CONTACT PERSON: Elaine Irwin Meyer
Museum of Appalachia
P.O. Box 1189
Norris, TN 37828
865-494-7680 or 494-0514
For Release Sunday, August 30, 2009
John Rice Irwin enters new role at Museum of Appalachia
NORRIS, Tenn.: John Rice Irwin is the heart and soul of the Museum of Appalachia.
He built his living history museum over a span of some 40 years, collecting the artifacts
of his mountain people and his past—and more importantly, the oral history behind them.
Irwin, now 78, has stepped down from the Board of Directors and from active
management of the Museum that has become nearly synonymous with his name. He’ll
continue to play an important promotional and consulting role, said James B. (Buddy)
Scott, Jr., chairman of the non-profit Museum’s Board of Directors. Irwin will also
continue to research and write about the Museum’s vast collections of artifacts and the
people connected with them.
“I’ll still be around,” Irwin said. “After all, I live at the Museum. My daily habits and
my total life of the last 40 to 50 years have been devoted to preserving the history of our
people’s struggle in Appalachia. So, if you say to me that I’m retiring, well, that’s what I
do every night….I just go to sleep at my home at the Museum.
“What I am retiring from is the daily management of Museum personnel and Museum
policy. However, as in the past, I will be playing music and entertaining guests from all
over the country, indeed, the world, who visit the Museum. Please don’t think I am going
to disappear. My love for this place will continue, with my work being more directed to
my writing and research—things that I have too long neglected and that I have promised
my publishers I would do.”
In keeping with Irwin’s vision for the Museum’s future, the Board is developing long
range plans to ensure the Museum’s financial sustainability and growth.
“We have a wonderful, wonderful asset that the Irwins have given us; it’s our
responsibility to expand and improve on it,” said Scott.
Elaine Irwin Meyer, Irwin’s daughter, has been named by the Board of Directors as
president of the Museum of Appalachia.
“Elaine is the most competent, qualified and capable person to administer the
Museum, and she is perhaps the most dedicated, empathetic and honest person I’ve ever
known,” Irwin said.
“Our efforts, now and in the coming years, will be to build on this legacy,” said Mrs.
Meyer. “Our goals are to preserve our region’s history through this marvelous tribute to
the people of Appalachia.”
Effective June 10, 2009, the Board of Directors designated Irwin as Founder and
Special Board Chairman Emeritus. He serves in an advisory capacity only, but the Board
may contract for his services as deemed proper.
Irwin will continue to do what he does better than anyone: preserve and promulgate
the stories behind the artifacts, because, as he often states, “if you take the people out of
the item, you have, to a great extent, destroyed its importance.”
Irwin said he’s lost none of his “zeal, zest, admiration and love for the people of this
Irwin’s interest in the history and stories of his people was sparked and kindled at an
early age, as he listened to his grandparents’ tales and watched as they tended their farms
and flocks on the land their ancestors settled in the 1780s. Even as a youngster, he saw
that the only record of their way of life was through their stories and the physical objects
they left behind. His Grandfather Rice started Irwin’s habit of collecting, giving him
items that belonged to Irwin’s grandfather, a gun maker, and his great-grandfather, a corn
Irwin was eventually to take to heart his Grandfather Rice’s advice: “You ought to
keep these old-timey things that belonged to our people and start you a little museum
His family was displaced twice: once when their Union County land was appropriated
and flooded for Norris Lake, and later when their farm near Clinton was taken for the
development of Oak Ridge. The Irwins settled on a farm near Norris, where the young
Irwin, along with his brother David, learned to farm the land, and to hunt, fish, trap, and
appreciate rural Appalachia.
He served in the U.S. Infantry during the Korean conflict, and then completed his
bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) at Lincoln Memorial University with majors in
history and economics. He later earned a master’s degree in international law from the
University of Tennessee.
He was a teacher, school principal, and in 1962, at the age of 31, was elected
superintendent of schools in Anderson County, becoming the youngest superintendent in
The catalyst for the collections that grew into the Museum of Appalachia occurred at
this time. The newly elected superintendent attended a public auction near his home, and
he was appalled at the cavalier separation of artifacts from the stories and the families
that gave them meaning.
He bought an old horse-shoeing box for $4, not so much for its value as an antique,
but for the history it embodied: The box had been fished from the Clinch River during the
historic Barren Creek Flood that killed nearly 20 people.
Irwin became a man with a mission, traveling the countryside in his spare time to find
and “save the past” before it was discarded or destroyed. His collection grew,
overflowing garages and storage buildings around his home—and so did the visits from
curious and casual visitors. Thus, the Museum was born, circa 1968.
Irwin devoted many hours throughout the years to exhibit development. He wrote the
“stories” of his people and their artifacts on signs seen throughout the Museum. These
signs, often hand-lettered, embody the Museum’s purpose: to give tribute to the
Appalachian people and to tell their unique stories, in their own words.
By 1980, the Museum had grown so large that Irwin left his position as director of the
Tennessee Appalachia Educational Cooperative to devote his full energies to it. Over
time, the Museum has grown from a single log building to an extensive village-farm
complex, encompassing more than 35 original mountain structures, two large display
buildings containing thousands of authentic Appalachian artifacts, gardens surrounded by
split rail fences, and a variety of farm animals in a traditional farm setting.
In 2003, the Museum was converted to a 501(c) (3) corporation to ensure its long-
term sustainability. The Museum now operates under a Board of Directors with many
years of experience in non-profit, government, and private sectors.
In May 2007, the Museum announced its formal association with the Smithsonian
Institution’s Affiliations Program.
Today the Museum continues its mission to “preserve the past for the future” by
collecting and protecting the artifacts of times past; by telling the stories of the
Appalachian people; and by providing educational programs and events to teach and
enrich lives through the trades, crafts, and arts of our region.
The Museum has gained national and international renown for the authentic and
personalized portrayal of the region’s people, thanks partly to thousands of his old
mountain friends who were willing to sell their ancestral items to him for the Museum,
and also to prominent friends including former U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr., who
serves on the Museum’s Board of Directors, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, former
Another who helped bring widespread attention to the Museum was the late Alex
Haley, a Tennessee native and the author of the acclaimed Roots, who toured the
Museum in 1982 at Irwin’s invitation and was so impressed that he built a home nearby.
“This museum is evidence of John Rice’s love of the land, his love of his mountain
culture, his love of the mountain people who came before him,” Haley related in a June
1986 Reader’s Digest article. “One cannot walk these grounds and through these cabins
without savoring the spirit and strength of a people rich in culture and heritage. You can
feel them here, and this is the unique dimension that makes the life work of John Rice
Irwin so extraordinary.”
The Hall of Fame, completed in 1988, is Irwin’s tribute to the ingenuity and spirit of
the people of Appalachia, both extraordinary and ordinary. With its hand-lettered signs,
telling the unique stories of the people and the products of their hands, it has been called
“the jewel in the crown” of the many sights at the Museum.
In 1980, Irwin began what grew into the Museum’s Tennessee Fall Homecoming.
Now held each year on the second full weekend of October, it’s recognized as one of the
largest old-time music and craft festivals in the nation. It was from the musicians and
crafts people at the 1981 Homecoming that the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville recruited
participants for the Fair’s most popular Folklife Center.
A mandolin and guitar player himself, Irwin founded his own mountain music group,
the Museum of Appalachia Band, which has performed on several national television
programs and on a film shown at Disney theme parks throughout the world.
He is the author of seven nationally and internationally distributed books. His in-
depth study of Alex Stewart, a canny and capable mountain man, in “Alex Stewart:
Portrait of a Pioneer,” draws many visitors to the Museum to see for themselves the re-
creation of life as Stewart knew it.
Considered one of the leading authorities on the history, culture, and music of the
Southern Appalachian region, Irwin has lectured on the subject throughout the eastern
United States and has garnered many awards and honors. He was one of 29 MacArthur
Foundation Fellows in 1989, one of three Southerners (and the only Tennessean) to
receive the honor that year. The fellowship provides “extraordinarily talented
individuals” with a monetary grant paid over a 10-year period.
In 1992, he was honored by the East Tennessee Historical Society as one of nine East
Tennesseans “whose accomplishments have distinguished them far beyond East
In 1993, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Cumberland
College in Williamsburg, Ky., and, in 1994, an honorary Doctorate in the Humanities
from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn. He was inducted into the Junior
Achievement of East Tennessee’s Business Hall of Fame that same year. In 2000, he was
the recipient of the annual Outstanding Educational Service to Appalachia Award granted
by Carson-Newman College.
He received the Governor’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 1998 and the
Tennessee Arts Commission’s Folklife Award in 2001.
Irwin is the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Trailblazer Award, given each year at
the Uncle Dave Macon Festival in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to a person who has furthered
the preservation of old-time music. He was named last year to the Anderson County Hall
of Fame for his accomplishments in preserving regional heritage through the Museum of
Of all the accolades and awards he has garnered over the years, however, he prizes
most the designation by his hometown of Norris as Citizen of the Year in 1988.
The Museum has been featured in dozens of national magazines, including Reader’s
Digest, Parade Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, and
Southern Living, and in virtually every major newspaper in the country.
All three major television networks have included the Museum in national
programming, and the Parsons Foundation of Los Angeles produced a one-hour
documentary on Irwin that was one year in the making. It premiered in Palm Springs,
Calif., and was released nationally for broadcast on PBS stations.
Scenes for several documentaries and major motion pictures have been filmed on
location at the Museum, including the three-part PBS series, The Appalachians, and a
feature film, The Work and the Glory: A Pillar of Light and a sequel, both based on
Gerald Lund’s best-selling historical fiction series. The CBS television series Young
Dan’l Boone was largely filmed at the Museum, as was the popular movie Christy.
Each year, people from approximately 100 foreign countries visit the Museum, which
the official Tennessee Blue Book has described as “the most authentic and complete
replica of pioneer Appalachian life in the world.”
In retirement, Irwin will concentrate on his research and writing projects as well as
his work to record the oral history of the tens of thousands of artifacts collected through
the years. As Founder, he’ll continue serving as the “face” of the Museum to the public,
and he’ll be available to advise Museum staff and Board members.
True to the Appalachian tradition he’s worked so long to preserve, Irwin is also
creating his own oral history within his family. He and his wife, the late Elizabeth
McDaniel Irwin, have three grandchildren: Lindsey Meyer, John Rice Irwin Meyer, and
Will Meyer, their “pride and joy” and the children of Elaine and Ed Meyer.
The mission of Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia has always been to “preserve the past
for future generations.” So, just as Irwin’s grandparents “passed the past” on to him
through their stories and the items they left behind, he’s doing the same for his
grandchildren. They’ve grown up listening to their grandfather’s stories.
But the Museum itself, with its vast collections of artifacts and buildings representing
the lives of thousands of ordinary and extraordinary Appalachian individuals, is perhaps
his greatest gift to his grandchildren—and to all people of the region.
As Chairman Buddy Scott noted, “The Museum of Appalachia is a living tribute to
the vision of one man, John Rice Irwin—and the Board of Directors is committed to
ensuring the preservation and expansion of his legacy."