“What better way is there to know a people than to study the everyday things they made, used, mended, and cherished … and cared for with loving hands.” – John Rice Irwin
The Appalachian Museum in Clinton, Tennessee, about 16-20 miles north of Knoxville, is not just a single museum building but a 65-acre historic property containing an authentic Appalachian village, display buildings, a museum, and farm grounds. The wonderful collection of early 1900s Appalachian artifacts and pioneer buildings were collected by John Rice Irwin over much of his lifetime. We’ve always admired the legacy John created to let people walk through and enjoy a historic mountain village and farm and to come for events throughout the year to see how life was lived in earlier days.
I met the founder of the Appalachian Museum, John Rice Irwin, many years ago when bringing our young children to the annual school days at the Museum’s Tennessee Fall Homecoming event. Later J.L. and I attended the Homecoming as regional authors—sitting under the big outdoor tent with author friends like Sam Venable and Bill Landry. We always enjoyed the old-time demonstrations, Bluegrass music, and mountain crafters. We also loved the costumed historic characters at the event—like General Robert E. Lee in the photo. Many of these wonderful traditions continue in the Museum’s Fall Heritage Days.
John Rice Irwin (1930-2022) was a historian, storyteller, musician, and educator, as well as the founder of the Appalachian Museum, He lived his early life on a farm taken by TVA to build Norris Dam, then near Oak Ridge until the government also took that land in the Manhattan Project, and finally, for most of his life, on the family farm in Norris. From an early age John held an interest in old things and old ways. His grandfather told him stories of past times and suggested he should collect and ‘keep the old-timey things that belonged to our people and start a museum someday.’
After high school and time in the Army, John went to Lincoln Memorial University on the GI bill and later to the University of Tennessee for his masters. At LMU, he met and later married Elizabeth McDaniel, and they had two daughters, Karen and Elaine. John taught public school and college for a time before becoming the youngest superintendent of schools in Anderson County, a position he held for thirty-eight years. In his free time John remembered the words of his grandfather and began traveling the backroads of Southern Appalachia collecting “old-timey things” and the stories about them. In the early 1960s John bought his first historic cabin, the General Bunch House, and placed it on his farm property. Soon he was adding more structures, cabins, and barns and more and more artifacts.
As the number of interested visitors grew, John created the Museum of Appalachia in 1969, setting hours and charging a small admission. The Museum and grounds continued to grow as people contacted John about donating or selling old structures and artifacts to the museum to preserve them for others to see. The Museum of Appalachia has now grown to include over 35 original mountain structures and three large buildings, containing hundreds of thousands of artifacts, on 65 acres. The property also includes old barns, gardens, farm animals, an old mill, a small chapel, a one-room schoolhouse, entertainment stage, and an event room – all spread around a scenic property.
John Rich Irwin operated the Museum himself until 2003 when it became a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization and later a Smithsonian Affiliate. Besides amassing the collections of the Museum, John lectured and shared about historic subjects, wrote books on Appalachian history, and was the recipient of many prestigious awards. John, who passed away in January 2022 at 91, dedicated his life to preserving the rich heritage of Southern Appalachia’s people, and now his daughter Elaine Irwin Meyer and her husband Will Meyer, along with their family, continue to carry on his legacy. John called it ‘only natural that he should want to preserve the history and background he knew’ …’believing it important to safeguard the memorabilia of the people who represented a passing culture.’ So often we don’t realize how following a dream, with hard work and effort, can leave a legacy.
You can visit the Museum as we did and enjoy a morning or afternoon exploring the Museum’s grounds and buildings, shopping at the gift shop, and even eating lunch at the Museum’s café. You can also plan to come to the museum’s colorful events held throughout the year—Sheep Shearing Days in the spring, barn dances and antiques shows, and the annual Independence Day Anvil Shoot Celebration.
Coming up is the Museum’s Heritage Day event Friday November 3 and Saturday November 4, 9:00 am – 3:00 pm with dozens of old-time activities and demonstrations and in December, the annual Candlelight Christmas Event with old-fashioned Christmas decorations, and demonstrations, a live nativity, and holiday fun – where you also might see Santa! Tickets to all events can be found on the Museum website at: https://www.museumofappalachia.org/events/
A visit to the Museum starts at the red Entrance Building, where you’ll also find the gift shop and café. Pick up a tour map here, which will give you a guide to all the numbered buildings and places you will see on your walk around the Museum’s grounds.
Heading out the Entrance Building’s door we started our tour walking from the east end of the Museum’s property at the Cantilever Barn and Hacker Martin Gristmill.
Ponies were in the field at the barn, who trotted over to the fence to greet us, hoping we might be carrying an apple in our pockets.
Beyond the barn, we wandered along the main path past the Smokehouse to the pretty Peters House. Nathaniel Peters lived here in 1840 and later his daughter raised nine children in this house, reminding us that big families often lived in small homes in early pioneer times. Walking past the garden led used us to the Irwin’s Chapel, where we’ve heard many old-time Shape Note Singers at events in the past. At this visit, it was the Museum’s peacocks who were having “church” wandering in and out of the chapel—a sight we laughed over. Not far from the chapel sits the small one-room schoolhouse, furnished as in the past when children learned and studied there together.
Our journey moved on past barns, an outhouse, corn crib, hen house, and around a loop past the old McClung House and on to the General Bunch House, the first cabin John Rice Irwin brought to the Museum property in the early 1960s. General Bunch, who visited the museum later in his life, remembered growing up in the two-room cabin with eleven brothers and sisters and having to walk twelve miles over the mountains, when a young boy, to the nearest store. Now a nice store and gas station sits less than a mile down the road from the Museum.
It’s hard to grasp sometimes how much times have changed since the early 1900s. My mother, born in 1913, told me stories about her young years in a large family of twelve when there were no phones, few to no cars, no central heat or air, limited electricity if any, and when families grew most all of their food and made their own clothes and household needs.
Starting back east on the Museum’s pathway, we passed another big garden, the Blacksmith Shop, a few more outbuildings and then came to the Mark Twain Family Cabin. This is one of two buildings on the Museum grounds now on the National Register of Historic Places. The cabin once belonged to Mark Twain’s father John Clemons, who actually built the cabin, and in 1835 Mark Twain, or Samuel Longhome Clemons (1835-1910), was conceived here before the family moved to Missouri in 1835. Although Twain was born in Missouri, the state of Tennessee can claim he was conceived in this cabin in Jamestown where his family lived for a long time. However, the Clemons’ family’s times in Tennessee were, overall, not happy or prosperous ones.
We next stopped to look in the door of the Leather Shop and then headed to the big People’s Barn to look at all the exhibits. In the front of the barn and inside are many of Harrison Mayes 2000 concrete crosses he erected all across the country and abroad on his travels. He was a coal-miner whose heart was simply to spread the gospel and he never asked for contributions when he traveled. His signs are reported to be in 46 states and 45 foreign countries. His jacket covered with crosses hangs in the exhibit barn with his photo and information about his life.
Next on our list was the big red Display Barn, crammed full of pioneer memorabilia, tools, folk art, old quilts, spinning wheels looms, and metal toys. I enjoyed the display of an elaborate country store’s interior, complete with old Coca Cola sign, and a replica of an old leather works shop with a mannequin working inside it. More interesting buildings followed—like old jail cells, the historic Arnwine cabin on the National Register, Cassidy’s tiny bachelor house – far different from the “Tiny Houses” being built around the U.S. today. We also enjoyed a small exhibit building commemorating the homes, churches, and farms covered by the floodwaters form the buildings of Norris Dam, plus a little playhouse saved from those waters that sits by the big Appalachian Hall of Fame.
When John Rice Irwin won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989, he used the money to build the Hall of Fame. This big two-storied museum building houses a wealth of exhibits commemorating men and women of Appalachia—politicians, crafters, singers and musicians, early doctors, dentists, midwives and more –plus displays filled with artifacts in tribute to their lives and interesting commentaries telling about them.
Our journey at an end, J.L. and I took a last look through the Gift Shop and then headed home, feeling like we’d taken a step back into a time in history, little known to us or almost forgotten. We both came away rich with new memories and a deeper respect for the Appalachian people who settled this area, persevering through good times and bad, to make East Tennessee what we know and love today. Lamar Alexander wrote: “John Rice Irwin and his family have taught us an important lesson: You don’t have to go outside your own backyard to find something interesting…We should be grateful that for 91 years we had someone very special in our own backyard.”
To get to the Museum, take Exit 122 off Interstate-75 near Clinton and travel east on Andersonville Highway for one mile until you see the museum sign and entrance on the left.
For more information and directions from other nearby cities, go to the Museum of Appalachia website at: https://www.museumofappalachia.org/
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act