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Settlement Schools of Appalachia

Settlement Schools
and the Culture
of the Mountains

At the same time settlement schools were taking root in Appalachia, America was embarking on an urban folk revival. With the formation of the first state folklore societies in 1912 and 1913, the ballads of the Appalachian region began reverberating beyond the hills, and local handicrafts began sparking a keen interest among collectors in the Northeast. The settlement institutions soon found themselves serving as headquarters for ballad collectors, as creative centers for traditional mountain crafts, and as focal points for folklorists.

“That’s one of the good things the settlement schools did, is that they took the knowledge of the people and sort of got it together in one place,” says folk singer Jean Ritchie, who serves on the board of directors at Hindman Settlement School. “They collected the songs from different people up and down the hollers and they made little books out of them. Instead of trying to force outside music on the people, they made collections of the local songs.

“[T]hey taught them the different patterns of weaving that they learned from the different women and they got that all together, so that in that way they were sort of a clearinghouse for everybody’s knowledge that lived around and didn’t really force outside ideas on us as much as some people have thought.”

One noted critic of the influence of settlement schools on mountain culture is David E. Whisnant, author of All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Whisnant laments the selective collection and promotion practiced by “outside” folklorists who defined only certain aspects of the mountain arts as culturally “significant,” deeming the rest unworthy of publication, publicity, preservation, or sale.

For example, Whisnant says, the settlement school leaders found that the traditional Scottish and English popular ballads and dulcimers were “good”; banjos and the newer music and feud songs that could be heard at the railheads and the county seats were not.

Economics also came into play, especially with the intricate mountain handicrafts like willow and split baskets, dolls, split-bottomed chairs, woven pieces, coverlets, and quilts. Hindman Settlement School’s “Fireside Industries” program was created to honor and preserve local traditions and craft—and to offer manual skills to children and their parents that would be of use personally, domestically, and economically, all while generating income for the school. Whether economic motivations and the preferences of potential customers reshaped the design of traditional handicraft is a topic ripe for exploration.

Some observers have also expressed concern that many of the handicrafts instructors came to the settlement schools from urban areas far from the Appalachian mountains and, in essence, contaminated the mountain arts. But Fern Hall Hayes, a graduate of Pine Mountain Settlement School, says her experience was deeply enriched by the different perspectives which allowed her to see the unique qualities and values of her own mountain traditions.

“It was like the world came to Pine Mountain and we met the world right here,” Hayes says. “It was amazing. We had people from England, from Denmark. It didn’t bother me and didn’t cause me to look down on what I had and what I did. Mine was just as important as theirs.”

“The nice thing about the settlement schools,” adds Appalachian humorist Loyal Jones, “was that I think they tried not to do a lot of damage to people’s sense of identity. They didn’t, like some schools, just try to transform mountain people into something else.”

—Judy Flavell


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