Living Life Against the Grain

Living Life Against the Grain

John C. Campbell Folk School

Words by Christine Van Dyk
Photos by John C. Campbell Folk School


It was a simple block of wood, a rectangular brick of maple you could find at any lumber yard. It felt heavy in her hand as Becky Henry placed it on the lathe. Watching as it began to spin, she wondered what might lie beneath the wavy grains, what it could become if only it were given the right cuts and shavings.

Inspiration is like that; it comes slowly and often with uncertainty. It’s the proverbial blank page that taunts and teases until suddenly something beautiful emerges. Inside that block of wood, Becky would eventually discover a French rolling pin that had been waiting there all along.

The wood-turning class was Becky’s first at the John C. Campbell Folk School. At the invitation of her older sister, Kathe, she’d come to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for an experience like nothing she'd ever known—at least nothing she’d known since childhood.

“It was like going to summer camp for adults,” she said. “As kids we have grand adventures and new experiences, but somewhere along the way we lose that sense of wonder. The folk school was full of new experiences, things that will make us more vibrant and interesting people. It was a reminder to myself that I love learning.”

On their first day at “camp” the sisters walked out onto a brisk fall morning with a chill in the air and the rustling of the few leaves that remained on the trees.

“Morningsong is always first,” Robert Grand, Communications and Brand Manager for the school, said. “You wake up with the sun pouring in the windows and step out the door to a world without sound, except for maybe the chirping of Carolina Wrens. The sky seems endless, and there are acres of rolling pasture spread out before you. When you enter the Keith House you smell 100-year-old pine and feel the gravity of the place. This is where morningsong begins.”

Morningsong occurs every day at 7:45 a.m. with the singing in rounds and the playing of instruments. It’s just one of the many Danish influences common to the folk school.

Olive Campbell, an Appalachian song-catcher, created the John C. Campbell Folk School in 1925 to honor her late husband. One of the school’s first programs was a partnership with the woodcarvers of Brasstown, North Carolina. 

“When Olive pulled into town she met Fred Scroggs at his general store,” Robert said. “She explained she was looking to build a school where there would be no grades and no degrees, only learning for learning’s sake. She expected some resistance and was shocked when he replied, ‘Oh, you mean like the Danish schools.’”

With their shared vision, the two soon got to work. The Scroggs family donated the land and the townspeople provided labor, supplies, and they even made the chairs for the common room. In return, the school taught the residents carpentry and carving, skills they used to earn money to buy houses, provide an education for their children, and secure their futures.

“It was a real economic benefit for a place with few jobs,” Robert said. “It created a sense of mountain pride as well. Olive promoted their work to a store in Rockefeller Center where the art sold for quite a profit.”

What began more than a century ago continues to attract people today. Every weekend folks still drop by for bluegrass concerts, contra dances, and square dancing. The school is even listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a “Best of the Road” destination by Rand McNally Atlas, and as one of the “100 Best Vacations to Enrich Your Life” by National Geographic.

Students from all walks of life are introduced to the Appalachian heritage and taught skills rarely passed down these days—from flatfoot dancing and leather-making to blacksmithing and dulcimer lessons. There are hundreds of classes to choose from, but one belief connects them all.

“Whether you’re making a basket or a candlestick, the object is never what’s important,” instructor Gabe Strand said. “It’s the process of creating that matters.”

But creating is rarely without challenges.

“I arrived guns blazing, assuming I would only get better,” Becky said. “I’d already finished the rolling pin and a difficult bowl and was approaching the end of the week when I gouged a cookie cutter while taking it off the lathe. I burst into tears, and my instructor came over and encouraged me to look at it from another direction.”

It seems everything, even the slipups, are part of the process.

“There’s definitely an arc to a week spent here,” Gabe said. “People come with all this excitement, but there can be frustration the next day when they hit a plateau or the learning curve steepens. The goal is not to make the perfect bowl or become a master in one week. What is made will eventually break; it’s the experience that lasts.”

While the ideal experience is a weeklong class on campus, there are other options as well. Stop by the craft shop to purchase one-of-a-kind pieces from area makers, sign up for an online course, or drop in the new downtown space for a weekend workshop. The John C. Campbell Folk School can be your home for a week or a destination for a day. Either way, your first visit is unlikely to be your last.

As Becky and Kathe prepared to leave, their ragtag group of unlikely wood-turners gathered for a last goodbye in the Keith House.

“We sang an Irish blessing together,” Becky recalled. “I might never see them again, and yet I’ll never forget them. That’s what makes this place so special. It goes beyond the impersonal way of living that takes us out of fellowship and makes the world feel somehow light and lifted. It’s something akin to coming home.”