John Rice Irwin, Guardian of Appalachia’s Past, Dies at 91

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He created the nation’s premier museum of Appalachian history by conserving the log shacks and heirlooms of the mountain folk in his native region.

John Rice Irwin, left, in 2003 with the Appalachian musician Tony Thomas on the grounds of Mr. Irwin’s  Museum of Appalachia.
Credit... Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel, via Associated Press

Feb. 9, 2022, 6:26 p.m. ET

John Rice Irwin, who collected more than a quarter million artifacts of rural life and established the Museum of Appalachia, a sanctuary for the vanishing folk ways of his ancestors, died on Jan. 16 in Clinton, Tenn. He was 91.

The death, at a nursing home, was confirmed by his grandson Will Meyer.

Though he dedicated himself to preserving antique tools, instruments and playthings, Mr. Irwin did not see in them commercial opportunity, or even necessarily aesthetic value. He was chronicling the way poor farmers and craftsmen and their wives and children responded to obscurity and poverty with adroitness and wit.

His acquisitions for the museum, which opened in 1969, included a fiddle made out of a garden hoe and a cigar box; a broom press that had belonged to an 18th-century housewife who fashioned her own housewares; a bone-crushing steel-jawed bear trap; a walking stick notched with votes counted in a bygone local election; and the sitting room of the famed banjo picker Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952).

The museum property, in Clinton, about 20 miles northwest of Knoxville, Tenn., amounts to 65 acres dotted with 36 preserved log structures. In an old-time garden, horse-drawn plows turn the earth. Snippets of conversation sometimes get drowned out by an orchestra of farm animals — bleating goats, chattering guinea fowl and braying donkeys. Mandolin and fiddle and banjo music can be heard most days. In the autumn air wafts the sweet spice of apple butter.

Writing in The New York Times in 1984, the Appalachian novelist and historian Wilma Dykeman described the museum “not so much as exhibits as an evocation of a way of life that once flourished in this country.”

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Credit...Shawn Poynter for The New York Times

The Museum of Appalachia’s origins were fittingly homespun. During the 1960s, Mr. Irwin grew increasingly passionate about collecting, and his items spilled out of his garage into a 19th-century log house that he had purchased and placed on his land. People lined up for tours after church on Sundays.

That first year, there were 600 visitors. The museum now estimates the number at 100,000 in an average year.

It was laboriously constructed over decades. In his book “The Story of John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia” (1987), Mr. Irwin recounted a tale that illustrated his methods.

Hoping to buy tools from a leery old fox hunter named Tally Breeden, Mr. Irwin found himself quizzed about the proper names of an old country knife, a candle mold and an ax. He identified them all.

Mr. Breeden remained unsatisfied. He presented a dusty basket containing six-inch long stakes from elderberry bushes.

“Tally, you may have me here,” Mr. Irwin recalled saying, “but they look a lot like what Grandpa and I used to use in tapping maple trees. Spiles, I think he called them.”

Right answer. Mr. Breeden helped Mr. Irwin acquire hundreds of items from his neighbors.

“Again and again,” Mr. Irwin wrote, “old mountain men were amazed that a young fellow like me knew the name of a sled auger or a gambrel stick” (a device used in home butchering). He attributed his success to his intimacy with and fondness for “the total lifestyle of the mountain folk.”

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Credit...M. Patrick

John Rice Irwin was born on Dec. 11, 1930, in an old, rural family home a few miles north of Knoxville, Tenn. His lineage in the area extended back to at least the 18th century. His father, Glen, was a dairy farmer, and his mother, Ruth Rice Irwin, tended to a flock of chickens and sold their eggs.

For much of his childhood John was responsible for milking cows by hand every morning. (During frigid winters, his hands on a cow’s udder were the only part of him that kept warm.) His family’s home lacked running water and electricity.

As a boy he was entranced by stories his grandfather told about his own grandfather George Rice, a gun maker, and even about George’s father, James, a corn miller. He frequently received as gifts relics from his ancestors, prompting his grandfather to tell him, “You ought to keep these old-timey things that belonged to our people and start you a little museum sometime.”

Soon after graduating from high school, John joined the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Germany during the Korean War and was honorably discharged after two years. He graduated from Lincoln Memorial University, in eastern Tennessee, in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in history and received a master’s in international law from the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, in 1958.

Mr. Irwin initially pursued an eclectic career, serving at a local school as the principal, lunchroom manager and basketball coach while operating a fruit market and selling real estate around the same time. His hobby was scouring local estate sales and auctions, where he found himself troubled by how a family’s sacred patrimony could be sold like scrap.

He had a revelation when he visited his paternal grandparent’s home while plans were made to tear it down. Items of his grandmother’s that had each occupied a special place in her home and expressed something of her character and family history now lay jumbled in a heap. Tears came to Mr. Irwin’s eyes as he uncovered among the debris Granny Irwin’s tin spice grater, in which she had kept nutmeg seeds for shaving onto her pies.

The idea began to form in his mind that something greater lay behind his sentimentality — a whole culture and heritage that might be thrown away.

Mr. Irwin would go on to win, in 1989, a MacArthur Foundation grant, which helped him fund the museum, and to win praise in the national and international press. But his family remained the museum’s chief motivating force. His daughter, Elaine Meyer, serves as its current president; his grandson Will works as the marketing manager; and his sister, Lindsey Gallaher, is the development director.

In addition to them, Mr. Irwin is survived by his brother, David; another grandson; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Irwin wrote books about a characteristic set of topics — Appalachian guns, musical instruments and basket makers — but the effects of old age prevented him from finishing his last book, in which he intended to profile the 100 most interesting people from southern Appalachia.

Before Mr. Irwin’s death, Will Meyer promised to finish the book. Mr. Irwin heaved a sigh of relief, Mr. Meyer said, adding, “It wasn't lost on him that his grandson was doing what he did for his own grandparents.”

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