A couple of weekends ago, I was visiting my old friends Bobby and Teresa Fulcher in East Tennessee, one of my old stomping grounds and the inspiration for my novel, Seasonal. Bobby, who had served as my supervisor on the Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project in summer of 1980, took me on a marathon nostalgia tour through the highways and byways of my youthful fieldwork days. This included a tour of the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.
The Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection of the stuff of life, with leanings toward old-timey, traditional items such as quilts, baskets, wittlings, weavings, and that sort of thing. It is the brainchild and more or less obsession of John Rice Irwin, who I visited at least once during my summer research to get some leads. Say what you will about John Rice (and some people have said a lot, not all of it positive), he amassed a collection of artifacts that boggle the mind and cause one to marvel at the unending creativity and skill of East Tennessee folk. Interpretation is not a strong point, especially if one is looking for the unobjective curatorial view. But, if you just want to see a whole lot of East Tennessee stuff from people’s barns, attics and hidey-holes, John Rice has assembled it here for your viewing pleasure.
I had interviewed some of the craftspeople and musicians represented, as Bobby pointed out. Memories were cloudy on some of them, but others brought back fond memories, such as whiling away an afternoon chatting with former coal miner and woodworker Troy Webb and purchasing several of his amazing “water dog” carvings.
One object that captured my imagination was Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine dating back to the mid-1800s The Museum allowed a gentleman named Dave Brown to study the wheel and sketch it extensively, resulting in a book, but apparently this has brought us no closer to knowing if the wheel, when in working order, really had the capability of creating perpetual motion.
The wheel for me is a sort of metaphor for the hyperactivity of collecting frenzy that John Rice Irwin himself must have been capable of before becoming too feeble to pursue his life’s work.
The result is something that, like the machine, is a curiosity with no clear purpose but with a great wealth of largely untapped and possibly unending potential. Just what will become of The Museum of Appalachia and its vast collection in the future is unclear. So, if you find yourself in East Tennessee with several hours of leisure, make a visit while it is still intact. Be prepared to be amazed.