John C. Campbell Folk School

Olive Dame Campbell 1882-1954

Today’s guestpost was written by Rooney Floyd.

Olive Dame Campbell


A TRIBUTE TO OLIVE DAME CAMPBELL, 1882—1954 written by Rooney Floyd

Olive Dame was born the daughter of a middle class New England family of Mayflower descent. Her father was a talented botany teacher and school principal. A gifted mother taught her early the love of art and music. She enjoyed an active, rich youth that developed an inquiring mind and strong, determined will. These attributes would serve her well in the coming years of adventure with future husband, John C. Campbell, and later as the founder and director of the Folk School she named in his honor. Though less well known, she became one of the leading social reformers of her time.

After graduating from Tufts College in 1903, she taught literature several years before planning a vacation voyage to Scotland in 1906. On the voyage, she met John Campbell who was traveling to his ancestral homeland to recuperate from the loss of a wife and the stress of being President of Piedmont College. Olive was a smart, talented and dedicated Christian woman with a great sense of humor. She had indeed been called to serve humanity through education. In these ways, she was a lot like John. By trip’s end, they were engaged. Olive and John married in 1907 in her home town in Medford, Massachusetts.

The Campbells were among the first to recognize and appreciate the diverse character and skills the Appalachian people had developed in their extremely isolated existence. For this reason they disagreed with the prevalent stereotype of mountain people held by those of formal education at that time. They found that social workers had little understanding of the people they were sent to help, or what their real strengths and needs were. There was a void of credible information on Appalachian social conditions, and the small amount that existed was invalid. Thus, the Campbells planned to make a comprehensive study of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

After receiving a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, they set off on a four-year journey, (1908-1912), on horseback and by covered wagon extending over portions of eight states forming a region John later named the Southern Highlands. They visited numerous communities, schools, churches, government officials, and families in the region to inquire what the people actually wanted in the way of assistance for their social and economic development. Olive kept a detailed journal of the entire survey journey as well as collected traditional English folk songs still preserved by word of mouth in the mountain families.

Education was the most frequently given answer by the people as to their needs. They wanted education for adults who were living on the land with the intention of staying there. Schools separated students based on performance. Better performing students were furnished additional opportunity for continuing education. This further education, however, took the individual from his home to work in the city. Those who stayed to work the land were virtually unschooled.

The Campbells had read about the Danish folk schools that provided a different kind of non-competitive education for rural adults. These schools had yielded contented, productive inhabitants on very successful farms for over 60 years. They believed the Danish model could be adapted to the Appalachian situation and enable the mountain people to live happy, productive lives in their home environment by efficient farming, cooperatives, and development of their art and craft skills. Upon completion of the Appalachian survey, the Campbells planned a year-long study of the Danish folk schools.

When the outbreak of World War I forced cancellation of their Danish trip, the Campbells continued their Appalachian work living in Asheville, N. C. During this time, Olive and John lost two infant daughters. Olive dealt with the loss by completing her ballad collecting work which lead to the publication of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil J. Sharp, in 1917. Within two years John died at the age of 51 leaving Olive to fulfill their dreams. She took all of their notes to Nantucket Island and methodically compiled their survey which was published as The Southern Highlander and His Homeland by John C. Campbell, in 1921. After the war ended, the time had come to pursue the Danish folk school project.

Olive secured a fellowship for the study of adult education from the American-Scandinavian Foundation and left for Denmark in 1922 to study the Danish folk school system. She took with her a young fellow mountain worker, Marguerite Butler, who would later become her assistant in founding the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N. C. During this time, Olive was at the peak of her health, strength, and mind for the new adventure. After eighteen months of visiting most of the 150 folk schools, the two determined ladies returned armed with enough of an intellectual and spiritual grasp, enthusiasm, and experience to implement the Danish folk school model in Appalachia. Olive’s zeal, discipline, and devotion had merged in a tremendous sense of calling to the field of mountain work. For the next few years as Olive continued her work with the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers. She and Marguerite also began the task of selecting a site for the new folk school. Additionally, she wrote and published The Danish Folk School by Olive D. Campbell. It has been called “the most understanding book on the subject ever written.”

By 1925, Olive had chosen the community of Brasstown, N. C. to locate the folk school. It was ideal not only because of the absence of competing large towns or industry, but also because the local people very much wanted the school and pledged the needed support. This marriage of school and community, though tiny compared to the whole Southern Highlands region, was destined to become a model of effectiveness and progress over the next three decades as Olive directed the school through the Depression and World War II. It had truly become an asset to the community where many of the local families were enlightened, progressive, and contented; thus allowing them to stay upon the land successfully.

Olive retired in 1946 and returned to Medford to continue her robust correspondence and draft The Life and Work of John Charles Campbell, her husband’s biography. WW II had ended, the national economy was in an upswing, and the Craft Revival in America was beginning. As always, the Folk School continued to adjust to change by considering it new opportunity. With a new mission, and through a series of new directors, the Folk School served students from a much larger area, first regionally, then nationally and internationally. Even with all these changes, the school still offers people from the local area, ways to improve their quality of life while it also provides a unique resource to a much broader base as well. The emphasis has shifted more and more to arts and crafts reflecting Olive’s guidance that “the form the school takes is always to be based on the need.” In spite of 90 years of considerable change, most of the important, underlying Danish folk school principles remain, keeping the unique institution true to the founder’s dream. In retrospect, her entire life had been preparation for this accomplishment.

Olive Dame Campbell was a gifted, selfless lady of boundless mental and physical energy. Believing in the value and uniqueness of the individual, she came to the mountains with a “listening ear.” Her goal was to stimulate creativity, cooperative effort, and personal growth that never stopped. She endeavored to bring rural life to relate to the larger world while achieving satisfaction and fulfillment. Her colleagues regarded her as one who, in all situations, could be counted on to do the best that she could do. She was known for her wise, practical, and successful approach to controversial issues. Her stated purpose of the folk school, “to awaken, enliven and enlighten a community with lifelong learning,” explains the school’s motto, “I Sing Behind the Plow”.

Rooney Floyd, Brasstown, N.C., July, 2015


  1. “Mountain Life & Work

Magazine of the Southern Mountains”

No. 4, 1954

  1. Appalachian Travels, The Diary of

Olive Dame Campbell, 2012

Edited by Elizabeth M. Williams

  1. DVD: Sing Behind the Plow:

John C. Campbell Folk School

UNC-TV and John C. Campbell Folk School

Copyright 2008

  1. File of John R. Floyd, Jr.

(Various notes from the Archives, and staff

interviews of the John C. Campbell Folk


I hope you enjoyed Rooney’s guest post as much as I did!

The John C. Campbell Folk School will hold its annual Fall Festival October 5 & 6 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily admission: $5 for adults, $3 for ages 12-17, and free for children under 12.

I hope everyone who wants to attend the festival gets to go. I’ll offer a few tips in case you’ve never been to a JCCFS Fall Festival before: traffic can be extremely heavy so if you plan to be at the festival to catch a certain performance you will need to allow for extra driving time; the festival is spread over a large area which means you may be walking a far piece from where you park; most of the walking will be on trails so sturdy shoes will be your best choice of foot-wear; and there are food vendors so if you want to make a day of it you don’t have to worry about going hungry.




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  • Reply
    mary Lou McKillip
    September 29, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    Truman and I loved Rooney post and never tire of hearing about this grand lady UN selfless who left such wonderful folk School for others to enjoy year after year. Jan Davidson and staff are the cut above. Truman enjoyed his stay working for the folk school and I do believe he would love to go back a day or two.

  • Reply
    September 24, 2016 at 8:07 am

    Thank you, Mr. Rooney Floyd, for this very nice piece – it’s hard to fit a well-lived life onto a single page, and you’ve done a fine job!
    I enjoy reading about the history of Folk School and the intrepid Olive Dame. Every now and then, usually because of one of Tipper’s posts, I look up the website and dream about taking a class at the School.
    I hope the girls have a good time at both their performances this weekend 🙂

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 23, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    The most insulting thing one person can do another is to misstate their name and that it exactly what I have done. I would like to apologize to Mr. Floyd. I know his name from many comments he has made on your blog. Sorry Rhooney!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 23, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    I have been fascinated by the stories of JCCFS and Olive Dame Campbell since I went there as a child in the late 50’s. In reading about Mrs. Campbell and the school she founded, I stumbled upon a similar story. However, the lead character wasn’t from way off somewhere else. She was local to the Appalachian region and to Southwestern North Carolina in particular.
    Her name was Lucy Calista Morgan. She was born in Franklin, NC on 20 Sep 1889 and grew up near Murphy. She was educated at a private school in Hickory. She attended a college in Michigan and taught school for a short time in Chicago before returning to the mountains to teach at school once headed her brother, Rev. Rufus Morgan, called Appalachian School, in Penland, NC. From there she went to Berea College and learned to weave. She returned to Penland and in 1929 began what is still The Penland School of Crafts. Miss Morgan died on 3 Jul 1981 in Jackson County, NC. She is buried at Cartoogechaye in Macon County near her mother in Saint Johns Episcopal Church Cemetery.
    One interesting fact I discovered in viewing the census from that year is that in 1910 Lucy Morgan, her father, step-mother, a sister and her brother Rufus lived on Martin’s Creek Road in Murphy Voting Precinct. If my facts are correct Lucy and her family lived a very few miles from where the JCCFS would be established. Now I am wondering whether Miss Lucy and Mrs Campbell may have had connections of which I am as yet unaware.
    Miss Lucy, as she was called, wrote a book called “Gift from the Hills, Miss Lucy Morgan’s Story of Her Unique Penland School”. I would like to read it but it is $45.00.
    I in no way intend this to detract from Mr. Rhooney’s tribute or from Mrs. Campbell herself. That Olive Dame Campbell’s efforts are commendable is undeniable but she had contemporaries whose endeavors yielded similar results that ought also be lauded.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 23, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    You got me curious so I went looking. I expect you know but the University Press of Kentucky published “Appalachian Travels: the Diary of Olive Dame Campbell” in 2012. There is a Kindle version on Amazon.
    Hope to meet you all tomorrow at Don Carter. We live about 4 or 5 miles from there.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Wouldn’t it have been exciting to be around a person with such energy and dedication!! . . . & who does that remind us of? . . . our own Tipper, of course!
    Your blog is a great compliment to & extension of Olive Dame Campbell’s work.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Terrific post! Thanks so much for the history of the folk school.

  • Reply
    September 23, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I’d like thank Rooney Floyd for his contribution to the Folk School. I enjoyed his telling the story of Olive Dame Campbell and the John C. Campbell Folk School.
    I never heard my Daddy or Mama or any of my brothers mention the Folk School and I guess I was in about the 10th grade before I ever heard of it. Many years later I was privileged to attend the Folk School to hear The Blind Pig Gang and I was impressed.
    The Festival includes about 220 or 230 vendors showing their Crafts to show their Appalachian Culture, good food, dancing, and singing. It’s a couple days of enjoyment. …Ken

  • Reply
    September 23, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Just once I wish we could make the festival. Praying for good weather for you all.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    September 23, 2016 at 9:03 am

    I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in a woodturning class at JCCFS. It was a great experience and I met a lot of interesting people and at the end of the week, I saw a nice diversity of creations in a beautiful setting. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a week to get their creative juices flowing.
    My hat is off to Olive D. Campbell for her foresight and hard work.

  • Reply
    eva nell mull wike, PhD
    September 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Well Tipper: Your post today was simply delightful! As a Clay County native, I have heard the story of the FOLK SCHOOL many times. But it is a story I never get tired of reading. Olive Dame Campbell certainly ‘left her mark’ on our community!
    THANK YOU, Mr. Rooney Floyd
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    “Fiddler of the Mountains: Attuned to the Life and Times of
    Johnny Mull” AVAILABLE on AMAZON.COM

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 23, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Wonderful post! Thanks Rooney, I really enjoyed the history of the folk school that has been so central to the lives of my granddaughters and their mother.

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