Colorful fall foliage is always an enticing reason for travel to the N.C. Mountains, but if you need another excuse for going, consider a fall festival. These family-friendly events are great opportunities to get outdoors and experience handmade arts, crafts, music, dance and food against a backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty.
Western Carolina University in Cullowhee presents its 35th annual Mountain Heritage Day Sept. 26. This old-fashioned mountain fair and showcase for authentic Southern Appalachian folk arts is free and regularly attracts more than 25,000 visitors. It’s just minutes away from the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center arranges demonstrations and exhibitions of traditional mountain crafts and skills such as woodcarving, basket making, blacksmithing, quilting and weaving.
William Koch is long-time resident of Chapel Hill and retired faculty member of UNC-CH. He offers these suggestions for how to experience Mountain Heritage Day.
We make a point of blocking out the last weekend in September for Mountain Heritage Day, which we’ve attended for the past eight years. It’s always a delightful day. We soak up the mountain arts, crafts and music and go home satisfied and renewed by the culture of the region.
Mountain Heritage Day is a relaxing event. Dress is hardly formal, but by the end of the day, a hat with a brim can definitely make the difference between having a bright red face and one of a more natural color. With a few exceptions, all events and demonstrations are held on an open field with hay bales set about to relieve weary feet and to provide a place to sit while enjoying lunch from the various vendors.
The hay bales also provide some of the seating for the numerous musical events that go on throughout the day at the two big stages and other places in between.
Definitely go for the music. This is all traditional mountain music, but the variety is wide and definitely engaging—feet are tapping and hands are clapping in time to lively rhythms. There are gospel choirs, usually early in the morning and shape note singing in the morning and afternoon, open to all who want to participate. The whole field, with stages at either end and the auditorium are accessible for individuals with limited mobility.
This is Jackson County, and there is a significant Native American population. There are demonstrations of the Cherokee cultural arts in easily accessible locations and the artists are warm and receptive to exchanges with everyone who stops by. You can’t avoid seeing and hearing the Cherokee Indian ball games played in the middle of the field throughout the day. Explanations accompany the game, and it is played with considerable enthusiasm by local Cherokee young men.
Seeing everything that’s offered is a considerable challenge. Judging for locally-prepared foods takes place early in the day, along with some of the foot races and wood sawing demonstrations. Music continues throughout the entire day, allowing you to drop in and out of performances as desired. If you crave more physical activity, walk down memory lane and look at the old car display. Or visit the extensive array of craft vendors to get a start your holiday shopping.
Above all, go to the Mountain Heritage Center, chat with the staff and see the exhibit—all of which relate directly to the Southern Appalachians, the people, their history and their cultural arts. As a day for families, children, couples of all ages and just plain friends, Mountain Heritage Day is hard to top.
The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown (near Murphy), founded by Olive Dame Campbell in 1925, spearheaded a worldwide revival of interest in craft and transformed the rural countryside. Today it offers year-round weeklong and weekend classes for adults in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography and writing. Its Fall Festival, Oct. 3–4, is a celebration of Appalachian heritage. More than 200 juried and non-juried craftspeople will offer their handcrafted items for sale including jewelry, turned and carved wood, pottery, weaving, ironwork, photography, rugs, furniture, paintings, baskets and more. You can watch 40 craft-making demonstrations and see how to throw a clay pot, turn a wood bowl, spin wool into yarn or create a chair, or see exhibitions of blacksmithing, corn meal grinding and fly tying. There are kids’ activities including pony rides and a drum circle; old-time, bluegrass, folk, gospel and Celtic music; and clogging, Morris, Scottish and Garland dance performances. Admission for adults is $5.
Alice Ahlers, age 70, describes herself as a “perpetual student” who has been attending classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School since her retirement in 1996. Her father was born in Hendersonville, N.C., and she currently lives in Atlanta, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Brasstown. Even so, Ahlers has taken 178 classes at the Folk School to date, the most of any student. “I guess if anybody knows about the craft school, it would be me,” she said.
Ahlers is also a long-time attendee of the Fall Festival. She enjoys meeting new artists as well as nurturing the relationships she’s developed with artists over the years, many of whom she’s met while taking classes. “I’m interested in crafts and the things made by hand,” she says. “The range of what’s available is remarkable. From iron objects made by blacksmiths to basketry to alpaca wool for knitting, there’s something for everybody. I do make the rounds and I always buy things. You can’t go there and not buy things!”
She usually attends the Festival over one long Saturday, leaving home about 7:30 a.m. and heading back after sundown. She makes “the circle” past the dining hall, festival barn, artist studios and vendors at her own pace, pausing to watch the cloggers or to enjoy lunch on the grounds—one of the blacksmiths roasts a pig in an open pit, and there are typical festival offerings like hot dogs, hamburgers and sandwiches.
“I’ve gone with friends, but I know so many people there that I see people I know throughout the day, either enjoying it as I’m doing, or working there in some capacity. I have also brought grandkids and they have enjoyed it thoroughly.”
No matter what brings her there, Ahlers says it’s always a good day at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
“It’s a lovely campus on a rolling terrain, surrounded by beautiful mountains,” she says. “The people there are very friendly, generous and good hearted, the way people used to be. It’s a magical place with a sense of community. But even though it’s a very homey, rural atmosphere, the artisanship and the workmanship are always top notch.”
Fall color and crafts aren’t restricted to the mountains, the Piedmont offers a patchwork of autumn colors through November and there’s plenty of music, festivals and great performing arts, too.
The newest of the bunch this fall is the Tobacco Harvest and Hornworm Arts Festival, held Sept. 12 at Duke Homestead in Durham, the home and farm where Washington Duke first grew and processed tobacco. Twenty-three artists including painters, woodworkers and potters from across the state will sell their wares, including duck decoys, antique birdhouses, soy candles and furniture made from the wood of tobacco barns. Visitors can enjoy traditional dancing by the Little River Cloggers or hear classic Piedmont blues from John Dee Holeman. If the spirit moves you, enlist in the MoonPie eating contest or join in a bluegrass jam session. The day will include demonstrations of traditional tobacco harvesting, curing and stringing, along with a mock tobacco auction. Visit www.ncarts.org/hornworm for details.
Clyde Gobble demo at
Piedmont Craftsmen’s Fair
In Winston-Salem, Six Days in November (Nov. 17–22) will celebrate the city’s heritage as a center of crafts and the arts, using Piedmont Craftsmen’s 46th Annual Fair as a centerpiece. The fair, held at the M.C. Benton Convention Center in downtown Winston-Salem, showcases the handwork of more than 130 fine artisans from across the southeast in an informal setting that allows for informal conversations and demonstrations of craft techniques. Exhibiting members include craft artists who work in clay, wood, glass, fibers, leather, metal, photography, printmaking and mixed media.
While you’re visiting Piedmont Craftsmen’s Annual Fair, you can take advantage of several other cultural events in town. Conductor Robert Moody and the Winston-Salem Symphony present an afternoon program of “Peace, Fate, and Remembrance” Nov. 22 at the downtown Stevens Center. It includes Peck’s Peace Overture for Orchestra, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Fate), and Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble, led by Ron Rudkin, delivers a special performance Nov. 18 with guest trombonist Ray Anderson, named best trombonist in the Down Beat Magazine Critics Poll five years running. Anderson was named a John S. Guggenheim Fellow in 2001. The performance takes place at Thrust Theatre, Performance Place.
Twin City Stage, the new name for the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem (established in 1935) presents Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming, the touching off Broadway comedy featuring 25 bluegrass gospel favorites arranged by Original Red Clay Rambler Mike Craver. See the play Nov. 19–22, or catch one of the earlier dates Nov. 6–8 or 12–15. There’s lots more happening during Six Days in November—check out the events calendar at Visit Winston Salem.