From: University of Georgia

University Of Georgia To Help Archive, Preserve Thirty Years Of Materials From Foxfire Project

MOUNTAIN CITY, Ga. -- Far into the mid-20th century, a hidden world lingered in the southern Appalachians. Men and women in those rugged highlands often lived as their ancestors had, preserving the arts, crafts and language of another era. They knew the land could be as inspiring as it was unforgiving.

In 1966, a group of students in Georgia's Rabun County, led by a visionary teacher named Eliot Wigginton, began to record that history in Foxfire Magazine, and along the way they helped preserve a rapidly vanishing world and build a publishing empire that eventually spread an educational philosophy across the country.

Now, a team of anthropologists from the University of Georgia has joined the Foxfire Fund, Inc., to help preserve more than 2,000 hours of interviews on audio tape, 30,000 black and white pictures and hundreds of hours of videotape. The new project could, for the first time, make the materials easily available for scholars.

"When I saw that archives for the first time, I felt like I was looking into King Tut's tomb," said Dr. Robert Rhoades, a UGA anthropologist. "My first impulse was simple: All this must be preserved."

Along with experts in preservation from UGA's Russell Library and the help of students, Rhoades and fellow anthropologist Virginia Nazarea hope to keep alive the history gathered by Rabun County students for more than 30 years.

The archives itself is now located in one of 20 historic restored cabins on the property managed by Foxfire in Mountain City, Ga. Until a year ago, the materials were in different buildings, and the audio and videotapes were falling victim to the perils of age, with mold coating the sensitive electronic tape. Foxfire, which had quickly grown from a classroom project into a national treasure, also suffered when its guiding light, Wigginton, pleaded guilty in November 1992 to a single count of non-aggravated child molestation, spent time in jail and left Rabun County for good. The effect on the program could have been devastating, but its resilience and the support of people nationwide saw Foxfire through the turbulent times. Throughout it all, Foxfire Magazine flourished, and today the students who publish it keep alive an honored tradition.

Most people nationally know Foxfire not directly from the magazine but from the highly successful Foxfire books, which came from the magazine's stories and reports. More than 8 million copies of the books have been sold, and the 11th Foxfire book is now in process.

The people who stayed with Foxfire knew their materials well. All the tapes and photographs are cross-indexed so that a person wanting information, on, say, bees, can easily locate photos and related issues of the magazine. The problem, however, was that the group had neither the time, funding or expertise to preserve the materials and make them available to scholars.

"And the information in the archives is about things that just aren't done anymore," said Kaye Collins, community coordinator for the Foxfire staff and a native of Rabun County. "Plowing with mules, planting `by the signs', the use of vanishing dialects -- this area has changed a lot since even the 1970s. I'd guess as much as 25 percent of what we have was never used in the magazine."

The University of Georgia researchers almost missed getting involved altogether. Rhoades, and a group of students studying the southern sense of place and developing a program on so-called heirloom seeds, had stopped at Foxfire's museum on U.S. 441 just to look around and soon found that Foxfire was looking for help. Foxfire had begun organizing its collections in 1997, and with the help of grants and private donations had established the new archives. What it needed was help in preserving the audio and video tapes and in creating a searchable database.

"We realized immediately that few academics had ever studied this material because it wasn't easily available," said Rhoades. "Now, with an increasing interest in sense of place, the timing was perfect to get involved."

Rhoades's colleague at UGA, Virginia Nazarea, organized a graduate class around preserving the materials, and students spent weekends during winter quarter visiting the archives and beginning to study how the materials can best be computer catalogued and preserved. Foxfire also obtained a computer for the archives for the first time. The group is still considering its best options, from the use of microfiche to the scanning of materials into a database that one day might be available to scholars over the Internet.

They sought the advice of Russell Library archivists Pam Hackbart-Dean and Beth Bensman, who gave on-site training sessions on filing and preservation of archival material to the newly formed department of anthropology-Foxfire team.

The indexing already done by the Foxfire staff was more than half the battle, and Nazarea called the materials and its current indexing system "a rich resource in Appalachian folkways." Much more remains to be done, however, before the materials can be made available to the public. Foremost are problems with audiotapes and videotapes -- Foxfire currently cannot even look at a number of the latter, which were recorded on older equipment they no longer own.

"It will have to be done one step at a time," said Rhoades, "and it might take 10 years to finish the job entirely. But the Foxfire project has been an inspiration for the whole world. I have worked in the Himalayas and the Andes, and culture is disappearing all over the world. All cultures seem to go through a period of shame, when they turn their backs on who they are or were. But Foxfire showed us how much we stand to lose and how much we can gain."

Mike Buchholz, resource development director for Foxfire, said that the dream started in 1966 will continue, despite the stormy years earlier this decade. With a $3 million endowment and teachers in 37 states now using educational ideas from Foxfire, the future seems secure.

"It was a remarkable thing these kids did," he said. "They decided to do something different. It will continue."

(Writers: For information, call any of the Foxfire staff in Mountain City, Ga., at 706-542-5828. Among those willing to talk about the new collaboration with UGA are Bobby Ann Starnes, president; Mike Buchholz, Kaye Collins and Robert Murray, conservator and museum curator. Foxfire's web site is http://www.foxfire.org.)

WRITER: Phil Williams, 706/542-8501, [email protected]
CONTACT: Robert Rhodes, 706/542-1042, [email protected]

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004