Blue Ridge Folklife Festival shines among autumn pleasures

Roberta Soslow

Taking a turn at shaving boards for a fence is part of the fun at the festival.

Franklin County may be tucked away in its own idyllic corner of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, but the bounty of terrific attractions make a great getaway from the city.

Franklin Co Shaving FenceRocky Mount rocks with top-drawer concerts at the new and acoustically brilliant Harvester Performance Center — among the county’s lively stops along the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail. High-quality, yet affordable, locally made creations from glassworks to oils to jewelry will fill your bags. For cool cultural lore, it’s hard to beat the Blue Ridge Institute’s exhibits about the “Moonshine Capital of the World.” Booker T. Washington National Monument brings biography and history to life.

For outdoor recreation, you can paddle shaded, scenic rivers or cruise placid Smith Mountain Lake with its 500 miles of shoreline. At Bridgewater Plaza, rent a boat or dock one by the boardwalk to hit the shops and chow down at super-friendly Moosie’s or another local restaurant. You can even rent a houseboat to explore the lake for a weekend or a full week.

October brings the Folklife Festival

But to completely jam-pack your getaway, visit during the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival on Oct. 24. Edged by spectacularly hued fall foliage, the acreage of Blue Ridge Institute’s 1800s-era living history Farm Museum, across the street from the institute’s quarters, blossoms into a carnival of heritage crafts and traditions.

Guitarist Wayne Henderson entertains during the Blue Ridge Institute’s Folklife Festival.
Guitarist Wayne Henderson entertains during the Blue Ridge Institute’s Folklife Festival.

Guitar and harmonica workshops, moonshine still demos, moonshine maker and chaser tales, sheepherding, blacksmithing, and pumpkin butter and apple butter making are all on tap as 50 craftspeople preserve fine old ways of making useful things.

You’ll also see dozens of classic and vintage cars, many of which roared along Franklin County’s otherwise peaceful country roads and made the area a hot rod hotspot.

“The festival is special because the people participating in the festival are showcasing the folkways and customs that were handed down in their families and communities,” explains the institute’s Roddy Moore. “This is their heritage — not something that was learned in a classroom, but from people in their folk group.”

Ganell Marshall began making her delightful cornshuck dolls in 1960 and has been a festival draw since 1998. Visitors come from afar “to touch base with the way life used to be.” Here in southwestern Virginia, “if we wanted something in particular, we made it,” she explains.

Al Stewart carves Blue Ridge Nature Sticks, beautiful walking sticks and canes embellished with animals carved and painted to look life-like. “Animals and nature go together,” he says, smiling.

Another standout is the handmade quilts. Pleasant Quilters’ Libby Bondurant loves the festival for “unique demonstrations that capture history of the area.” And, it’s one the whole family can enjoy together, right down to old-time games that en-gage mind and body in the sun-

Food? Come hungry! Blue Ridge blue ribbon-worthy specialties include kettle coffee, flakey biscuits, cake donuts, mountain stews, fresh cider, crispy-sweet autumn apples, and even fried apple pie.

Taking a turn at shaving boards for a fence is part of the fun at the festival.
Taking a turn at shaving boards for a fence is part of the fun at the festival.

The Blue Ridge Folklife Festival has been a prized fall tradition for four decades. Spread across Ferrum College’s campus and farm museum grounds, the festival is held rain or shine, is accessible, and raises money for area nonprofit organizations.

Adult tickets are $10; ages 5 to 15 and 60 and older are $5. Parking is free.

There’s plenty to see at the free-admission Blue Ridge Institute, with exhibitions rivaling those of big city museums in fascination. The current exhibit spotlights Virginia’s rural family farm canneries, which operated seasonally from the late 1800s to the 1950s.

The well-curated gallery displays vintage photos, canning equipment, and hundreds of beautiful labels, many designed by young art school graduates. The labels depict luscious fruits and veggies, some delightfully animated.

Representing yesteryear brands such as Pride of Franklin, Smith River Pie Peaches, and Bald Knob, they evoke nostalgia for mature visitors and enchant younger ones. The canneries operated 24 hours a day during the season; for many women, this was their only chance to make money.

Leave time for the institute’s gift shop. Under-$5 apple-themed decor, Day-Glo moonshine T-shirts, old-school kitchen gear, and other swag will make unique holiday gifts for friends, family, and yourself.

Before you go:

Franklin Co. Tourism:

Blue Ridge Folklife Festival:


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