In 1973, Roddy Moore started the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival at Ferrum College. On Saturday, the Franklin County festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
To this day, the annual event celebrates the homespun traditions of the Blue Ridge — the food, music, handicrafts and hobbies of its average people.
That was Moore’s goal. As festival organizer and executive director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, or BRIM, he sought out traditionalists, folks who had passed these customs down through their families through generations.
“I started the festival looking at using only local, regional people whose traditions or cultures they were carrying on. I was looking for either music that was still being played or crafts and things that were still being done,” Moore said.
“We found basket makers and we found woodcarvers and quilters and people sewing and doing different things,” Moore said. Musicians, too — music has always been a cornerstone of the festival.
There were likely a couple of thousand visitors at that first festival, according to Moore. He remembers that his parking attendants didn’t think he’d have so many people attend.
“They didn’t think it was important. And after the first one, they found out,” he said.
Blue Ridge Folklife Festival
The Blue Ridge Folklife Festival will be held rain or shine from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Ferrum College.
Advance tickets are $10 each, or $5 for seniors and youth; children age 5 and under are admitted free. Ticket prices increase at the door. Purchase tickets in advance at this link.
The festival swelled to see more than 20,000 attendees, according to a 1991 Roanoke Times article. There was talk of moving the festival away from the Ferrum College campus, but an alternate location could not be identified.
Folks seemed to want what Moore was offering — to celebrate the unique culture of the Blue Ridge.
Moore, now 80, retired in 2019. As director emeritus, he maintains an office at BRIM, filled with old books and memorabilia he gathered over the years. The walls are adorned with vintage hand fans and bumper stickers. A 100-plus-year-old banjo leans against a bookshelf.
He looks comfortable there, as he leans into his desk chair and crosses his arms, remembering all the festivals and shows and other initiatives he’s had a hand in.
He can’t say that there’s any one highlight from over the years, though he has a number of stories to tell.
There was the year that the coon dog cage, used for in-pond dog races, dipped under the water instead of merely skimming the surface. It came up, then went back under again. A thousand people were standing around the pond watching it, Moore said.
“We had the world champion [coon dog] circling. So then you worry about the world champion drowning. Some students jumped in the boat we had there, without anyone’s permission. And started out [in the water], and turned the boat over,” he said.
Somebody caught that on video and was trying to sell it to a news station by the end of the day, Moore said.
Another time, Ralph Stanley blessed John Warner’s campaign for governor on one of the festival’s stages.
The festival has become a yearly tradition for a lot of people, according to BRIM executive director Bethany Worley. Some families schedule their family reunions to coincide with the festival, she said.
In 2022, there were approximately 15,000 attendees, Worley said.
That makes the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival one of the best-attended events in Franklin County, according to director of tourism and marketing Kevin Tosh. The annual Come Home to a Franklin County Christmas and Franklin County Agricultural Fair each draw in around 10,000 people in comparison, he said.
The event — always on the fourth Saturday of October — also attracts Ferrum College alumni who are often more likely to attend the Folklife Festival than they are to return for homecoming, she said.
Ferrum alumna Shamaill Ross, who grew up in Roanoke, remembers waking up early on festival mornings.
“You get the sounds of the rooster first, and then you hear the hound dogs. Then you start to hear the community show up,” she said.
“For a lot of us, that was the first time we had kettle corn or cracklin or saw people flat-footing. It was very eye-opening for the students to just walk around and experience a rural culture that they maybe didn’t grow up in,” Ross said.
“We always see the Folklife Festival as a bit of a homecoming — seeing old friends that we don’t see often and meeting new friends. The social aspect is one of the biggest draws,” Tosh said.
According to online ticket sales, Folklife Festival attendees drive in from a 300-mile radius, Worley said.
“We still are doing what we did back when it first started. We’re still maintaining the integrity of the festival. That’s really what keeps people coming back. It’s sticking to the traditions of the food, of the music, of the crafts,” Worley said.
“It’s kind of legendary in itself to make it to half a century,” she said.
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Danny Wingate of Elk Creek has been at the festival nearly every year since its inception, he said. He was first invited to participate as a blacksmith in 1973, when he was 22.
“The first festival was little. It was in between the buildings up there. It might have covered an acre. The second one was better, and it just kept getting better and better,” he said.
In the years since, he has demonstrated shingle-making, leatherworking and fence-making. He built a sled one year. He’s also demonstrated garden paling, a technique that keeps animals out of a garden patch.
With the exception of his leatherworking, Wingate’s demonstrations have mostly taken place outside. As a result, he remembers the weather best of all.
“One time it snowed a little. It was bitter cold that day. We were all outside. … And one year, the wind blew the stage down. … We had a real bad electrical storm and it poured the rain at the end of it one year. … And other than that, nothing. We’ve only ever had three or four bad weekends in 50 years,” Wingate said.
Due to health concerns, he has been forced to cancel his plans to exhibit at the festival this year, he said.
But festival attendees will find 20 to 25 traditional handicraft vendors in the gym, according to Worley. Examples of crafts on site include corn husk dolls, split oak baskets and handmade brooms.
John Alexander has participated in the festival since the 1990s, he said.
“It’s one of those festivals that has stayed true to its roots. By that, I mean it’s emphasizing the culture of the area,” he said.
Alexander grew up in Fairfield, near Lexington. His Great-Aunt Draper would tell him stories of growing broom corn on their family farm in the early 1900s, he said.
His family connection to brooms would come full circle when he was given a job making traditional brooms as a student at Kentucky’s Berea College in the ’70s.
His instructor was a man named Johnny Reed. Alexander says Reed was tough. He wasn’t satisfied with Alexander’s first two brooms and kept telling him to start over. The third time, Alexander resisted. The two men reached an understanding and from there, he just kept getting better, according to Alexander.
Now, Alexander passes the tradition along. When he isn’t making brooms, he is teaching others to make them. He teaches workshops in Grayson County and at Radford University.
“I don’t mind sharing at all. I don’t see it like you’re making your own competition. There’s not enough of us as it is. So if somebody else picks it up, that’s fine,” Alexander said.
“I’m in my 70s so I’m beginning to see some of the old guys like us, starting to stop coming or starting to die off. So it’s important we get some of the young people involved,” he said.
Traditionalists, those who have learned folk arts directly from a family member or a friend, are becoming more and more difficult to find, according to Worley.
It is still fairly easy to find young people who learn traditional music from a parent or a grandparent, Worley said. But the craft world is different.
“You just don’t find the interest in someone learning how to make a split oak basket or carving a wooden bowl. Once all the older people leave us, that will be the end of that tradition,” she said.
As a result, some revivalist craftspeople have been invited to participate in the festival in recent years. Finding them is a yearlong process, according to Worley.
She and Moore are constantly on the lookout for craftspeople practicing folk art, searching for people who might make dough bowls, baskets or knives.
“We’ll ask them, ‘How did you learn to do that? Did you learn from your grandma?’” she said.
“We’re losing that because the young people weren’t picking it up,” Moore said.
Festival organizers have been forced to make some changes due to the region’s evolving culture.
“Traditions can change,” Moore said.
“I had a woman one year who made braided rugs out of plastic bags. The technique was the same [as for making rag rugs]. The idea was the same. The material changed. She was a traditional rug maker but her materials changed. And you’ve got to accept that things do change,” he said.
Perhaps most noticeably, the food vendors are different this year. In past years, most of the food vendors have been social organizations and churches. The groups would use the event as their annual fundraiser, Moore said.
This year, only three such groups are participating in the festival. The difference is due to an aging population and a lack of membership in the organizations to support the initiative, according to Moore.
He started noticing the problem several years ago, he said. The groups started slowing down. They didn’t have enough manpower to keep up with the crowds.
“We’ve lost a lot of people because as the people get older, they age out, and you just don’t have that younger generation stepping up to fill those roles,” Worley said.
As a result, organizers started seeking out food trucks that offered traditional cuisine.
“All our [food vendors] are regional and we’re supporting their small businesses. They’re coming from a 100-mile radius. Franklin County, Roanoke County, we have some from Henry County,” Worley said.
She has arranged for vendors to serve pintos cooked with fatback, as well as cornbread, country ham biscuits and Brunswick stew. There will be cakes and pies. And attendees will find fresh fried pork rinds served right out of the grease, Worley said.
Of course, you can’t have a folklife festival in Franklin County without inviting moonshiners. A demonstration moonshine still will be on site, running water instead of liquor, Moore said.
In the afternoon, attendees will have the opportunity to sit in on workshops where people who were active in the trade will tell their stories. There will also be moonshine tastings, he said.
The coon dog contests are back, as well as the antique car show and the agriculture demonstrations. There will be plenty of music and storytelling, too. Festival attendees will have more than enough to see and do.
“There are things that are specific to our area that we need to celebrate as part of being from southwest Virginia. When we lean into exactly who we are, that’s when our beauty and everything shines,” Ross said.