"I started it for the people," says John Rice Irwin, speaking of his role in founding the Museum of Appalachia. "And so it's about the people." He's not kidding, either, as I discovered on a recent visit to Tennessee. This part of the Appalachian chain, once an unknown corner of America, has always been about its men and women, as there wasn't much else to brag about. The hardscrabble life imposed on inhabitants by impossible farming land (all rocks and slopes), tenuous links to cities (mostly by river) and lack of natural resources (except for hard-to-get coal), made the mountains inhospitable from the beginning.
But from here came the likes of Nobel Peace Laureate Cordell Hull, Secretary of State to FDR and "Father of the United Nations"; Sergeant Alvin York, the greatest hero of World War I; musicians Roy Acuff and the Carter Family; and the Gore political dynasty, to mention only a few products of these hills. The people suffered dispossession of their land twice in the 20th century, first for the amazing Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which brought electricity and education to the mountains, and then for the astounding Manhattan Project, which built the world's first atom bombs here and created nuclear energy, nuclear medicine and more. Some people were thrown off their land twice, having moved from one place to the other. In the case of TVA, they had months to plan; for the A-Bomb, they had, most of them, less than a month to clear out and be gone. But the gentle life of these parts goes on. In the town of Norris, for instance, the big police report news item for September 6 this year was confiscation of a pack of cigarettes from underage juveniles, while a plethora of tatting and quilting parties were announced in later pages of the local newspaper.
Tennessee Fall Homecoming, a four-day annual event for 30 years, is in October, 2008. Consistently voted one of the Top 100 Events in North America by the American Bus Association and one of the Top Twenty October events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society, the Homecoming is one of the country's largest and most authentic old-time mountain, craft and music festivals, involving hundreds of musicians and regional folk. More information at tel. 865/494-7680 or www.museumofappalachia.com.
The Clinch River Antique Festival takes place each second October weekend in historic downtown Clinton, where there are many dealers to begin with. Over 90 dealers and artisans show their wares along Market Street on the Saturday, following a Friday evening kick-off party. More info at tel. 865/457-2559, www.andersoncountychamber.org.
The centerpiece of any visit to this part of the mountains has to be The Museum of Appalachia, the nations' largest museum of pioneer life, with about 30 buildings and half a million items on 60 acres of beautiful countryside just 16 miles north of Knoxville in the town of Norris. Founded in 1980 by educator, gentleman and scholar John Rice Irwin, the museum celebrates the people of the hills and their arts, crafts, music and lore. In May 2007, it became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and is a not-for-profit organization (despite its dot com URL). Irwin says he started collecting things when he was only 13 or14, when his uncle offered a group of boys 50 cents apiece for some work done, but Irwin asked if he could have an old coffee mill in lieu of the cash. The collecting habit stayed with him, accelerated after he saw farm items sold to outsiders at an auction in 1962, and in 1980, he finally realized he had a museum's worth of things on his hand, and opened up to the public then. "I had to have a place to put them," he says.
Must-see targets here at this amazing institution include (in my order of descending importance) the Hall of Fame, the Arnwine Cabin (c. 1800, may be the smallest log cabin on the National Register of Historic Places), the Mark Twain Family Cabin (he was born five months after they left Tennessee) and the General Bunch House (his name was General, it isn't a title). In the Hall of Fame, I enjoyed trying to figure out how Asa Jackson's hand-carved "Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine" (c. 1850 and about five feet high) works or how Granny Foust found the energy to use her Blowing Horn, about six feet long, to call her men folk in to dinner. She was said to be 115 years old when she died in 1916. Fans of Tennessee Williams may want to look at the sundial on the lawn here, as it came from his great grandfather's garden in nearby Knoxville.
There are displays for many men and women in the Hall of Fame, including celebrities mentioned earlier. As to Sergeant York, who with his squad of seven captured 132 Germans in World War I, Irwin proudly relates a vignette which shows how little the hero cared for celebrity or money. Having been persuaded that a 1941 movie about his exploits would help the Army recruit youngsters, he chose Gary Cooper to play his part. But when he saw Cooper smoking a cigarette on the set, he withdrew his support for the film, and it took the intercession of Secretary of State Cordell Hull in Washington (a local Tennessee boy, too) to convince York to let the filming continue. More info on York at www.alvincyork.org.
You can have lunch in the museum, too, and gaze outside at the goats, cheep, mules, horses, cattle and farm fowl grazing there. I can recommend the mac cheese with biscuits at $2.95, and the peach cobbler at $1.95, but veggies from the museum garden and chicken and dumplings are what Miss Faye is famous for. In the museum's gift shops, you can buy hand carved replicas of old-fashioned toys such as Jacob's Ladder ($7.95), tops ($2.95), yo-yos ($5.95) and ocarinas, to mention but a few items. You can also learn to play a dulcimer here (new ones to purchase from $450) or a lap harp (on sale from $55), or buy fresh sorghum or elderberry jelly, for instance. Museum of Appalachia, Norris, tel. 865/494-7680, www.museumofappalachia.com.
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center & Museum
An important story of the Civil Rights movement that was lost for decades is that of how 12 African-American students in Clinton were the first to desegregate a state-supported high school in the south. That was way back in 1956, only two years after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, but well before any other segregated high school system became integrated, most of them making the "deliberate speed" the court ordered into a turtle race to see who could hold out the longest against the inevitable.
You can see the school where the struggle started in the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, the new museum (2006) using films and interactive displays to tell the students' stories. The director, Marilyn Hayden, is herself a relative of three of the 12 avatars. Outside is one of the largest figurative sculpture displays in the nation, life-size bronzes of the "Clinton 12", dedicated a year after the museum's opening day, which was August 26, 2006. The center was added in 2005 to the National Register of Historic Places. Free admission. Green McAdoo Cultural Center, 101 School Street, Clinton, tel. 865/457-0055, www.greenmcadoo.org.
Coal Creek Mining
Students of labor history might like to check out the small Coal Mine Museum in Lake City, north of Clinton, though they will find a much bigger museum in a few years' time. The fascinating story of the Coal Creek Wars between labor and industry is told in the museum. "Keep in mind that half our nation's energy still comes from coal," said Carol L. Moore, a volunteer trying to get the new museum going. In the meantime, you can tour the area under the auspices of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Knoxville, www.coalcreekaml.com.
The Tennessee Valley Authority
If you're at all interested in the Tennessee Valley Authority, America's first big experiment with government-run projects, you might like to visit the Norris Dam, first of many in the TVA's grand 1930s project to bring electricity to this neck of the woods and to several states surrounding the valley, in fact. There's a small museum in the state park near the dam, too. More details at www.stateparks.com/norris_dam.html.
The Golden Girls Restaurant isn't named for the eponymous TV series, but for the two Golden girls -- "Golden" being the maiden names of the two owners. They specialize in home cooking, and have the scrumptious cakes and pies to prove it. Try the Tennessee Country Ham dinner at $8.25 or the catfish (broiled or fried) at $6.25. Country Morning Breakfast consists of delicious biscuits, two sausage patties, scrambled eggs, gravy and hash brown potatoes, for $4.25. And they're right next door to the Anderson County Tourism Office, talk about convenient location. Golden Girls, 2211 Charles Seivers Blvd., Clinton, tel. 865/457-3302.
About halfway between Clinton and Oak Ridge on Highway 61 is the Riverview Grill, overlooking the Clinch River. They say they serve "Southern Fare with a Casual Flair" and I can vouch for their "True Tennessee BBQ Ribs," actually St. Louis style, half a rack costing $12.99. That comes with two sides. They also have pulled pork ($9.99) and Po-Boys (from $5.99), and a roll of paper towels on the table for messy hands after eating the ribs. Riverview Grill, 1625 Oak Ridge Hwy., Clinton, tel.865/463-8550, www.riverviewgrill.com.
For quick lunches, consider the Hoskins Drug Store, opened in 1930 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, featuring an old-fashioned 1940s soda fountain. Favorites here are homemade soup, chili and hamburgers. This may be Appalachia, but they offer fancy foreign food styles, too, such as panini sandwiches ($4.75). I would go for the milkshakes ($2.50) or banana split ($3.99), myself. If you want to see a movie, consider the Ritz Theater next door, also on the list of the National Register of Historic Places. Hoskins Drugs, 111 N. Main Street, Clinton, tel. 865/457-4340, www.hoskinsdrugstore.com.
For information on this part of Appalachia, contact the Anderson County Tourism Council in Clinton at 800/524-3602 or at www.yallcome.org.
Talk with other Frommers.com readers on our Tennessee Message Boards.