The American Folk School Movement and ‘Slow Economics’
May 11, 2023
Written by JOANNE CLEAVER
Rather than looking to big corporate employers like Walmart for economic stability, could more rural communities in the U.S. welcome a slower growing, more sustainable economic partner?
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in our Winter 2022 issue. This version includes updated statistics and other factual information. (Top photo courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School.)
In the far western tail of North Carolina, the road leading to the John C. Campbell Folk School narrows from a six-lane highway to four lanes, then barely two. It twists through narrow mountain ravines and curves around mist-softened meadows until the campus appears, looking initially like just another farm: a wide-windowed house, overlooking fields flanked by a barn and scattered outbuildings.
An Adirondack-style building, constructed in the 1930s, sits at the center of the hillside complex and serves as headquarters. Local volunteers traditionally open the day with a sing-out in its vaulted auditorium. Downhill, along a piney path, a shop showcases handcrafted work for sale. Uphill are clusters of student housing—other options are few in Brasstown, NC—and cul-de-sacs of studios.
Founded in 1925, the Campbell school became the cornerstone of the American folk school movement. For decades, well-heeled city residents and back-to-the-earth enthusiasts have been trekking to this small valley to try out—and maybe master—skills associated with pioneers.
Seated in a lounge dominated by an enormous, smoke-stained fireplace, Campbell’s executive director, Jerry Jackson, outlines the biggest challenge he inherited when he arrived in 2017, after a 10-year stint at Penland—another independent arts school. As Jackson dug into his new role, he realized that the Scandinavian folk school model (an egalitarian approach to formal education that is credited to 19th-century Danish philosopher Nikolaj Grundtvig) had continued to evolve, while Campbell—which had positioned itself as the standard-bearer for the model in America—had coasted. Founded in 1925, the school’s culture had ossified over the decades into the stereotypical “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance.
Local economic development was a key plank in the school’s original vision. In 1930, Campbell developed a market and brand for local whittlers, converting a humble, traditional pastime into family-sustaining income. “The Brasstown Carvers made enough money to buy houses, cars, send kids to college,” says Jackson.
But over time, although it employed a few local artisans to teach classes and additional workers to run its operations, Campbell became more of a self-contained operation. This self-sufficiency insulated the school from its neighbors, Jackson says. By the time Jackson arrived, the school’s $13.5-million economic impact (as estimated by the North Carolina Arts Council) largely stemmed from the 6,500 tourists it typically attracted to Brasstown each year.
The folk school movement has been picking up speed around the country. In 1980, only 10 folk schools were operating in the U.S. At last count, in 2023, there were more than 100—with the fastest-growing schools centering their economic and professional development goals in their own communities. Dawn Murphy, who studies the movement both as an academic, and in relation to her twin professions in education and workforce development, says that many rural communities have tired of pursuing big corporate employers as their primary mode of economic growth. Instead, community leaders are gravitating to folk schools, and similar nonprofit craft centers, as anchors for sustainable development. Murphy’s analyses are the go-to source for the Folk Education Association of America, a nonprofit organization that serves the entire industry.
North House Folk School, founded in 1997 in Grand Marais, MN, is one of several that weave sustainable, localized economic growth into their core missions. There are three primary ways that folk schools do this: by helping artisan-instructors with business and professional development; by purposefully taking a lead role in the community’s economic development, including prioritizing local hiring and buying supplies from local vendors; and by adding programs that build jobs and skills in the greater community.
North House’s artisan-instructors lead workshops on topics that range from making mukluks to timber-frame construction. The instructors—about 160 each year—have come to count on the school for both teaching income and “access to market,” says Executive Director Greg Wright. “They meet future clients here. These people need to thrive as entrepreneurs, or we don’t have a future instructor… we’re an economic partner.”
Jim Mandle, a longtime summer resident in the Lake George area of upstate New York, founded Adirondack Folk School in 2010 specifically to help stabilize the region’s seasonal economy, and to provide an entrepreneurial infrastructure for local craftspeople. The school became the nexus for related businesses in the area, from campgrounds to adventure excursion operators. Every dollar spent at the school generates at least $7 in additional local spending, Mandle says.
The folk school movement saw a growth spurt between 2010 and 2020, with the number of schools in the U.S. more than doubling in that decade. And then COVID-19 happened. Like other industries grounded in personal, hands-on experiences, the folk school model appeared to be imperiled: Studios were empty, and many artisan-instructors were at a loss as to how to transition to the digital realm. Was it even possible to recreate the camaraderie and coaching students expected, with everyone isolated in their own homes?
Back at Campbell, Jackson used the forced hiatus to break the school out of its self-imposed cocoon. A major grant enabled him to bring in new staff who embraced a refreshed mission, and supported the idea that it was “time to experiment with new forms,” he says. “It allows us to add more professional makers, and to foster professional training for makers and instructors.”
A large part of that effort was training technology-averse instructors in the ways of digital collaboration, opening broader channels for them to teach effectively online—and to expand their own followings and income streams.
In 2022, Campbell opened its satellite location, Olive’s Porch, in a nearby town, partially to offset its reputation as a mecca for experience-seeking tourists. The in-town location offers shorter, less expensive classes that working people can attend—and afford. It also serves as a sort of “front door” for those interested in working at the folk school who may not be sure how they would fit in. “We realized we needed to go to them, instead of always expecting them to come to us,” says Jackson.
Today, Campbell employs a full-time staff of 50, and hundreds more as contract instructors, seasonal kitchen workers, and support staff. The school estimates it has reached hundreds more potential attendees through online platforms than it ever could have through its traditional marketing efforts. And the updated programming offers participants a larger variety of mix-and-match options for discovering new skills and experiences, regardless of location.
By embedding themselves in their local economies, and stepping into the brave new world of online learning, it seems that folk schools can not only survive, but thrive—both as centers for preserving and passing on traditional crafts, and as sustainable economic hubs.
“You either grow your future or you don’t.” says North School’s Greg Wright. “We’re not trying to retreat into craft, but have it influence and shape a better tomorrow.”
Resource Guide to U.S. Folk Schools
For more information, and suggestions on where to take classes and workshops, see Craftsmanship Magazine‘s newly updated Resource Guide to U.S. Folk Schools.