The Appalachia Mountains that run from New York to Mississippi produced sometimes isolated communities with distinct cultures. Today's Appalachia is more connected, but much of northern Georgia is still quite rural.
For 50 years, high school students in Clayton, Georgia, have interviewed older residents to chronicle the region’s character. They publish what they find in The Foxfire Magazine. It's become so popular Random House has made it into a series of books.
The Foxfire Magazine was born on the mountain trails in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Royalties from its books paid for the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center here. It preserves a time before the internet and highways.
The center features a collection of folk art, furniture and other artifacts. They're stored in historic buildings, like a replica of an old church and a blacksmith’s shop with equipment developed during the Industrial Revolution.
The real custodians of history here are the teenagers walking these trails that wind through the center. They’re students in the Foxfire class at Rabun County High School. These students have already written the 50th anniversary book.
Senior Jessica Phillips steps aside from the tour to explain her family has lived in these mountains for generations. She knows that’s clear and says, “People come up to every day and say, ‘You have an accent,’ and I say, ‘Do I?’ And, it used to bother me. I was like, ‘Why do I have an accent?’ But, I take pride in that now, and I’m really proud.”
Phillips’ family has strong ties to Foxfire. Her parents, aunt and brother all wrote for it when they were in school. She interviewed her mother and grandmother for the publications, and she also works at the museum's gift shop part-time.
“It’s important because I believe we should preserve our roots," she says. "As a culture now, we’re all kind of intertwining and becoming one. But, to me, I think it’s important that we should keep our Appalachian culture."
That doesn’t mean these students drive wagons to school. Several of them say it’s about maintaining the values that arise when people in an isolated area have to rely on themselves and each other.
Jack Blackstock is also a senior. He's somewhat new to Clayton, but his family roots are in the mountains.
"Appalachian culture is really where everything was most noble," he says. "You see people working hard to get what they have and, most of the time, that would be really almost something very small."
Senior Heather Giovino wasn't born in Appalachia, but she sees elements of its past worth preserving for the future.
"It wasn’t as tight-knit in other places, I think," she says. "That’s what makes this area special."
History Of Foxfire
Foxfire Museum Curator Barry Stiles says one example of how people worked together was harvest time. They had to remove a large number of corn husks in a timely manner.
"Well, you could try to shuck all your corn yourself, and it would take days and days," he says. "But, people didn't do that. Instead, they had a corn shucking at their house, and the community came and helped shuck everybody's corn, and it became a social gathering."
Modern equipment makes shucking easier, but it's the sense of community people here want to keep.
As part of their tour of the Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center, the students get to hear the first Foxfire interview. The teen who conducted it happened to have recorded the conversation 50 years ago. It’s with Sheriff Luther Rickman, who was born in 1889. He chased bank robbers across state lines in 1936.
Stiles explains the history behind that first interview. He says the original students wouldn’t behave in their English class. They worked with their teacher to come up with The Foxfire Magazine because it was more interesting than normal homework.
“Their grandchildren could be in the program now, so it has come cycle,” he says. “You know, generations have been through the program.”
In fact, for the 50th Anniversary Foxfire publications, this year’s students interviewed several people in that original Foxfire class.