8 October 2010

A Celebration of Outsiders: Museum of Appalachia, Norris, near Clinton, Tennessee: Southern Literary Tour, Part Two: #1

More than once before, I've quoted Lee Smith about Appalachia being - and I paraphrase wildly - a kind of outsider's outsider. John Rice Irwin, whose ancestors were descended from pioneer settlers in the Big Valley of East Tennessee in the early years of the 18th century, is the founder and President of Museum of Appalachia in Norris, near Clinton, Tennessee. It is a remarkable place, started in the late 1960s, and is an accumulation of a vast amount of historical heritage that has grown from a mere two to 65 acres. Many of the exhibits are log structures, and many of them contain a large number of artifacts used by the mountain folk. The museum stands as a huge tribute to these people, many of them previously unsung.

Gwen's Little Playhouse was built by Will Elkins, who was a neighbor hired by Gwen's father, James C. Hubbard. It was much envied by local children, and it is very fortunate that is survived: the Tennessee Valley Authority had bought up several thousand acres of land to drown, but this was the only building that was saved. The theatre was in New Loyston, 15 miles east of the museum, and was given to it in 2008 by the 84-year-old Gwen Hubbard Sharp.

One of the endearing features of Museum of Appalachia is the Appalachian Hall of Fame, which contains a wealth of information about, and exhibits of, Appalachian life and Appalachian people. Many ot these people became well known nationwide, particularly country and blue grass musicians. Other people are a little less well known, such as the Cherokee Nancy Ward, whose first husband, Kingfisher, was killed in a battle. But his wife went on to be a woman of great influence. She later married a British trader, Brian Ward, and became renowned for her efforts as a peacemaker, bringing about a greater tolerance between the Cherokees and the settlers. She spent most of her life in Choka, the Cherokee capital near Loudon. R. Sterling King wrote a book about her, The Wild Rose of Cherokee: or Nancy Ward, 'The Pocahontas of the West':

But the Hall of Fame's strength is the attention it gives to ordinary, unknown people, who in the end are not so ordinary at all.
Toward the entrance of the Hall of Fame is a large placard containing the photos of many people, and John Rice Irwin's words:
'Pictured here are my friends: the warm, happy, independent folk of Southern Appalachia. They are my people and the people I love, and it was because of them and people like them that I started the Museum of Appalachia. And it is to them that this Hall of Fame is dedicated.'

One such friend was Tom Carter (1910-81), whose mother's bust he carved, and is shown above. Tom also wrote a poem about his mother, who lived in Duffield, south-west Virginia:

Ode to Appalachian Mother

as you arose in the mountains
and gave us birth.

Your earth wisdom, your toil and love
gave us food, clothing and shelter.

Wise in the way of TIME,
you endured fire and ice, joy and agony,
working always, tending us ever,

Soft in Love, determined in righteous-
ness, with unyielding integrity, you
held us firm in the search for

You exalt the mountains!
The mountains exalt you!
Transcending self,
Thunder sounds your name.

Being tired, but trusting our strength,
you looked upward saying:
'Lord, my work is done.
Let me come home.'

Troy Webb lived in Clairfield, Tennessee, and lost a leg digging coal near his home. Although he returned to the mines after, he relaxed by whittling wood, and the objects he created are now much sought after.

Irwin calls Mary Dennings Bumgarthner a 'saintly little lady', and briefly notes that she lived just three miles south of the museum with her husband Lee, on a steep hillside in Faust Hollow.

The former one-room home of Tom Cassidy (1920-89), of Beard Valley, Union County, Tennessee. Eighteen years after Cassidy's death, Irwin found his cabin exactly as he had left it. Cassidy considered that a person had no need for more than this: a bed, a stove for heating and cooking, a frying pan, a dresser, a fiddle, and a pistol.

The sign reads: 'These two cells, dated 1874, each designed to hold four prisoners were used in the small east Tenn. town of Madisonville. On Dec. 20, 1917, Will Upton and his uncle Drew Upton were taken from one of them and hanged as they sang 'I'm Coming Home'.
Henry Harrison Mayes was a coalminer by profession and a soul-saver by obsession. He put religious markers in many states, drawing the places he'd chosen on a large map of the USA. To say the least, his ideas were eccentric. Most of the images below speak for themselves.

Mayes's door knob had a cover which opened to reveal a rather predictable message:
The uncovering.

The Mark Twain Family Cabin, formerly belonging to Twain's father John Clemens, which was transported from Possum Trot in Fortress County, where John owned much land and where he was postmaster.

The interior.

Big Tater Valley School, which was transported from Big Tater Valley.

Inside the school.

A privy, this one built with two holes.

This is one of them.

A reconstruction of the Peters House and Homestead. Nathaniel Peters lived in this house in the nearby village of Lutrell, where he brought up nine children and died at the age of 87.

From left to right, Carol Ostrom, Gene Brewer, and Anna Denison play Appalachian music on the verandah of the Homestead Smokehouse and Granary.

A slave cabin unopened as yet.

The infamous Popcorn Sutton's whiskey still. Popcorn* lived in North Carolina in the Smoky Mountains and had made moonshine all his adult life. In Museum of Appalachia's annual Homecoming event in 2003, Sutton made moonshine there, although he was told that he was not allowed to hand out samples of the whiskey, which he ignored and handed it out anyway.

When the police insisted that he stop, he took his equipment and left. Later, he was convicted of selling illicit whisky and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. As he had years before served a few months imprisonment for a similar offence, and having no desire to return to a 'caged animal' status, he gassed himself with carbon monoxide from his truck on 15 March 2009, a day before he was due to begin his term.

Popcorn's book, Me and My Likker: The True Story of a Mountain Moonshiner, was published in 1999 by Shockwave. It was re-published this year by his daughter Sky, in a spiral-bound edition that is numbered and is now virtually out of print.

*Popcorn earned his nickname by putting a pool cue to a malfunctioning popcorn machine.

This sundial is from Tennessee Williams's great-grandfather's sunken garden in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In the shop at the end of the tour, I was flicking through a coffee table book about the Appalachian Trail, which is 2174 miles long and stretches from Mount Springer in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. A voice a few feet away from me said 'I've done that', and I looked up to see a woman who turns out to be in her eighties, although she certainly didn't look it. When she was in her sixties, and a widow, she spent several months walking the trail, camping along the way.  And she said she still wore her wedding ring as she was too old for dating. You meet some interesting characters in the mountains.

No comments: