In 1962, John Rice Irwin attended an estate auction near his home in Norris, Tenn. (pop. 1,446), where he watched as a family’s heirlooms were sold piece by piece. One buyer boasted that an old cedar butter churn would make a fine lamp. Another buyer vowed to turn a wagon seat into a coffee table.
Irwin was horrified. He knew the stories behind these artifacts, and he knew how quickly their history was being lost. “Things mean little when they are separated from their history,” says Irwin, 75.
So during his time away from working as a school superintendent, Irwin trekked over hills and through hollows buying and preserving relics and the stories behind them. Before long, curious visitors began stopping by his garage to see the items and hear their stories.
“When I was little, our garage was filled from floor to ceiling with artifacts he had collected,” says Irwin’s daughter, Elaine Irwin Meyer, with a laugh. “I didn’t know for many years that garages were used for cars.”
By the late 1960s, Irwin’s garage had reached capacity. That’s when he and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the Museum of Appalachia, housed in a log building on a two-acre plot next to his home. Today, the museum attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually and has grown to 65 acres with dozens of authentic log structures and thousands of items—most of them with their stories collected and written down by Irwin, of course.
Cattle, horses, mules, goats, sheep and farm fowl roam the grounds, re-creating an old Appalachian homestead, while musicians often sit on a cabin’s front porch singing songs like “Old Joe Clark.” Most of the rustic structures were saved from demolition and moved from within a 200-mile radius of the museum.
In fact, the Mark Twain Family Cabin was moved from Possum Trot, Tenn., where Twain’s parents and some of his siblings had lived. “Mark Twain was born five months after the family left here in 1835,” Irwin says. The cabin itself was bound for destruction until Irwin purchased it and had it dismantled and re-assembled at the museum. “It’s a shame that so many fascinating and meaningful stories are already gone,” he says.
Fortunately, Irwin has saved thousands of stories and artifacts. Take for example, Gol Cooper’s glass eye and a penknife on display at the museum. In 1910, young Cooper was tying his shoe and had an opened penknife in his hand. He was stooped over, pulling tight the string when it broke, thrusting the knife blade through his eye.
“Gol’s father had an eye made for him and he wore one until he died in 1979,” Irwin says. The eye and the knife, along with the story, were given to the museum by Cooper’s daughter.
The museum also displays miniature carpentry and farming tools carved by Bill Henry of Oak Ridge, Tenn. (pop. 27,387). A self-taught whittler, the 76-year-old says it’s an honor to have his work preserved at the museum. “It’s an incredible place,” Henry says. “If I would hazard a guess, I would say that 75 percent of what’s in that museum would be long gone if it weren’t for John Rice. He’s a dreamer, but he’s a dreamer that makes things come through.”
Irwin’s passion for preserving history began as a child, listening to the stories told by his grandparents and their friends. “They taught me a great deal and had a great influence on me,” he says.
Those ancestors often didn’t have photographs or recordings, but they passed down their stories and their relics from one generation to another. “When an old person dies, it’s like a small library burning,” says Irwin, borrowing a quote from his late friend and author Alex Haley, who lived across the street from the museum.
“You hear a lot of people say that they don’t like history,” Irwin says. “But they do like people and they do like stories. Well, that is history.”
Visit www.museumofappalachia.com or call (865) 494-7680 for more information.