From a class of uninterested high school students to a community organization that Rabun County families have passed down from generation to generation, Foxfire is in its fifty-fifth year of preserving Appalachian culture and history. In this episode, we cover a brief history of Foxfire’s milestones and explore how the program grew and developed over the years. Then, we hear from Penelope and Dani as they take us through their experiences with learning about the history of Foxfire and those who brought it to fruition. Listen along as we discuss their SEED Project and get back to the Roots of Foxfire.
Madi: Hey y’all, and welcome to this week’s episode of “It Still Lives: The Foxfire Podcast.” I’m your host, Madi Perdue, and I’m back with a new addition to the Foxfire Fellows’ SEED Series where we follow my peers’ journeys through their individual projects. Once again, before we get started, I’d like to invite you to consider the common theme throughout this series: how tradition finds a new generation. Today’s episode, entitled “The Roots of Foxfire,” follows Dani and Penelope’s SEED Project as they explore the beginnings of the Foxfire Program and its history over the years. So, with that, let’s go ahead and get started!
Let me take you back to 1966 when the Foxfire Magazine was first conceptualized in a classroom at Rabun Gap Nachoochee School. Some students were having trouble staying focused in their English class, so their teacher, Eliot Wiggington, decided to ask them how he could make school more interesting for them. In an effort to help his students become better engaged, he and the students came up with the idea to interview older people in their community as they realized that the “old ways” of doing things were kind of starting to die out. So they wanted to interview some of the native Appalachians who were familiar with doing things on their own and by hand. In 1967, the first issue of the Foxfire Magazine was published. The student printed 600 copies, and within a week, they were completely sold out. They quickly began creating the next issue. Within the next few years, they had achieved national recognition and circulation. In 1972, the magazine had become so popular and successful that the first Foxfire Book was published. It was the first in a series of books to focus on the crafts, lifestyles, and trades of the Appalachian people. Today, this anthology contains a dozen books and numerous companion pieces. Two years later, in 1974, the Foxfire students were able to purchase 103 acres of land on Black Rock Mountain with the money they had earned from the publication of their books and magazines. The first Appalachian building to be transported and reconstructed on the property was the gristmill (which remains on the property today). When students sought out traditional functional Appalachian structures to move to the property, they tagged everything, piece-by-piece, down to the boards so that they could reconstruct these buildings in the same ways in which those who had originally built them had done. In 1977, the Foxfire program moved from its place of origin at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School to Rabun County High School. For 41 years, it remained a popular class in which students interviewed Appalachian folks, transcribed their interviews, and published their work in the magazine until 2018 when it became the Foxfire Fellowship that takes place each year during the summer on the Foxfire property. As a multigenerational Rabun County native myself, I can tell you from personal experience that, if you ask just about any Rabun native about Foxfire, you will find out that either they were a part of the program, their families were involved in the program, or their friends were Foxfire students. Foxfire is truly a community activity that has brought together generations of Appalachians for 55 years now. So, after the move from Rabun Gap to Rabun County High School in 1977, in 1985, the program saw the reinvention of technology as typewriters became computers and film became digital audio recordings. These advances helped the students to bring the magazine into the age of technology and to modernize their work, making it both more effective and more accessible. In 2006, Foxfire opened up the Appalachian Heritage Museum to visitors. The museum was (and remains) situated on that land the students purchased all those years ago. With living workshops set up for masters of traditional Appalachian crafts and skills, internships available to high school and college students, and classes available for those interested in further perpetuating mountain culture, Foxfire was able to share a piece of Appalachia with not only the community but also with the public. The program began to educate people from around the world as they came to visit the property here in Mountain City, GA. In 2016, Foxfire celebrated its 50th anniversary. Over the years, the archive has accumulated about 2,000 hours of audiotapes, more than 100,000 images, and over 20 books that celebrate Southern Appalachian heritage. Even to the present, the program continues to serve the community. Foxfire students have continued to actively preserve Appalachian heritage over the years. Though our methodology has changed, our goal, as always, remains the same: Foxfire strives to preserve the history and heritage of the native Appalachians by acting as a bridge between the past and the present.
Now that we’ve covered the background information regarding their SEED Project, let’s hear from Dani and Penelope themselves.
Madi: So, before I ask you some other questions about your topic, first, I’d like to know what are some of your general interests that you’re going to be incorporating into your SEED Projects? First, Dani?
Dani: I really enjoy learning about history and just talking with people about their experiences.
Madi: Awesome! And Penelope?
Penelope: I think living in this area, there’s so much history about the culture that can be learned about and I think that’s what I’m really looking forward to.
Madi: Can you guys explain to me what is your topic and what your project is going to be?
Penelope: So, we really wanted to focus on the students who started Foxfire. We want to share how they went through that process as well as show how students are currently continuing that legacy.
Madi: What inspired you to pursue this project?
Dani: Well, I would really like to leave a legacy here, and so creating an exhibit about past and present fellows that have worked here — it’s just a really cool legacy to leave here.
Madi: Do you guys have any background knowledge on your topic?
Penelope: I don’t really have any. I always knew that students started Foxfire, but I didn’t know what the process was like for them or what they really went through, so I wanted to research more of that.
Madi: So, I know this is a big learning experience for both of you guys, so what is it that you’re most excited about learning?
Dani: Just more about this area because I recently moved here, so I wasn’t really aware of, you know, just what was here. So, just learning about and kind of immersing myself in it has just been really cool.
Madi: What resources and people are you using to do the research for your project?
Dani: So, we’re interviewing various people who worked in the early years of Foxfire, and then we’re also just researching through the archives, trying to dig up some information that we can add to our exhibit.
Madi: What are you guys hoping to accomplish as your final result of your project?
Dani: So, we’re working to create an exhibit in the bungalow, and it’s just gonna really — our goal is to inspire other students to get involved with Foxfire and just to learn more about the program.
Madi: How do y’all hope your project is going to impact others who come to the museum and who visit and who see the end result of your project?
Penelope: I think it will inspire them to see how easy it is to get out in your own county and learn about the culture. You know, anyone can really do it; it was high school students that started this.
Madi: What goals do you hope to achieve with your project and what do you hope to learn from it in the end?
Dani: So, some of my goals for this project is just to really learn more about the area, and also to inspire other students. I know that before I knew about this program, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for a group of students to come together and make a magazine. So just really letting other people know that, yes, it is possible. Even though you’re young, you can create something bigger than just your county.
Madi: That makes a very valuable connection back to what you were saying earlier about legacy in that we are young people and we are just high school students, but yet, look at what we can accomplish when we work together! Look at what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it! So, the next question for you guys would be what steps do you look to go through — what steps do you plan to take — to achieve your goal?
Penelope: So, we want to start by gathering as much information as possible. So, we will dig through the archives, we will interview former students, and then we wanna take all that information and put together an exhibit that highlights all of that. So, we want to do a timeline that shows Foxfire’s milestones, and just share the journey that it’s gone through.
Madi: Is there anything that you’ve learned so far in your research that you think you’d like to share with everyone?
Penelope: I think just how much Foxfire has changed over the years. It has really grown, you know, from being a Broadway musical to going from magazines to books that are published all over the country — it’s really great.
Madi: Isn’t it amazing to imagine just being one of those original Foxfire students?
Penelope: I can’t imagine looking back and realizing, “Wow, I was a part of that!” It’s really incredible.
Madi: It is absolutely incredible to think that this is the fifty-fifth year of Foxfire. So, looking back and thinking, we are high school students, and this entire program — which is still continuing 55 years later — was started by kids just like us, what most excites you guys about your SEED project?
Dani: So, it’s been really cool talking with some of the older students who had been here and just kinda seeing the program through their eyes. I know that I’m used to using computers and technology, but they were there in a time when they couldn’t use most of that stuff. And just hearing it from their perspective is very interesting.
Madi: Have you heard anything from their perspectives yet that you think is very interesting and you’d like to share?
Dani: The person that we interviewed today talked about having a whole bunch of pages that they had to put together to make the magazine just, like, laying on the floor. And I really — that was interesting because we have everything nowadays on a computer and you just scroll through it on your mouse, but seeing everything laid out in front of you? That’s pretty cool.
Madi: What does each of you personally hope to gain from this entire experience?
Dani: I think just kinda knowing people. I tend to not talk to people, I guess, so just knowing that these people are out there and that I can go talk to them if I wanna know something — it’s really cool.
Penelope: I’m definitely looking forward to educating people by putting this exhibit up. We can really share what we have learned with other people. I also think it’s really great, similarly to what Dani said. I can work with talking to people through the interviews and just having a conversation with people.
Madi: What do you hope that others will gain from seeing your finished project?
Dani: I think just realizing that you can do more than you think you can — coming together with a group of peers or, maybe, someone older than you — and just creating something that can last over the years. I think it’s a really cool impact.
Madi: And my last question for y’all: what do most people not know about Foxfire and about the start of Foxfire that you think they really do need to know?
Dani: I think the biggest thing is just know that you can do more than you think you can.
Penelope: I think they just don’t realize how hard these high school students worked! They did all of the work. It wasn’t the teacher that much; it was all them. And they need to realize that they made it work and people just like them can do stuff similar.
Madi: From a classroom of rowdy students to a community of connected generations, Foxfire has been a vital piece of Rabun County’s history for 55 years. Though the program has grown, changed, and evolved over time, it remains true that the Roots of Foxfire run deep and the fire for the preservation of history, heritage, and culture still lives within all those who come into contact with the Foxfire program. Thank y’all for listening! I’ve been Madi Perdue with “It Still Lives: The Foxfire Podcast.” I’ll be back next week as I continue to follow my peers’ journeys through preserving the roots of Southern Appalachian history. Have a great day!