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Students Stepping Back in Time

Nestled high up in the woods of Mountain City, Georgia, about two miles above Clayton, is a treasure in the preservation of American history and culture.

No doubt, many readers of this blog have seen or heard of the books in the Foxfire series. Those books came about because a high school English teacher in Rabin Gap-Nagoochee High School was trying in 1966 to motivate his students by making his class interesting. When he sought the students' input, they decided that they wanted to publish a magazine.

For subject matter, they chose to write about the people and lifestyles of their region of the South, the Southern Appalachians, to dispel the "hillbilly" stereotype that has so often been used to disparage the people who live there. Rather than being ashamed of it, they sought to preserve it and the values that came from it: family, church, community, hard work, "making do," etc.

The students' magazine was so successful and demand for back issues so great that by 1972 the students combined the magazine articles into The Foxfire Book. (The name comes from the glowing fungus that is found on rotting wood in the region.) The book was so successful that the students would go on to produce over the succeeding years twelve more volumes.

I had long been aware of the series and had even skimmed the contents of a few. Only recently, however, did I take time to really consider them. I was doing some research for a new writing project and happened to use one volume as a reference. Having tasted the series, I was hooked. Our local library has all of the volumes scattered across its many branches, and I've slowly been going through them. Even the parts that I haven't been able to use have proven immensely interesting.

In the process, I learned about the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center, and earlier this week my wife and I traveled to visit the site. We were not disappointed.

The site boasts more than 20 authentic structures built from the 1820s (the oldest) through the next 190 years or so, including domestic cabins, barns, blacksmith shop, grist mill, chapel, and others. Each structure displays implements used in the respective structures, from kitchen utensils to tools and musical instruments.

Left: Typical Southern Appalachian cabin

Below right: Chapel

Below left: Grist mill

One structure highlights the existence of the area's original inhabitants, the Cherokees. Around its walls it communicates the various chapters in the story of the tribe from its earliest days, displays related crafts and artifacts, and highlights the tribe's infamous forced removal known as the Trail of Tears. Central to the story is the last known existing wagon to have been used in the Removal, a more than 210-year-old Zuraw wagon. Inside the wagon is a lighted display of the names of about 500 Cherokees who have been documented to have been among the estimated more than 4,000 who died on the trek to Oklahoma. (My book Evangelism and Expulsion discusses some of the educational and spiritual work of missionaries among the Cherokees until the Removal.)

At various times throughout the year, the Museum features local artisans who demonstrate the crafts and skills used by the early inhabitants of the Southern mountains from pioneer days through the World War II era. On the day we visited, a man was preparing from a yellow poplar log the foundation beam for a cabin's porch and a lady was weaving cloth on a loom. They both took time to explain what they were doing.

One of the last cabins on the tour focused on the students' production of Foxfire magazine and the subsequent series of books. As a former junior high school history teacher, I was amazed to see what a class of motivated students could do. While visiting the gift shop at the completion of the tour, I met a former junior high school English teacher who was similarly amazed.

The Foxfire experiment (and it was an experiment at the start) reminded me of a similar, though much smaller scale, effort by a Travelers Rest, S.C., school located near where we live. Those students interviewed older area residents about the history of Travelers Rest and produced from those interviews articles that were combined into a series of booklets titled Echoes. (The History Museum of Travelers Rest ( has those books for sale and is reprinting them as demand increases.)

Both the Foxfire and the TR projects underscore the importance of saving for posterity the history of their respective regions. The students provide exemplars for future generations to continue the work they've begun. And both projects were created by the students. What could adults do to further their cause and prevent the loss of such history?

If you get a chance, a visit to the Foxfire Museum is well worth your time and effort to get there. If you can't visit in person, do so virtually at their website ( or by perusing several volumes of the book.

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