Peasant, Poet, Provocateur
Don West established the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia in 1965. A half century later, the education and cultural center is still helping invigorate the “southern mountaineer spirit.”
Like the Highlander Center, West’s Folklife Center drew inspiration from the Danish folk-school model, which are mostly rural institutions that provide popular education to adults.
“Don had traveled in Denmark when he was a young man, and there he had seen these folk schools,” said Meno Griffith, now board chair for the center. “Those were the model of what he wanted to build here – a place for people to learn to be self-sufficient.”
He focused on rural livelihoods and traditions, and he placed a high value on the knowledge of people who lived off the land, said Farley, who lived at the center during the 1970s. “I think Don was a peasant at heart,” she said.
West saw mountain culture and heritage as an avenue toward political change.
West faced fierce opposition throughout the 1960s and 70s. He was the kind of man who would walk into the Princeton Times offices to confront the editor who had denounced him as a communist. He ran off officials of the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture who were on his land to investigate his political leanings. He left small radical libraries in local bars.
His actions could be controversial. “My husband stayed up at his place one night because Don was worried some men with guns were coming,” said Edith Bell.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching,” his friend David Stanley remembers West saying. His dining hall burned to the ground in the 1970s, and West always suspected arson, his friends remember.
His experiment in Pipestem, in the heart of rural West Virginia, offered a chance to live out some of his ideas about radical education, Appalachian identity, and political revolution. It was a combination that fit well into the social upheaval of the 1960s.
He said “mountaineers” (as he liked to call Appalachian residents) opposed slavery and were some of the first independence militants before the American Revolution.
West thought that Appalachian people were different and that awakening a “southern mountaineer spirit” would result in the population overthrowing their “oppressors,” Farley said.
“Don believed in an Appalachian exceptionalism,” said Bell, who helped West start the center's children's program in the 1960s.
West thought the roots of a radical Appalachian identity grew from the region’s folk traditions like music, crafts and subsistence farming.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Oral histories of the Appalachian South Folklife Center are being archived at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Appalachian Oral History. They hope to make them accessible online within the next year. Appalachian South Folklife Center is currently seeking volunteers to help archive the material. For more information, you may contact the center via firstname.lastname@example.org.