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Foxfire Museum Shares Appalachian Crafts And Skills During COVID-19

The pandemic has hit non-profits and museums hard due to travel and social distancing restrictions.   One museum in our region appears naturally poised to weather the pandemic.

The War Woman cabin on the property of the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center is decorated for Christmas. It was built in the late 1880’s but is now styled as a 1940’s Appalachian cabin with a woodstove and a vintage radio that clicks on when you enter the room:

“Where the blue of the night… meets the gold of the day,” plays the radio.

The cabin is part the museum’s 8-acre-property near Black Rock Mountain State Park in north Georgia, less than 7 miles across the North Carolina line.

Historic buildings from homesteads to a blacksmith workshop were put in place to celebrate Appalachian culture, and serve as a center for the oral history work that the nonprofit does. Like everything else, the business has been impacted by COVID-19. 

“We had to close our doors in March as the state went into shelter in place, and we all started to figure out how to get through this.”  

That’s Kami Ahrens. She’s the assistant curator at Foxfire. She’s been on the job since November 2017. The museum has been able to reopen safely in part because the exhibits are outside. Visitors socially distance and are asked to wear masks.

“We’re very fortunate because we are an outdoor museum. And also, our visitation isn’t as high as other museums or cultural institutions. Which is  both a blessing and a curse,” said Ahrens, who also explained that the museum staggers families on the property. Beyond the 8-acres that are developed as the museum, the nonprofit also owns about 100 acres. The museum also features exhibits on topics like Cherokee history. 

Because of the pandemic, Ahrens has been working to build up the museum’s online presence though videos and virtual events such as a Christmas baking challenge.

“The greatest thing about sharing any piece of information from the Foxfire archives, but especially recipes, is the memories that people share. So people will see, you know, something like the stack cake and talk about how that was what they had every year for their birthday,” said Ahrens.

“That's the coolest part for me, especially about doing things virtually is the stories that everybody gets to share in together, even in this time when we're also separated.”

Foxfire publishes books of interviews, culled from its oral history mission, that explain skills like canning, building and other mountain heritage crafts.

“Knock. Knock. Sharon? Would you mind if Lilly came in and watched you for a bit?” 

Sharon Grist is a resident artist at Foxfire. She weaves on a loom and makes handspun yarn with natural dyes.

“The shuttle going back and forth on the loom.”   

That’s the sound of Grist weaving a traditional herringbone pattern.

“I have the studio space to work and then I'm here to talk with the visitors and show the school children. I keep this little loom set up over here that the children can work on,” said Grist. “I love to see the children the moment when they understand what’s happening when the light bulb goes off.”

Ahrens says that the museum has seen a jump in visitors since the fall – partially due to the increase in camping at the nearby state park. Foxfire has also hosted “field trips” for families with children who have been home from school.

Micah Hettrick, the resident blacksmith at Foxfire has been happy to see visitors on the property. He makes Christmas presents at his forge by heating the metal and then pounding it on an antique steel anvil.

“So now we've got it heated it up,” said Hettrick. “So I'm going to be doing is using a chisel. I'm actually splitting it into three pieces so I can make the tines of what's going to be a little gardening rake.”

Hettrick, who is 22, says that he got interested in blacksmithing after watching a YouTube video as a kid. After a successful Renaissance Fair, he decided to make it a career. He just started at Foxfire in July.

“I think there's going to be a big push, especially towards more of a simpler living styles, I think are really going to start coming up,” said Hettrick. “A lot of self-sufficiency, I think is going to really be popular once all of this is over. When people come out they can see what people used to do.”  

Since the start of the pandemic, sales of Foxfire books have increased dramatically. The museum chalks it up to increased interest in self-sufficiency and support from an isolated community.   

Rabun County, where Foxfire is located is currently listed as having a high transmission rate of COVID-19. 

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.