FolkFest enjoys a second birth

Published 11:21 am Tuesday, August 15, 2023


FolkFest is enjoying a renaissance.

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In its second year since being revived after a long hiatus, FolkFest was started in 1974 by the Townlift Committee as an event to highlight folk arts and crafts to promote the historic town. The day-long event occurred on and off for more than 20 years, and now, after nearly three decades since the last FolkFest, last year in 2022, it returned with the idea of continuing the tradition dear to so many people’s hearts and to build visitation to Cumberland Gap and the surrounding areas.

The event has been revived by the Guardians of the Gap, an organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the Cumberland Gap region. For the past three years, the Guardians of the Gap has successfully drawn interest to the area through popular seasonal events, like summer’s Outdoor Fest and fall’s Gap-tober, and community activities, like the Friday Night Movie series in Berkau Park.

“We have over 80 artisans, vendors, musicians,” said Natalie Sweet, Program Coordinator at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

“We are fortunate to continue to be supported by the East Tennessee Foundation and also the Tennessee Arts commission this year. This has made the reality of having master artisans come in, and who are really the experts in their craft.”

The Guardians intended to keep the event just as it was back in the 1970s with vendors, artists, activities, and music that celebrates the Appalachian region and the amazing people that call it home. Visitors had the opportunity to learn how to play spoons, learn a dance, make a piece of art, or even take a hike with the popular TikTok personality The Appalachian Forager. Sweet broke down the wide variety of experts who visited the festival all coming together to share their craft to continue their legacy. Two visitors of note were Janette and Charlotte Underwood from Tennessee Arts Commission, who practice old agricultural ways and displayed heirloom seeds that they’ve collected from strains of different plants over hundreds of years old from this region.   Some other noteworthy visitors were the son and grandson of Alex Stewart, a renowned cooper throughout Appalachia and the United States, who has artwork featured in the Smithsonian. Stewart is known for his traditional methods, forgoing the use of nails and using metal bindings, which he learned from his grandfather and passed on to his son and grandson. Also making an appearance at FolkFest were Sally Wells, a respected Choctaw elder, who taught children traditional beading, and William Isom from Black in Appalachia, who spoke about the African American Presence in Cumberland Gap.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, the FolkFest Appalachian Dining Experience transformed downtown Historic Town of Cumberland Gap into an outdoor dining space, with more than 100 guests seated together at one long harvest table that runs a full city block on Colwyn Avenue. Celebrating the culture and traditions of Appalachian foodways, the dining experience served as the kick-off to a nearly 50-year-old beloved community event, FolkFest, which was held the following day.

According to Amber Chadwell, Guardians of the Gap Board Secretary, guests enjoyed a progressive flare to traditional dishes curated by Chef Travis Milton from Hickory, The Inn at Nicewonder Farm & Vineyards’ signature fine dining Appalachian restaurant (Bristol, VA), and Chef Nic Jones from Summers Roof and Cellar (Abingdon, VA). This powerful duo focused on aligning every dish with the significance of each play in the region of Appalachia. Chadwell says to help bring each plate to life, special host Bill Landry, best known for his time on the Emmy Award winning production The Heartland Series on WBIR-TV, took dinner guests through immersive storytelling that illuminated the night in a spectacular way. Local storyteller Anne Shelby also joined the dinner, and was accompanied by traditional mountain folk music played by Jessie Lynne Keltner throughout the evening. Additional guests Danielle Walters, known by her stage name Dani Tennessee, and Hillfolk Appalachian Herb Shop added roots to the dinner through their musical performances and earth focused passions.

Sweet says she hopes to see FolkFest continue for years to come, as it is a great way to preserve history and Appalachian history, describing FolkFest as a unique opportunity to see artisans that people might not otherwise see.

“We wanted people to see traditions, the art that’s being produced today, we wanted people to come in and be inspired by it and take it back home or think about pursuing it,” said Sweet.

Last year, organizers estimated $2,500 was raised for Guardians of the Gap, but this figure does not include the tourism dollars that benefited the tri-state area.

“All of our food vendors were like, ‘We want to be back,’” said Sweet.

When FolkFest was created in the 1970s, the goal of the festival was for it to be an economic boost. Sweet says speaking to local businesses, last year businesses in Cumberland Gap reported having their best day ever during the event, such as Gap Creek Coffee House and Artisans Co-op.

“We were told several businesses had their best day ever, and we were told Gondolier sold out of all of their cakes that day. A lady at Subway in Harrogate was like, ‘what is going on in Cumberland Gap? We have been slammed all day,’ which is great – we want people in the Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee area here, visiting with us and seeing what we have to offer.”