Essay by Timothy N. Osment
In a time of turbulent change in Appalachia, John C. Campbell helped define America’s understanding of this great mountain region. Campbell was born in Indiana in 1867 and studied theology at Union Theological Seminary. In 1908, he and his wife Olive Dame come to Appalachia to survey social and economic conditions in a rural region being remade by mining, logging and railroads. His book The Southern Highlander and his Homeland, published in 1921, two years after his death, deeply influenced the nation’s understanding of the distinctive problems of the region. Campbell also founded the Council of the Southern Mountains which would coordinate the work of philanthropic groups for over half a century.
In the 1700s, European settlers began to move westward across the North American continent in earnest. One of the first geographic challenges they encountered was a breathtaking region of rolling mountains. Today the range, running northeast to southwest, is known far and wide as Appalachia. Since their “discovery,” the mountains have been a source of mystery and folklore. With a history of isolation and a reputation for resistance and individualism, the people of Appalachia have often struggled to join the progress enjoyed by surrounding regions while maintaining their sense of individuality. This is not a new phenomenon. Over a century ago, one man made it his life’s work to bring the message of Appalachia to others while striving to preserve the area’s unique culture. His name was John C. Campbell.
Campbell was born in Indiana in 1867. He graduated from Williams College in 1892. After receiving a bachelor of divinity degree, Campbell accepted a position as an administrator of an academy in North Alabama. This was his first introduction to mountain culture. The passions for the region Campbell developed that first year remained with him for the rest of his life.
In 1901 Campbell was appointed to a superintendent’s post at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. He soon was elevated to dean and eventually became president of the college. After the death of his young wife, Campbell met Olive Arnold Dame. The two were married in 1907 and began a lifetime partnership dedicated to social research, charity, preservation, and educational outreach in Appalachia.
In 1908 Campbell was selected to conduct a survey to determine social needs and their remedies within the Appalachian region. He and Olive set out in a covered wagon trekking the wilderness and back roads from Georgia to West Virginia. On occasion they were able to travel by rail; at other times the remoteness of their destinations required they walk into deep hollows and isolated coves to make contact with their inhabitants.
Along the way, Campbell interviewed rural farmers about the culture and practical matters of Appalachian life while his wife collected and learned the traditional handiwork and folklore of the region. They shared the same idealism found in many young professionals of the era and were determined to provide aid through a combination of education and humanitarian endeavors. During their travels, Campbell became one of the first to distinguish and map Southern Appalachia as a distinct region. He popularized the name Southern Highlands, after concluding that the Scotch-Irish were the dominant ethnic strain within the local population. He formed the term from “American South” and “Scottish Highlands.”
In 1912, the survey’s efforts were given a more formal existence when the Russell Sage Foundation created a Southern Highland Division. It establishing an office in Asheville, with Campbell as its director. From that time on, Campbell and the Southern Highland Division became virtually synonymous, working tirelessly to facilitate social cooperation and improve the quality of mountain life.
For the Campbells, the years after 1912 were busy. One of their greatest dilemmas was identifying a way to modernize life in the Southern mountains. Campbell realized that the “Americanizing”of the region also threatened its native traditions. Campbell determined to preserve Appalachian culture through education.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States was a country of forward progress. The idea of the persistence and preservation of traditional culture was out of step with most thinking. The Campbells were years ahead of their time. They adapted a unique European education model for Appalachia, the “folk-school or people’s college which combines the cultural – the mountaineers’ want – with the cooperative spirit – the mountaineers’ need – while giving training through cooperation [in order to] better the economic conditions.”
The Campbells’ efforts were religious as well as instructional. They championed the spirit of the emerging Social Gospel, a movement that insisted spiritual benevolence be accompanied by social aid. They were not overly zealous in their personal beliefs but believed in the creed of service and charitable sacrifice as a part of the individual’s connection with both a heavenly God and an earthly community. They encouraged the establishment of a Synod of Appalachia within the Presbyterian Church in order to focus the denomination’s national attention on the peculiar problems of the mountain region.
With the financial support of the Russell Sage Foundation, John C. Campbell was instrumental in organizing the annual Conference of Southern Mountain Workers. The Conference brought together regional agencies in order to facilitate cooperation, bridge differences, and create opportunities. With Campbell as director, the group was successful in developing and implementing social service techniques appropriate for rural mountain conditions. After Campbell’s death in 1919, his wife chaired the conference for almost ten years.
John C. Campbell died before the founding of the folk school in Brasstown, North Carolina, that bears his name. However, his wife was determined to expand on the outreach she had shared with him during their marriage. For many years after her husband’s death, Olive tirelessly collaborated with others to create and administer the John C. Campbell Folk School. The school represents both Olive’s efforts and John’s philosophy and inspiration.
The work accomplished by John C. Campbell during his life encouraged the people of Appalachia to become involved in their future by embracing the traditions of their past. Because of Campbell and many others like him, the unique culture and proud heritage of the Southern Appalachians has survived into the 21st century.
For more information please see the following:
- “Campbell, John C. and Olive Dame” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia,edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, 2006
- The Southern Highlander and his Homeland by John C. Campbell, 1921
- The Craft Revival Project at Western Carolina University
- John C. Campbell Folk School
- Campbell Folk School on Sherpa Guides
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