Mason Adams Published

Foxfire Book Showcases Appalachia Through Its Women

A photo of a smiling young woman. She has blonde hair that's been pulled back and holds a book while standing in front of a bookshelf. She wears a white blouse.
Kami Ahrens, editor of “The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women.”
Photo courtesy of Lilly Knoepp

This story originally aired in the Jan. 7, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

A recent Foxfire collection spotlights the lives of 21 Appalachian women, who capture the depth and breadth of life in the mountains.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women: Stories of Landscape and Community in the Mountain South was published in 2023.

It collects oral histories from throughout Foxfire’s long history, beginning with early interview subjects in the ‘60s and ‘70s and continuing through today. 

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams spoke with Kami Ahrens, the book’s editor.

A book cover is shown. It's tan and gray in color. The title reads "The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women," and features two sets of hands working.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adams: One of the things I love about this book is its attention to negative space. In the curation around these oral histories, there’s a lot of attention paid to who’s here and who’s not here. And then even within interviews, you’re paying attention, not only to what’s said, but to what’s unsaid. And to me, as a reader, I find that really powerful. Why is that such an important part of curating oral histories like this?

Ahrens: That was an important thing that I was considering when writing the book, because oral history is inherently biased. I had someone recently ask me, “how do you go do an oral history and leave your bias at home?” And, you don’t, because we always come with our own experiences. And naturally, conversations are going to be influenced by what you’re asking, but also by what you’re not asking, and by what people want to share and what people don’t want to share. And even though these women in this book, and in the Foxfire archives, do often make themselves very vulnerable, there are experiences that they don’t share.

And it’s also important to remember when dealing with the material from Foxfire, that the interviews were conducted by students who didn’t have a research agenda. So these are high school students who are going out to write magazine articles. And when you’re going to an interview with that in mind, you’re going with a very different set of questions than if someone who is a seasoned academic was going out to collect specific stories.

So it was important to me to make sure that the reader understood the context with which these interviews were collected, and how they have been curated, interpreted over time. And also the demographics of the region have changed drastically. And, you know, I can’t attest to the fact that we’ve all kept up with those changing demographics. But it’s important to note that this book should serve as a beginning, as a foundation, for starting conversations of your own. So it’s not meant to be the only book of Appalachian women, but an inspiration for people to begin conversations in their own communities and to further, deeper explore what Appalachia is.

Adams: Although you mentioned the book’s just a beginning, it does offer just an explosion of narrative and stories. I mean, I connect with these women as human beings who are, you know, galaxies of stories among themselves. And then, with their stories positioned next to one another, this sort of larger narrative emerges about change over time. Is that something you thought about as well — sort of the bigger story you’re telling with these particular women’s stories?

Ahrens: Yeah, absolutely. So this project came about just from my initial research of Foxfire. When I first came to work at the museum, my supervisor told me to just read everything that I could. And as I was reading, you know if you’re familiar with Foxfire books, there are personal stories kind of sprinkled throughout these other articles — on how to make log cabins, how to cook over an open fire. And each time I encountered these women’s stories, I was just, like, stopped in my tracks because of how much they shared.

And as you mentioned, all of the themes that they pull out about changing Appalachia are experiences in Appalachia. And I just saw the need for them to be together to tell a larger story. And so when I was trying to put this book together, I spoke briefly with a researcher looking for some advice on how to organize it, and she said to let the women speak to each other. And as I started arranging these narratives next to each other, I could see that there were these conversations happening between the women’s stories. And they were really fitting in as puzzle pieces to tell this, again, larger story of change over time and Appalachia.

Adams: I’d like to talk about a few of the women who were featured in the Foxfire Book of Appalachian Women. And maybe we should start with the first one: Margaret Burrell Norton. I grew up around Foxfire books, so I can’t speak to whether I’ve run across Margaret Norton before many times, or if she’s just so reminiscent of mountain women that I’ve known. But she feels very familiar to me. Can you tell us more about her?

Ahrens: Absolutely. And I’m sure you’ve read an article by her. She was in so many articles, both in the Foxfire magazine and Foxfire books, most notably, the planting by the signs article. Margaret contributed a lot to that article, and it was in the first Foxfire book. Margaret is probably really typical of what people think of a mountain woman. She was born and raised on Betty’s Creek, and she talks about how she basically just moved up the road when she got married, so she never really lived anywhere else her entire life. She, like a lot of people in Appalachia, traces her ancestry back through the land for hundreds of years. She was a practitioner of a lot of folk traditions and folk knowledge. And she tried to share that with the Foxfire students.

She talks about planning by the signs, which is a practice of using the signs of the zodiac to tell you when to do things, whether it’s planting or cutting your hair. She also shared information about folk songs, especially when it came to butter churning, and she was a weaver and a quilter. So she kind of sets the stage for what we think of as the Appalachian woman. Then, we kind of take the narrative from there by branching out and looking at diverse stories that are coexisting with people like Margaret in Appalachia.

Adams: Margaret’s followed by Beulah Perry, who again reminds me of mountain women that I’ve known — but I realize in reading it how much I don’t know. Tell me more about Beulah Perry, and why she follows in that second chapter.

Ahrens: On a practical level, the book is organized by date of interview, but Beulah makes a great follow chapter to Margaret, because her story shares so many of the same themes, the same activities. But Beulah’s Black, so she comes from a different background than Margaret, but yet she still found her way into Rabun County, Georgia.

Beulah was raised the children of sharecroppers in the South Carolina Piedmont. She has these memories that were inherited from her by her grandfather that he shared with her and her siblings when they were children about his experiences during slavery. So she gives us a window into a much different lifestyle. She talks in many ways about racial experiences without necessarily sharing her personal opinions. This is a chapter where examining the negative space is really important, because there are a lot of things that Beulah says, but there are a lot of things that she doesn’t say.

She just offers a really great alternative perspective and a different background to what life in the mountains was like. We really value Beulah for opening up to the Foxfire students in the ‘70s, which would have been quite a different experience than it would be today.

A house is shown in the photo against an overcast sky. In front of the house is a sign that reads "Welcome to Foxfire."
The Foxfire office in Rabun County, Georgia.

Credit: Lilly Knoepp

Adams: And as the book continues, it just, you read through all these different women. One of the great delights for me was when I got closer to the end, and there were women who were younger than me, who I don’t always associate with oral histories. So there’s folks like Sandra Macias Glitchowski, who immigrated from Ecuador and is much younger than me. I loved reading her story. 

Ahrens: Yeah, for many people Sandra was the unexpected one, but it was really important to me to make sure that there was the immigrant experience included in this book, because Rabun County, and many other areas in Appalachia, are seeing large numbers of Latino immigrants come into the region, specifically because of agricultural opportunities. Many of them are staying and building businesses, so it was important to include a Latino voice.

Sandra emigrated from Ecuador to Miami as a young child, and she basically raised herself. It wasn’t until she was married with children that she moved to Rabun County. She’s become a really important figure in our community, and especially among the Latino community. So she serves as kind of a contact for that community here, because they are in many ways a very closed community, both culturally and linguistically.

What was interesting when I sat down with Sandra was that her story echoes so many experiences and themes that come out. It’s really interesting to see those parallels so many decades apart, and certainly in different regions. There are shared experiences, no matter how diverse we think people are. And Sandra is young, she’s 35, 36? She really has a lot to share, and I think this goes to show that oral histories aren’t just sitting down with older people. While those certainly have value, we all have stories to share that can make a difference to people around us.

Adams: So then there’s Dakota Brown of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Wolf Clan, who I found really compelling — not only because of her youth, but she also is so in touch with the history and sense of self on the landscape. Can you tell us about Dakota Brown?

Ahrens: Dakota is incredible. She’s employed at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and she’s working really hard to bring back traditional values in our community and to help change the way that people see and speak about indigenous people. I’m really excited for the work that she has been doing with her team over at the museum. Dakota personally has really traditional values when it comes to her heritage as a Cherokee woman, and she’s really proud of that heritage.

What’s interesting about Dakota’s conversation is how much she talks about the way that other people interpret and understand native peoples. I’ll never forget, she told me that it’s nearly impossible to change the way that people think about you when they think that you don’t exist anymore. People have a tendency to, you know, understand that native peoples are gone. And they’re not — they’re very much present in many places throughout our country today. We tend to lump native culture into one group, and we see Native peoples as one. And that’s not true. A lot of the things that she talks about that are part of the tourist industry in Cherokee, North Carolina, come from western tribes, plains tribes. So like powwows, and headdresses, all of that — that doesn’t belong to traditional Cherokee culture.

So, working through those stereotypes to represent to a broader public, what your culture is, but also to help your own people understand that is a massive task. But if anybody is up to it, it’s definitely Dakota.

Adams: Those are just a few of the 21 women featured in this book. But, after we hear from 20 of the others, we end with Kaye Carver Collins. How did you choose Kaye to end the book?

Ahrens: I wasn’t positive that I was going to end with Kaye, but as soon as I started doing her interview, I just knew that it was the right ending point. During her interview, she pulled together a lot of themes that had been running through the book, and kind of brought everything full circle. Kaye also has a really longstanding history with Foxfire. I felt like that, in and of itself, was worthy of ending the book on that note. She as a child remembers her father, Buck Carver, who was a notorious moonshiner, being interviewed by Foxfire students.

Then as a teenager herself, she joined the Foxfire program, her and her twin sister. After she graduated high school, she started working for Foxfire and spent a lot of time working with Foxfire, editing Foxfire books, supporting local students. Then in recent years, she’s served both as a community board member and a board member, and now is on an advisory committee for the museum. And she just kind of pulls it all together. I think the way she ends her interview is a really great way to end the book as well.

Adams: There are 21 women featured in this book. But really, there’s 22, because you as the curator are in each of these pages, whether we see you or not. What was your experience? What wisdom have you taken away from your work with this book?

Ahrens: There’s so much to take away from it. But I think at its core, I took away a sense of resiliency and understanding — a long-term view of what’s most important to us in our lives, and how we can use that to shape our daily experiences with others. There’s so many hardships that people go through, that most people don’t even know about until you take the time to sit down and ask somebody. I think that opening up of yourself as a researcher or as an interviewer to other people’s stories, to other people’s experiences, and leaving your own concerns behind — I think that can shape you if you allow it, and can help you grow if you’re open to it.

I would say that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve taken away, is to sit and to listen, to be open to what other people’s experiences help shape how I understand myself and my place, and how I can react and respond to others better to make them feel important and valued in difficult times.