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The Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center

(Mountain City, Georgia)


Imagine a time before electricity, hot-and-cold running water, the comforts of indoor plumbing, and the convenience of department stores. Imagine a time when most of what you owned was made by you or by neighbors who traded with you for the works of your hands. Time felt different then, its rhythm and urgencies shaped by the most basic needs— food, clothing, and shelter which each family had to produce or fabricate for itself—and by the seasons’ demands. The rare moments when there was no work to do, you visited with each other, played games, made toys, told stories, whittled and dreamed, maybe, of a time when life would be easier.

To many of us unfamiliar with the rigors of early Appalachian life, it may now seem dreamlike, even romantic, a kind of Eden where fruit fell from the trees into waiting hands and people spent their lives crafting the beautiful future antiques we see for sale in expensive area shops. But in encountering residents’ first-hand stories and the tools and tangible remnants of those early days, you’ll find the real Appalachia and also an appreciation for the difficulty and hardships of the life...and the dignity of work well done.

This is part of a group of cabins near the middle of the Foxfire Center. The structure on the left is a two-room "dog-trot" style cabin containing a small folk art display and a small workshop for a local crafter. The structure on the right is a complete blacksmith's shop. This grouping of buildings also includes a wagon shed with a vintage Trail of Tears "tar grinder" wagon, and a weaver's shop.

Folks interested in southern Appalachian life probably know that the eleven Foxfire books are an important source of first-hand accounts of the old times and ways. These accounts are gathered by Rabun County High School students (and formerly Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School students) in the Foxfire program who photograph and interview relatives and friends about topics of interest and then edit the interviews for publication in The Foxfire Magazine.

In 1966, when a new high school English teacher sat down with his bored students to figure out something meaningful that they could do to learn the English curriculum, he had no idea that thirty-seven years and almost eight million Foxfire books later, the successive classes would become famous for their documentation of the vanishing Appalachian culture. They just wanted something else to do besides grammar sheets.

Eventually, Doubleday publishing company recognized the richness and uniqueness of the work Foxfire students were doing and contracted with the students to produce The Foxfire Book that was released in 1972. Proceeds from brisk book sales were used to establish “The Foxfire Fund, Inc.,” a non-profit, educational organization.

Now, for many people, the name “Foxfire” is synonymous with this rich Appalachian heritage and with the book series. But there’s more to Foxfire than meets the eye. Thirty-eight years of experiential, student-centered learning have created an enormous body of work: books, magazines, archives, and a treasured collection of Appalachian artifacts, given by or purchased from the folks Foxfire has celebrated over the years.

To bring the story of Foxfire closer to visitors, Foxfire opened the Heritage Center in Mountain City to the public. The Center is a collection of historic log cabins and replications of traditional log construction designs, with over twenty buildings dating as far back as the early 1800s. Visitors to the Center will receive a rare glimpse of what life was like for the mountaineers who settled this area over 150 years ago. Buildings include a chapel, blacksmith shop, mule barn, wagon shed, one-room cabin, gristmill, and more. These buildings provide a glance into the past, including a look at a wagon used in the Trail of Tears, which forced Cherokee migration from these mountains to Oklahoma. The property also includes a nature trail and cabins that are available for vacation rentals through Bass Realty in Dillard, Georgia.

Over the past thirty-eight years, Foxfire students (and staff) have gathered, during the course of interviewing their elders for Foxfire Magazine, many of the artifacts on display in the museum cabins. Often, when the teenagers research a particular craft or trade, they spend hours or days interviewing the craftsperson as he or she makes the item, painstakingly documenting the process with photographs, notes, and interview transcriptions. One of the most spectacular examples of this process resulted in a long article on wagon building and a wagon constructed in its entirety during the interviews.

The Grist Mill is a complete vintage corn mill driven by an overshot water wheel, and was moved to the Foxfire Center from a nearby North Carolina community. The lower floor of the mill houses all of the gearing, while the actual loading and milling of the corn takes place on the upper floor. The small structure to the right of the mill is a root cellar for storing food. By digging the structure into the bank, the ground helps maintain a steady, cool temperature to help preserve fruit and vegetable crops, just as a refrigerator does today.

Student April Shirley wrote about this wagon in the Fall/Winter 1992 issue of Foxfire Magazine: Jud Nelson Wagon—Jud Nelson was born in Cherokee County, Georgia, in 1911. He moved to Sugar Valley, Georgia, in 1913, and has been there ever since. Mr. Nelson has been a blacksmith all his life. He started blacksmithing early in the century, and because of this, he is one of the last blacksmiths who knows how to build a wagon from start to finish. The last wagon he ever made was for Foxfire, so that we could document the entire process from beginning to end. This documentation appears in Foxfire 9, pp. 267-320. Foxfire purchased the wagon crafted during that documentation process. It is now a focal point of the museum.

Some of the most eloquent items in the museum are also the simplest. The homemade rag doll on display, if its stitched mouth could speak, would tell of the hardships and the love that shaped the Christmases of mountain children.

 In A Foxfire Christmas (Doubleday, 1990), Aunt Mo Norton remembers her childhood holiday toys: My mother made the rag doll that I got. She’d make the dolls six, eight, ten inches long.

It didn’t take her too long to make the dolls—about a couple of hours. She’d make them out of old rags. She stuffed them with cotton, or some people stuffed them with old rags because cotton cost money. She used buttons for the eyes, buttons for the nose, and she just drawed the mouth on there. Sometimes she would work the mouth on with a needle, like embroidery, and she made the clothes out of any kind of material she had.

No one from an Appalachian community would part with their old church - they viewed it as part of their heritage and history. The Foxfire chapel is a replica structure built mostly from an old barn that was too deteriorated to reassemble. It is located at the upper end of our walking tour trail, along a nature trail containing over 150 native plant/tree varieties.

Aunt Arie Carpenter, one of Foxfire’s favorite contacts, is also honored at the Museum. Gary Warfield recalls his times with Aunt Arie, and what she gave him to keep for the rest of his life: I am sure she knew she fed me, shared her life experiences with me, and once gave me a place to sleep in a bed that was stacked one-foot high with quilts. But I doubt that she knew that she renewed my faith in mankind and taught me what unselfish generosity was. No one could out-give Aunt Arie. I never left her place without something...a full stomach, vegetables from her garden, a strangely good feeling...Aunt Arie also impressed my hard head with the fact that I wasn’t the brightest, wisest soul in the world. I learned shortly after our first visit that the longer one lived the more one learned. It was evident that Aunt Arie knew more about life and people than most individuals ever will. And what is amazing is the fact that she probably never traveled more than fifty miles from where she was born and wasn’t well read or college educated. I hope that in the twilight of my life, I will have Aunt Arie’s vitality, enthusiasm, dignity, and inner peace. I hope that, like her, I can “set my feet under the table” with friends and dine on the cornbread, leather breeches, and lye hominy of my time.

A number of Aunt Arie’s possessions, including her rope bed, chair, and table, make up this display. Student Laurie Keener wrote the following: Aunt Arie Chair and Table—Aunt Arie’s chair is a typical ladderback chair, probably made in Macon County, North Carolina, around the turn of the century. (Aunt Arie told Foxfire that all of her and her husband, Ulyss’s, furniture was made by a local furniture maker and was paid for with produce.) The uniqueness of this chair is that no glue, nails, or tacks are used. The trick is to use seasoned rounds and green posts. When you drill holes in the green posts, you place the seasoned rounds in the holes. When the posts season out, they tighten around the rounds.

There is an article in The Foxfire Book on pp. 128-137 explaining how to make this type of chair. The dinner table seen here also belonged to Aunt Arie.

The museum gift shop offers Foxfire books and magazines; various Foxfire logo items such as tote bags; local hand-made crafts and woven goods; pottery; folk art; etc.; as well as a wealth of other publications. Visitors can also get information about the Foxfire organization and about the educational program that offers training in the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning. 

Though offering visitors the opportunity to see many of the tools and crafts of everyday life and allowing them to imaginatively re-create the works and days of southern Appalachian people, the museum also showcases the educational process that Foxfire has developed and refined over the years.

Foxfire asks that you visit the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center to join them in celebration of the past and to support their educational programs.

The Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year round—call ahead for holiday hours.

Self-guided tours of the museum are $5 per adult; children 10 and under are free and come with a souvenir self-guided tour booklet.

Guided tours of the Foxfire Museum and Center are available to groups or individuals (6 or more) by reservation only.

For more information and prices, call the museum at 706-746- 5828.

(The Center is not accessible by large tour bus or motor home.) 


Article and photos submitted by:

The Foxfire Fund, Inc.
PO Box 541
Mountain City, GA 30562-0541
706-746-5828 | www.foxfire.org


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