When John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia set about collecting historical items from the Appalachian people, he was able to gather 250,000 artifacts during a 50 year period. It is astounding that one man could accomplish so much and in the process bring to life the culture and daily life of so many people. I think he summed it up well when he quoted: “What better way is there to know a people than to study the everyday things they made, used, mended and cherished…and cared for with loving hands.” In the last post I focused on some of the buildings he preserved and in this one I want to focus on some of the collections he amassed in three large buildings. The Appalachian Hall of Fame Building gives tribute to the many accomplishments of these mountain people, some notable or famous and some not so much. Different than many museums, Mr. Irwin did not make fancy signboards with computerized lettering and flashy titles for his exhibits. That would have been rather difficult when the museum opened in 1969 and I liked that his original hand lettered signs and descriptions remain here. It really gives a feel of an older time and place.
Although the many collectibles here are beautiful and very interesting to see, it was the stories of the people that captivated me most. Stories like Dollie, 86 years old in the photo above who holds a little hand made basket given to her by a friend when they were both children. She had gathered eggs in this basket for 65 years. Or the story from Rowe Martin, a bachelor who used this chair to sit in with any women visitors. In his 80’s he sold the chair to Mr. Irwin because he reported he was too old to be interested.
There were so many stories to read that sometimes I had to move on and skip some for the sake of time. But some like the “The Thieving Pig Pie Safe” caught my attention. Once located in a hotel dining room, the owner of the safe kept butter that he bought from local farms. Back in the day there were no fence laws and cattle and hogs could legally run wild. A big old sow ran loose in the town looking for scraps and garbage and smelling the fresh butter, learned how to open the front door of the hotel and also the safe, grabbing a pound of butter. She would get caught with the butter in her mouth and be chased out with a broom. Each time she got in to the pie safe more latches were added until there were three, but they couldn’t keep her out of the butter. Problems like this finally led to the County passing a fence law.
Whittling or wood carving was one of the more popular past times for the Appalachian people and the Museum has many displays of this craft. The wood carvings pictured below were made by a man named Dow Pugh who created many pieces of people, Indians, snakes, fish and birds. He started this hobby one day after a log he carried in for the fire was too long so he left it on the hearth. A few days later he got his hatchet out and started “hewing” on it, creating some sort of man. “From there I just started fooling around with all sorts of things.” Mr. Pugh was surprised when Mr. Irwin was interested in buying his pieces for the Museum as he didn’t think anyone would be willing to pay money for the things he did “just to be doin.”
Musical instruments were a mainstay in the lives of the mountain people and here you will find large displays of homemade instruments. The unusual instruments were fun to see like the banjo made out of a bedpan (also called an Ukuweewee, in the lower part of the display case). Several instruments are made from gourds, like the two on the top of the display and the one on the bottom in the middle. And then there is the guitar made from the black commode seat, in the center. They certainly made good use of whatever they had!
When you lived in a Tennessee hollow without a telephone and needed to call someone, what did you use? Well, Granny Foust used this blowing horn, a very rare signal horn. If there was an emergency she could call for family who were miles away out in the fields or hunting. She could also call in the cattle or the hounds. According to newspaper accounts she lived to be 115. At one time when President Teddy Roosevelt visited the area she cooked him sweet potatoes, possum and cornbread.
There are many everyday items in the Museum hand made by the mountain people including baskets, quilts, clothes, furnishings, tools and pottery like the large collection of jugs and canning jars in the photo below.
Perhaps the display that surprised me the most was the eyeglass collection. I would not have thought that eyeglasses would have sentimental value, but for the Appalachians they did. When you saw a family member wear the same pair of glasses for years, it became part of their identity and something you did not get rid of after they passed. So the museum has several display cases filled with many types of old eyeglasses.
Here was something a little different, a man who decorated his whole house both inside and out with polka dots. Mr. Irwin thought that “Cedar Creek Charlie” was one of the more interesting characters he had encountered. He never learned to read or write and after taking care of his mother until she died, he started painting almost everything in sight with red, white and blue polka dots or stripes. Below is a photo of his bedroom.
Another unusual exhibit concerns Harrison Mayes, a coal miner who suffered a terrible accident and made a promise to God he would be a faithful servant if he survived. He found his calling in 1917 as a roadside evangelist by erecting concrete crosses and signs on roadways in 44 states. He made and installed them for 60 years, hand mixing and pouring concrete into homemade wooden molds in his backyard. Using his truck, he set out for the highways where he dug holes nearby and set the crosses in place.
One of his signs was particularly eye-catching as he planned to not only place signs throughout the United States but also in outer space.
In the photo below are some of the memorabilia from Mr. Mayes, including the bike dedicated to outer space that he hoped to ride on the moon and many of the planets to erect his signs.
Thanks for checking in and I hope you enjoyed some of the stories and artifacts of the Appalachian people!