The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Museum Of Appalachia

By TN Department Of Tourist Development

Issue: October, 1986

Norris, TN - John Rice Irwin began collecting artifacts from his friends and neighbors up and down the southern Appalachian Mountains because he wanted to preserve a part of the disappearing mountain culture. In the process he created a unique monument to mountain lifestyle and became something of a legend himself.

Irwin's 65 acre Museum of Appalachia, just off Interstate 75, some 16 miles north of Knoxville, contains a collection of more than 30 authentic log cabins and buildings, among them the primitive one room Arnwine Cabin built around 1800 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the Museum of Appalachia is much more than just a collection of ancient log buildings. It is a living, breathing community straight out of the first half of the 19th century complete with houses, corn cribs, smokehouses, barns, blacksmith shops, a school, a church, even privies.

"It's easy enough to bring in an old log cabin, set it up and get everything right from a structural standpoint," Irwin says. "It is much more difficult to get every item just the way it should be. It is such things as the hand made corner cupboard and the little items on the shelves that really represent the culture of the people in this area."

It is Irwin's fanatical attention to detail and authenticity which gives the Museum of Appalachia its unique charm and character.

"No one would ever hire me to do a restoration," he laughs. "I'd break them up by looking for authentic things."

Irwin's obsession with detail is reflected everywhere. Cords of firewood are stacked neatly within handy reach of the cabins. There is an ax embedded in the nearby tree stump surrounded by piles of kindling. A half finished wagon wheel waits for the wheelwright to return to his shop. The church stands ready for Sunday services. The one room-school needs only a teacher to ring the brass bell and a few children to bring it to life.

There are fields of corn, squash, beans and tomatoes surrounded by split rail fences. Cattle, mules, sheep and goats graze in the pastures near a huge cantilevered barn. Chickens peck busily around backdoor herb gardens. Roosters crow, turkeys gobble and peacocks scream for attention.

It is as if the 19th century residents of this tiny mountain community had all just stepped into the woods for a minute. It is a remarkable illusion, and one John Rice Irwin cherishes.

"People see the plates of dried beans and peppers on the tables, the churns and kitchen utensils all ready to be used and they come and ask, 'Does somebody still live here?' That is the nicest compliment I can receive."

Irwin has been building his unique museum for more than 25 years and he frankly admits that it is the result of a hobby which got out of control and took over his life.

"The truth is that I never had any ideas of establishing a museum," he explains. "My four grandparents gave me my original appreciation for the mountain way of life. The collection started in 1962 when I went to an auction at the old Miller homestead on the Clinch River. Somebody was bidding on an old cedar churn and I heard them say they wanted to make a lamp out of it. Somebody else wanted an old wagon seat to make into a table. I thought, 'How terrible! These things are a part of our heritage and culture.' I started making trips into the mountains, buying almost anything I could. Eventually I bought the old General Bunch cabin, rebuilt it, and furnished it in meticulous detail just the way it should be. I bought a second cabin, and a third. So many people started dropping by   usually on Sunday afternoon in the middle of dinner   wanting to look at these things that we finally started charging a small admission fee."

The artifacts Irwin has collected over the years now number in the neighborhood of 250,000. Thousands of them are housed in a huge display barn where visitors are free to wander, explore and read the notes and stories Irwin has collected with them. Irwin's notes are another priceless treasure of the Museum of Appalachia.

"These old relics really don't mean very much unless you know the histories that go with them," Irwin insists. "This old meal barrel, for example, becomes much more significant if you know that it once belonged to John Sallings, the last veteran of the Civil War."

While many of the museum's exhibits show the practical nature of the mountain people, there is also an entire section devoted to the subject of folk art. It is highlighted by a room from the house where Cedar Creek Charlie Fields once lived.

"Charlie just plain loved polka dots," Irwin says. "He decorated his whole house and everything in it with polka dots. Then he decorated his front porch, the trees in his yard, and finally even his clothes with polka dots."

Irwin's immense collection includes thousands of everyday items. There are such intriguing examples of frontier ingenuity as a foot-powered cradle rocker, a lathe powered by a springy sapling, and odd looking four foot tall wooden post with a small hinged platform at the top.

"You put a piece of bait in a loop at the bottom of the string hanging from the hinge," Irwin says. "A rat would come along and tug at the bait. The hinge collapsed and dropped a fist sized rock on its head."

With such whimsical items as that around, it's no wonder John Rice Irwin became addicted to collecting mountain artifacts.

For more information about the Museum of Appalachia, contact the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, Room T, Box 23170, Nashville, Tennessee 37202.