It wasn’t uncommon, a few years ago, to see historian and collector John Rice Irwin on a back porch at the Museum of Appalachia, watching with a smile on his face as people enjoyed the fruits of his labor.
For decades, Irwin collected items great (a horse-drawn funeral hearse) and small (fragile old pairs of eyeglasses) donated to him by hundreds of Appalachians. Irwin, who died in January 2022, started housing and displaying his collection at the Museum of Appalachia, in Norris, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville along Interstate 75, more than 50 years ago.
The museum, which Irwin opened in 1969, is certainly one of the most personal in the United States, as it’s based on Irwin’s own interests and collecting over the course of decades. Many of the items still bear what looks like hand-written cards explaining their origin, noting which Tennessee or Virginia, or North Carolina person used that particular tool or musical instrument.
At the same time as those personal touches, the Museum of Appalachia is deeply and widely sourced from a broad base of donors, auctions, and acquisitions. The museum – which in 2007 became an affiliated museum of the Smithsonian – tells the history of a large swath of the country in a non-linear, non-textbook way that is deeply experiential.
Rick Meredith, president of the Anderson County, Tennessee, Chamber of Commerce, is a big fan of the museum.
“It’s a diamond in the rough,” he said in an interview. “It brings our history and our heritage from throughout Appalachia. That’s the story they’re telling.”
Rodney Archer, an Anderson County businessman who serves on the museum board, agreed.
“First and foremost, it serves as a way to preserve our history and artifacts for generations,” Archer said. “Our history has a lot of important elements: the CCC camps, the Manhattan Project, it all gets lost unless it’s preserved.”
It tells that story through 250,000 Appalachian artifacts, according to Smithsonian Magazine, including folk art and Native American artifacts, 35 log cabins, barns, churches, schoolhouses, and other structures over the museum’s 65 acres.
To walk through the Museum of Appalachia is like stepping into a time machine.
Reaching Back Through Time
Every history museum can claim it takes visitors to another time and culture. Some do it better than others, but that trip through time is necessarily changing as people experience museums in a different way now than they did 50 or 100 years ago.
Part of what’s so fascinating about the Museum of Appalachia is that, while it is intellectually accessible to visitors, it is emotionally accessible to anyone whose parents or grandparents grew up in what’s sometimes referred to as “simpler times,” which has become a catch-all way of referring to decades before modern industry, farming, households, schools or churches.
But the Museum of Appalachia’s collection is as if someone reached back in time and plucked up a particular basket or fiddle or saw and brought it back to the present.
John Rice Irwin was not a time-traveler in the sci-fi movie sense, but he did collect objects from a century of life for the people of Appalachia, a geographic and cultural region that stretches from New York to the deep South.
You can see it in the room full of music memorabilia, guitars and banjos, and old-time paper goods from the history of country music and its stars. Or in the collection of baskets made by Native American weavers.
There’s a lot that is idiosyncratic, and wonderfully so, in the museum. A large barn-like outbuilding contains what must be one of every kind of tool used in logging, building, and farming. Other spaces, even the gift shop, are stuffed with memories.
Here’s a picture of Irwin with “Roots” author Alex Haley. Here’s the rough-hewn shape of “Old Uncle Billy Bilbrey’s Corn Crib,” which isn’t a corn crib that those of us who grew up on farms would recognize but instead, as the hand-lettered sign explains, a hollow log that the Overton, Tennessee, man used to store corn for the winter’s supply of meal for cornbread.
There’s Gol Cooper’s glass eye, which he wore from 1910 until his death in 1979 after a long career at the Tennessee Bureau of Mines. Not many items in the collection – with the possible exception of items in the display about deaths and funerals – tout a grisly story, but those few are a reminder that life in Appalachia could be hard and dangerous. There’s homemade furniture and homemade quilts and other elements of everyday life before we could run out to Walmart or Target to pick something up.
Irwin appears to have been as fascinated with eyeglasses as I am. In a note near the wall of old eyeglasses, he noted, “eyeglasses were among the most personal items one possessed, and they were among the most-often kept items of remembrance of a loved one here in Southern Appalachia and perhaps elsewhere.”
The exhibit identifiers, by the way, that have the look of hand-written notes from Irwin himself, were dictated by him and set down on paper by the last Misty Yeager of Norris, Will Meyer, marketing director for the museum, said in an interview for this article. They bring not only information but a quaint charm to the exhibits.
“It’s an honor to maintain and continue Mr. Irwin’s work,” Meyer said. “The museum was born of his vision, and so many of the artifacts on display are inseparable from his experiences with the people that created them. So many of our artifacts are more interesting because of his personal stories that accompany them. We think that first-person perspective makes the items feel more alive and we never want to remove that personal touch.”
‘It’s a Hidden Treasure‘
Unique among most museums are the collection of buildings on the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia, where Irwin displayed at least a couple of dozen cabins, as well as a working sawmill, a church, a schoolhouse, and the remains of moonshine stills. The structures were bought or otherwise rescued from remote places through the Appalachia where they were in danger of being destroyed as many other small homeplaces were destroyed. Photos show how the Museum of Appalachia team diagrammed, dismantled, moved, and rebuilt the small homes.
One, in particular, is the former home of the parents of Mark Twain. The older Twains lived in the area around Jamestown, Tennessee – where my parents were from – before they moved to Missouri, where the author was born in 1835.
The museum says that more than 100.000 visitors, including 7,000 schoolchildren, tour the museum each year. Events like the annual Fourth of July Anvil Shoot – in which gunpowder is used to launch a 200-pound anvil hundreds of feet in the air – are unique in Eastern Tennessee.
“It’s a really great place,” said Christina Eich. “It’s a hidden treasure.”
Eich, who works in Norris, Tennessee, city government, said that in a previous job she worked near the museum. She and her co-workers would frequent the museum.
“For several years, I was a daily patron,” she said. “The job I had at the time, we would meet for lunch every day.”
Eich also took her sons to the museum. “They would run around where the outside exhibits are.
“For us, and this is kinda silly, but when we would go away on vacation, when we got home, we would drive through and (her sons) would get out and pet the goats. That feels like we were home.”
Board member Archer noted the wealth of 250,000 artifacts.
“The museum has many more pieces than it displays,” he said. “We’ve been talking, as a board, about the monumental task of inventorying all these.”
Irwin “was very passionate, and they’re carrying that into the next generation,” Meredith said.
The museum continues to change, Meyer said.
“Fifty years ago, Mr. Irwin was in the acquisition business, traveling throughout the hills of Southern Appalachia in pursuit of interesting artifacts with even more interesting stories,” he said. “Throughout his life, he acquired tens of thousands of artifacts. Although the museum is home to three multi-story exhibit buildings and a vast pioneer village, we’re only able to display a fraction of the artifacts that he collected. Maintaining the archives in addition to the items on display is a full-time job. That being said, the museum does have plans to introduce new exhibits. In 2021, the museum opened a new exhibit, The Mountaineers’ Sacrifice and Renewal. This exhibit is phase one of the telling of the story of TVA.”
Information about the Museum of Appalachia: https://www.museumofappalachia.org/