In 1966, students in Georgia engaged in an experiential learning activity on writing. They created a magazine with articles based on the students’ interviews of local folks in the Appalachian mountains and their traditions and folkways. The student-written magazine, and subsequent bestselling book series, was named Foxfire.
The Appalachian mountains stretch from Canada to Alabama, but the cultural area known as Appalachia includes 420 counties in 13 central and southern states in the US, with the core region being in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. In 18th century colonial America, Appalachia was known as ‘backcountry’, and it was populated by native Algonquian (central area) and Cherokee (southern area) peoples, and European immigrants, mostly Scotch-Irish frontiersmen. The white frontiersmen pushed west into the wooded wilds and mountains that marked the borders of the ‘civilized’ British controlled society.
The people of Appalachia have long been plagued with poverty, poor and dangerous working conditions in coal mines, and lack of traditional education and healthcare. The famous American feud between the Hatfield and McCoy clans were one of many violent family feuds in the wooded mountains (contrary to popular depiction, they were both relatively wealthy and powerful families, feuding over land rights). The practices of river baptisms, snake handling, and folk healing were common in rural Appalachia.
Appalachian folks blended ancient Celtic rituals from Scotland and Ireland, Protestant Christianity, and African traditions with teaching from local Native Americans into a unique mixture of witchcraft, religion, and earth magic. And, for the most part, they didn’t seem to see any problem with their variety of practices, as they understood it all came from the Divine. Granny Women were midwives and folk healers who used all the knowledge passed down to them, whether that be a charm or a prayer, to help the members of their community.
In Foxfire vol 1, the students interview some faith healers who are known for their ability to heal thrush in children, burns, and bleeding. Of the faith healers interviewed, two came forward, willing to share their methods if they were kept anonymous. They spoke a specific secret healing verse as part of their process to heal burns. This is what they said three times, while healing a burn:
There came an angel
from the East bringing
frost and fire. In frost out
fire. In the name of the Father, the Son,
of the Holy Ghost.
The Appalachian folks also had some interesting home remedies. Living up in the mountains, it could be difficult and prohibitively expensive to go to a doctor, so folks developed their own ideas for healing, with various results. Some of my favorite remedies from the Foxfire books include:
- For asthma, keep a Chihuahua dog around the house.
- For bleeding, place a spider web across the wound.
- For a fever, tie a bag of the sufferer’s nail clipping to a live eel and let it carry the fever away.
- For cramps in your feet, turn your shoes upside down before going to bed.
- And put stump water on freckles to remove them.
Folk healers, also called cunning folk, are known all over Europe by different names. In Sweden they are klok gumma (wise woman), and, in Denmark, klog kone. In the 1800s, every village in Norway had at least one folk healer. They had a “black book” of charms and rhymes for healing. In Germany, the practice of using white magic for healing was widespread, and Johann Georg Hohman, a German who immigrated to the U.S. in 1802, printed the famous manual of Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic: Pow-Wows or the Long Lost Friend. Long Lost Friend included cures for toothaches, prayers against thieves, and recipes for beer. In Italy, folk magic was steeped in Roman Catholicism, and often involved praying to saints. Donne che aiutano (women who help) utilized magical tools like scissors to cut away sickness and mirrors to reflect bad energy away.
For the Foxfire project, students recorded other customs specific to Appalachia like traditional Appalachian burial customs. The folks that were interviewed told personal stories and remembrances of a time when communities provided all the necessary care for the deceased and their families.
When someone died, the church bell would be tolled, one time for each year the deceased had lived. People all over the valley might have been able to tell who had died by how many times the bell was tolled. They tolled the bell slowly and solemnly, and for old folks it could toll for half an hour.
Deceased were washed and dressed in their burying clothes and set up in the home overnight for the wake. There were no funeral homes or embalming up in the mountains, so the burial would usually happen within a day or two. They also had to wash and dress the body quickly, before rigor mortis set in. To prepare the body to be set out for the wake, they would massage the cheeks to get the eyes to close, and would put a silver coin over each eye to keep them closed.
Some folks would be buried in a homemade shroud– a cloth wrapped around the body but it was more usual for the deceased to be dressed in their Sunday best. If they didn’t have any decent clothes, someone in the community would sew them some. Men would generally be dressed in a black suit, women in black dresses, and children in white.And a few enterprising folks would even sew their own burial clothes, 20 or more years before their deaths.
There were a few professional carpenters who would make a casket for a price, but usually the community got together and made one to donate to the family. Most were simple narrow boxes, but a few had glass tops through which one could view the body.
The body would be set up in the house overnight for the wake. Neighbors would come and take turns sitting with the family until morning. People would bring food, sing hymns, and show respect for the dead.
After the wake, the deceased would be brought to the church in a wagon. The bells would toll again. There would be a simple church service and, usually, an open casket viewing. Then the body would be buried in a grave dug by the men close to the family of the deceased. Family, friends, and community would continue to look after the grave.
Almost everything about the burial was free to the family, provided by the labor of the community. It was simple, but a simple casket assured that the body would return to the earth more quickly. In some ways, the lack of money for a more elaborate funeral kept the focus on the deceased, their family, and the natural process of death.
Planting by the Signs
The people of Appalachia had many old ways, as they were descended from many different places: most immigrated from Ireland and Scotland, but the diverse Appalachian population also included people from Germany, Sweden, and African countries. Their customs combined with ways taught by Native Americans and created many traditions unique to this area.
One of their customs was planting and harvesting their vegetable garden by the signs of the zodiac. According to those who followed the custom of planting by signs, each day of the month was associated with one of the twelve signs, with each sign ruling for a period of two or three days. From Aries through Pisces, the signs are either dry or moist, firm or watery, barren or fruitful, and masculine or feminine. Planting should be done during a fruitful sign like Scorpio, Pisces, Taurus, or Cancer.
The phase of the moon was also important. It was best to harvest when the moon was growing old, because the crops would keep longer. And it was good to do your canning, preserving, and making of jelly and pickles during the last quarter moon.
According to T.E. Black’s almanac, reprinted in Foxfire volume 1, when the sign is in Leo, a fire sign, it is a good time for hunting and baking cakes. Sagittarius, another fire sign, is a good time to deal with lawyers, and make candy, preserves, jelly, and pickles. Taurus, an earth sign, is the best time to plant root crops. And Aquarius, an air sign, is a good time to plant crops that produce above the ground.
When Foxfire was written in 1966, many young farmers in Appalachia no longer planted by the signs. The older folks being interviewed joked that the young farmers would want to learn the old ways once they realized that it worked.
The students who originally worked on the Foxfire project probably had no idea the impact of their work. Today, 50 years after the students first interviewed Granny women and snake-handlers, the legacy of the skills and traditions of the “backcountry” live on. The 13 book Foxfire Series is still available and the interviewing project is still run in some Appalachian schools. Some of the students who worked on Foxfire used the revenues from the best selling series to found the Museum of Appalachia on Black Rock Mountain State Park in Georgia. The museum hosts over 250,000 Appalachian artifacts and educates the public on folkways of the Appalachian people.