“We simply cannot appreciate where we are today or where we are going tomorrow, unless we understand where, as a culture, we have been in the past.”
Socrates? Benjamin Franklin? Hardly. These are the insightful words of the son of a rural Tennessee farmer born in 1930. John Rice Irwin.
As a young boy, Irwin developed a strong interest in history. It did not go unnoticed. His grandfather inspired him to preserve the Appalachian culture and artifacts and to someday start a museum.
He was rummaging through the discarded kitchen utensils of his granny’s hutch and uncovered her rusty spice grater. He could still smell the nutmeg seeds that she grated onto her apple pies and felt a sense of obligation to preserve some of the antiques whose history and background were a part of his life. He realized right there that he would one day fulfill his grandfather’s wish.
After serving in the army in World War II, he went on to get his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. He would later become the state superintendent of schools. He never forgot his grandfather’s words and soon embarked on a lifelong journey that would make him a familiar face throughout the region. While at one of the many auctions he attended on weekends, a fellow bidder told him of his plans to dismantle and convert an old spinning wheel into a coffee table. He hated the fact that irreplaceable artifacts were being removed from the context of the region. That was the day he decided to start his collection.
His first purchase was an old worn poplar horse shoeing box that had been salvaged from the Clinch River flood nearly a half century earlier. By 1968, with countless dusty miles and auctions behind him, he was storing his collections in a small log cabin that would one day become this sprawling village-farm complex.
Located just twenty minutes north of Knoxville off Scenic Highway 61, the Museum of Appalachia is one of the Smithsonian affiliates that are located throughout the United States. It has been featured by nearly every major newspaper, as well as numerous magazines, including the National Geographic Traveler. Southern Living has been back no less than five times. Their writers, like the visitors who return again and again, are always finding hidden treasures that had gone previously unnoticed in its extensive collections of folk art, wood carvings, furniture, baskets, quilts, and toys. There is even a collection of caskets, which includes an iron, form-fitting model, a rocking chair made of mule shoes, and a glass eye. One of the most fascinating exhibits—Asa Jackson’s Perpetual Motion Machine—continues to keep heads turning and minds spinning 150 years after he invented it.
The Smithsonian Magazine said that today’s visitors will find that the museum “vividly portrays something ethereal—the soul of the mountain people.” Every exhibit has been painstakingly laid out, telling the stories of folks in their own words and in the artifacts that they left behind. Everything is just as it was generations ago, as though the families had just left their cabin for work in the fields. Like a good actor who pulls you into her character, the museum pulls visitors into a culture and time long past. The smaller touches make it feel authentic: an ax stuck in a tree trunk, gourd birdhouses, dresses still hanging on wooden pegs, kitchen utensils laid out—like someone still lives here.
As you take your self-guided tour, listen carefully to firsthand stories told by museum employees, dressed in period costumes, as they work in the shops and fields. Most of them grew up and actually live in the area. They will reveal the secrets that lie beyond the artifacts. Imagine yourself in old Appalachia: cutting firewood, tending to the animals, mending a quilt—or a fence—or simply rocking on the porch. Visit the restaurant on the grounds and enjoy a homemade lunch of crispy parmesan chicken, turnip greens, pinto beans, cobbler, and German chocolate cake.
The only complaints scrawled in the visitor’s sign-in book are “we didn’t have enough time.” So be sure to arrive early. The museum is open 9:00–5:00 daily and is closed on some holidays.