainted with Appalachian clogging, a form stylized by the performer’s loose, bent knees, fewer are accustomed to Morris dancing. An English folk custom dating back to 1448, this form involves rhythmic stepping and props such as swords and sticks, and is set to fiddling. Both forms are well-liked by onlookers, though clogging might win in popularity.
Jackson expects this year’s shindig to be a success, attracting 15,000 guests and encouraging cultural preservation.
“Traditionally, our Fall Festival is a time for celebrating our Appalachian heritage with our vibrant community of locals, students, staff and visitors,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for artists to share Appalachian craft traditions with people who come from all over the Southeast.”
It’s also an opportunity to feast on burgers, hot dogs, kettle corn, fried apple pies and baked treats. There’s still barbecue, too, though these days, the Folk School dining hall staff forgoes an open spit.
WHAT: John C. Campbell Folk School Fall Festival
WHERE: John C. Campbell Folk School, 1 Folk School Road, Brasstown, folkschool.org
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 6 and 7, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 for adults/$3 for children ages 12-17/free for children younger than 12