Settlers of the young United States of America looked westward from the coast and began making their way into the rugged mountains of East Tennessee in the 1760s.
Though some continued on west, to the more hospitable land of the central basin, rugged, sturdy, and determined settlers made their homes in the hills and hollars of the Appalachian mountains. Their isolation led to inventiveness and resourcefulness and a tradition of independence.
The Museum of Appalachia has sought to preserve that culture for future Appalachian generations and honor the farmers, teachers, musicians, artists, and others who enriched the lives of others.
John Rice Irwin founded the museum in Clinton, TN, in 1969 as a way to display his ever-growing collection of “old timey things.” He traveled to auctions around the region, collecting all things related to the Southern Appalachian mountains.
Soon, he bought a cabin. The logs were carefully numbered and the cabin disassembled from its place in Double Camp Creek in Anderson County and rebuilt on Irwin’s sprawling property.
With keen attention to detail, he tried to recreate what the home would have looked like when it was first built in 1898.
As Irwin’s collection grew, he would welcome friends and visitors, but the popularity of his historical gems continued to grow and was soon interrupting the family’s daily life, with people arriving at mealtime or traipsing through the cabins while the family was away. He began charging a nominal fee and welcome more than 600 visitors that first year he kept count.
Today the living history museum offers a glimpse into the daily lives of the people of East Tennessee.
The 35 log cabins include cabins, barns, a church, a school — even an authentic moonshine still from famous moonshiner Popcorn Sutton.
The Hall of Fame, Display Barn and the People’s Building hold a collection of artifacts that numbers more than 250,000 with the every-day items people used from birth through adulthood and on to their final resting place.
“Pictured here are my friends,” reads a sign in the Hall of Fame. “The warm, happy, independent folk of Southern Appalachia. They are my people and the people I love, and it was because of them and hundreds like them that I started the Museum of Appalachia — and it is to them that this Hall of Fame is dedicated.”
The hall includes exhibits on some of the pioneers of country and bluegrass music; the famous leaders of the region, Cordell Hull and Lamar Alexander; and Sgt. Alvin C. York from nearby Pall Mall.
Collections include pottery canning jars, handmade quilts, tools, and toys lovingly made for children.
Several artifacts include the stories behind them, taken from Irwin’s conversations with the previous owners — sometimes sprinkled with family legend.
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."
There are also gardens with traditional crops growing and farm animals with peacocks roaming about the grounds, as well.
A one-mile path leads visitors through the recreated homestead that includes the Samuel Clemons’ family cabin that originally sat in Fentress County.
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.
The gift store includes antiques, old-timey toys and a variety of home decor and gifts. It also has a large selection of books about the region.
Saturday, the museum will host a book signing for “Southern Women,” from the editors of Garden & Gun Magazine from 1 to 3 p.m. ET. This book features more than 100 stories of female innovators, artists and icons of the South’s notable women. For $50, guests receive a signed book, specialty drinks and hors d’oeuvres.
The museum will usher in the holiday season with A Candlelight Christmas Dec. 7-8. Visitors can tour selected cabins by candlelight from 4 to 9 p.m. ET, enjoy Christmas storytelling, sing carols in the chapel, make Appalachian ornaments and warm up with hot apple cider. There will be a live nativity scene, musicians throughout the grounds and traditional craftsmen demonstrating their work. There will also be wagon rides and holiday craft activities for children.
The museum is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. with self-guided tours. Visit http://www.museumofappalachia.org/