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 affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. Historical cabins, barns, privy, loom house and blacksmith shop create the feel of a 19th-century farm and Appalachian village spread over 65 acres. A “hall of fame” building – my favorite – is stuffed with amazing things, each with a story.
Elaine Irwin Meyer, the founder’s daughter, says the museum was started as the outpouring of her schoolteacher dad’s “hobby gone crazy” – collecting Appalachian artifacts. It’s clear that John Irwin’s little hobby saved precious artifacts and buildings from the trash can or bulldozer.
Here are my favorites:
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 Gol 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 Lord’s Prayer is embroidered in the center.
The stunning, huge Cherokee Rivercane Basket is evocative of Western North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains. The cane was dyed with bloodroot for the light design and butternut root for the dark.
“Ezra George’s Hog Scalding Kettle,” the sign says. The huge kettle has no date on it.
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