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Johnny Vardeman: Foxfire book paints pictures of mountain folk
Johnny Vardeman

Foxfire, that Rabun County organization that seeks to preserve and teach the heritage of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, has another book out in its popular series.

This time it’s written by Hall County native Phil Hudgins, a veteran journalist who started his career at The Times while he was still in high school. He advanced to editorial positions and capped his career as senior editor of Community Newspaper Inc., which operates newspapers in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida.

"Travels with Foxfire" by Phil Hudgins
Phil knows North Georgia in particular and Southern Appalachia in general like few other writers. He knows the people, their peculiarities, politics and passions.

In “Travels with Foxfire, Stories of People, Passions and Practices from Southern Appalachia,” he writes in his familiar downhome fashion about some of the colorful characters and personalities that populate this piece of America. Foxfire student Jessica Phillips is his cohort in this endeavor.

Appropriately, the book opens with Phil reminiscing about childhood visits to his Hudgins grandparents’ home, traveling on unpaved roads to Belmont in south Hall County. It is a glimpse into the rural life back when many families were self-sufficient, raising their own food and cooking it on a wood-burning stove. Two fireplaces were the main heat for the Hudginses; no indoor plumbing, no electricity until the Rural Electrification Administration came calling during President Franklin Roosevelt’s terms in office.

From tiny Belmont, the Foxfire team travels backroads through North Georgia and into Tennessee, North and South Carolina and Kentucky. 

Some of the stories are familiar, such as the relation between moonshine making and stock car racing. Actual moonshiners from Rabun County reminisce about the heydays of bootlegging.  And in Dawson County, stock car historian Gordon Pirkle tells stories about the roots of NASCAR, the stock car racing organization that Pirkle insists grew from a cornfield on the Etowah River where Thunder Roaders first spun their wheels. Pirkle ought to know because he knows or knew all those early daredevil drivers such as Gober Sosebee, Lloyd Seay, Roy Hall and Raymond Parks. Many of them learned to race while hauling liquor to Atlanta and eluding law officers on the curvy mountainous roads.

The nostalgia ride continues in Tiger, Ga., where one of the few remaining drive-in theaters, built in the 1950s, entertains locals and tourists on weekends from April to Thanksgiving, unless it’s raining, of course. When business tanked in the 1980s, Tiger Drive-in closed for two decades. Then Sherryl Major, whose father Bill Wilson owned it and who worked in the refreshment stand as a child, said she wanted it back, and it reopened in 2004 to steady crowds, plus anything else from concerts to flea markets.

“Travels with Foxfire” tells stories about and from the late Joe Dabney, who once worked for The Times and Poultry Times in Gainesville and who became a best-selling author for his books on everything from moonshining to mountain cooking. 

A Gainesville artist, Jane Taylor, is featured. From her Cottage Antiques store on Cleveland Road, she fashions art mostly from scrap metal, welding pieces of art from pieces of junk such as old stove parts, gutters, tin roofing, chains and light fixtures. Her work not only decorates homes and businesses, but a giant pair of angel wings made from sheet metal graces the entrance to the North Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Music, of course, such a vital part of the history and the present of the Southern Appalchians, takes up a half dozen chapters in the book and explores bluegrass, country, shape-note and Southern gospel singing. Many of the musicians, writers and singing groups have their roots especially in the mountain coves and valleys of the region. 

Hudgins, a skilled interviewer, knew some of those he writes about in the Foxfire book. But at least one was cold-called, Carl Foster of Monticello, Ky., who has no telephone or electronic device to communicate with. Living on a backwoods dirt road, he told Phil, “If something happened, like a doctor wanted to raise my insulin, he’ll have to send me a postcard.”

Besides a sprinkling of mountain recipes, the authors provide in their stories an ample helping of humor, one of the hallmarks of Phil’s storytelling ability.

The Foxfire book is available on and locally at Books-a-Million and the usual outlets. It sells for $19.95 paperback.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times whose columns appear Sundays; email.