Skip to Main Content

Everything in polka dots.

Museum of Appalachia: Perpetual Motion Machine

Field review by the editors.

Clinton, Tennessee

The Museum of Appalachia is a satisfying surprise, and a credit to its creator, the late John Rice Irwin, who understood that a historical attraction needs exhibits with a little pizzazz.

This place has plenty of what you might expect: old 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; and a mocking "Monkey Town" Tennessee license plate, issued during the 1925 trial of a local schoolmaster for teaching evolution.

The Devil.

And these are just in the first building.

The seemingly endless supply of oddities can be partly attributed to Irwin, who enlivened otherwise visually undistinguished items with their back stories. He did 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 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 is spread across 65 bucolic, animal-populated acres and has dozens of old barns, cabins, and shops. But the strangest of its exhibits can be found in the Appalachian Hall of Fame, the Display Barn, and the People's Building.

Perpetual motion machine.

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 hero of World War I, which includes a pair of his no-longer-young, ample post-war 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 science-defying invention at its finest. The six-foot-tall wheel reportedly spun without stopping, and 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 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.

Lil' Miss Inbred?

The Display Barn contains an odd mix of the practical and the impractically bizarre. 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. 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.

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 broadcasting his beliefs to everyone else. Mayes never learned to drive, and his spelling was awful, 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.

Religious sign display.

Instead, they ended up here. John Rice Irwin made sure of that, and we feel confident that a lot more stuff just like it will eventually head here, too.

More exhibits: Gol Cooper's Glass Eye | Angel Crowns

Museum of Appalachia: Perpetual Motion Machine

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

Nearby Offbeat Places

Clinton Twelve StatuesClinton Twelve Statues, Clinton, TN - 7 mi.
CidervilleCiderville, Powell, TN - 10 mi.
Airplane Filling StationAirplane Filling Station, Powell, TN - 12 mi.
In the region:
Graveyard Memorial: USA's First Air Ace, Morristown, TN - 43 mi.

More Quirky Attractions in Tennessee

Stories, reports and tips on tourist attractions and odd sights in Tennessee.

Explore Thousands of Unique Roadside Landmarks!

Strange and amusing destinations in the US and Canada are our specialty. Start here.
Use's Attraction Maps to plan your next road trip.

My Sights

My Sights on Roadside America

Create and Save Your Own Crazy Road Trip! ...Try My Sights

Mobile Apps

Roadside America app: iPhone, iPad Roadside America app for iPhone, iPad. On-route maps, 1,000s of photos, special research targets! ...More

Roadside Presidents app: iPhone, iPad Roadside Presidents app for iPhone, iPad. POTUS landmarks, oddities. ...More

Tennessee Latest Tips and Stories

Latest Visitor Tips

Sight of the Week

Sight of the Week

Punk Rock Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada (Dec 4-10, 2023)

SotW Archive

USA and Canada Tips and Stories

More Sightings