John Rice Irwin is a remarkable man--a man of vision and passion--passion for preserving the mountain way of life. Although in his early years, some thought his passion was excessive, and that may have been putting it mildly.
Irwin, a former teacher and superintendent of schools, early in life was inspired by the beauty of the mountains and valleys of Anderson, TN,. He began collecting and preserving small bits of the culture. However, there was a time when Irwin’s family thought his passion was bordering on insanity.
“My four grandparents gave me my original appreciation for the mountain way of life...The collection started in 1962 when I went to an auction at the old Miller homestead on the Clinch River just below the Norris Dam. Somebody was bidding on an old cedar churn, and I heard them say they wanted to make a lamp out of it. Somebody else wanted an old wagon seat to make into a table.
“I thought, “How terrible! These things are part of our heritage and culture.” I started making trips into the mountains, buying almost everything I could. Eventually I got the old General Burch Cabin, rebuilt it, and furnished it in meticulous detail just the way it should be. I bought a second cabin, and a third.”
He bought many items and some were given to him. Soon his garage was filled and he kept buying and collecting. At one point, his family had a meeting to try to figure out how to slow down his spending and somehow limit the time he was spending on the process, including hours he spent with the hill people he learned to love.
He kept learning, buying, and collecting, and now his family is glad he did. What started as an exhibit in two buildings has turned into an authentic Appalachian village, a unique monument to the mountain lifestyle, and in the process the stately appearing Irwin has himself become a legend.
His 65-acre Museum of Appalachia near Norris contains a collection of more than 35 authentic log cabins and buildings, including the Tennessee home of Mark Twain.
“It’s easy enough to bring in an old log cabin, set it up and get everything right from a structural standpoint,” said Irwin la few years ago as we shared lunch in the museum restaurant, which serves food raised in the three gardens on the grounds. ”It is much more difficult to get every item just the way it should be. It is such things as the handmade corner cupboard and the little items on the shelves that really represent the culture of the people in this area.”
Irwin has been building his unique museum, which now is operated by a non-profit organization, for more than 30 years. However with a grin, he acknowledged it all started as a hobby which got out and control and took over his life.
“The truth is that I never had any idea of establishing a museum,” he added. The artifacts he collected number more than a quarter million.
At age 80, John Rice has retired from active management at the museum. He has nearly completed an autobiography, which will be published next.
The museum’s annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming is held the second full weekend of October (this year Oct. 7-9) and attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. It has some of the country’s top bluegrass and gospel bands and stars performing throughout the event on five different stages.
John Rice plans to attend the homecoming, and will sign his previously written books.
Located 16 miles north of Knoxville, it is only one mile off I75, and is open daily except Christmas Day. It is about a five-hour drive from this area, so an overnight stay is advised to have enough time to fully enjoy the museum.
Free brochures and more information may be obtained by calling 865-494-7680. There also is a website at www.museumofappalachia.org