The Old Farmers’ Ball began as a dance competition in the home of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a native of Madison County, North Carolina who traveled through the mountains as a fruit tree salesman, collecting and recording the folk songs he’d grown up with.
Lunsford soon went from collector to authority, delivering lectures and recitals of the music to cultured audiences in cities throughout the region. A man of means, he installed a special dance floor in his home where buck dancers could congregate. He soon became the Dick Clark of his day, turning this regional folk dance into a national fad.
The popularity of Appalachian folk dancing reached its apex in 1928, at the very first Mountain and Folk Festival put on by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. In response, a couple of local farmers built a dance hall on their property and began inviting family and friends for cake, coffee, music, and dancing every Saturday night. Word spread and before long, the party was drawing guests by the hundreds.
And then, as soon as it had begun, the party was over. The farmers sold the property; the dance hall shut down, and Appalachian dancing faded back into the mountains from whence it had come.
Until 1982, when a group of four dance callers revived the event, first in the original space and then, when a blizzard caved in the roof, at Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym. It quickly caught on with the college students, and these days, every Thursday night sees grizzled old-timers whirling around the floor with dewy-faced coeds, natty hipsters promenading with unwashed hippies, and newbies heartily embraced by veteran dancers as they all find their own way through dances like the Virginia Reel, the Georgia Rang Tang, and the Shoo-Fly Swing.