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Everyday artifacts are lovingly preserved in quirky Museum of Appalachia

By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press

CLINTON, Tenn.: The Museum of Appalachia is the best kind of museum. It hums with warmth and humor. Everything has a story. It’s the right size. It allows wandering. And it surprises. A glass eye! A hog kettle! And little handmade toys that will touch your heart.

With a collection amassed by one man, John Rice Irwin, it opened as a museum in 1969 and is now a nonprofit and affiliated with the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.

Here, historical cabins, barns, privy, loom house and blacksmith shop create the feel of a 19th-century farm and Appalachian village spread over 65 acres.

There also is a “hall of fame” building, my favorite, stuffed with amazing things, each with a story behind it.

Elaine Irwin Meyer, the founder’s daughter and now president, says her favorite object is a crib made by her great-grandfather and used by five generations, including her own children.

In fact, the museum was started, she says, not as a deliberate venture but as the outpouring of her schoolteacher dad’s “hobby gone crazy” — collecting Appalachian artifacts. (John Rice Irwin is still alive and living in a retirement facility.)

“Really, the buildings came as an afterthought,” she said. “We had all this stuff piled in our garage growing up. It became so much that it grew out from the garage to the yard. He put a tarp on it, but my mom thought it was hideous and said we were going to get rid of it. Then he started collecting cabins to get his stuff out of the garage and have someplace to store it.”

After the museum opened, it became clear that because of John Irwin’s little hobby, precious artifacts and buildings evocative of fleeting, hard and joyful mountain life had been saved from the trash can or bulldozer.

“People love it once they get there and see what we are trying to do,” Meyer said. “No matter where they come from, they appreciate their ancestors more, the way they persevered.”

Here are my favorite parts:

• Mark Twain Family Cabin: This small, sturdy log cabin was originally in Possom Trot in nearby Fentress County. It was author Mark Twain’s parents’ cabin. He was born eight months after the family left Tennessee in 1835. Irwin tracked the cabin down after years of searching.

• Gol Cooper’s glass eye: Gol Cooper, 6, was bending down to tie a shoelace in 1910 when it snapped, flinging the pocket knife in his hand into his left eye. His dad had a glass eye made that he wore the rest of his life. The family donated the eye and pocket knife to the museum after Gol died.

• Loom House and Privy: The privy is a two-holer, fancy for the turn-of-the-century times. The loom house came from nearby Raccoon Valley. Some homesteads had a separate building for weaving and spinning, although most mountain women did their weaving at home.

• Lord’s Prayer quilt: Dating from about the 1890s and made by “Granny Irwin,” this Victorian crazy quilt was used by the family only at Christmas. The quilt includes depictions of animals and familiar items like a fiddle, dog, chickens, butterflies. The Lord’s Prayer is embroidered in the center.

• Egg basket: The beautiful basket was woven by “old basket maker Maston King,” who lived in a nearby Union County village aptly called Poor Land. The museum is heaven for basket lovers, with many, many examples of locally made and American Indian baskets.

• Cherokee basket: The stunning, huge Cherokee Rivercane Basket is evocative of western North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains. Made by either Rowena Bradley or Eva Wolfe (they’re not sure), the cane was dyed with blood root for the light design and butternut root for the dark.

• Peters Homestead House: Musicians sit on the porch of the cabin that was moved from Lutrell in Union County. It dates from about 1840 and was owned by Nathaniel Peters, then daughter Cordelia. Behind it is the Parkey Blacksmith Shop. The Parkeys were African-American business owners.

• Hog kettle: “Ezra George’s Hog Scalding Kettle,” the sign says. The huge kettle has no date on it, and later generations didn’t know what their earlier relatives had used it for, but they used it to scald hogs outside their home in the Graveston Community near Knoxville.

• Toy tractor: This wooden toy tractor with wheels made of adhesive tape cans dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s. It and many tiny tools were made by a local man, Luther Clear, for his grandson Luther Pyle. The sign says “The Gripping Saga of An Old Man and his Only Grandchild.”

• Gift Shop/Visitors Center: Colorful quilts are among the offerings at the museum gift shop, where items made by local crafters are sold. The building also features an antique shop and small cafe.


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