One man’s quest to preserve Appalachia’s artifacts

Museum of Appalachia the result of decades of collecting

Friday, October 6, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 40
By Mike Blackerby

NORRIS – Way before “picking” was cool, John Rice Irwin traversed the isolated back roads and hollows of Appalachia, fueling his passion for collecting and preserving artifacts from a fast-disappearing way of mountain life.

“These are our people,” says the 86-year-old Irwin, who founded the Museum of Appalachia in 1969.

The museum, which holds its 38th annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming this weekend, captures the rich history, heritage and essence of pioneer America.

“These are world-renowned, unknown, famous, infamous, interesting, diverse and different (people),” he says. “But above all, they are a warm, colorful and jolly lot, in love with our land, our mountains and our culture.

“May their memories ever be preserved – not so much in reverence to them but as a gift to us and to generations to come.”

For whatever reason, Irwin – who hatched the idea for a museum celebrating Appalachian heritage in 1962 – was hell bent on telling the story of the rural people of East Tennessee.

Perhaps, it was sparked by his fond memories of something remarkably simple, like his grandmother’s tin spice grater that he spoke so eloquently of in a testimonial.

“Scratching through the discards of granny’s kitchen, I uncovered one small item which simply brought tears to my eyes. It was a tin spice grater. From my earliest recollection, it had hung in granny’s kitchen cabinet.

“In this grater, granny kept her aromatic-smelling nutmeg, which she used for making pies. A thousand times I had watched her lift the little lid, grab a nutmeg seed and rub it over the perforated grater to shave off enough of the surface for the pie.

“Here it was, the conveyor of so many pleasant memories for me, and now it was a mere rusty trinket that wouldn’t bring $2 at a flea market. It was only natural that I would want to preserve some of these antiques whose history and background I knew.

“I began to think about how important it was to preserve these items and the memorabilia of all the people who represented a passing culture.”

Guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins and other stringed contraptions are on display at the Museum of Appalachia.

-- Photographs By Shawn Millsaps | The Ledger

Will Meyer, who is Irwin’s grandson and serves as marketing director for the museum, explains his grandfather’s remembrance of the seemingly insignificant spice grater is typical of his thoughtfulness.

“That’s emblematic of a lot of other stories I’ve heard,” Meyer says.

“At such a young age, he was so enthralled by his grandparents and by their stories. That seemed to, from such an early age, be sort of a drive for him to collect that and preserve that. It’s still fascinating to me to this day that he had not only the interest, but the foresight to capture that and to bottle it for people to come.”

Eventually, Myer explains his grandfather’s interest in all things Appalachia soon became a passion.

“It wasn’t by design that he (started a museum), at least originally,” Myer points out.

“He was a school superintendent, and he lots of hobbies. In his free time, he would sort of just drive throughout the mountains and collect these artifacts. Most especially what he loved was the stories behind him.”

Eventually, Irwin had to find a place for all of the items he was accumulating.

“He was a collector and it was really just for him,” Meyer recounts. “He had these items just filled in his garage and my late grandmother, she one day said, ‘you’ve just got to get this out of here.’ Soon after that he purchased an authentic cabin – the Arnwine Cabin – which sits out there now. And he decided to take some of these artifacts he collected and use them as decorations.

“He dressed it exactly how the cabin would have looked and people started driving by. It was almost in his yard. People would just drive by and seemed really interested. After a while he had another cabin and so, he started charging a quarter and it grew from there.”

Just like granny’s spice grater, no item that spoke of the mountain people was too small or insignificant for Irwin to save – as long as it had a story to tell.

Will Meyer, marketing manager for the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton. Meyer is the grandson of John Rice Irwin, the museum’s founder and collector.

-- Photographs By Shawn Millsaps | The Ledger

His collection soon ran the gamut, from mundane everyday items used by mountain folks to more than 30 actual historic cabins that now rest on the sprawling 65-acre museum grounds.

Almost 50 years after its founding, the museum is likely the world’s premier repository for Appalachian mountain heritage.

“It’s an American treasure that stands alone as a tribute to the American spirit,” acknowledges Harold Closter, director of the Smithsonian Affiliations program. “It is about family, country, hard work and respect for tradition.”

This weekend’s Homecoming serves as a testimonial to the vision of Irwin, who now resides in an assisted-living facility near the museum.

About the museum

More than 250,000 items that reflect mountain life, most hand-picked by Irwin, are housed at the museum.

The stories of Appalachia are chronicled in the 15,000-square-foot Hall of Fame building.

“The Hall of Fame … that’s my favorite building,” Meyer says. “It has prominent people from the region that had fame or fortune. You have Roy Acuff, Cordell Hull and Alvin York. But right next to them you have (the story of) Jim Smith, who lived in a cave his entire life.”

More than 200 people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. It includes “Tater Hole Joe,” a man from the hills of Tennessee who lived in a hole in the ground.

The collection of musical instruments made by mountain craftsmen is staggering – in variety, style and numbers. “They made instruments out of whatever was laying around,” adds Meyer, pointing to a banjo what was made from a bed pan.

Tour the two-story Display Barn and take a gander at the amazing work of pioneer artisans, from the rare rifling machine to one of the country’s largest collections of animal traps.

There are countless tools used in daily mountain life that hang on the walls and an actual post office, which served the small village of Arthur.

The People’s Building documents many of the colorful individuals from the Appalachian region’s past.

The Village is a collection of pioneer cabins, barns and other structures that recreate an actual working rural Appalachian community.

An old convenience store is set up for museum patrons to see at the Museum of Appalachia.

-- Photographs By Shawn Millsaps | The Ledger

The Mark Twain Family Cabin belonged to Twain’s father, John Clemens, and is believed to be where the famous American author was conceived. The cabin originally was in the Possum Trot community in Fentress County. The Museum of Appalachia purchased and moved the cabin to the museum in 1995.

There is also a working farm with fresh vegetables and roaming animals, including cows, goats, mules, peacocks, ducks, chickens and longhorn cattle.

The Alex Haley factor

Meyer says the museum went to another level in terms of exposure in the 1980s, thanks in no small part, to its close association with author Alex Haley.

His book, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” was turned into a blockbuster miniseries in 1977.

Haley came to East Tennessee for the 1982 World’s Fair and decided to put down roots of his own.

“Alex Haley was a huge part of that (the museum’s rise to prominence),” Meyer recalls. “He came here with the World’s Fair in the 1980s and what I’m told was he was not excited – he thought ‘another dry, stuffy museum. (But) he was so impressed by it, that by the end of the day he bought the farm across the street and told his manager ‘I’m moving to Tennessee.’

“He really had an active interest in the place. He even got his mail here. He really was great to us in that he brought different celebrities out here. In interviews he would talk about it and just really promoted us in a great way. And that caught the interest of a lot of different people. And that seemed to be a huge catalyst for us here.”

Haley was just one of many famous celebrities to visit the museum over the years. Jane Fonda, Brooke Shields, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Sheen, Hank Williams Jr., Peyton Manning and Quincy Jones were just a handful of the countless famous others.

Haley died in 1992. His property across from the museum was sold to the Children’s Defense Fund and is now called the Alex Haley Farm. It serves as a national training center and retreat for the museum, which became a nonprofit in 2003.

The past meets the future

While Meyer says his grandfather may have slowed down physically, he’s as sharp as ever mentally.

“He’s working on a book about the most interesting people he has met in his life.”

Personal belongings of Harrison Mayes are among the many eclectic items on display at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton. Mayes dedicated his bike to, “...outer space in the hope to ride it on the moon and many of the planets..”

-- Photographs By Shawn Millsaps | The Ledger

Meyer adds the task at hand is to keep alive what Irwin spent a lifetime acquiring for future generations to enjoy.

“Our efforts are focused on preserving what we have. My grandfather has amassed such an incredible collection that it’s a tremendous endeavor to preserve what we have right now.”

Womack to headline Homecoming

Multi-award-winning country singer Lee Ann Womack, whose career boasts more than six million album sales, will headline this weekend’s Fall Homecoming.

Womack will appear on Saturday night, along with The SteelDrivers, who won a Grammy in 2016 for best bluegrass album, and bluegrass super group, The Earls of Leicester.

“It’s great we that we have somebody that has drawing power because of her name that was very popular in the 2000s,” Meyer says.

“She’s now kind of just gone into roots and bluegrass music. I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s the best stuff she has done. She’s just an incredible talent and she’s making music that’s right in our wheelhouse.”

As usual, Homecoming’s Friday-through-Sunday lineup is packed with music, traditional folk demonstrations with live artisans and heritage arts.

At least 50 musicians are slated to perform bluegrass, gospel, mountain and folk music on three stages. Concert goers typically position their lawn chairs dozens of rows deep in front of the main stage.

There are almost 40 display and demonstration areas, including blacksmithing, cross-cut sawing, sorghum making, sassafras tea making and sampling, sheep herding, pumpkin carving, storytelling, weaving and wood carving.

Fall Homecoming’s first Family Day premiers on Sunday with a discount rate for families.

In years past, the Homecoming has typically attracted about 25,000 visitors from near and far. Last year, Bill and Carol Eberle of New York attended the festival for the 10th time.

Admission prices vary for youth and adults, and depend on performance times. Three-day tickets are also available at a discounted rate.

Mike Blackerby is a freelance writer living in East Tennessee