By Heather Mullinix
The mountaineers who settled the beautiful, rugged, region of Southern Appalachia had a lot in common with their new land. They too were rugged, sturdy and determined. Often living in isolated regions, miles from the nearest neighbor, their ingenuity and inventiveness not only helped them to survive, but to thrive and develop their own culture that has persevered to today.
The stories of these pioneers and their descendents, along with pieces of their everyday lives, have been painstakingly collected and preserved at the Museum of Appalachia so that the legacy of these mountain people can be shared with the next generation as well as new mountaineers now calling the region their home.
The museum was founded by John Rice Irwin in 1969, but he'd been collecting artifacts, antiques and other "old timey things" for many years, starting with items belonging to his grandparents bought at auction following their deaths.
He became a collector of all things related to the Southern Appalachian mountains, traveling to auctions around the area, meeting individuals and making strong friendships. All those treasures were stored in his garage. Soon it was overflowing.
He added the first cabin to his property, the General Bunch cabin, with logs numbered and taken down from its location in Double Camp Creek of Anderson County, and the house reassembled behind Irwin's home. Irwin furnished the old cabin down to the smallest detail, attempting to recreate what the home would have looked like when it was built in 1898.
He kept collecting, with more cabins brought to the property and more artifacts rescued from auctions and discovered throughout forgotten barns and boxes across the area. Irwin welcomed friends and other visitors, with the number of guests growing larger and larger. Unfortunately, they would stop by at mealtime or when the family was away, returning home to find people in the backyard or going through the cabins. Irwin knew he'd have to change the operations and he installed a service hose that would ring a bell in the house when someone crossed it in a car. His wife, Elizabeth, or one of his daughters, Karen or Elaine, would go out to greet the visitors and collect the nominal fee.
Six hundred visitors were counted that first year. Today, thousands visit the Museum grounds, with guests from across the country and around the world. There, they tour the Appalachian Hall of Fame, the Display Barn, the People's Building and more than 35 authentic and historic log cabins and other buildings. The collection now numbers more than 250,000 artifacts that took these people from birth to adulthood and on to their final resting place.
"What better way is there to know a people than to study the everyday things they made, used, mended and cherished," reads a quote from John Rice Irwin in the Appalachian Hall of Fame.
Those everyday items include the tools carefully maintained that allowed a skilled craftsman to use a drawing knife and shaving horse to make wooden buckets and barrels that were not only useful for the day-to-day chores of a mountain family, but beautiful examples of fine craft. Blankets handstitched into intricate patterns, baskets world-reknown for their quality, and pottery that could rival the best in the world are there. There are also exhibits on healthcare in the remote areas of the region, with medicinal herbs, midwives and doctors.
Of course, it wasn't all work for these pioneers and early Appalachian settlers. There are many children's toys, from dolls and finely crafted doll furniture to toy guns, marbles and tiny farm tools, on display. Music was also a popular pasttime, with the mountain folk fashioning their own fiddles, banjos, guitars and dulcimers from whatever was handy and making music that soon took the world by storm. The musicians of the area that found fame on a national stage are highlighted there, along with the music they made popular.
And there with the artifacts are the personal stories behind them, gleaned from Irwin's own conversations with the previous owners and often sprinkled with a bit of family legend passed down through the years.
The Hall of Fame also includes exhibits on the men and women who rose to prominence in national and world affairs, including Sgt. Alvin C. York, Cordell Hull and Lamar Alexander. Beside those exhibits are the stories of lessor known heros and personalities that are given the same respect for their legacy, whatever it might have been.
There is also a tremendous collection of folk art from the area, though Irwin says few Appalachian settlers did art for art's sake. "Their tools, furnishings and buildings were strong and sturdy, but not pretty. They seldom carved for the sake of art. But there were exceptions."
An old homestead has been recreated on the 15 acres, complete with smokehouses, kitchens, underground dairies, grist mill, sawmill, gardens and barns, and a small village offers a look at typical cabin homes and the shops needed to keep everything going, such as the blacksmith, corn mill, and leather shop. The Dan'l Boone cabin used in the CBS TV series Young Dan'l Boone is on display, furnished with the earlierst frontier and pioneer artifacts. The cabin was actually built in the early 1800s in the New River section of Anderson County. All of the structures at the museum were moved from within a 200-mile radius of the museum.
All those structures are situated on the 15 acres of the village and homestead, but the tour is only about a mile in length along an easy path.
Farm animals roam about freely, though guests are reminded these farm animals aren't for petting. In early February, baby lambs trotted about the field around split-rail fences and past the haystack, following their momma ewe and grazing on the grass.
Irwin operated the museum until a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization was established in 2002 with a board of directors to govern the museum. In 2007, the museum achieved recognition as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
In speaking of the museum, Harold Closter, director of Smithsonian Affiliations, said it was "an American treasure that stands alone as a tribute to the American spirit. It is about family, country, hard work and respect for tradition."
Those traditions are not only preserved in the museum, special events offer opportunities to see those traditions in action, whether it be old time mountain music performed on porches during the warm months of the year, wafting about the grounds without amplifiers or speakers, to women making baskets or churning the fresh milk into butter. Each year the musuem hosts Sheep Shearing Day, set for April 26, where the museum's sheep are sheared with hand-crank-powered clippers and the wool spun into thread and woven into cloth.
A traditional July 4th Celebration and Anvil Shoot is held each year, with music, re-enacters, demonstrations and craft vendors in the juried craft show. There are no fireworks, but the anvil shoot provides an exciting finale for the event. An anvil's base is filled with black powder and a fuse is lit. When it goes off, the anvil is shot into the air, sometimes as high as the nearby trees.
A new event last year, and returning Sept. 13-14, is the Days of the Pioneer Antique Show. Antique dealers from all over converge at the museum offering 18th and 19th century antiques. After strolling around the grounds, guests can find a period piece of their very own to take home, with shipping offered for large pieces.
The museum's signature event is the annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming, with the 34th annual event set for Oct. 11-13. Student Heritage Day kicks off homecoming Oct. 10. It's more than a music festival, though five stages and a line-up of more than 90 musical acts certainly provide non-stop musical entertainment. It's a living history demonstration. The craftors offering their wares also demonstrate their traditional crafts and re-enactors help demonstrate how the Appalachian people, from early settlers right up to today's residents, used their inventiveness to make do with whatever resources were available.
To help celebrate the holiday season, the museum hosts Christmas in Old Appalachia Dec. 1-24.
After touring the grounds, guests can browse the museum gift shop, offering crafts from regional and nationally known artists, and unique items all made in America. Those who get hungry during their trip back in time can find a filling meal of country favorites in the on-site café that offers home-style lunches and desserts. Many of the vegetables and fruits are grown in the museum's own gardens.
The Musuem of Appalachia is open year round, and memberships are available for unlimited visits to the museum and free admission to many of the special events.