A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. I breathe in the sweet

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. I breathe in the sweet

The Brasstown Carvers Revive the Past, One Wooden Keepsake at a Time

Rick Carter holds tiny wooden animal figurines, a connection to the early work of the original Brasstown Carvers

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

I breathe in the sweet scent of the wood chips that litter the ground just off the porch of the wood-carving studio, a thick layer of paper-thin shavings and bits of bark studded by tree stumps. Inside the studio, blocks of wood in various stages of carving — cheerful snowmen and gnomes, a fir tree and a crescent-shaped man in the moon — stand at vacant workstations, sawdust scattered beneath them, like storybook characters waiting patiently to come to life.

“I think I could do that,” says my husband, Alex, his voice muffled as he cups his hands around his eyes and presses his nose to the windowpane, fogging up the glass. Yes, dear, I think, but smile anyway.

Barnyard on the campus of the John C. Campbell Folk School

Surrounded by the pastoral beauty of the Southern Appalachians, students at John C. Campbell Folk School learn traditional crafts. photograph by Tom Moors

We’ve pulled our car off U.S. Highway 64 near the border of Clay and Cherokee counties — just about as far west as you can go in North Carolina — and onto winding Old U.S. Highway 64. We’re headed to the John C. Campbell Folk School, which sits on 270 acres of idyllic pasture and woodland framed by mountains along a tributary of the Hiwassee River.

The folk school was founded by Olive Dame Campbell in 1925 with the help of her friend Marguerite Butler. The women were inspired by the Danish tradition of folkehøjskole, or adult folk schools. Campbell named the school after her late husband, with whom she’d traveled throughout the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1900s, studying the handicrafts, techniques, and tools of the people who lived there. She dreamed of preserving that way of life and sharing it with others while giving locals the means to make a living.

Carvers whittle pieces of wood into figurines

In the 1930s, members of what would become the Brasstown Carvers worked together to produce pieces: Some members carved; others sanded and finished. Photography courtesy of The Collection of Hunter Library, Western Carolina University

Wooden duck figurine, carved by Rick Carter, a Brasstown Carver

The author’s duckling, carved by Carter. photograph by Matt Hulsman

Almost a century later, students come to John C. Campbell to attend weekend and weeklong courses in more than 50 creative subject areas rooted in Appalachian traditions, and to learn new skills from expert instructors. Alex and I have come to the folk school on our own mountain journey: I’m eight months pregnant, and this is our final trip together before the two of us become the three of us. We’ve come in hopes of finding a tiny but special finishing touch for our recently completed nursery.

We explore the campus with its various studios, cottages, and history center before arriving at the John C. Campbell Folk School Craft Shop, which sells everything from woven works to candlesticks to iron hooks, all made by more than 150 local and regional craftspeople, including resident artists and instructors at the school. I’m immediately drawn to a shelf filled with a menagerie of small wooden critters carved so smooth and soft that they shine, the wood warm and glowing: hound dogs and groundhogs, geese and goats. But it’s a sweet little duckling that catches my eye, its head raised high and proud. I trace a finger along its delicately carved webbed feet, its wings tucked by its sides. I’ve found our baby’s first little lucky charm.

• • •

Wood chips began littering the ground at the folk school soon after it opened in 1925. By the mid-’30s, the wood-carvers at the school had begun to call themselves the Brasstown Carvers and had gained national attention for their small animal carvings — even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have been taken by the craft, buying “a whole flock of geese” at a 1933 mountain handicrafts exhibition featuring the carvers’ work in Washington, D.C. By 1946, there were 51 Brasstown Carvers, and carving was a central offering at the folk school. It seems that even a century ago, people were charmed by the little wooden wonders.

Rick Carter photograph by RYAN KARCHER PHOTOGRAPHY

But by 2018, only four active Brasstown Carvers remained. One of those carvers was Rick Carter, a Hayesville native with a warm laugh and a soft mountain drawl who got involved with the folk school in 1969 while working at the on-site dairy farm. His first carving more than 50 years ago was an owl made from a tree limb — which he still carries around in his carving box — and owls remain his favorite form to carve today. He didn’t want to see the rich tradition vanish.

“Folks had passed on over the years, but we thought, ‘We can’t let this die out,’” Carter says. “I volunteered to teach; the folk school was founded on community, so we let the community know we had a Thursday night class, and soon I was teaching upward of 30 people a session. Since then, we’ve added classes and inducted five more Brasstown Carvers — and upped interest with younger people, including children as young as 12.”

A sketchbook with figures to inspire the shape of the carvings, modeled after the early Brasstown Carvers' work.

Each Brasstown Carvers piece is a tangible link to the past: Members like Rick Carter use the same patterns that their predecessors used in the 1920s. photograph by RYAN KARCHER PHOTOGRAPHY

Today, in keeping with tradition and the style for which the group is famous, the carvers follow the same animal patterns that have been used since the mid-’20s. They sell their figures at the school’s craft shop, the only store in the world where you can buy new work — although old pieces by iconic carvers have been known to sell for thousands on eBay.

“I think most people just don’t understand what goes into it — the time put into each piece from start to finish,” Carter says.

I pull out our duck and turn it over to find a tiny, blocky RC carved neatly into the bottom. “You carved my duck!” I tell him, delighted. He laughs. “That little duck is made of basswood — a softer wood, which is easier on my older hands,” he says. “It took about five hours from start to finish. Other figures might take six to eight hours.”

I stare in amazement: At the little figure in my palm, so smooth and light, but still so solid. At the time and effort that coaxed it from a block of wood into an animal that looks like it came from the pages of a children’s book. At the century of tradition that I hold in my hands.

“Well,” Alex admits, “maybe I couldn’t do that quite yet.”

• • •

Back home in Cary, I head straight for the nursery. On the wall are two shelves that Alex built using leftover wood from the heart pine flooring in our dining room. The hardy planks were rescued from an old tobacco barn that once stood in the valley that now forms the bottom of Jordan Lake. But the shelves are just a bonus, as far as I’m concerned: Over the previous months, soaked in sweat and covered in sawdust, Alex renovated this room himself from top to bottom.

Now, the nursery is quiet and still, ready and waiting. I place our proud duck, looking as if at any moment it might spring to life and waddle right off its wooden base, on the top shelf. A shaft of late-afternoon sunlight shines through the window onto the crib, and the room seems to glow. There’s a bit of storybook enchantment in this place, too — a feeling of being caught between chapters, of being on the verge of something wonderful and amazing. Proof that a little bit of love can shape the mundane into something magical.

John C. Campbell Folk School
1 Folk School Road
Brasstown, NC 28902
(828) 837-2775

This story was published on Jan 16, 2024

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.