AmericanPressTravelNews-May 17th, Clinton, TN.-Bob and Barb “On the Road Again” this time at the Museum of Appalachia–I first met John Rice Irwin over a decade ago. His sparkling eyes and spirit for the past, as he’d dragged it into the present to preserve it for the future shone through loud and clear-not just what he said, but how he told the story of his foraging to collect on to his property the remnants of what is still left of early Appalachia as a living museum.
John Rice Irwin spent a lifetime collecting the artifacts of the Appalachian people and although the museum’s founder is now retired, he can still remember just about every auction, every smokehouse and barn he has explored–and every good friend that he has made among the rural folks of Appalachia. Those histories–and the people to which they are connected–are central to his passion for collecting and central to the character of the Museum.
It was the familiar story of the devastating Barren Creek flood–legendary in East Tennessee for churning past the banks of the Clinch River in the dead of night and sweeping many people and hundreds of farm animals to their deaths–that led to one of his earliest purchases. The purchase, made at a local auction, was just an old, worn, poplar horse-shoeing box, but the auctioneer mentioned in passing that it had been fished out of the nearby Clinch River over half a century earlier, following the catastrophic flood.
After that purchase came many others, sometimes at auction, sometimes from making trips over dirt tracks and going door to door. Earning the hard-won trust of rural folk is never easy, and John Rice will tell you that it was his knowledge of and curiosity about old-time farm implements that often opened the door to friendships. But conversations with him begin to draw a larger picture, one where it becomes clear that it was—and continues to be—his admiration and esteem for the ingenuity, craftsmanship, and hardy perseverance of the people of Appalachia that has allowed him to forge relationships of trust and mutual respect.
The purchase of several truckloads of early Appalachian artifacts from Bill Parkey of Hancock County reveals just such a relationship. Bill’s family had lived in Rebel Hollow near the Powell River for generations, settling there before the Civil War, and the old homeplace had a wealth of early tools and equipment that he continued to use for blacksmithing and wagon-making. For years, John Rice had been told that Bill would never part with his beloved tools for any amount of money. The warnings largely were correct, for although John Rice occasionally was able to purchase a thing or two, his trips to “Revel Holler” were generally spent just visiting with his friend. It was only after Bill’s death that his widow called John Rice, saying that Bill had told her never to sell his cherished tools unless it was to “the professor”—because John Rice had “always treated him right.” It is illustrative that John Rice insisted on paying Mrs. Parkey twice her asking price for several truckloads of her husband’s tools.
What grew out of John Rice’s love for this region’s past and its people is an impressive living history that has been nationally acclaimed. It has been featured in the Smithsonian magazine, which said, “it vividly portrays something ethereal—the soul of mountain people,” and it has been named one of only a handful of affiliates of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in the state of Tennessee.