Unlike Louisiana’s thriving Cajun culture, Tennessee’s Appalachian mountain culture is rapidly disappearing. Thanks to the efforts of one man over the past 50 years, that is changing.
John Rice Irwin was (and presumably, at 80+ years old, still is) a mountain man.
Growing up in Tennessee’s Appalachians, he was fascinated with the stories told by the area’s old-timers and realized the culture of Appalachia was slowly disappearing as those residents passed away.
Starting in the early 1960s, Irwin began collecting artifacts and stories, and he founded the Museum of Appalachia in 1969.
Today, the museum is a living history center documenting early mountain life in Southern Tennesssee. Spread throughout its 65-acre site are more than 30 historic log cabins and other structures, each filled with authentic local artifacts. In fact, the museum boasts a total of more than 250,000 artifacts, many with Irwin’s hand-lettered signs explaining the history and background of each item.
Touring the grounds is like walking through an old Appalachian village: there are cabins, blacksmith shops, mills, a one-room schoolhouse, and a church among its structures. In addition, gardens and farm animals — plus a number of peacocks — give it the feel of a working farm.
The museum’s Appalachian Hall of Fame building includes displays of nearly everything imaginable from daily life in early Appalachia — musical instruments, farm machinery, weapons, toys, furniture, medicines, bibles, and even caskets are just a few of the items you’ll find there.
Due to his age, John Rice Irwin isn’t seen around the museum as often as in years past, but you’ll feel you know him through reading his hand-lettered labels in the hall of fame, and you’ll realize that in this place, his spirit, as well as the culture of early Appalachia, will always live on.
The Museum of Appalachia, located about 16 miles north of Knoxville, TN, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and is a Smithsonian affiliate. Adult admission is $18; check website for discount, childrens’, and group rates.
Museum of Appalachia
2819 Andersonville Highway
Clinton, TN 37716
Tennessee tourism: http://www.tnvacation.com/
PHOTO GALLERY (Glen Abbott photos):
Glen Abbott is a New Orleans-based freelance travel writer/photographer. Visit his blog at www.TravelinGringo.com. This summer series for NolaVie explores driving destination suggestions for New Orleans travelers.