Saturday, August 3, 2013

Musuem of Appalachia


 Part 1

 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

Some people collect guns, some dolls, some antique cars, but John Rice Irwin collected more than 30  buildings and thousands of everyday items used by the mountain folk of Southern Appalachia in the 1800s.  He was also devoted to collecting the personal memories attached to each artifact.   In 1969 this educator and businessman opened the Museum of Appalachia, one of the largest and best living history museums in the United States.  Located in Norris, Tenn., 16 miles north of Knoxville, it is now affiliated with the Smithsonian.  Irwin’s interest was piqued by stories from his grandfather, who was born before the Civil War, lived into his nineties and gave Irwin some personal items for a collection that grew and grew.

First I visited the Gwan Sharp Playhouse and the Tom Cassidy House, the smallest dwelling in the museum.  The old bachelor who lived there said, “I’ve got that little cot in there, a chair, a stove for heat and cooking, a frying pan, a bean pot, and old dresser, my fiddle and my pistol, what more does a man need?”  That set the tone for understanding the rest of the museum.

In this small space Tom Cassidy felt he had every thing he needed for a good life.

Irwin was particularly interested in how the Appalachian people spent their time when they were not struggling for food and shelter.  In the two-story Hall of Fame building the area’s famous and colorful people are highlighted, but I was more impressed with the various objects that were handmade requiring much time and skill.  How did people spend their time before radio and television?  

One way was music.  Country music has its roots here and tributes are given to some of the people who started it.  The walls are lined with many musical instruments, banjos, fiddles and dulcimers that were handmade by the locals.  The annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming in October features performers on five stages at the museum for four days. 

Hand made banjos in the Hall of Fame Building
Indian Baskets in the Hall of Fame Building

Part 2

 “We simply cannot appreciate where we are today, or understand where we are going tomorrow, unless we understand where, as a culture, we’ve been in the past.” John Rice Irwin

In collecting artifacts for the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., founder John Rice Irwin was interested in who owned them and how did the owners live. The museum plaques and his book, The Museum of Appalachia Story, describe historical details that added to my enjoyment of the museum visit.

While all buildings and artifacts have family connections, a few are tentatively connected to the famous.  The Clemens family left the Mark Twain Family Cabin to move to Missouri five months before he was born on November 30, 1835.  The Dan’l Boone Cabin was an early 1800s cabin that was used in the CBS series Young Dan’l Boone. Like many of the mountain cabins, it had a packed clay floor, much easier to sweep clean than dirt floors. Thomas Tweed had bought a log church for $35 and a cowboy hat. After John Irwin then bought the church, he named it Irwin’s Chapel, after his grandfather who had sometimes preached in a similar log church.  

The Main Display Barn has 200,000 items that may be the largest collection of pioneer relics in the United States. The ingenuity of the pioneers is shown in displays such as the axes that were designed by many individuals for different purposes, their goal being to convert the wilderness into a survival environment.  Some tools were made from old worn out tools; for example, a mule tooth puller was made from mule shoes similar to horseshoes.  My father, who at one point in his life trapped for money, would have loved the display of different animal traps.

The first barrels were logs hollowed out by burning.  Other kinds of barrels were added as tools became available and as the settlers discovered that different woods were needed to hold water, whiskey, corn and honey.

When I visited the General Bunch House I learned that on his last visit here,  “General” M. Bunch (1889-1975) had said, “The old house was built by my daddy, Pryor Bunch.  He had twelve children and we was all raised in them two rooms.  I was just eight years old, but I drug the logs in from the mountains with a yoke of oxen.  We had to walk twelve miles across the mountains to the nearest store where we could buy a bag of salt.”

At the Arnwine Cabin, the smallest of the eight completely furnished cabins and probably the smallest building on the National Register of Historical Places, I saw a boot jack owned by President Andrew Jackson and a table made from a log. 

The Arnwine Cabin, probably the smallest building on the National Register of Historical Places 

Some teachers make special use of the Big Tater Valley School House that was built in the early 1800s out of logs and has been furnished with benches and equipment of the period.  A former teacher told us that the museum is a required visit for fourth and eighth graders in the area to give them an appreciation for the area’s previous history and to come in contact with such basics as a vegetable garden and egg laying chickens.    Some teachers have the students dress in pioneers’ clothes, bring their lunches in buckets and attend classes in the building using old textbooks.  Teachers prepare the students by giving them lists of questions, and it becomes an exciting adventure for them to look for answers.

Among the things the students and other visitors will learn about are the broom and rope factory, a blacksmith shop, a whiskey still, a sawmill, an outdoor privy and dug into the side of a hill a root cellar for storing food.

It is hard for me to imagine a better way of teaching children and adults about history and how each generation builds on the achievements of their ancestors. 

Root cellar for storing food