Woodworking schools are just like any other business, you have to find your niche and provide a service that is unique, educational, and hopefully, entertaining. You want the students to come back. That doesn’t seem to be a problem at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC.
Located just a couple of hours away from Asheville, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia, the school seems to have no problem filling classes that ranged from photography to blacksmithing to organic gardening during the 5 days that I was there. The school holds (primarily) week-long workshops focusing on handicrafts, music, nature-studies and Appalachian culture on a year-round basis.
Brasstown is nestled in the incredibly beautiful southern Appalachian Highlands, way down in the far southwestern part of North Carolina. Just to the north is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway are nearby as well, so it’s a great place to take a vacation.
As school director, Jan Davidson puts it, "The Folk School was founded in 1925, a collaboration of two progressive educators and an Appalachian community. Olive Dame Campbell, Marguerite Butler and the people of Brasstown set out to create a unique institution that seeks to bring out the best in people." Based on the "folkehojskoles" (folk schools) of Denmark, it was named in honor of Olive Dame Campbell’s husband, John. He wanted to establish a school in the rural south that would bring people together rather than sort them out. Unfortunately, he died in 1919 before he had a chance to do so.
Wanting to fulfill John C. Campbell’s dream of starting the school, but realizing that they could not impose their ideas on the mountain people, Campbell and Butler eventually developed a genuine collaboration with over 200 residents of Cherokee and Clay counties who pledged labor, building materials, land and other support in getting the school started. The result is a special place that offers "… unique non-competitive educational experieces, as well as a combination of rich history, beautiful mountain surroundings, and an atmosphere of living and learning together."
The class that I attended "Ladderback Chairmaking" was taught by Lyle Wheeler. When I signed up for the class, all I knew was that we would attempt to build a red oak ladderback chair frame using the same tools that craftsmen used in 1860. At the start of the week, we took what was essentially an oak log and turned it into a chair using post and rung construction, with hand-cut, green wood mortise & tenon joinery.
There were six of us in the chairmaking class, ranging in age from the mid-20s all the way up to the mid-80′s. Once the log was quartered and rived using a froe and maul, all the chair parts were shaped on a shaving horse with a drawknife and a spokeshave. Hollow augers and dowel pointers clamped in a brace were used to form the tenons. And a brace, bits, and mortise chisels were all that were used to cut the mortises. Our instructor, Lyle informed us of the history of the trade with interesting anecdotes throughout the week. We discussed green woodworking techniques, and Lyle gave us a demonstration of splint bottoming. It was hard, hot, and physical work, but very satifying.
By the way, WoodworkingOnline.com is up and running in a basic form. We’ll be making changes and improvements as we go. I’ll continue to post about my trip here (and again next fall) for the next few weeks, but you may want to bookmark WoodworkingOnline.com so that you can stay on top of all that’s going on in the world of woodworking online.