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Cedar Creek Charlie lived in a polka dot house, and covered all of his possessions in polka dots as well.
Cedar Creek Charlie lived in a polka dot house, and covered all of his possessions in polka dots as well.

Museum of Appalachia

Field review by the editors.

Clinton, Tennessee

The Museum of Appalachia is as entertainingly strange as it is unexpected. You expect it to have old quilts, tools, and a moonshine still -- and it does -- but you don't expect it to have a perpetual motion machine, the crusty unwashed shirt of a man who lived in a cave for 25 years, and a giant walnut burl modified into the head of Satan.

Felix
Felix "Casey" Jones turned this walnut burl into a devil head.

And those are just in the museum's first exhibit building.

The museum was the vision of the late John Rice Irwin (1930-2022) who spent most of his long life in the region, befriended its inhabitants, and preserved their stuff. He had an instinct for the unusual. When he acquired a local resident's glass eye, he made sure to also acquire the pocket knife that punctured the owner's original eyeball. He either purchased or was given a postman's coat made out of a bear (with bear-paw gloves), a collection of mysterious feather balls found in the pillows of the dead, a fiddle made from the jawbone of a mule, and a rug woven out of 37,500 cigarette packs.

Irwin's exhibit philosophy seems to have been: If you don't know the artifact's story, what's the point? Many of the museum's relics -- there are over 250,000 of them -- are given lengthy explanatory signs, dictated by Irwin and neatly hand-written by Misty Yeager, his dutiful assistant. In this low-tech way -- text on a piece of poster board -- Irwin takes you through the museum even though he's no longer around.

Perpetual Motion Machine has been disabled since the 1860s, denying the modern world perpetual motion.
Perpetual Motion Machine has been disabled since the 1860s, denying the modern world perpetual motion.

The birthing forceps of Dr. John Moore, for example, become a better artifact 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, titled "And What Might This Be?," turns out to have been a stack of hundreds of half-decayed drug store prescriptions from 1940s.

Well-loved Appalachian doll.
Well-loved Appalachian doll.

The Museum is spread across 65 bucolic, animal-populated acres, with dozens of rustic old buildings, including the log cabin of Mark Twain's parents, and a jail cell that held two men who were then hanged. It's an attraction that requires time (and ideally multiple visits), but for high-density enjoyment we suggest that visitors spend several hours in the museum's 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 W-2 forms from 1953 in a showcase. Next to this is an exhibit on Alvin York, young hero of World War I, which includes a pair of his no-longer-young, plus-size post-war pants (A sign notes that he volunteered for World War II, but failed the physical). Adjacent to this is that previously mentioned sweat-crusted shirt of cave-dwelling "Old Jim Smith," 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 science-defying American ingenuity at its finest. The six-foot-high wheel reportedly spun without stopping, providing "free energy" to whatever was connected to it. The machine was built out of thousands of hand-made 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 Jackson also removed key pieces of the wheel whenever he went away, so it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, Jackson went away for good when he died in 1870, and the machine has remained a broken puzzle ever since.

Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Carved by Fred Carter, who felt that his namesake President smiled too much.
Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Carved by Fred Carter, who felt that his namesake President smiled too much.

"My grandfather always told me that a lot of people tried to fix the machine but were unsuccessful," said Will Meyer, John Rice Irwin's grandson. "He also said that 'the government' offered a million dollars to anyone that could restore it." That, too, has failed to achieve perpetual motion, so the museum sells detailed plans of the machine in its gift shop, hoping that someone can figure it out.

The Display Barn, one of several item-packed museum buildings.
The Display Barn, one of several item-packed museum buildings.

The Display Barn contains an odd mix of the practical and the impractically bizarre. Exhibits such as "Corn: America's Most Important Crop" and "History of the Nail" share space with the work of local folk artists such as Cedar Creek Charlie, who covered all of his belongings (including his house) with red polka-dots. Equal billing is given to a display of home-made rat traps, an oversized chair made by a haberdasher so that young 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.

The People's Building houses a full-size motorcycle, whittled from wood and so accurate that it's indistinguishable from the real thing, and the relics of Henry 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 God's favor, he spent the last 50 years of his life oversharing his spiritual beliefs with everyone else. Mayes named his grandchildren after planets in our solar system (the kids' mothers ignored this), never learned to drive, and had difficulty spelling, but that didn't stop him from enlisting his 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.

David Letterman and unidentified celebrity guest made by Minnie Black,
David Letterman and unidentified celebrity guest made by Minnie Black, "The Gourd Lady."

Instead, they ended up here. According to Will Meyer, many more Appalachian artifacts are packed into the upper off-limits floors of the museum's main buildings, as yet unseen by the public. Thanks to compulsive collector John Rice Irwin, the Museum of Appalachia has an inventory of items to keep it entertainingly strange for years to come.

Also see: Gol Cooper's Glass Eye | Angel Crowns

Museum of Appalachia

Address:
2819 Andersonville Hwy, Clinton, TN
Directions:
I-75 exit 122 (Norris-Clinton). Drive east. The museum is one mile on the left.
Hours:
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
865-494-7680
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Clinton Twelve StatuesClinton Twelve Statues, Clinton, TN - 7 mi.
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Airplane Filling StationAirplane Filling Station, Powell, TN - 12 mi.
In the region:
Rebel Grave of Horne Brothers, Knoxville, TN - 16 mi.

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