Museum of Appalachia - Perpetual Motion Machine
To be frank, we expected the Museum of Appalachia to be dull. Another "rural life" museum; quilts and baskets and millstones. Yawn.
Happily, our expectations were far too low. The Museum is a satisfying surprise -- a credit to its creator, John Rice Irwin, who understands that a historical attraction needs exhibits with a little pizzazz.
This place indeed does have plenty of saw blades, oxen yokes, and even an obligatory moonshine still. But it also has a giant wood burl shaped like the devil's head; a postman's coat made out of a bear; a display of mysterious feather balls found in the pillows of the dead; a mocking "Monkey Town" Tennessee license plate, issued during the 1925 trial of a local schoolmaster for teaching evolution.
And these are just in the first building.
The seemingly endless supply of oddities can be partly attributed to Irwin, who enlivens otherwise undistinguished items with their back stories. He does this with often lengthy explanatory signs -- a Herculean task, given that the Museum of Appalachia has over a quarter-million exhibits. For example, the birthing forceps of Dr. John Moore somehow become interesting when you read that he died while trying to steal an egg. An old grandfather clock is labeled as possibly being owned by a witch; a wooden church pew -- "The Murder Bench" -- has a stain from the victim of a hillbilly feud who bled to death on it; a Civil War rifle ball is "The Bitten Bullet," with human teeth marks "certified by a dentist who examined it." One exhibit, simply titled "And What Might This Be?," turns out to have been a stack of hundreds of half-rotted drug store prescriptions from 1940s.
The Museum sprawls across 65 bucolic, animal-populated acres and has dozens of old barns, cabins, and shops. But the best of its exhibits can be found in the Appalachian Hall of Fame, the Display Barn, and the People's Building.
The Hall of Fame treats all of its members equally. Cordell Hull, "The Father of the Income Tax System," has his tax forms from 1953 in a showcase. Next to this is an exhibit on Alvin York, a young stud hero of World War I, which includes a pair of his middle-age fat guy pants (A sign notes that he volunteered for World War II, but failed the physical.). Adjacent to this is the sweat-crusted shirt of "Old Jim Smith," who lived in a cave for 25 years, and an exhibit on George Burkhart, who raised his family in a hollow tree.
The Hall of Fame's most intriguing item is a perpetual motion machine, an example of rugged individualist Southern Science at its finest. The six-foot-tall wheel reportedly spun without stopping, and was built out of thousands of hand-made, mysterious wooden parts -- a lot of work -- by farmer Asa Jackson during the Civil War. He hid it from the Yankees in a cave. The secretive Asa also removed key pieces of the wheel whenever he went away, so it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, Asa went away for good in 1870, and the machine has remained a broken puzzle ever since.
The Display Barn contains an odd mix of the practical and the insane. Exhibits such as "The American Axe, Our Most Important Tool" and "History of the Nail" share space with the work of local folk artists such as Cedar Creek Charlie, who covered everything with red polka-dots. A Swastika milk pitcher has equal billing with a display of home-made rats traps, an oversized chair made by a horny old haberdasher so that women would sit with him, and a hunk of the former World's Largest Poplar Tree, 562 years old when it was accidentally torched by the hobo who lived in it in 1935.
One of the more recent additions to the Museum is the People's Building, designed to house the relics of H. Harrison Mayes, "God's Foremost Ad-Man." Mayes was crushed in a coal mine accident and was not expected to live -- but he did. Attributing his survival to supernatural intervention, he spent the last 50 years of his life inflicting his beliefs on everyone else. Mayes never learned to drive, and his spelling was awful, but that didn't stop him from enlisting his poor family in the construction and placement of hundreds of two-ton concrete highway signs, declaring "Jesus Is Coming Soon" and "Prepare To Meet God." Despite these admonitions, Mayes expected to live to be 120 and to travel in outer space. When he died in 1986, having reached neither goal, he left a stack of signs at his cross-shaped house, each with instructions as to where it should be placed: Egypt, Connecticut, the moon, etc.
Instead, they ended up here. John Rice Irwin made sure of that, and as long as his antennae is working in this wacky region, we feel confident that a lot more stuff just like it will be headed here too.