Visiting the Museum of Appalachia was the perfect ending to our exploring the states in the Appalachian mountains. Of all the museums we have visited on our travels, this is one of the best. It is also the place to get the most complete understanding of Appalachian culture and daily life. So, what is the Museum of Appalachia? It is a living history museum on 65 acres that includes a recreated pioneer farm village with 35 buildings. There are cabins, barns, a church, school, gristmill, smokehouse, sawmill and corn crib to name a few. Many farm animals live here including goats, sheep, chickens, horses, peacocks and donkeys like the friendly little guy in the photo below.
There are three main exhibit buildings, the Appalachian Hall of Fame, Display Barn and People’s Building that house collections of photos, folk art, musical instruments, tools, and items related to the daily lives of the people. There is so much here to see, that it takes the better part of a day. And since I liked it so much and have of course so many photos I want to show, I thought I would write two blog posts on the museum.
Before venturing out to look at the exhibits we had an early lunch in the excellent on-site restaurant located in the same building as the gift shop. The food is homemade country cooking and oh so good that locals come here just to eat on a regular basis. We couldn’t resist coming back on another day to eat here again before we left the area. Each day they have different plate lunch specials with a nice variety of sides to choose from. The desserts are awfully good too. In the photo below is a plate of chicken and dressing casserole, sweet potatoe casserole, turnip greens and cornbread.
On certain days the museum features live music and we were fortunate to hear the “Tenos” on one of our visits. This family group of five gathered themselves in the middle of the gift shop and played some amazing bluegrass music while we and others ate lunch and listened. In between playing, they posed for this picture for Mark. The young man with his back to us played his mandolin the whole time with the gift shop’s cat on his lap.
The museum is in a beautiful forested setting and this was our view from the dining area looking out at the barn and gristmill in the distance.
The museum is the work of one man, John Rice Irwin, an educator and businessman descended from early pioneers in this part of Tennessee who acquired and moved historic buildings to this property to preserve them. What is amazing is that he did this over a period of 50 years, traveling backroads and collecting thousands of everyday items that had belonged to the mountain people of Southern Appalachia. It was important to him that the structures appear authentic, as if the families had just used or lived in them, so many of them are furnished in the period. The museum began in 1969 with one structure and has since grown to many more. In this post, I wanted to share about some of the buildings we saw and the interesting stories we learned.
Tom Cassidy was a musician who lived alone in this tiny one room shack for the last few decades of his life. If he stretched his arms out, he could almost touch both walls of his eight foot by eight foot home. Although tiny, it was enough for Tom who reported, “I’ve got that little cot in there, a chair, a stove for heat and cooking, a frying pan, a bean pot, an old dresser, my fiddle and my pistol. What more does a man need?” When the museum acquired the shack in 2007, it was just as Tom had left it. Looking at the inside of this tiny dwelling made our small trailer not seem as small any more!
Located here is the cabin of Mark Twain’s parents who lived in “Possum Trot” in Tennessee’s Appalachian Mountains. The Twain family made this home until moving to Missouri where the younger Twain grew up. Speculation remains as to whether he actually lived here as a child or if he was born after the move to Missouri. It was interesting to see his humble origins, especially after Mark and I saw the fancy home he purchased with his wife in Hartford, Connecticut.
The Peters Homestead House was built in 1840. In 1856, Cordelia Peters, “Aunt Cordie” was born in this log house and lived here her whole life, giving birth to nine children. She died in 1943 at the age of 87. The house was donated by an heir and moved from the original location. Below are two photos of the home.
One of the more unique exhibits is the whiskey still of “Popcorn” Sutton, a lifelong moonshiner who was considered the last living authority on the subject. He wrote and published his autobiography called, “Me and My Likker.” He actually built the still here on museum property. In 2009, at the age of 62, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for his moonshine activities, but he took his own life before he went to prison. His wife discovered his body in his Ford Fairlane and commented, “He called it his 3-jug car because he gave 3 jugs of liquor for it.”
At a young age, General Bunch helped his father build this house where he lived with his eleven siblings in two rooms. The last time he visited the museum he talked of his early years: “I was just eight years old, but I drug the logs in from the mountains with a yoke of oxen. We had to walk twelve miles across the mountains to the nearest store where we could buy a bag of salt.”
I hope you enjoyed this peek at the lives of the Southern Appalachian people. I will close with this photo of a wagon from a former medicine show. These old time shows featured music and plenty of tonics to cure every known ailment.