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 communities.

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 Appalachia—and 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' corn—simple as it is, most people had never seen that—well 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.