The Southern Appalachia village people were an isolated tribe that made due with the resources they had and they are now the centric point of The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton.



Flashback To An Isolated Yet Self Sustaining Community

The Museum of Appalachia Is 65 Acres Of Living History Recreating Experiences Inherent To An Old Mountain Village, Such As The Barn Dance & Candlelight Christmas

Pumpkin rings hung up to dry on the Appalachian-centric farm [Courtesy/Museum Of Appalachia]

It's one thing when Oprah comes to visit a museum. Or Jane Fonda. But to have Alex Haley, the author of Roots, not only come to visit but purchase a farm across the street because he was so enthralled with the place, that's when it's apparent that a museum is more than just a collection of facts and stories. The Museum of Appalachia is definitely more than that: It's history come to life.

The 65 acre living history museum allows visitors to step back into an 1800s Southern Appalachia village. There's 35 log cabins, barns, churches, schools, gardens and over 250,000 artifacts. But it also contains the souls and stories of the people who lived in those cabins. Who used those artifacts. Who made them.

“What's very interesting is that everything they had, they made themselves,” said founder John Rice Irwin's grandson Will Meyer. “When you think about that, it makes sense. They were isolated. Mostly poor. They made due with what they had. But even entertainment – arts and instruments – were made out of cans and toilet seats. Everything they had was totally dependent on whether or not they could create it.”

There are tens of thousands of artifacts at the museum, but the instruments stand out to Meyer and visitors alike for their unique innovation. There's a hand can banjo that sticks out in Meyer's mind.

He explained: “It's the idea of not being able to go out and buy a banjo – they can't even get to a big city – so they took something they already used. It's that resourcefulness.” 

Two kids work together to cross cut saw a log [Photo Credit: Stephanie Richer]
The Mark Twain Family Cabin at Museum of Appalachia [Courtesy/Museum Of Appalachia]

In the world people live in today, Southern Appalachia is often a community and time that many people don't think about. With the world at their fingertips, it's hard to even imagine not having access to the bare essentials.

“Today, people don't really understand where they come from or why they do the things they do,” said Meyer. “This gives them a sense of that, in a culture where it's not encouraged to take a step back and look. In this test-heavy culture, things that people aren't quizzed on are often neglected. This museum can give people of all ages an appreciation for their culture and history.”

While the grounds truly come alive during special events – like the Tennessee Fall Homecoming that took place on Oct. 7 and 8 – with a variety of demonstrations (cross cut sawing, tea making, spinning, weaving, blacksmithing), it takes no more than stepping into the museum to feel immersed in the primitive village.

The grounds are set up to feel like an authentic village. There's the homestead. The corn mill. The smokehouse where they would have hung meat. Said Meyer: “You really feel like you're there.”

This was a simple time. They were self-sufficient. Humble. But they were thriving, said Meyer. They didn't have much, but they were appreciative. The morning before the interview, Meyer actually heard a guest say, “What happened to them during the Great Depression?”

A tour guide answered: “What Depression?    They didn't even know there was a Depression!” 

Not only did they already live that way, but they didn't think that way. They didn't pine for more. They didn't feel lacking. There's a strong message for people, no matter where they come from: “Rely on yourself. Love those around you.” 

Performers for the Tennessee Fall Homecoming on the Stewart Family-Wilson Stage [Courtesy/Museum Of Appalachia]
Dan'l Boone Cabin decorated for Christmas [Photo Credit: Nell Moore]
Howard Tuggle cooking supper the old fashioned way [Courtesy/Museum Of Appalachia]

Meyer has been working at the living history museum for about three years. But he's been coming to the museum his entire life. What's kept him fascinated throughout the years is the rich history and strong sense of culture.

“I love seeing people marvel at this way of life,” he explained. “You really feel you're doing something of value when you work here.”

His favorite exhibit is the Hall Of Fame, a building that contains stories about all kinds of people from the region, from the famous to the just plain interesting. There are musicians. There's a man who lived in a cave his entire life. One who lived in a tree.

The story of pioneer Alex Stewart is a prime example of the spirit of the people that lived in Southern Appalachia. He was a father of 13, a logger, a farmer and a railroad man. Despite not having any former education, he “did more than 10 men could do” just from learning and observing.

Everywhere guests turn is an ode to the strong will – the spirit – of this community. And that's all thanks to Irwin.

He never had a “grand plan” to start a museum of any kind.

 An educator and school superintendent, Irwin began collecting artifacts and their stories during his trips throughout the mountains. One day, he also purchased a cabin. He filled the cabin – which was outside his house – with items he found and charged people a dime to come see it.

It grew from there until it became a full time job.

Now a non-profit, the Museum of Appalachia is a fascinating and interactive look back at a much simpler time. A time when a toilet seat could be seen as part of an instrument. A time where the entire family would play together outside their humble cabin, not worried about what they didn't have or what the rest of the world was doing.

And just for a moment, visitors can feel the same way as they walk across the grounds, surrounded by the soul and spirit of the Southern Appalachian community’s past.

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

Clinton / Knoxville North KOA

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Clinton / Knoxville North KOA, which conveniently by I-75. Enjoy a spacious swimming pool, deluxe cabins, camping cabins, tent sites, exercise room, expanded playground, volleyball, horseshoes and cornhole.

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