The Museum of Appalachia

In Gallivan's Travels on March 22, 2019 at 8:38 pm

Sometimes, a short trip in the wrong direction is the right thing to do.
We camped last night in Clinton, Tennessee and planned to head for Nashville this morning. But we decided to take a look first at something called the Museum of Appalachia. It was a short distance away, but north and east when we were going to go west.
We had slept late, so anything more than a short visit would mean getting to Nashville with only enough time to find our campsite and settle in. Exploration of the home of country music would have to wait another day. But we figured a short visit would be all we’d need.
The Museum of Appalachia is a collection of buildings spread over a couple of acres, with a walking path for a self-guided tour. Most of the structures contain artifacts collected mainly by the museum’s founder, John Rice Irwin, who also seems to have written most of the informative plaques and descriptive essays. Visitors are greeted along the path from the parking lot by two peacocks and eight peahens. They sit on and about a rail fence, unbothered by the comings and goings of humans.
Entrance to the museum is through the spacious gift shop and restaurant, where we greeted with such a cheery and assured welcome that we quite forgot that we had not yet decided to stay. But it was mid-morning and it did not look as though the small collection of buildings would take too much time to walk by and through.
At first that seemed to be the case. The first building we saw was an eight-foot wide cabin with nothing inside except, as the poster outside said, “a little cot . . . a stove for heating and cooking, a frying pan, a bean pot, an old dresser, (and a) fiddle.” Nest to it was a child’s play house with some dolls and pother toys inside.
But the third building was called the Appalachia Hall of Fame, and all hope of a quick visit disappeared.
The hall of Fame contains an extraordinary collection of artifacts and displays covering notable Appalachians, unusual local people, and objects covering the region’s history from the pre-settler tribes of the fifteenth century to the daily life of the early twentieth. There were handwoven baskets of exquisite design, hundreds of native arrowheads and spear points and hand axes, leather working tools, woodworking tools, looms and spinning wheels, beehives and beekeeping tools, and blacksmithing tools. At least half of them all were hand-made, jerry-rigged, personal, and extremely clever contraptions. There were displays dedicated to figures from bluegrass musical history that I had never heard of, but wish I had.
And there was the largest, most varied, and most eccentric collection I have ever seen of banjos, lutes, dulcimers, guitars, fiddles, and string music hybrids. There were instruments carved from a single piece of wood, constructed on gourds, and pieced together from every found object imaginable. There was the “ukaweewee,” a banjo with had been constructed with a stainless-steel bed pan for, appropriately, the head. There was a fiddle built on the jawbone of a mule. Some showed how a desire to make music had forced people to build ugly, unwieldy instruments that later evolved into the elegant folk instruments of today. Others showed a level of craftsmanship and loving devotion we tend to associate with the great Violin-makers of Europe.
There were also displays dedicated to historical figures of note, including Sargent York, the Appalachian hero of World War I, who went to war despite his strong conviction that killing, even in war, was a terrible sin; and Cordell Hull, who was FDR’s Secretary of State, and who developed the first graduated income tax – his own tax return was on display – and was instrumental in the foundation of the United Nations.
We spent well over an hour in this one building before we emerged with a feeling that the rest of the tour would have to be a tad quicker.
We passed by some sheds and peered into a couple of steel boxes, free-standing jail cells with steel cots hanging from the inside and steel doors with locks. A sign outside talked of a couple of bad men who were taken from these cells to be hanged, which in hindsight may have been a fate less horrible than staying in the cells.
Then came the display barn.
The display barn houses what the brochure calls “one of the nation’s largest collections of frontier and pioneer memorabilia. From leather tanning to fabric-making to logging and the curing of meat in great hand-carved log troughs, the displays showed the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the Appalachian settlers. And the carvings! Whittlers and wood-carvers of all kinds shaped the plentiful wood of the region into everything from small, intricately details tools of everyday life to large human figures with square, stylized bodies and faces, but expressions that seemed perfectly drawn. There was a general store, and a small shack called the Medicine Cabin where a country doctor had only enough room for his medications and his desk, but from which he traveled all through the mountains, finding his patients far and wide. It was aid that he often slept in his saddle after a day on the trail and only woke when his horse reached the gate at home and rattle it until the doctor wakened.
There tools enormous and delicate. One display had a large collection of augers ranging from a three-inch gimlet to a ten- or fifteen-foot auger used for reaming out the wooden pipes that carried water from the mountain streams and lakes.
And there were the toys. They were dolls and dancing puppets and cup-and-balls and small, carved replicas of all the objects of daily life. Some were simply wooden models, others had working parts fashioned from whatever was around. One small tractor had rear wheels fashioned from two adhesive tape spools.
As we walked around, we overheard a young man visiting with a school group comment to a friend that these people must have had a lot of time on their hands. It was clear from what we saw, however, that the reality was just the opposite. These were people whose lives were so full of hardship and the labor of just living, that they filled a few moments here and there making their lives more beautiful, more creative, and more loving through the simple pleasures of turning the world around them into art.
When we finally cleared out of the barn, we had only just begun to walk along and look at and into barns, cribs, smokehouses, tiny cabins where large families lived and prospered. One four-room cabin had a photograph of a woman who had been born there (along with her siblings) and died there after raising nine children of her own. There was the schoolhouse and the church and the log mill and the corn mill and more personal stories than I can tell here of eccentrics and achievers who came from the mountains and valleys of Tennessee.
In the end, we lost track of time and stayed at the museum for three or four hours. It was well worth the thirty dollars it cost for the two of us to get in.
Finally, back on our way to Nashville, it was a fairly quiet drive down route 61 and onto I40.
I will, however end with one additional observation. The most difficult part of driving these mountains along the open interstate highways and some of the four-lane roads between, is the wind. The further west one goes, the more intensely it blows across the road. I suppose one gets used to it in time, but this life-long New Englander has not reached that point.

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