The founder and president of the Museum of Appalachia, John Rice Irwin, is a certified genius. He received his certification in 1989 from the MacArthur Foundation, the outfit in Chicago that hands out money to worthy folks.
The media has dubbed these awards “genius grants.” The prizes are given mainly to authors and academic scholars. You can’t apply for a MacArthur Award; you just get one, out of the blue, like manna from heaven, based on a mysterious selection process. You’re free to spend the cash however you want.
One day in 1989 Irwin picked up the phone in his cramped little office and spoke to a MacArthur representative who offered him $250,000 plus a little extra for taxes. Irwin is not the most excitable fellow ever born. He replied, “OK.” He received the check in the mail, and, like a true genius, plowed the cash back into his all-consuming life’s work: the museum. He’s poured a lot of money into the place over the years, and today, it’s a lovely little empire, tucked into the hill country of eastern Tennessee. The Museum of Appalachia (museumofappalachia.org) covers more than 100 acres, with several dozen buildings and tens of thousands of artifacts. Irwin welcomes about 100,000 visitors a year to the facility, near Knoxville, Tenn., just off Interstate 75.
Compiling the collection
The museum’s story begins in the early 1960s, when Irwin, a native of the region, was seized with a mission: to display objects that the people of eastern Tennessee, especially mountain folk, made and used over the centuries. Such items were not well known in an era of mass merchandising.
In search of good stuff, Irwin traveled the area’s back roads, knocked on doors, and talked to people about items they didn’t use anymore and that they might wish to sell: banjos, fiddles, quilts, butter churns, farm tools, coal mining equipment, kitchen pots, and wagons; materials associated with moon-shining, weaving, beekeeping, tanning, old-time revivals, and general stores. Things made of wood, leather, stone, cotton, iron, rope, and clay. Little or nothing made of plastic or synthetics.
Irwin’s collection is jaw-dropping, ranging from Civil War paraphernalia to a saddle used for decades by an Appalachian midwife. He’s collected old coffins, log cabins, hand-carved toys, fascinating folk art, and a display case full of dried plants used as herbal remedies. Also, the museum hosts a major bluegrass music festival every October.
Irwin’s interest in the material culture of the region has deep roots. His ancestors arrived in Tennessee in 1784 and became farmers. As he grew up in comfortable circumstances on the family homestead, Irwin felt especially close to his grandparents, who lived nearby. Grandfather Rice owned a lot of tools. One day the old man told his grandson, “You ought to keep these old tools that belonged to our people and start a museum one day.”
Irwin dates the exact start of the museum to 1962. He was married, had two daughters, and was working as a teacher and school district official. Hearing about an estate auction a few miles down the road, on the Clinch River, he attended out of curiosity and got interested in an old wooden bucket that had been fished out of a river during a flood many years earlier. He liked the look of the thing and the story behind it, so he bought it. Meanwhile, another person at the sale purchased an old spinning wheel, and talked about converting it into a coffee table. Irwin was shocked. “I just plain hated the idea of that object being hauled to Terre Haute or Dayton and made into a table”—he spits out the word—“completely removed from the context of the region, and from the people who made it and used it.”
Over the following weeks he decided to buy a few artifacts—only a handful of items—from local folks, just to make sure they were properly preserved. He discovered he loved collecting. He couldn’t stop. People started showing up at his door wanting to see his stuff, and he welcomed them. In the late 1960s he began charging admission. He got some good publicity from a big article in Reader’s Digest in the ’70s and got another boost from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville.
John Rice, as he’s known, is 79 now and slowed by health problems, but he’s still supervising many aspects of his creation. (His daughter, Elaine I. Meyer, is executive director of the museum.) Rice is a white-haired gentleman with courtly manners, tooling around on a golf cart, making sure the leaves get raked off the back path. He examines the objects he’s accumulated and tells their stories lovingly, at great length, just as you would expect of a certified genius.
Bob Frost is a regular contributor to the magazine.
If You Go
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Celebrates 75th Anniversary this Year
The nation’s most visited national park is located about 90 minutes from the Museum of Appalachia. Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than 500,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina. The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and there’s a full calendar of events at greatsmokies75th.org.
Sections of the park can be toured by car. One of the most popular destinations is Cades Cove, an 11-mile loop that also features hiking, biking, and horseback riding, and camping for tents and RVs. (The park has seven group campsites; camping is also available in the back country.) The park’s hiking trails range from easy to strenuous, from half-hour strolls to major week-long backpacking treks. Cabin rentals are available on the outskirts of the park. October is very busy in the area because of the glorious autumn colors.
Gatlinburg, Tenn., is a main gateway to the park; Townsend, Tenn., also a gateway, has considerably less traffic and features an excellent restaurant in Miss Lily’s Cafe. Try the barbecue. For dining in Knoxville try Litton’s Market, Restaurant & Bakery. For lodging in Norris (near the Museum of Appalachia) try The Cabin on Cedar Ridge and the cabins at Norris Dam State Park.
A good resource for visitors who want to spend a couple of days and nights at the park is Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (gsmit.org). The National Park Service has a comprehensive website: nps.gov/grsm. For more information, log on to friendsofthesmokies.org, or go online to the Tennessee Department of Tourism at tnvacation.com.
Museum of Appalachia
P. O. Box 1189
Norris, TN 37716