John Rice Irwin spent a lifetime collecting the artifacts of the Appalachian people and although the museum’s founder is now retired, he can still remember just about every auction, every smokehouse and barn he has explored–and every good friend that he has made among the rural folks of Appalachia. Those histories–and the people to which they are connected–are central to his passion for collecting and central to the character of the Museum.
It was the familiar story of the devastating Barren Creek flood–legendary in East Tennessee for churning past the banks of the Clinch River in the dead of night and sweeping many people and hundreds of farm animals to their deaths–that led to one of his earliest purchases. The purchase, made at a local auction, was just an old, worn, poplar horse-shoeing box, but the auctioneer mentioned in passing that it had been fished out of the nearby Clinch River over half a century earlier, following the catastrophic flood.
After that purchase came many others, sometimes at auction, sometimes from making trips over dirt tracks and going door to door. Earning the hard-won trust of rural folk is never easy, and John Rice will tell you that it was his knowledge of and curiosity about old-time farm implements that often opened the door to friendships. But conversations with him begin to draw a larger picture, one where it becomes clear that it was—and continues to be—his admiration and esteem for the ingenuity, craftsmanship, and hardy perseverance of the people of Appalachia that has allowed him to forge relationships of trust and mutual respect.
The purchase of several truckloads of early Appalachian artifacts from Bill Parkey of Hancock County reveals just such a relationship. Bill’s family had lived in Rebel Hollow near the Powell River for generations, settling there before the Civil War, and the old homeplace had a wealth of early tools and equipment that he continued to use for blacksmithing and wagon-making. For years, John Rice had been told that Bill would never part with his beloved tools for any amount of money. The warnings largely were correct, for although John Rice occasionally was able to purchase a thing or two, his trips to “Revel Holler” were generally spent just visiting with his friend. It was only after Bill’s death that his widow called John Rice, saying that Bill had told her never to sell his cherished tools unless it was to “the professor”—because John Rice had “always treated him right.” It is illustrative that John Rice insisted on paying Mrs. Parkey twice her asking price for several truckloads of her husband’s tools.
What grew out of John Rice’s love for this region’s past and its people is an impressive living history that has been nationally acclaimed. It has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine, which said, “it vividly portrays something ethereal—the soul of mountain people,” and it has been named one of only a handful of affiliates of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in the state of Tennessee. The National Geographic Traveler referred to “music of such perfection, such . . . well, such rightness, that I looked around for a sophisticated sound system . . .Yet, what I heard—wafting unamplified from the cabin’s front porch—was simply the pure mountain sound of fiddler and guitar and two-part vocal harmony . . . I clambered up the porch steps and took a seat beside them, feeling I had come home.”
Southern Living has featured the Museum of Appalachia in its pages many, many times. Its writers have been drawn into the romance and beauty of the region’s history on their trips to the Museum; one writer’s visit inspired prose as pristine as morning at the Museum: “Day’s first light breaks, and honest work is already under way. So says the rhythmic pounding of wooden mallet on iron wedge, echoing across Tennessee fields veiled in morning mist . . . As the sun conquers the moist autumn morning, a picture-perfect Southern Appalachian farm unfolds, one little changed from farms of a century ago.”
The Museum has been featured in dozens of other national magazines and has been the subject of articles in virtually every major newspaper in the country, and several articles in foreign newspapers as well. Thousands of people from every state in the union and many foreign countries view this splendid preservation of Southern Appalachian life each year, and the official Tennessee Blue Book has described it as “the most authentic and complete replica of pioneer Appalachian life in the world.” The American Automobile Association’s Tour Book rates the Museum as a “Gem,” and our Tennessee Fall Homecoming has been named one of October’s Top 20 Events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society.
Time-Life Books’ Country Traveler featured the Museum of Appalachia along with five other exceptional outdoor museums, alongside Historic Old Salem and Hancock Shaker Village. Reader’s Digest’s Our Living History says of the Museum: “It is the smaller touches that give the museum its authentic feel: an ax stuck in a tree stump, cords of firewood stacked neatly next to a cabin, birdhouses made from gourds. Inside a cabin, dresses hang on wall hooks, kitchen utensils are laid out, and plates of dried beans and peppers sit on the table. Planned down to the smallest detail, the museum receives its highest compliments from visitors who ask, ‘Does somebody still live here?'”
But however thrilling it is to see the Museum praised in print by such prestigious publications, it is the many unsolicited comments and honors of Museum visitors and local folks that hold the greatest honor. Many visitors to the Museum send letters or return questionnaires with comments that are thoughtfully read and carefully preserved. A retired toolmaker wrote, “The day we visited was cold and rainy, but we soon forgot the rain. Could have stayed all day.” From a visitor from North Carolina: “The brochure we picked up at the Welcome Center . . . does not do you justice . . . this is a don’t miss place.” From a trainer for the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA: “Today I have brought my 27-year old son who has been ill for nearly four years. Having difficulty with motor skills now, he is disabled . . . . We arrived here at 1p.m. today . . . It is now 4:45 and he is still looking. I think he is reading every written word, so I know he is enjoying it.”
The Museum of Appalachia’s history is a proud one, grounded in a profound respect for the tenacity and indomitable character of a region. But it is a living history: it preserves an essential spirit of the past while it continually seeks to educate, entertain, and interpret for the present. From John Rice Irwin’s earliest acquisitions has grown a vibrant place of creative activity, careful preservation, and loving commitment to a people and a region.