One Bean World: a bean-continent backdrop suggests there's a bit of bean in us all.
One Bean World: a bean-continent backdrop suggests there's a bit of bean in us all.

Bush's Beans Museum

Field review by the editors.

Chestnut Hill, Tennessee

"Most people have no idea this is here," said Susan Merrell, operations manager of the Bush's Beans Museum and Visitor Center. She was talking about not only the museum, but also the vast Bush's Beans cannery across the road with its four nine-story-tall cooking towers. The museum-cannery complex is the biggest thing in Chestnut Hill, a rural crossroads at the foot of the Smoky Mountains.

The Bean Can Tunnel takes visitors on a video tour of the cannery in action.
The Bean Can Tunnel takes visitors on a video tour of the cannery in action.

"People are amazed that it's out in the middle of nowhere," said Audra, one of the museum guides. Cathy, a fellow guide, said, "It's like the Emerald City."

Visitors might assume that this Oz-like place owes its existence to a talking dog (Duke, the star of Bush's Beans commercials). In fact, the museum is an outgrowth of A.J. Bush's 1891 general store, and the cannery across the road, according to Susan, was built by A.J. "to give his boys something to do." As the company grew, so did the food factory. The Bushes, loyal to their little town, saw no reason to leave.

All of this is explained in detail in the museum's many historical exhibits, most featuring push-button screens with either industrial footage or video testimonials from Bush family members. Visitors learn that the company survived for decades canning tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and sauerkraut. Its metamorphosis into America's beans-in-a-can champion hinged on the years 1969, when it created its own "secret family recipe" baked beans; 1993, when Bush's dumped all of it's other products and became bean-exclusive; and 1995, when the first Duke commercial was broadcast. Five years after that, Bush's had 80 percent of the USA's baked beans market.

Historical exhibits includes tributes to supermarket checkers and the guy who filled the can-cooking kettle.
Historical exhibits includes tributes to supermarket checkers and the guy who filled the can-cooking kettle.

Secret Family Recipe book is safe behind lasers.
Secret Family Recipe book is safe behind lasers.

In 2010, after an inspiring visit to the SPAM Museum, Bush's expanded the old Bush general store into a museum and visitor center (the gift shop incorporates the store's original ceilings and walls). Despite the out-of-the-way location, and a conspicuous lack of advertising, the museum churns through a thousand bean-crazed visitors a day during the summer. "Some people, they're in the parking lot when we open, and they walk out with us in the evening," said Audra.

We were told that the most popular items in the gift shop are the beans. Bush's makes nearly 100 canned varieties, and visitors buy the less common ones -- not available in their local stores -- by the case.

Popular questions asked by visitors include "Where's Duke?" (he stops by unannounced once or twice a year), "What's the secret family recipe?" (it's a secret), and "Where are the bean fields?" (mostly in North Dakota and Michigan; Bush's had to abandon local produce when it went all-beans and remained in Chestnut Hill).

A museum visit starts with a 20-minute video theater tour of the cannery across the road. Quick cuts and uptempo music bring excitement to the shaker conveyor, soak tanks (seven tons of beans in each), the blanching process, bacon cubing, the sauce waterfall, and the can flipper that ensures bean saturation. Viewers learn that Bush's baked beans are not baked, but steamed (in those nine-story towers); and that 98 percent of Bush's customers want bacon in their bean cans, but 96 percent of them then throw the bacon away.

Jay and Duke became talking action figures in a 2013 commercial.
Jay and Duke became talking action figures in a 2013 commercial.

Outside the theater is a walk-thru giant Bush's Baked Beans can with more video screens of the cannery in action; the "Fill and Close" and "Labeling" processes occur so fast that they're shown in slow motion. There's a push-button light-up model of the Chestnut Hill plant, and an entire display devoted to the 2013 commercial where Duke and his owner, Jay Bush, are transformed into battery-powered talking action figures. "They scanned our bodies with lasers to get our proportions just right," said Jay in the display video. Cathy told us that the limited edition action figures quickly sold out in the gift shop. "They're like a collector's item now."

Stuffed Duke guards beans-for-sale in the gift shop.
Stuffed Duke guards beans-for-sale in the gift shop.

Visitors can set in motion a marble-powered Rube Goldberg version of the cannery, stand on a special scale that tells them how much they weigh in beans, ponder the "Can Openers Through the Years" exhibit, and have their pictures snapped in a free souvenir photo booth with a digital Duke. The final display in the museum is the baked beans secret family recipe, bound in leather, in a showcase behind a formidable lattice of Mission Impossible-style lasers.

There are no free samples in the museum (and no testing of experimental new canned bean varieties) but the visitor center does have its own cafe. We were told that its most popular item was not baked beans, but the pinto bean pie. Visitors sometimes weigh themselves on the weight-in-beans scale before and after visiting the cafe to see how many beans they've consumed.

With all this talk of beans, we were surprised that the subject of flatulence is nowhere addressed in the exhibits of the Bush's Beans Museum. The museum guides assured us that digestive gas was a byproduct of healthy food, and told us their standard response when someone brings up the subject: "We put 239 beans in a can, because if we put in one more it'd be too forty."

Bush's Beans Museum

Address:
3901 US-411, Chestnut Hill, TN
Directions:
I-40 exit 432A. Drive south on US-411 for about five miles. You'll see the museum on the left and the big cannery on the right.
Hours:
Summer M-Sa 10-4, winter 10-3 (Call to verify)
Phone:
865-509-3077
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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February 18, 2020

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