Golden Idol Bean draws legume-lovers to Bush's Beans Museum.
Golden Idol Bean draws legume-lovers to Bush's Beans Museum.

Bush's Beans Museum

Field review by the editors.

Chestnut Hill, Tennessee

In the corporate world of mass-marketed food, Bush's Beans exudes an aroma of homey charm. The Bush's Beans Museum and Visitor Center, and the Bush's Beans cannery across the road -- with its four nine-story-tall cooking towers -- are the biggest things in Chestnut Hill, a rural crossroads in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Tennessee.

Bush's canned tomatoes go to war.
Bush's canned tomatoes go to war.

"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 was built by A.J. to give his sons 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 of them featuring screens with video testimonials from Bush family members and cannery employees. 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 three years: 1969, when it created its own "secret family recipe" for baked beans; 1993, when Bush's dumped most of its other products and became bean-skewed; and 1995, when the first Duke commercial was broadcast. Five years after that, Bush's had 70 percent of the USA baked beans market.

Descriptive titles enhance a video tour of the bean factory.
Descriptive titles enhance a video tour of the bean factory.

Cardboard photo-op Jay Bush likes the bean business.
Cardboard photo-op Jay Bush likes the bean business.

In 2010, after an eye-opening 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). Then in 2022 the company completely remodeled the museum, retiring old exhibits -- including a giant walk-thru bean can -- and bringing in new displays that encouraged more watching and less reading.

Despite the out-of-the-way location, the Bush's Beans 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 purchase 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-in on beans and remained in Chestnut Hill).

Touch screen supermarket aisle: tap a can, learn about that bean.
Touch screen supermarket aisle: tap a can, learn about that bean.

A museum visit begins in the video theater, where you're taken on a 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, who sit on bean-shaped benches, learn that Bush's baked beans are not baked, but steamed (in those nine-story-tall 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.

Your Weight in Beans may alarm you.
Your Weight in Beans may alarm you.

Visitors exit into the museum, where they can stand on a special scale that tells them how much they weigh in beans; ponder the "Can Openers Through the Years" display; and turn a crank to start the "Bush's Water Reclamation Program" machine, with colorful golf balls rising and tumbling to represent fertilizer and biogas.

The museum centerpiece, replacing the giant walk-thru bean can -- which has been sealed off and shoved into a corner -- is a giant Golden Idol bean of undetermined variety (Its shape seems more butternut squash than bean). Surrounding it are small shrines highlighting popular legumes, and informative exhibits such as "The Journey of a Bean" and "Do You Know Beans?" The adjacent "Beautiful Bean Aisle" is a giant touch-screen supermarket display; tapping a can on a shelf brings up some affirmative text ("If you like blackeye peas then you'll love purple hull peas") and a QR code to scan for more details.

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 menu item was not baked beans, but the pinto bean pie. Visitors sometimes weigh themselves on the weight-in-beans scale before and after eating to see how many beans they've consumed.

With all of 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 actually a good thing -- 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) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
865-509-3077
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, NC - 31 mi.

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