Appalachia

A Tribute to 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

Sources

1.  “Mountain Life & Work

Magazine of the Southern Mountains”

No. 4, 1954

2.  Appalachians Travels, The Diary of

Olive Dame Campbell, 2012

Edited by Elizabeth M. Williams

3.  DVD:  Sing Behind the Plow:

John C. Campbell Folk School

UNC-TV and John C. Campbell Folk School

Copyright 2008

4.  File of John R. Floyd, Jr.

(Various notes from the Archives, and staff

interviews of the John C. Campbell Folk School)

——————————–

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

Tipper

 

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Brenda Schlosser
    October 14, 2015 at 5:33 am

    Like Henry Horton, I also was thinking of the incredible movie, “The Song Catcher” while reading this amazing story. You are so blessed to have such a great Folk School and history in your town and area. I would so love to visit your area someday. I feel I already know how warm and inviting it is to live and visit.

  • Reply
    Tipper
    September 26, 2015 at 10:16 am

    Ed
    Thank you for the comment. I think it’s hard for anyone who isn’t involved in the folk school in an intimate manner to see all the good they do for the area. The school Olive Dame Campbell started was very different than the school it is today. But then again-the community which surrounds the school is very different than the one that surrounded it all those years ago. I think Rooney touched on that change in this paragraph:
    “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.”
    With the forward movement of education and industry, jobs became available for people living in the vicinity of the folk school and the necessity of teaching them to make a living from talents they already possessed fell by the wayside. Due to this change, the folk school had to change their focus to stay vibrant and to keep the doors open-just as Olive Dame intended the school to do when she first founded it.
    In today’s modern world, the folk school serves as a
    wonderful place for many locals to work a job they believe in as well as one that provides well for their families. The folk school also offers great incentives for locals to take classes. Once a year a local can take a class for $25.00. The school also offers scholarships for people who want to apply for them. My girls have been the recipients of scholarships on more than one occasion. The folk school welcomes locals with open arms to the various community events it holds on a weekly basis-all free to attend. And for things where there is a charge-fall festival and winter dance week come to mind-the folk school will let you in for free if you volunteer to work the entrance desk or help in other areas for a period of time. The annual Little Middle Folk School week primarily serves local children at an affordable price and as with other classes there are often scholarships for the little middle week that are offered via local public schools. The folk school sponsors a Junior Appalachian Musicians Program (JAM) that offers free weekly music lessons to elementary school students-the folk school even provides the instrument for free to use in the class if the student needs one. In other words, if locals want to be part of the folk school experience all they have to do is show up…and have the desire to be part of the folk school. Not everyone has that desire-and that’s ok too!
    While it’s true that some of the instructors are not locals, it’s also true that many locals aren’t interested in preserving arts and crafts techniques. And there are more than a few locals who do teach-me for one : )
    Typically people who are interested in taking classes at the folk school, no matter where they are from, are definitely not part of an elite group of people. The folk school still abides with the principle of working together. People are served family style meals and are expected to pitch in and help clean up in the dining hall as well as in the community rooms and studios. If you want to see how fast a room full of chairs can be set up just attend a Tuesday night dance to see a room full of people re-set a room full of chairs in record time! It’s a must see event in Brasstown : ) With the campus spread out over a far piece there is much walking required by anyone who attends the school…even in the down pours we had this past week the trails must still be walked. The folk school isn’t a place to visit if you’re interested in being pampered. It’s a place of learning and fellowship.
    Even though the folk school has changed through the years as societies changed, it is still a bastion of preservation and teaching open to both locals and the world at large. From blacksmithing, weaving, carving,
    cooking, music, dancing, etc. the folk school is preserving and celebrating arts that are no longer popular in the mainstream, and it’s one of the few places taking that job on.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 25, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    My aunt Violet worked for a time in the mid to late ’50s at the Folk School. I have know idea what she did there. Aunt Violet didn’t need to work there or anywhere else to support herself. She was the widow of a “man of means” and had a son at West Point and a daughter who was a professor and had married a professor. Both of her children are still alive but don’t recognize her side of the family, at least as far as I can determine. Why Aunt Violet chose to work there I do not know. Why she didn’t disavow my father’s family as her children have, I also don’t understand.
    I do remember one day when we all packed up and went to the Folk School. Aunt Violet led us around and showed us all the wonderful things they had amassed. I was a mere lad then and don’t recall much of what I saw but I vividly recall Aunt Violet’s booming voice as she introduced us to all the wonders that abounded there.
    I also recall Aunt Violet taking us to a place called “Fields of the Woods” where the Ten Commands were displayed on the side of a mountain. Truthfully, I was more impressed by what I saw there than anything I saw at the folk school.
    Not very long after that Aunt Violet had to come back and live in Bryson City with my grandmother Beuna while she was dying from liver cancer. After Grandma died, Aunt Violet moved back to Pennsylvania and I don’t ever remember seeing her again.
    Truthfully I don’t understand the purpose of the Folk School. It does not serve to educate the youth of Appalachia. In fact very few if any of the locals can afford to go there or send their children there. It seems to me that people from far away come from far away to teach “local” crafts and skills to other people from far away. I do not intend to demean or discredit the Campbells in any way but what benefit has the Folk School to the population other than to provide service jobs to the locals for the comfort of the elite from other parts of the country.
    I very well understand if you choose not to publish my opinion on today’s subject but I should not and cannot let an opportunity pass by to interject my opinion when I perceive that a fallacy has been foisted upon our beloved homeland.
    Maybe I am missing something. Maybe I am missing it altogether. Correct me where I am wrong. Please do not be upset with me! Maybe I just don’t understand.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    September 25, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    This was fascinating! I wish more folks would come to the mountains with Mrs. Campbell’s “listening ear”. Sadly, it’s very much lacking in most of our new neighbors. Breeding hostility and discontent will never build strong communities- I’m very happy to see The John C. Campbell Folk School is continuing it’s tradition of education and neighborly-ness!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Very educational, we see in John C. and Olive Dame Campbell an understanding of the independence of the Appalachain residents and desire to work with them to improve their lot in life without trying to change their independent streak. Very unlike so many today who come here then want to change everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been confronted with the “Where I came from” attitude. I’ve always questioned why they left in everything was so great “Where they came from”. Happy Birthday to Chitter, Chatter & my Granddaughter Olivia Greene.

  • Reply
    Ken
    September 25, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Tipper,
    Soon as I read Ed’s comment I called the radio station to
    announce their 19th Birthday.
    Chitter and Chatter sung “He Is
    Real”. Happy Birthday Girls…Ken

  • Reply
    Jeanne
    September 25, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    I will not recognize the dedicated “Blind Pig” bloggers who will be attending the Fall Festival and watching the Pressley Girls perform…..but I will be there also and I hope to feel your presence. May we all enjoy beautiful fall weather, be moved by the memory of the “highlanders” who came before us and smile and tap our feet to the uplifting music.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    September 25, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Tipper:
    YOU BRING US SUCH MEANINGFUL DETAILS OF OUR WONDERFUL REGION! All my life in the Matheson Cove (Clay County) my father (1900-1992) ‘knew a lot about’ the John C Campbell Folk School and shared many facts with us! However I never knew these meaningful details!
    Just this morning I mailed a copy of my history book “Fiddler of the Mountains: Attuned to the Life and Times of Johnny Mull” down to the Davis Library in Chapel Hill, NC.ALONG with a CD of his ’50’s music! It would be great if this article could be sent to that Library. The Librarian is Leah Hefner 208 Raleigh St. Zip code 27599 I hope it is ok for me to share it with our library here in Oak Ridge.
    I will be happy to mail his article IF THE AUTHOR WOULD BE ABLE TO SEND A COPY TO ME [email protected]
    THANKS SO MUCH FOR A BEAUTIFUL POST!
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD

  • Reply
    Ken
    September 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Tipper,
    Rooney Floyd sure done us proud!
    His autobiography of Olive Dame
    Campbell was excellent, as well as
    her true life adventure. I was only
    6 years old when she died, and I
    never knew her story. This makes me
    glad to be born in Cherokee County,
    not too far from the Folk School.
    Thank you…Ken

  • Reply
    Tamela
    September 25, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Fascinating!! and the comments by your readers:
    “His dominant trait is independence raised to the fourth power.”quoted from John C. or Olive Dame Campbell; and,”comin home to a place he’d never been before” quoted from ? by Henry Horton weave so many thoughts together.
    I grew up in South Texas in the school district which a 60 minutes (or similar) show in the mid sixties described as “even poorer than Appalachia”. I remember how angry that made my Dad. And I remember how kids of my generation were always told to “get an education and get out of here!” . . . then I remember these same folks 25 or 30 years later wondering where all the young folk had gone and who would keep the farms going. . . . We could have used a few John C. and Olive Dame Campbells and a lot more “singing behind the plow”. . . .and a lot more gumption of our own!!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 25, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Would it be appropriate today to wish a happy birthday to two young ladies who often fill our eyes with beauty and our hearts with music. They have just stepped into their last year as teenagers. I hope that as time passes they can reflect on this year and see it as the best part of their lives.
    Happy Birthday Chitter!
    Happy Birthday Chatter!

  • Reply
    Quinn
    September 25, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Well, this fine article was an eye-opener for me – I had no idea Olive Dame Campbell was the powerhouse behind so many projects and endeavors! Thank you for sharing this one, Tipper!
    And I can’t help feeling a little sense of pride and joy that she was a Massachusetts girl 😉

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 25, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Tipper–It’s surprising how often I run across Olive Dame Campbell’s name in my readings and researching on southern Appalachia. This is a nicely done biographical snippet and an interesting read. For anyone who might be interested in digging deeper, her papers and those of her husband are in the Southern Historical Collection at Chapel Hill. Although I’ve spent considerable time there (mostly working on noted writer Robert Ruark), I have never looked at the manuscripts.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Dolores
    September 25, 2015 at 9:14 am

    This was a wonderful compilation of the early values of education and its importance to the thriving of an area. I found as I read this piece that education was as valuable as it is today. Thanks for presenting this info; I hope some day to visit this important piece of history.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 25, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It is important to have this type of school in all regions of our country. Local lore and talent is often buried along with the elders of that area.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 25, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It is important to have this type of school in all regions of our country. Local lore and talent is often buried along with the elders of that area.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 25, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It is important to have this type of school in all regions of our country. Local lore and talent is often buried along with the elders of that area.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 25, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for sharing this. It is important to have this type of school in all regions of our country. Local lore and talent is often buried along with the elders of that area.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 25, 2015 at 8:14 am

    A favorite phrase from The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (by John C. Campbell, but largely the work of Olive Dame) is – in talking about the Southern Highlander –
    “His dominant trait is independence raised to the fourth power.”

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 25, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Thank you, Rooney, for this well written and very informative tribute to Olive Dame Campbell. As I attend the Folk Festival next week I will see the school through different eyes.

  • Reply
    Bob Dalsemer
    September 25, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Thanks for the post! Rooney’s article is well written and well researched- a lovely tribute to an exceptional person!

  • Reply
    Henry Horton
    September 25, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Oh Wow! Thank you, Tipper for a this. As one who for his own reasons had to flee his Missouri Ozarks country roots and recently “comin home to a place he’d never been before” you are indeed a treasure of wisdom, information and a way into the richness of local culture, heritage, land and biome. One of my favorite movies is “Song Catcher” and reading this i get the impression that the life of Olive Dame Campbell MUST have been, at least in part, inspiration for that movie. Looking forward to delving into the sources listed. Thank you once again…hoping to make it to hear the Pressley gang on the 4th.

  • Reply
    jean
    September 25, 2015 at 5:04 am

    Hi Tipper,what a Blessing the Campbell’s were to your town,family and many.Beautiful story!God bless.Jean

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