The Museum of Appalachia hosts
its annual Fall Tennessee Homecoming
by Paige LaGrone
Perhaps you last visited the Museum of Appalachia for a hasty school field
trip or on a family outing with out-of-town relatives or friends. Perhaps
you enjoyed it and have been meaning to return, or maybe it's been on your
list of places to go and keeps getting bumped further down that list, behind
summer weddings, Fort Kid, and the family reunion. No matter. Before you
is the opportunity to participate in the Museum of Appalachia's Annual Fall
Tennessee Homecoming, hosted by founder John Rice Irwin and friends. The
Museum itself is expansively impressive; the Homecoming, held this week from
Thursday, October 9, through Sunday, October 12, from 9 a.m. until dark during
autumn's first crispy glorious snap, is not to be missed.
Irwin considers himself fortunate to have grown up with four living grandparents
who taught him about the natural world and the Appalachian work ethic and
gave him a deep appreciation for the ingenious craft of handmade tools, toys,
and trinkets. At the suggestion of his maternal grandfather, he founded the
Museum of Appalachia in one little building in the late 1960s, consisting
of artifacts passed on by grandfather Rice. Today the Museum sprawls over
60-plus acres in the natural beauty of Norris, just a stone's throw from
the famed Norris Dam and a short ride from Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and surrounding
As a boy, Irwin was fascinated with the stories of the elderly, their music,
craftsmanship, folkways. His commitment to preserving their ways has illuminated
an international public, who for the last three decades have come to visit
and learn. Folks come to amble about the working farm village, listen to
and visit with wandering musicians, pore over the thousands of relics displayed
alongside hand-lettered placards in a handful of outbuildings, and to wander
through the many relocated and restored pioneer dwellings and businesses.
They especially come for the Homecoming.
The Museum has even attracted some famous folks. Jane Fonda has made
introductions, and Roy Acuff came to play at the Museum's Homecoming several
times. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley was so inspired by his 1982
visit that he moved back to Tennessee and made his home literally next door
to the Museum, participating in its events and daily routine, lending his
skill to the creation of the Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt which hangs
from the rafters in the Hall of Fame. Oprah, Brooke Shields, and a slew of
politicians and musicians have all participated in the Museum's activities.
The largest event of the year is the annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming, now
in its 18th year. The Homecoming includes music, played all day into the
night in old-time mountain tradition, folk, gospel, bluegrass, buck dancing,
clogging...everything you might expect at an Appalachian folk festival, plus
much more. That more includes a comprehensive variety of craftsmen
and women: woodcarving, mule-powered molasses-making, a local and regional
writer's table, genealogical guides for finding one's kinfolk, Sunday services
and hymn-singing in the log church, sheep-herding, country food-tasting,
and many other activities in addition to the Museum's year-round exhibits.
Last year, performers included Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys, Grandpa and Ramona
Jones, John Hartford, Janette Carter (descendant of notorious country music
pioneers the Carter Family), Jimmy Driftwood, and the Museum of Appalachia
Band, of which Irwin is a member.
On the day I visit Irwin, we stroll through the gift shop, which is packed
with a tour-bus-full of folks from Cincinnati. Irwin shakes hands, calls
out greetings, asks about family members of the folks he speaks with, and
catches up for a moment with wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Elaine, who are
both busy with their own tasks. Outside on the grounds, in the drizzling
rain, sheep gather under shelter, ducks frolic in a row, and the wooden frames
of lawn-tents sit like skeletons, waiting to be clothed for the Homecoming.
Irwin's office sits upstairs in the Museum's Hall of Fame. I have been in
this building many times, and am always moved by the quiet, feeling as though
I've stepped back in time and am calmly grounded there. Upon our entry, Irwin
takes my arm and says, "Look, no matter how many people's in here, it's always
real quiet. You see, they're all looking and reading about the displays."
And it is here that I feel the Museum's mission statement lays:
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 hundreds like them that I started the Museum of Appalachiaand
it is to them that this hall of fame is dedicated.
John Rice Irwin
So reads the hand-lettered sign upon entry to the Museum of Appalachia's
Hall of Fame, first official stop on the self-guided tour on the 60 some-odd
acres that make up this amazing homage to the past, looking forward through
the window of understanding, knowledge, honor. Below the sign are labeled
black-and-white photographs; aged mountain folk smile out from weathered
faces in their worn clothing, eyes focused on their friend, Irwin, who has
snapped the photo, listened intently, and recognized their contribution to
a rich tradition of living with grace.
Upstairs in the office, Irwin settles in among a full library of books, the
late Alex Haley's favorite chair, piles of folders ("Almost as many as J.
Edgar Hoover had!"), boxes of relics and pieces of folk art, and tells the
history of the Homecoming celebration.
The Homecoming began with a single phone call in August of 1980. George Brosi,
of Berea, Kentucky, representing the Council of Southern Mountains bookstore,
requested the opportunity to bring his bookmobile to the Museum on a weekend.
Says Irwin, "I told him that he could, but I told him we don't have many
people. My parking lot only held 36 at the time. I told him it might not
be all that successful. He said he'd like to come anyhow, he wasn't used
to much success, and he didn't have any place to go that weekend. So I got
to thinking, well, we'll make the molasses on that particular weekend, and
I got some folks to come up and make lye soap, and a few of the boys that
picked around here, I got them together. I went on the television a few times,
early morning with Bob Gray. And the interest got to building up, and when
we had the thing, we didn't have a stage, so I had to go get a wagon so people
could see the musicians. Then I got some bales of straw for stairs to get
up on the wagon. And it went ever so well, and I started out doing it, just
to get a few more people here for Brosi to sell some of the Appalachian books.
Then everybody that was here, seemingly, all the visitors, said, 'Are you
going to do it again?' I'd go out on the road, up and down the highway, and
everywhere else, see everybody who participated. They all loved it, and I
said we'd do it again.
"After two or three years, I remember, it got to be such a hassle. I remember
one morning, we got the mules out in the road, it was raining, muddy, we
didn't have any system of parking. It was just too much. At the end of the
day, I was really sorta despondent. And an old gentleman from across the
mountain, who was up there shuckin' cornsimple as it is, most people
had never seen thatwell he put his arm around my shoulder, they were
closing down the last hymn of some sort, and he said, 'I've lived a long
life, and I've done a lot of things. But this is the most enjoyable two days
I have ever spent. I met people from all over the country, and it's just
been really wonderful. I want you to promise me something.' His name was
Vernon Snodderly, and I said, 'What's that, Vernon?' And he said, 'I want
you to promise to do this, to have this, as long as I live.' And before I
could answer, he almost had tears in his eyes. And he said, 'I want you to
promise me something else. I want you to promise to do this as long as you
live, for my children and grandchildren.'
"And that was the kind of sentiment we began to get, and after awhile, it
became something bigger than us here, and Jess Butcher, who was one of my
great supporters, he died last year, he'd come do all kinds of things before
and after and promote [the festival]. And somebody asked, 'When's Irwin's
festival coming up?' And he said, 'Hell, that ain't Irwin's festival, that
belongs to all of us.' And he was exactly right.
"It occurred to me, that I didn't have the right [to stop having the
festival]we've had people that've been here for 15 years, every year!
From Hammond and Gary [Indiana], to meet their cousins from Valdosta, Ga.
So it reminded me, after three or four years, it reminded me of the old
homecomings we used to have once a year out in the country. People'd get
scattered, you know, then we'd have a homecoming at the church. Everybody
was there all day singing and dinner on the grounds, and that's how I came
to call it the Homecoming. And see, I'm already working on next year. We
have thousands of people involved."
What began rather modestly, as an attempt to drum up a little business for
a project Irwin believed in strongly, became a faithful promise to uphold
and now, in it's 18th year, the Museum's showcase. The festival is
internationally renowned, yet hasn't lost the original intent of bringing
people together. Upholding tradition, a few guidelines are followed: All
crafts are consistent with those of our Southern Appalachian region; exhibitors
only sell wares that are worked on or are crafted during the festival; and
all music is acoustic in traditional Appalachian style.
This year, four stages will feature music all day, including hot bluegrass
group Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver; renowned folk musician and archivist
Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers; world champion banjo player Raymond
Fairchild; local television weatherwoman and singer Margie Ison; and one
of Tennessee's favorite sons, banjo and fiddle player John Hartford. Grandpa
Jones will return to the Homecoming, as will Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys,
among many other returning and first-time musical participants. Bea Ellis
Hensley, who has been sought after for years for the Homecoming, will make
his debut here, playing the anvil with hammers.
The national champion checker-player will be in attendance, as well as ever
so many more entertaining folks. Irwin and friends have great things planned
for us all. He tells me, "I'm gonna have to speed up, cause in 30 or 40 years,
I'm gonna be an old man." He admonishes me for not smiling widely enough
at his joke, then laughs good naturedly.
All the plans have been laid; you're invited. Welcome home.