A Museum Unlike Any Other

photo by Amelia Bartlett

Learning about history and the legacy of our region through a self-guided tour at the Museum of Appalachia

The Museum of Appalachia was curated almost entirely by one man, John Rice Irwin, who amassed his collection through building relationships with individuals throughout the region and manually gathering select belongings from them. With each item, there’s a story and a personality tied to it; no arbitrary, generic artifacts are on display here. It is a museum that spans 65 acres, contains 36 buildings and is a time capsule of one of the earliest communities in America.

When you first begin a self-guided tour of the grounds, you first encounter two historical wooden structures, barely larger than shacks, which stand exactly as they did when they were originally built. The next three buildings contain diverse, meticulous collections of artifacts. Among the minutiae are a recreated general-store collection, a hand-carved, horse-drawn hearse and an entire glass case full of expertly preserved Appalachian plants.

During the first 15 minutes of my visit, I made friends with the only other people touring the museum as early as I was. The pair lightheartedly warned me, “Be careful in here! The hours pass before you realize it, and you’ll never see the rest of the museum.”

In fact, the next two buildings following these also were filled with artifacts, leaving a whopping 31 buildings left to go. This left me thinking, “Why not just take the tour backward? See all of the buildings and then enjoy the AC in here. …”

Breezing through the buildings still takes time, though, as there are eye-catching pieces at every turn. I saw so many different facets of Appalachian culture on this morning that I found myself imagining what the region – lacking almost everything we have today – was like in those times and how incredibly resourceful, creative and strong its inhabitants must have been.

Each wooden building that followed was a small time machine through which I could better understand the last couple centuries. The mid-morning fall breeze blew through the floors and open doors. I couldn’t shake the rush of stories and faces that sprung to mind as I looked in on an old family home, an underground dairy and a poultry house. The people I met amongst the hand-selected collections and their stories – directly passed along to me from Irwin – stayed there right with me as I toured the grounds. Having read the stories in the same locations where these folks made their homes, barns and workshops made the experience that much more real to me.

Don’t sell yourself short when you visit the Museum of Appalachia. Arrive early in order to avoid large crowds and enjoy the crisp autumn air. Eat breakfast so that you’ll have the energy and stamina to peruse all of what’s on display and be fully engaged, but consider eating lunch on site. The cafe serves a small menu in a humble space, but the food is on point. I had fried chicken, garlic roasted cauliflower and green beans and a side of banana pudding for dessert. It was by far the best Southern food I’ve had in quite some time.

Bring your camera, your kids and a couple bottles of water for the walk. The Museum of Appalachia is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through the end of October and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from November through February. The following special events offer a closer, more interactive look at the region’s history and culture.

Upcoming events at the Museum of Appalachia

  • Haunts & History – Oct. 26-27
  • Fall Heritage Day – Nov. 9
  • Mule Coon Jumping Competition – Nov. 10
  • Mule Trail Obstacle Course Competition – Nov. 10

The Museum of Appalachia is located at 2819 Andersonville Highway in Clinton, Tennessee. Learn about visiting, memberships and more at museumofappalachia.org.


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