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Getting Crafty in North Carolina: Meet the John C. Campbell Folk School

The day began with Whisky for Breakfast. Which made sense, since we were in North Carolina. But this wasn’t a meeting of the “Moonshine Society.” Instead, a fiddler and a banjo player were jumpstarting the morning with a before-breakfast concert-- which included that classic Appalachian jig—at the famed John C. Campbell Folkschool (, of Brasstown.

Later in the day, I studied with an SOB and learned to become a hooker.

That’s a “single occupation blacksmith” and a rug hooker, to be clear. Because at the Folk School that’s what people do: spend a weekend or a week mastering an art or craft that interest them. (And yes, they also enjoy punning a lot, hence all the jokes in this column).

Because I was a journalist, the school let me sample additional classes in chair caning and wood turning, though regular students commit to just one area of study.

The experience, with the exception of blacksmithing (more on that below), was a kick—simultaneously relaxing and challenging. I spent happy hours soaking long strips of rattan and then meticulously weaving them into a complex pattern to form the seat of a stool; finding just the right groove so that I could shave off seamless strips of wood from a whirring block to form candlesticks and honey-dippers; choosing colored strips of wool to work through a linen mesh, a little rug growing in front of me. There was something intensely Zen about all these activities. Conversation between myself and my fellow participants flowed effortlessly, punctuated by frequent laughter. I would be surprised, when glancing at the clock, to find 90-minutes had zipped by.  

Blacksmithing? Well, for this 5’3, 110-pound weakling that was a grind. I simply didn’t have the strength necessary to quickly flatten out the metal. But along with a very sore forearm, I walked away with a serviceable coat-hook, and new friends among my beefy, fellow Vulcans.

And that feeling of fellowship is a large part of the draw here. You see, the “folk” in the title of the school refers not to the type of crafts done—these range from traditional ones like weaving and book binding to more high-tech pursuits like digital photography and modern cooking—but to the people who come here. Inspired by the “folk school” movement in Scandinavia, a tradition of continuing education schools for adults, the school’s goal is to create life-long learners among its students. “We operate from a principal of non-competitiveness,” Jan Davidson, the school’s director, told me. “Our classes are not about becoming the best fiddler or potter. We want our students to learn something that will bring joy and creativity into their daily lives and to do it in an atmosphere that’s tolerant and caring, a real community.”

That welcome is available to a wide a range of students as classes are quite affordable (about $550 for a week, $300 for a weekend) as are the various lodging possibilities. One can rent rooms from locals (ask the office for advice), stay in the well-maintained, quite pretty on-campus accommodations (starting at $428/week and including all meals, less for weekends) or tent or RV it in a field on the school’s grounds (from $109 per week without meals).

I hope to return someday. I’ll make some more beautiful objects for my home…and friends to share them with.