The Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, Virginia, is a treasure chest full of old photographs, music, documents, and artifacts that reflect the folklore of southwestern Virginia. Much of the wealth of information stored here was volunteered by the people of the region and much gathered in the field by members of the staff.
The rich cultural heritage of the Blue Ridge is a mixture of the traditions of its early settlers--Ulster Scots, English, German, and African--whose agricultural techniques, home crafts (including gardening and cooking), and important music and art are documented, preserved, and displayed in the institute's archives building.
Folk Ferrum College, founded in 1913 as a Methodist mission school for the people of the Blue Ridge, has over the years developed into a four-year institution of higher learning, with a student body drawn from every part of the nation. But Ferrum continues its cultural investment in the area, largely through its Blue Ridge Institute, created almost twenty years ago to gather and safeguard regional tradition. Several exhibitions mounted by the institute, including an excellent collection of locally made musical instruments, have traveled to numerous museums across Virginia, including Colonial Williamsburg (EAL June 1994).
The institute's archives include historical photographs, collections of folktales and beliefs from the Shenandoah Valley and southwestern Virginia field, and recordings of both black and white folk music from around the state. The music is the basis for a Blue Ridge Institute-produced series of Grammy-nominated albums of Virginia ballads, work songs, and blues performed by the real singers and instrumentalists of long ago, not today's imitators. In the building that houses the archives are galleries for changing exhibitions and seminars that illuminate Blue Ridge folkways throughout the year.
Across the road from the gallery and archives is the institute's farm museum, reflecting the lifestyle of German settlers at the end of the eighteenth century. It's a prosperous farmstead typical of the era, with a three-crib bank barn, blacksmith shop, and a five-room house. Gardens here grow heirloom vegetables and flowers, and in the barnyard and surrounding fields are early breeds of livestock.
Each year on an October Saturday the Blue Ridge Institute celebrates the region's past as well as its present with a grand folk festival at the farm museum. So many demonstrations take place, so many musicians perform, so many contests are being decided, the festival spills across the road onto the Ferrum campus and into some of the college buildings. Like the institute, the festival gathers people who enjoy sharing their heritage. Craftspeople--basket and broom makers, carvers--and farmers, hunters, automobile and engine buffs who equally share the culture are here, the tradition bearers of our age. They've all learned what they do from parents or grandparents, or an aunt or uncle who in turn learned from an earlier relative. In fact, the learning sequence is a prerequisite for participation in the festival.
Along with people come animals: coon dogs tracking down a scented bait, mules jumping fences, horses pulling enormous logs, all once part of everyday life in Virginia's southwest mountains. The dogs led hunters to raccoons, the hunters often rode mules, and the horses helped clear the land and bring in logs for house-building and for firewood. It's still exciting to see whose dog runs faster, which mule jumps higher, and what horse can pull the heaviest log.