The following biography is transcribed from The First 40 Years: John C. Campbell Folk School by Pat McNelley.
One of the first bulletins of the Folk School states: “The farm of nearly two hundred acres, in charge of an able young Danish farmer, is at once a frank recognition of the economic problem of the region, a demonstration of new methods, and in time will be, we hope, a means of partial self-support.” This “able young Danish farmer” was Georg Bidstrup, and the lasting threads he has woven into the pattern of the Folk School were spun over a hundred years ago in the little country of Denmark.
As you turn into the drive that leads to Keith House, you will see a marker—the silhouette of a man ploughing, with this inscription: “I Sing Behind the Plough.” And the song you will often hear, is the Danish folk song from which this motto was taken:
“They taught me when my heart desires,
On wings of song to soar,
Behind the plough and harrow
And ringing scythe, I sing
Till wood and valleys narrow
With cheerful echoes ring.”
When you hear this man from Denmark sing this simple folk song in his native tongue, you can hear the voices of his people, who many years ago, lifted up their heads from the yolk of tyranny, and began to sing this song in the first Folk Schools of Denmark. Of how with “plough and harrow” they rebuilt their agriculture and dairying until they became economically independent… of how through reforestation, they built up their “woods and valleys” … and of how through all the years, they kept singing… till “cheerful echoes ring.” As one young Danish teacher said, “A people economically ruined is not a people destroyed.” This was the spirit which Georg Bidstrup brought to America… this and a typical Folk School education.
John C. Campbell Folk School founder Olive Campbell with Georg Bidstrup
Bidstrup became school director, circa 1952
A young Georg Bidstrup, circa 1926
After completing the regular grammar school, he spent the next years pursuing general academic courses and in the study and practical application of farming, teaching and gymnastics. His special interest in gymnastics and folk dancing lead to one full year’s study of this subject where he trained with the great gymnast, Neils Bukh, whose method of teaching has since become so well-known in America. Part of his time was also devoted to teaching gymnastics and folk dancing to various youth groups in his community and part time as a student-teacher in a children’s school. After a year at Vestbirk Folk School, as a student and gymnastics teacher he spent two years at the Askov Folk School and one summer with International Peoples College, Elsinore, founded in 1921 with the object of promoting International understanding by using the educational methods of the Danish Folk High-Schools. Here students of all ages from eighteen years and upwards are accepted for the long and short courses.
It was this overall background of agriculture, gymnastics and folk dancing that served Georg so well as he became part of this new folk school in the Southern Mountains of a new land… never imposing on local traditions, but always searching for the opportunity to apply his knowledge: to help people live a richer life economically and culturally. In an early bulletin, Mrs. Campbell, Director, states: “We conceive our farm to be a great avenue of possible help to our neighborhood as well as a practical help to ourselves. The average farmer of this section will not be able to visit the nearest State Experiment Station, but he will visit the school. Therefore, we seek to make our farm as far as possible a demonstration station… and our greatest demonstration will be to make our farm pay, and toward that we aim.” Further on she says, “the best way to build up the worn out land about us is, Georg Bidstrup believes, through a type of agriculture based upon livestock. This mountain country can never raise grain to compete on the market with the products of the great grain areas… ours is a dairy country up here in the far Western toe of North Carolina. With pure-bred dairy cattle, pigs and chickens, we can piece out an agricultural triangle which has a broad and firm base—that is, if we look at farming as a full-time profession and not just a “crop”.
Georg Bidstrup’s questions from day to day revealed the wide difference between farming as the average Danish farmer does it, a skilled business with the help of trained specialists, and farming as it was carried on in Appalachian America. Trained in a country which has learned to use every inch of land, he cleans his fence corners of bushes and weeds; he is eager to straighten the creek so that bottom land can be drained. The creed of the Dane is, “use all land, abuse no land, treat it well for it is holy.” Steadily, intelligently, farsightedly he works ahead, using his head and hands untiringly, and always full of interest and deep understanding of our problems and aims.
Probably one of the most forward and far-reaching steps of the [John C. Campbell] Folk School to help establish a more stable economy in this area was the introduction of the cooperatives. Since this method of operation was the foundation stone upon which Denmark had built their world-famous dairy market, Georg Bidstrup was thoroughly familiar with the procedure and the profitable results. An early bulletin of the school states: “Our own first cooperative, the Brasstown Savings and Loan Association, a Credit Union, came into being the first spring with a membership of twenty-seven and a share capital of $155. A Farmer’s Association, organized in 1927, was followed shortly by our major effort, the Mountain Valley Creamery.” This was only the beginning. Since then, this “able Danish farmer”—now an American citizen, has proved over and over again the rightness of his thinking in regards to the potential of the John C. Campbell Folk School and his deep love and understanding of the people in this area of his adopted country.
It did not take him long to increase his few English words, and to make himself a part of the life about him. Over the years he has increased the fertility of the soil more than one hundred percent and has greatly forwarded the development of our cooperatives. In time, he married Marguerite Butler; together they have been active leaders in the recreation movement which stretches over the Southern Mountain area, and beyond.
On New Year’s Day, 1952, Georg Bidstrup became Director of the Folk School, and there was much rejoicing by the staff and neighbors. He has literally grown up with the school, weaving his way naturally and inspiringly into its entire life—a man who truly “Sings behind the plough.”
- Transcribed from Pat McNelley, The First 40 Years: John C. Campbell Folk School
(Atlanta: McNelley-Rudd, 1966).
Used with permission of the John C. Campbell Folk School.