This ain’t Dollywood – There’s golden lore in them thar hills
Just north of Knoxville, up the road from Oak Ridge and the Bull Run Steam Plant, the wending Clinch and Tennessee rivers, past the Sinking Springs Methodist Church and the famed Norris Dam, off the Andersonville Highway, sprawls the internationally renowned Museum of Appalachia. The founder, John Rice Irwin, is working hard today — putting up a new building with “the boys,” waiting on a surveyor to show up, and, later, bringing a newborn lamb into the gift shop from the snow to warm it by the fire. There are chickens to feed, a garden to be worked — ” I could make my supper tonight outta that garden, on turnips and carrots, ” he says — and exhibits to update. Everywhere he looks, John Rice finds things to be done.
Over the phone he asks who my daddy is. That he knows him is not an oddity. It’s a closely knit community, Anderson County. Folks know each other because of what they do, who their parents are, where they live and go to church. Later, at the Museum’s restaurant just off the gift shop, as we lunch on pintos, slaw, broccoli casserole, and cornbread, we talk. Actually, I answer questions. “What kinda music do you like?” “Do you know who Doc Watson is?” “Have you seen my chicks?” “Didn’t your daddy grow up on a farm? His mother still living?” (Very much alive, my grandmother, upon her visit to the Museum, said, “Shit! This ain’t no different than what we had.” The very stamp of authenticity.)
This place ain’t Dollywood, a fun-filled amusement park with gaudy lights, rides, shows, and people in funky outfits who take them off when the park gates close at night. The Museum of Appalachia, a 60-acre working farm and living village, is a lifeway in itself. The vegetable gardens are worked to feed the Irwin family and neighbors; classes are offered in quilting, basketry and other pioneer crafts; animals are tended; buildings are constructed and repaired; friends drop by to visit or lend a hand; and the Museum’s band members often stroll the grounds, playing. It is here that John Rice writes his books, prepares his lectures, works side by side with his wife and daughter. And it is here that his friend Alex Haley spent the last years of his life.
John Rice Irwin, educator, farmer, author, businessman and archivist, began the Museum in one little building in the late 1960s. His commitment to preserving the old ways has illuminated an international public, who for the last three decades have come to visit and learn. Armed with a map, a visitor takes a self-guided tour around the gardens and livestock (cattle, horses, sheep, fowl) to observe the daily routine, listen to fiddlers, see the original dwellings of early settlers (many of which have been carefully moved and restored from their original location, including the Tennessee home of Mark Twain’s family), antiquated jail cells, old-time barns, and trade shops filled with handmade tools.
In the Hall of Fame and the Display Barn, a visitor can see such relics as looms, farm tools, baskets, Native American pottery and trade beads, an abundance of musical instruments, folk art from the self-taught, antique furnishings and quilts. Each environment or item on display has been collected, researched, authenticated, often refurbished. Background information is provided by mostly hand-lettered signs, which supply details on such pieces as a man’s glass eye, a decorated wooden bedspread smoother, an early-20th-century dental office, a glorious antique toy collection, or the birth of Redd Stewart’s “Tennessee Waltz”.
Special events are scheduled throughout the year; the largest, the annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming, has been held each of the last 17 years, beginning the second full weekend in October. The Homecoming includes music in old-time mountain tradition, folk, gospel and bluegrass, as well as buck dancing and clogging. There are craftsmen and women, a local and regional writer’s table, genealogical guides for finding one’s kinfolk, hymn singing in the log church, sheep herding, country food tasting and many other activities in addition to the Museum’s year-round exhibits. Last year, performers included Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, Grandpa and Ramona Jones, John Hartford, Janette Carter (yes, of those Carters), Jimmy Driftwood, and the Museum of Appalachia Band, of which John Rice Irwin is a member.
Music as language and focal point of recreation figures prominently. In one large room surrounded with guitars, banjos, dulcimers and other Appalachian instruments from old to current times, one finds the chronicled history of country music. There is Roy Acuff’s fiddle and memorabilia, Red Rector’s mandolin case, and the story of WNOX, Tennessee’s first radio station (which launched the careers of Chet Atkins, Kitty Wells and the Louvin Brothers, among others). The room’s center is dedicated to Bill Monroe and the Carter Family. Beside Sister Helen’s accordion is a bible that belonged to Irwin’s cousin. Open, it displays a black and white photo glued inside the cover; the attending placard reads, “No self-respecting Christian would ever desecrate their Bible by pasting a picture in it — unless of course, it was of the revered Carter Family.”
Essentially, however, Irwin has placed his emphasis not on the famous, but on those whose precious lives could easily have faded beyond recognition if not for his devotion.
“Pictured here are my friends: The warm, happy, independent folk of Southern Appalachia, they are my people and the people I love, and it was because of them and hundreds like them that I started the Museum of Appalachia — and it is to them that this Hall of Fame is dedicated.” — John Rice Irwin
So reads the hand-lettered sign upon entry to the Museum of Appalachia’s Hall of Fame, the first official stop on the self-guided tour that makes up this amazing homage to the past, looking forward through the window of understanding, knowledge, honor. Below the sign are labeled black and white photographs; largely, elderly mountain folk smiling out from weathered faces in their worn clothing, eyes focused on their friend, John Rice, who has snapped the photo, listened intently, and recognized their contribution to a rich tradition of living with grace.