Museum of Appalachia honors mountain life and people

September 18, 1994|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,Houston Chronicle

The morning sun is seeping through the weathered wooden walls of the Bunch homestead, and the porch offers a lazy moan as a visitor inspects the century-old construction.

General Bunch shared this two-room cabin in Norris, Tenn., with his parents and 11 siblings. "I was just 8 years old but I drug the logs in from the mountains with a yoke of oxen," Bunch once recalled. "We was 12 miles from the nearest store where we could buy a bag of salt."

Although Bunch is gone now, his stories are alive and are as much a part of the Museum of Appalachia as his beloved cabin.

With more than 250,000 artifacts on 55 acres, the museum is as full as a corn crib in October. But director John Rice Irwin has kept the exhibits as simple and straightforward as the people they honor.

Mr. Irwin says the museum evolved from a project begun more than 30 years ago. The former schoolteacher wanted to build a log cabin finished like the ones he remembered as a youngster growing up in the hills of Tennessee. His grandparents were of Appalachian pioneer stock and had passed down a love of the lifestyle.

Mr. Irwin built the first cabin; then, the collection simply mushroomed, as did the number of visitors. He began charging admission (50 cents) in 1969 to help offset the cost of new exhibits and buildings.

Today, the museum includes more than 30 Appalachian buildings, most dating to the early 1800s. The McClung House, thought to have been built in the 1790s, housed wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

Mr. Irwin is still making additions to the museum. He says he's most interested in items that show the ingenuity of the Appalachian people. Inventive tools like rat-killing, rock-activated traps can be found in the frontier collection in the Display Building. Among the exhibits in this huge old barn are a reconstructed country store and post office, a cooper's shop, a spinning and weaving display and a delightful collection of folk art.

Next door is Mr. Irwin's loving tribute to the mountain people. The Hall of Fame is full of remembrances of famous Appalachians, including Republic of Texas President Sam Houston and World War II hero Sgt. York.

It's also a place to discover people who were important for less visible reasons: the farmer, the woodworker, the musician -- people who clung to the hardscrabble lifestyle. Amid the treasures are Indian trade beads and baskets, a crudely made doll, a lovingly crafted crib and a glass eye. A large section of the Hall of Fame is dedicated to musicians. Among the artists honored are Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff and the Carter Family. Hundreds of instruments, from a fancy Acuff fiddle to a banjo fashioned from a canned ham container, fill the walls.

As impressive as the music collection is the display of Appalachian baskets. The finely woven pieces will send you running to the gift shop.

While baskets were the work of women, men spent their idle time whittling. Their art reflected the things most important in their lives: families and animals.

Sweet guitar music lures visitors from the exhibit buildings and onto the grounds, where farm animals graze. The rustic buildings include a smokehouse, corn mill, log church, one-room schoolhouse and barn.

At the Peters Homestead, named for the family that occupied the place about 1840, a large porch is the bandstand for bluegrass musicians who fill the museum grounds with traditional tunes while hawking their tapes. Another museum highlight is the underground dairy that shows how the pioneers kept their perishables from perishing.

Tennessee culture on display at festival

The Museum of Appalachia is host to one of the nation's largest mountain-craft and musical festivals each year in October. The Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a celebration of the culture and heritage of Appalachia, features more than 400 old-time musicians, singers, crafts people and artists from around the world. This year, more than 45,000 people are expected to attend.

Festivities begin each morning at 9 a.m. with four stages of music. The entertainers -- including Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys -- will perform old-time folk, gospel and traditional mountain music. The homecoming also features pioneer demonstrations, including soap-making, quilting, rail splitting and sheepherding.

The festival will be Oct. 6-9. Oct. 5 will be "student day." Adults may attend, but activities will be focused on the interests of children.

Admission is $10 Oct. 6-7 and $15 Oct. 8-9. Admission for children is $5 all four days. A four-day ticket is $35 ($15 for children). For information or a free brochure, call (615) 494-7680.

IF YOU GO . . .

The Museum of Appalachia is located in Norris, Tenn., about 16 miles north of Knoxville on Interstate 75.

Admission is $6; $4 for ages 6-15; children under 6 are free; family rate of $16. Rates are higher in October during the museum's annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming. Call (615) 494-7680.

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