Editor’s note: Retired The Country Today Editor Jim Massey and his wife, Anne, recently traveled to Tennessee to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While there, they stopped at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tenn. Their visit is the basis of this story.
CLINTON, Tenn. — To Elaine Irwin Meyer and her children, John Meyer and Lindsey Meyer Gallaher, their work at the Museum of Appalachia is more than just a 9-to-5 job. They are carrying on the legacy of Elaine’s father, John Rice Irwin, who for decades kept alive the stories of the people of Appalachia through the memorabilia that he collected from throughout the region.
The museum, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2019, portrays an authentic mountain farm and pioneer village, with about three dozen historic log structures, several exhibit buildings filled with thousands of authentic Appalachian artifacts and free-range animals surrounded by split-rail fences.
Three multi-story exhibit buildings house more than 250,000 artifacts of folk art, musical instruments, baskets, quilts, Native American memorabilia and much more.
The collection of buildings and artifacts was amassed over half a century by John Rice Irwin, who traveled back roads and collected thousands of items from the mountain folk of southern Appalachia.
Irwin was a country school superintendent who began collecting the artifacts as a hobby, never dreaming his collection would grow to the scale that it eventually reached.
“It was always his desire to make sure folks were not forgotten in this area,” said his grandson, John Meyer, who works full time at the museum as the farm liaison and public event planner. “He always wanted to collect the stories behind the artifacts. He would rather take an item not valuable in the eyes of an antique dealer as long as it had a history.”
His wife eventually told him to stop bringing the artifacts into their home, so he began collecting old log structures from the region and storing the items there.
“Folks began stopping by to see what he had, and my mom and her sister eventually put a gas station bell in the driveway so when someone would drive in, they could go out and show people the artifacts,” Meyer said. “That’s how it began.”
The museum officially opened in 1969 and has been a work in progress ever since. It was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2001 and was granted permanent status as a publicly supported organization in 2003, ensuring its long-term sustainability.
It sits on 68 acres just outside the Anderson County community of Clinton.
The museum now operates under a board of directors, with Meyer’s mother, Elaine Irwin Meyer, as the executive director, and his sister, Lindsey Meyer Gallaher, as the board secretary.
For 38 years, the museum hosted the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a large music festival that featured nationally known musicians. The five-day event generally drew between 40,000 and 50,000 people a year.
“It became a lot for our nonprofit organization to manage,” John Meyer said. “It’s hard to recover if you have a year of inclement weather and low attendance. Instead of focusing so many resources on one event, we decided to emphasize the museum as a whole and space out six or seven public events throughout the year.”
Events now include a sheep shearing day in April, a barn dance in May, an Independence Day Anvil Shoot in July, an antique show in September, a Halloween event in October, Fall Heritage Days in November and a Candlelight Christmas in December.
John said some people tell them they need to update their displays with more technologically advanced features, but they have decided to keep things simple, maintaining the handwritten notes attached to artifacts — many written by his grandfather — that tell the story behind the piece.
“We love that part of what we offer — it’s a personal touch rather than something that is automated,” he said.
The notes often tell who owned the artifact, when and how it was created or obtained and how it was used.
Starting from a single log structure, the museum has grown over five decades to include buildings such as a cabin once inhabited by the parents of author Mark Twain, and buildings that would be found on a typical pioneer Appalachian farm, such as a smokehouse, corn crib, mill, underground dairy, blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, log church, broom and rope shop, leather shop and a loom house. All are fully equipped with materials that were contemporary for the time.
The display barn houses one of the nation’s largest collections of pioneer frontier relics, along with a fully stocked general store and a rural post office.
The Appalachian Hall of Fame features famous or otherwise colorful individuals from the Appalachian region, including Roy Acuff, Cordell Hunt, Grandpa Jones and Uncle Dave Macon.
The People’s Building includes an extensive folk art exhibit that features woodworking, murals, jugs and furniture from the region.
Some structures on the grounds are as old as the late-1700s.
Museum founder John Rice Irwin was a descendant of the region’s early settlers. His family moved several times before settling in the Anderson County area.
Irwin noticed that buyers at auctions would often remove the items from their historical context, and he decided that items’ true value lay in the history of their usage. He spent countless weekends seeking out remote communities around the region in search of pioneer relics, which were the beginning of his yard and garage display.
John Meyer said one of his grandfather’s best friends was Alex Haley, a civil rights activist and author of “Roots,” who bought property and moved nearby.
“They both had a love of preserving the history of those who came before them,” Meyer said.
Meyer said although his grandfather had a keen sense of history and how to preserve it, he didn’t necessarily have a vision for how it should be displayed in perpetuity. Many of the buildings have been pieced together as the collections have grown and upkeep is difficult.
“It’s a constant struggle to keep ahead of the upkeep on the buildings,” he said. “And of course as a nonprofit, we are always understaffed.”
The full-time staff includes a kitchen crew that serves homestyle lunches to the public every day.
Meyer credits his mother for continuing her father’s legacy of preserving the region’s history.
“She’s given her life to this place,” he said. “She’s still here five or six days a week overseeing things. It’s definitely a family affair.”
The museum offers daily self-guided tours. It is available for group and school tours, educational programs, weddings and parties, corporate events and facility rentals.