Mountain Man

In the face of personal tragedy, Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin fights for the future of his creation

It is a lovely, temperate March afternoon at the scenic "living mountain village" that is the Museum of Appalachia, yet the day is not a happy one for museum founder John Rice Irwin. He has just laid to eternal rest Elizabeth Irwin, his wife of 53 years, who had been suffering with congestive heart failure after an enervating bout with breast cancer. And the fate of his museum, a staggeringly well-appointed cultural preserve fashioned from hard work, dreams, and the detritus of a dying way of life, is also in doubt. Rice recently told his board of directors that he can no longer continue to shore up funding with substantial regular contributions from his own pocket, as he has done for so many years.

Yet Irwin seems none the worse for the emotional wear; a little more thoughtful, perhaps, but still typically chatty and matter-of-fact. "Elizabeth would not approve of me coming down, dressed like this," he says of his patchwork ensemble—a tuxedo coat over a white shirt, grey slacks and the cowboy boots which, save for bedtime, never leave his feet—as he ambles back toward the kitchen in the museum entrance building. Opening the refrigerator, he considers its offerings with a keen eye, then samples some homegrown greens by hand straight out of the container, liberates a piece of cornbread, and finally settles on a plateful of greens, topped with a ladle of cold pintos.

Carol Ostrom, Irwin's personal secretary, says the 77-year-old collector/curator/visionary is putting on his best face: "He's just trying to stay busy." For his part, Irwin claims the years have allowed him to take even tragedy in better stride. "I'm more worried about Elaine, and how she's handling it," Irwin says of his daughter, the museum's executive director. "She was waiting on her mother day and night before she passed. She's the queen and angel of the museum now."

All of which leaves open the question of what will happen to MOA, which perennially runs five figures into the red, with Irwin himself now getting on in years, slowed by heart troubles and having already survived one bout with prostate cancer.

Of one thing Irwin is certain: The museum will continue to operate, even if its finances take another turn for the worse. "In a worst-case scenario, the museum would continue, but additions would stop," says Irwin, who remains on constant lookout for artifacts, old buildings and other potential new MOA exhibits. "We'd cut back on groundskeeping, cut back on the animals, cut back on the activities. There would be no more press releases about new things, and that's what keeps people coming back. Lots of big museums have gone this route, and then they've lost 30 to 40 percent of their attendance."

It would be tragic to diminish in any way the amazing complex Rice has built on 65 acres of pasture land in Norris just off Interstate 75 at Exit 122, including more than 35 authentic structures of various sizes—preserved log cabins and barns, animal pens and craftsman's shops, mills and smokehouses and corn cribs and a two-hole privy—plus thousands of exhibits, and dozens of animals that roam the compound freely. The MOA menagerie comprises fainting goats and guinea hens and pea fowl and turkeys and ducks and peacocks and horses, an enormous Scottish Highland Bull, and of course Freddie, John Rice Irwin's chubby little beagle, whose favorite roaming ground is the crumb-speckled floor of the country cafe inside the entrance building.

The museum's collection of preserved rural homes and farm facilities includes the cabin that once housed Mark Twain's parents and some of their children in Possum Trot, Tenn.; a pair of jail cells from Madisonville dating back to 1874; a hog house and hog lot taken from Claiborne County near the banks of the Powell River; a leather shop from Persia, Tenn.; an underground dairy; a log church from North Carolina; and the Big Tater Valley Schoolhouse, removed from its foundation next to Bull Run Creek between Union and Grainger Counties.

And it is perhaps fruitless to even attempt a right summation of MOA's many thousands of artifacts within the space of a single paragraph, from once-common household objects such as 19th century craftsman's tools to lost or secreted treasures, some of which may stretch even the 21st century imagination. Consider the trove of bizarre handmade Native American musical instruments in the Appalachian Hall of Fame; the leviathan cogs said to be liberated from a Confederate officer's grotto hideaway, the supposed remnants of a perpetual motion machine that some witnesses claim would run for days of its own volition, having been set off by a single push; the sundial that belonged to playwright Tennessee Williams' grandfather. Many of these alien relics would seem to offer indefatigable proofs of Irwin's thesis that, "The ingenuity of the southern Appalachian people is such that they could do almost anything they set their minds to."

The same could be said of Irwin and this museum, his life's work, a fabulous achievement that lies closer to his heart than perhaps anyone could understand. "He had a dream about that museum, and he followed that dream," says Cliff Stephens, a schoolteacher at Norris High School, Irwin's alma mater. "That museum represents years and years of dedication."

"I've had people tell me their lives were changed by visiting this museum," says Irwin. If that's true, perhaps it is the philosophy which underlies his achievement that is responsible for doing so.

According to Irwin, it's impossible to remove an object—any object—from the facts of its circumstance without robbing it of its meaning. "Most museums emphasize the intrinsic aspect of a thing," he says. "I'm saying that if you don't know the background—who made it, who cared for it, who mended it, who cherished it and passed it on—if you separate that from the item, then to a great extent you've destroyed the item."

Says Roderick Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute in Virginia: "John saw that the objects of everyday man were important. He has a museum of artifacts from people who were below the level of historical scrutiny, during a time when every other museum wanted the biggest and the best. He has interpreted the lot of the everyday man, and he has showed the mountain man as not someone to be made fun of, but someone worthy of our consideration."

Irwin cuts an odd, yet indubitably compelling figure—shortish, well-composed, vaguely patrician, with a fierce shock of wavy snow-white hair. He looks a bit like actor Brian Keith, only with the frighteningly bushy eyebrows of Anton Levay. He walks not so much slowly as deliberately, and his standard mode of dress includes the aforementioned cowboy boots (no shoes in 45 years, he says) and a dark sport coat (or, in some cases, an old tuxedo jacket) with a crimson handkerchief emerging just so from the left breast pocket.

His appearance seems to imply a certain erudition, and it's an air that's not at all unwarranted. Moore, a curator and cultural historian of some standing himself, describes his longtime friend as "an extra sharp, shrewd, cunning individual." Former University of Tennessee fundraiser Jack Williams, who serves on the museum's board of advisors, goes so far as to say that Irwin is "a bit of a genius, and a great story teller.

"He's so well-versed in history," Williams continues. "Anything he mentions, or any object in his museum, he'll recall a story. He is a veritable fountain of knowledge."

Irwin's fascination with rural Appalachian culture was come by honestly, as he was born in the Big Valley—the name given the valley-within-a-valley that encompasses parts of Clinton, Norris, Maynardville and Oak Ridge—to a family of farmers. Irwin notes that every branch of his family—the Irwins and the Rices and the Sharps and the Snodderlies and the Millers—can be linked to the area as early as 1784, shortly before Knoxville was settled.

His parents had a dairy farm, which Irwin and his brother David worked even through their school years, doing hours of chores every morning before heading out for morning class. But Irwin says the source of his deep-seated appreciation for the culture he grew up in was mostly his grandfather Irwin, a farmer, a woodsman, and a veritable storehouse of mountain lore.

"From 1935 to 1942 is when I got what I call my education," says Irwin. "My venerable grandfather no longer had to work on the farm 12 to 15 hours a day, so he sort of reverted back to frontier types of things. He didn't do any of this to teach us anything, and we certainly didn't know we were students, but he taught us the most important things we knew."

The mountains on the perimeter of Big Valley served as their classroom, and the two boys learned to find hazelnuts, to find fox grapes and opossum grapes and summer grapes. The eldest Irwin also taught them how to identify trees, a taxonomy that encompasses such subtleties as telling the difference between six types of oak. And he taught them to fish mountain streams with a seine—a weighted net with floats at the top—as well as how to identify the specimens in each haul, and which were best to eat.

Around the farm, they learned traditional farmers' methods such as winnowing—removing the chaff from grain by tossing wheat from the barn window, allowing wind to do the work of separation. They learned how to deaden the big trees in close proximity to the corn patch—trees often too big to fell with an axe—in order to keep them from soaking up vital sun rays; how to "tap" sugar maple trees to flush out the sap, and how to turn sap into syrup, syrup into maple sugar.

"We learned things not just from what he taught us, but from his philosophy and his countenance and his demeanor," Irwin remembers. "He was born in 1860, and he could remember talking with people who were the first pioneers. He helped establish a link to the frontier people, the very first pioneers."

Irwin attended college almost on a whim; his story has it that two friends stopped by the family farm one morning and told him they were setting off to enroll at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, which was then called Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (TPI), and asked whether he wanted to join them. Irwin considered it for a moment, then packed his cardboard suitcase and crawled into the back seat

Irwin majored in history and economics at TPI. He took 21 hours per session, worked in the college library, served as the circulation manager for the school newspaper, wrote stories for the Cookeville town paper, participated in several school clubs, and worked the home garden of an elderly local grown too frail for the labor.

When the Korean War began, Irwin left school and joined the infantry, by way of officer's training school. He remembers that he hadn't even considered the lethal implications of entering that singularly savage conflict on the far side of the world, at least not until the fateful day of reckoning when he and his fellow officers-in-training were gathered in a single room, to receive traveling orders that would either send them to Europe and a safer watch, or to Korea and the hazards of war. "For the first time, I realized I was a little scared," he remembers. "I thought if they call my name for Korea, I may never come back. But they sent me to Europe. I bought a car, travelled around 11 different countries on my furlough. I got acquainted with a lot of people, visited a lot of little towns."

Stateside, he finished his degree at Lincoln Memorial University, and took his first job, as a teacher at LMU. He subsequently went back home for a job teaching in Norris, which was followed by a stint as principal at a pair of area elementary schools. An incorrigible workaholic, he also started a number of businesses on the side, including the Norris Memorial Garden, which still operates today.

From 1962 to 1969, he served as superintendent of Anderson County Schools, the youngest super in the state of Tennessee. During his tenure there, he started yet more businesses, and wrote a book about his grandfather—the first book of the "nine or 10" he has written to date—which ranks as one of his proudest achievements, perhaps even more so than the Museum of Appalachia.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Museum of Appalachia was founded; says Irwin, tongue in cheek, "There are several theories on that." But it was sometime during his tenure with Anderson County Schools that the idea began to germinate, through his budding obsession with acquiring the forgotten relics of southern Appalachian culture. His first purchase in that regard, taken at a public auction, was an old horseshoe-ing box that had been fished from Clinch River over half a century earlier during the Barren Creek flood. Irwin's winning bid was $4.

Irwin says he continued collecting old artifacts—attending auctions, visiting homes in small rural communities door to door—without ever being quite sure why he was doing so. In 1966, he procured an entire log cabin, a home built in 1898 by the Pryor Bunch family, with the intent of authentically refurbishing it, partly in response to restorations he'd seen at museums and other historic sites that lacked historic or cultural accuracy.

"You'd see an ‘authentically' restored cabin somewhere, and then the owners would get a donation of an organ from the 1920s, and include it in the cabin furnishings," Irwin says. "My intention was only to have one log structure, properly furnished, for my own gratification."

But when the Bunch House was finally restored in Irwin's back yard—located only a few hundred yards from what is now the site of the museum—he found that other people were gratified, too, as evidenced by a spate of newspaper articles and by groups of schoolchildren visiting in big yellow school buses. As his little home-based attraction gained popularity, Irwin decided to start charging 50 cents for admission so he could hire someone to help run the operation.

That was 1969, and that year saw 600 visitors come to view the old home; Irwin says that in more recent times, during high traffic seasons such as the museum's annual Homecoming celebration, MOA has seen that many visitors and more cross the threshold in only 15 minutes.

That first incarnation of the museum was named The Marcellus, after Irwin's grandfather, a name that was emblazoned on a sign in Old English script. "That made for two mistakes at once," Irwin chortles. "First, no one's ever going to remember The Marcellus. Second, when you write in Old English, no one can read it."

Within three years, the name had been changed to the more resonant Museum of Appalachia. And in the years after that, the institution has grown exponentially in both visitor count and number of exhibits. According to museum estimates, MOA has purchased more than 250,000 artifacts since its inception; attendance reached its current high-water mark of 100,000 annual guests in recent years. MOA's growth in both visitor counts and in quality and quantity of its presentations was recognized in 2007 when it was named as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute.

Irwin admits he was never sure, in the early going, why he spent so much time, so much vital energy even in the throes of life-threatening illness, so much of his own money, on salvaging these crumbling remnants of his people's past. But as the museum grew, so too did the notion that the their lot was as worthy of preservation as that of any other group of cultural adherents.

"After years of being asked why, why, why, my answer came down to two words: The People," Irwin says. "The more I get to know the Appalachian people and the more time I spend with them, the more impressed I am. I've found them to be so empathetic, so helpful, so kind, whatever words you want to use.

"I think the people who settled in this area were adventurous, daunting, neighborly and helpful," he continues. "On top of that, the lifestyle was such that they had to depend on each other. The combination of heredity and environment wrought such wonderful empathetic people. The items we preserve give you some insight into the personalities behind them."

And Irwin's tribute to those personalities is vital, evolving, proactive, preserving traditions as well as artifacts. In addition to the year-round exhibits, MOA also hosts several annual celebrations, like the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a four-day celebration of mountain arts, crafts, and methodologies, including music from hundreds of singers and instrumentalists; the July 4 celebration and the nearly month-long Christmas in Appalachia, the latter two of which also include the active preservation of culture, through music, craft-making, and demonstrations of tea brewing and sheep herding and rail splitting. And anvil shooting, too, a July 4 event that sees participants shoot anvils high in the air using fistfuls of black powder set off by dynamite fuses—a Civil War-era practice, the roots of which are now obscured by the passage of time.

John Rice Irwin is well-liked by the people who know him, and that list contains a considerable number of celebrities and politicians. Irwin's stories are peppered with unassuming references to friends such as the late Roots author Alex Haley, who lived close by in Norris; deceased country guitar star Chet Atkins; past and present U.S. Senators Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, the latter having decorated his D.C. office with artifacts borrowed from Irwin and MOA; and former Knoxvillian and recent Pulitzer-winning author Cormac McCarthy, who sometimes sends Irwin early, autographed copies of his next book.

Ironically, his popularity is probably at its lowest ebb closest to home; among some locals, Rice is regarded as a heartless profiteer who has made his fortune by exploiting the Southern poor. That perception is largely based on misinformation, and it's a perception rankles Irwin to no end.

"There's an idea out there that ‘That SOB J.R.I. has made a million dollars off that museum'," Irwin says. "It really irritates me that it's some of the local people that are critical. The truth is, I put a lot of my own money into the museum; my accounts are nearly zero. I didn't start this thing up to make money."

Irwin says his long-standing investments in the real estate market—including more than 80 pieces of property in and around Anderson County through the years—have been crucial to keeping the museum afloat. Irwin also points out that he has never received a salary for his work with the museum, and that he recently wrote off a quarter million dollars of his own money that the museum has "borrowed" from him over the years.

What's more, Irwin received the prestigious MacArthur "genius" award in 1989, the full $350,000 of which he donated to the museum.

"Because there's not a museum in the country that can survive off admissions alone," he says.

That's a hard truth that many institutions are struggling to grasp, according to Irwin, and the Museum of Appalachia is no exception. It takes between $1,500 and $2,000 a day just to keep the gates open at MOA, and a sizable portion of that money comes from its founder's pocket.

But that well is now dry. "I make contributions several times a year just to keep it going," he says. "I can't continue to do that."

His goal, however, is to leave daughter Elaine with an institution that's not only solvent, but capable of continuing growth. "We recently bought another log cabin, and we're constantly adding artifacts," says Irwin. "People always want to know: What's new? What's new? That's what keeps them coming. We could cut back and remain self-sustaining, but that's when you start to lose visitors. You can't just stay as is."

Judging from the reaction of board Chairman Pete Claussen, the museum's board of directors would seem to be optimistic that they can hold the line and even move forward as Irwin steps out of his role as MOA's sugar daddy. "Funding hasn't really been a big problem in terms of dollar amounts," says Claussen, who also serves as chairman of the board of Gulf & Ohio Railways. "But it has been persistent. The thing to keep in mind is that museums in general don't make any money."

According to Claussen, the board will likely choose one of two plans, or perhaps a combination of both, to keep the museum in good stead for the foreseeable future. "During the winter months, we don't get nearly as many visitors, yet operating costs are mostly the same. So one solution is that we may cut back on the museum's hours during winter. We may also try out some sort of adopt-a-building program for the structures on the grounds.

"Whatever we do, we believe that successful museums and attractions add new features every year or two. We expect to continue to do that as well."

Irwin seems to be pinning his hopes for the museum's future on some variant of the adopt-a-building program, which would give sponsors recognition for their donations to specific museum features, allowing them to choose from a list of both current exhibits and those in the planning stage. MOA's current wish list, for instance, includes a coal-mine replica, an operating grist mill and pond, an authentic Scots-Irish cottage, and an "Inventions and Contraptions" exhibit. Also being considered for purchase: a German machine gun captured by Sgt. York, the Tennessee-born folk hero of World War I.

"I've always said I would never ask for money, because I don't like the idea of asking people to contribute," Irwin says. "Maybe this is the same thing, just a matter of semantics. But I look at it like I'm asking people to be part of this museum. If they want to sponsor the Arnwine Cabin [a circa-1800 log cabin preserved from Grainger County], we'd have a plaque saying, ‘Adopted and maintained by John Smith.' That's in lieu of saying, just give us money, and then putting it all in some anonymous pot."

John Rice Irwin pauses, pensively, and looks out over the vast green expanse of the Museum of Appalachia compound and its resident structures and animals—the grazing sheep, the log cabins, the vegetable garden, the architecturally impossible Cantilever Barn, and the 20-foot stacks of hay. In light of recent events, Irwin's mind has doubtless been given over to notions of mortality, impermanence—his own, his family's, even his museum's.

"I believe the Museum of Appalachia will continue to be here for some time," he says with some finality. "Even after I'm gone."