Nineteen seventy-two was a big year for me. I was seventeen years old, graduated from high school in May, moved away, and started college in June. It was also the year I discovered the Foxfire books. The first was published in 1972, the year I first saw in print the Appalachian culture that I had grown up with. I discovered that the life my parents lived and that I grew up in was unique enough to be written about and needed preservation. The Foxfire books did just that. I still value them.
Foxfire started out as a magazine first published in 1966 by Elliot Wigginton and his students at the Rabin Gap Nacoochee School in Rabun County, Georgia. At the time, it was a public secondary school, and Wigginton was an English teacher. He challenged his students to interview members of their families and the community. Interviews were taped, and articles were written about various Appalachian morays and a life I knew. The interviews became the first Foxfire book. It became a bestseller and started a series of publications that is some of the best documentation of the Appalachian culture that exists today. The first three were the favorites of my generation but were followed by nine more, as well as many Appalachian culture specialty books.
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Many of us in college during that time collected the books with dreams of living off the grid. For me, it was that mixed with a fascination that so many people were interested in a culture that I grew up with and knew pretty well. The books and that fascination with the culture are still popular today. I just read the latest Foxfire publication, The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women. It was appropriately and purposefully published during March in celebration of Women’s History Month.
The stories in this book are pulled from previously published articles and interviews about and by women in Appalachia. It covers history, stories, and tales of joy and sadness and is a reflection of a culture rapidly on the decline. Women hold their own unique place in Appalachian culture, and it is appropriate that their stories be told in a separate publication. Readers will be fascinated by stories that are to me reminiscent of those I heard from my grandmothers and my mother.
I found similar themes throughout the book. Many of the women talked about raising their own children or how they themselves grew up. The book reflects on the changes in child rearing, how constant the parent’s presence was in their lives, and the lack of that in today’s children’s lives.
This book is about Appalachia, so, of course, it includes the mountains. These ladies were from Georgia, but one would find the same thing if they interviewed anywhere in the Appalachian range. I echo their thoughts. The mountains have been a constant in my life. Looking over my shoulder and seeing their hazy blue majesty makes life’s trials and even its joys seem small. They loom large to those of us in their shadow.
Cooking and sewing were a big part of the lives of these ladies. They sewed garments that clothed their families and constantly repaired damaged clothing. They also kept the family warm and told their stories thru the artistry of quilts. Appalachian women often demonstrated their creativity in the quilts they made for their families. Made from scraps, these works of art were created and are still prized by their families today. It is a culture that wasted nothing and found emerged beauty in what most now consider trash.
Most of the women of Appalachia knew how to cook from scratch. They canned, they preserved, and they used everything from the meat they butchered. Wheat was a prized commodity; corn was the basis for their bread, and sorghum for their sweetening. They bought little, and what they did have to get elsewhere was usually thru bartering and swapping.
The book talks of church and caring for others in the community during hard times. It talks of children who worked and held responsibilities within the home, something that is lacking in today’s world. It talks of playing on Sunday afternoon, outside, where imagination was the best and biggest part of childhood. There are stories of ghosts, tales of death, and those who went away to the big cities to work.
A theme running thru the books is one that I am confronted with daily in my once-small town in East Tennessee. It is the preservation of the land, its importance, and in recent times, the greed associated with its acquisition. The women speak of something I see daily. Once generational farms and homeplaces are becoming busy residential areas with subdivisions, condos, stores, and playgrounds. The once proud owners of land are no more. Greed and lust for more have replaced the value of a home place. People are flocking to the place I call home because of its beauty and culture. Their numbers are destroying what they covet, and they will not experience what generations of people have in what was once rural Appalachia. Life started changing for the women in these stories in the 1960s. Sixty years later, that change has accelerated.
The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women is important because of change. The Appalachia of the south these women knew, the one my parents grew up in, is being flooded with people who know nothing of the origins of the people in these hills and valleys of the mountains. The people who have moved in are now vastly outnumbering the families that lived and worked the ground for generations. This book preserves at least some of the memories of the times when people were self-sufficient, helped their neighbors, and valued their property. In a culture rapidly disappearing, preservation of those times and people becomes paramount. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women is, I hope, the first of a series that expands and preserves their history for future generations.
A Little Bit More
Have an oral or written history about an Appalachian woman you want to share for preservation? You can do it on the Foxfire site. The site also gives information about how to visit and what Foxfire means today. Click below for the link.
Foxfire | Appalachian Heritage