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John Rice Irwin's Museum of Appalachia

Bluegrass At Its Roots

Bill Brown and Mike Fleming

I hold the strong conviction that the true breed of diminishing mountain folk of Southern Appalachia are among the most admirable people in the world. I have always loved these people, even as a child. Social events I never attended, but instead I hunted, worked, or visited with the old people of the community, including my four grandparents who were all descendants of the early pioneers who settled in Big Valley in East Tennessee in the 1700s.
The sons and daughters of the pioneers of Appalachia abounded in gentleness, kindness, and compassion; and were without pretentiousness. I think those were their prominent and, of course, most admirable traits. They were also imaginative, resourceful, and possessed much native acumen.
My interest and respect for the mountain folk of the beautiful Southern Appalachian region sparked my interest in collecting relics depicting their heritage. What better way was there to illustrate their culture, and to understand their past? My grandfather, Marcellus Moss Rice, had a profound appreciation for his pioneer ancestors, and he had an interesting array of primitive items, an accumulation from three or four generations. When I was quite young he started giving my brother, David, and me some of the ancient relics, stating that we "ought to start a little museum of these old-timey things sometime."
For well over a quarter century, I have traversed the most remote traces of Appalachia collecting hundreds of thousands of frontier and pioneer relics. I have come to know several hundred of these mountain people, and many of them are on the "lookout" for unusual and antiquated items which I might be able to purchase.
It was my intention not to develop this museum in the cold, formal, lifeless manner the word "museum" often connotes, but, rather I have striven for the "lived in" effect. I have, above all else, striven for authenticity and have tried to make the Bunch house, the Armwine cabin and the other dwellings appear as if the family has just strolled down to the spring to fetch the daily water supply.
John Rice Irwin
Museum of Appalachia
Since the 1950's, John Rice Irwin, whose background includes a degree in international law, along with public school teaching and administration, has devoted a great deal of his time and energy to collecting the relics of his ancestors. The collection was initially stored in his garage but soon expanded to the surrounding grounds. The first major acquisition was an authentic log cabin which Irwin moved to his site and meticulously rebuilt, restored and furnished as it would have been a century or more before. Today the Museum boasts of some 40 pioneer-type buildings and well over a quarter of a million items. There is a working farm which includes livestock and well-kept gardens. The primitive buildings include several log cabins once used as homesteads as well as other log structures such as corn cribs, smoke houses, schools, churches, and blacksmith shops, all complete with authentic furnishings, tools and personal items.
The 65 acres currently covered by the exhibits include not only the cabins, barns, outbuildings and livestock pens, but also the Hall of Fame and the Main Display Barn. In particular, the Museum of Appalachia is the labor of love of a man with a grand vision of locating, collecting, documenting and displaying the artifacts which so vividly capture the primitive, hard scrabble conditions endured by the settlers of this area.
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