The Man from Appalachia

Adam Henig
May 31, 2014 · 8 min read

One day. That’s all we had.

Jennifer understood that this was supposed to be a business trip. Flying to Knoxville, Tennessee, from San Francisco, California, along with hotel accommodations, was necessary in order to complete my biography of Alex Haley.

Setting aside a week, two days for flying, left us five full days to conduct research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, main library’s special collections division. Since we were planning to spend every minute in the library, literally from opening to closing, we decided to allocate one day for non-research.

We had already explored Knoxville’s lively downtown. In the eastern part of the Volunteer State, there were two main attractions — the Smokey Mountains and Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s own amusement park. Both were more than an hour’s drive away and I would have preferred not to spend so much time on the road.

After consulting our guidebook, we opted for the Museum of Appalachia. Located about 15 miles north of Knoxville, we rented a car and started our journey.

Thanks to a large billboard advertising the Museum’s exit along the highway, we arrived at our destination, which upon initial view looked more like a farm.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Once we paid the admission and walked through the gift shop, we took a self-guided tour of the Appalachian Hall of Fame. Located in a barn, the Hall of Fame was an exhibit hall that featured thousands of artifacts associated with Appalachia. From hand tools and cooking ware to musical instruments and children’s toys, the items on display conveyed what life was like in nineteenth and early twentieth century Appalachia.

There was information about Appalachians who grew up to become popular figures such as Texas Senator and Governor Sam Houston, World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York, and FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull. They even had photographs of famous museum visitors including, to my delight, Alex Haley.

Afterwards, along the grounds, we explored the various log cabins that encircled the farm. One cabin had banjo music blaring from it. It was a trio of bluegrass musicians performing for two other visitors before we entered. They played as if there were a hundred people inside. I don’t think more than six could fit.

After their set was finished, one of the band members asked where we were from. She was astonished to learn that we came as far away as California — apparently it was rare to encounter visitors who travelled beyond the surrounding states.

“What are y’all doin’ here?” she inquired in her southern accent.

“I’m writing a book about Alex Haley,” I responded.

“Well, y’know who owns this place, right?”

“No,” I replied.

“John Rice Irwin.”

“Who?”

Born and raised during the Great Depression, from the moment he could walk and talk, John Rice Irwin seemed destined to make Appalachian culture a part of his life. With Southern Appalachian roots traced back to the 1700’s, John took pride in his ancestry. In fact, his grandfather noticed at an early age how his grandson gravitated toward the family’s heritage, wanting to collect and preserve as many items as possible.

“[You] ought to start a little museum of these old-timey things some time,” he told his grandson.

And so Irwin did.

When we were at the Museum, it seemed that there were more animals on foot than visitors.

It began at a public auction in the early 1960s with the purchase of a nineteenth century horseshoe box for $4. After acquiring a few more items, the collector finally made his first big purchase — a decrepit, one-room log cabin. That was the beginning. Irwin would set out to acquire as many items related to Appalachia as he possibly could. With two acres of land and a log cabin, the museum would expand in size and depth beyond the founder’s wildest dreams.

Over the next two decades, Irwin’s property grew to sixty-five acres complete with over two-dozen Appalachia-style structures that included a schoolhouse, a 19th century jail cell, and the “Dan’l Boone Cabin” used on the set of a 1950s television show about the frontiersman. Eventually, the museum had become one of the most popular attractions in the state. In 2007, it was declared by the Smithsonian Institution as one of its Affiliate members, a prestigious honor.

“John Rice Irwin is the founder of this place,” the banjo player went on. “And he knew Alex Haley. They were tight. I bet you he’s here…in that office of his.”

I was shocked. Here we were, supposed to spend the day not conducting research. I turned to Jennifer. I felt guilty that we were still focusing on Alex Haley. As always, she was a good sport, and knew the importance of meeting Mr. Irwin.

“He’s not as active as he used to be. He sorta looks like Mark Twain but without the mustache.”

Irwin featured in the Knoxville weekly publication, Metro Pulse

We made the trek back to the museum entrance. I walked over to the gift shop clerk and asked to speak to Mr. Irwin.

“And what is this pertaining to?” she eyed me with a bit of suspicion.

For a moment, I was unsure what to say. I was nervous. It wasn’t my first interview — I had managed to conduct two earlier in the week with members of the library staff who were acquaintances of Haley — but this was different. If Haley and Irwin were as close as the musician said they were, I knew it was vital for my book.

“One moment,” she responded, after I told her I was a biographer of Alex Haley. She wandered off to a backdoor.

Within three minutes, she returned.

“Okay, honey, he’ll see you. Just go through that door [she pointed] and turn left.”

I grabbed Jen and off we went to meet the man from Appalachia.

The cigar smoke permeated the back area. Through a storage room, we were led into a conference room with a half-dozen five-foot high file cabinets up against the walls. This was not something you saw much anymore — endless amounts of papers filed away. It easily could have been part of the exhibit too. But it wasn’t, not exactly. It was Mr. Irwin’s personal papers. Like any good curator, he kept records of everything.

From there, we wandered into Mr. Irwin’s office. Sitting behind a desk, dangling an unlit cigar from his lips was the man from Appalachia.

He stared at me, wanting to know my business. Was I a reporter? Was this a hit piece on his old friend? It had been years since anyone was interested in Alex Haley.

“Take a seat,” he mumbled but remained grim. He did resemble Mark Twain — wild white hair, thick eyebrows, and a stern gaze — but without the signature mustache.

No longer young and energetic, Mr. Irwin was eighty-years-old. His role at the museum was mostly ceremonial. He leaned back in his chair. As I scanned the contents of his office, it was as if time had stood still. There was nothing displayed that showed we were living in the 21st century. He was certainly stuck in the past. He had become, strangely, part of the museum too.

“What can I do for you?” his voice rose a little louder and clearer.

I began explaining the biography I was writing about Alex Haley and how I ended up at his museum.

“So, you want to ask me a couple of questions?”

Yes, of course. This guy was making it too easy. I was searching for paper and pen. Digging through her purse, Jen quickly handed me a notepad and a pencil.

Mr. Irwin spoke to me for more than hour. Not only did I learn about his close friendship with Alex Haley but about Irwin himself. He showed me photos of him and Alex as well as his personal inscribed copies of Roots that sat on the bookcase located behind where I was sitting.

“Y’know,” Mr. Irwin said in his southern drawl, “that chair you’re sitting in, that’s where Alex always sat.”

I smiled, reclined in the chair and savored the moment.

“I wanna show you something,” he told me as he finally lit the cigar that had been dangling from his mouth.

Mr. Irwin rose slowly, touching briefly the desk with his fingertips for balance. He walked over to the conference room where the file cabinets were located.

He pointed to a drawer of one of the cabinets; it was labeled, “Alex Haley.”

I asked if I could open it and he nodded in the affirmative.

As I pulled open the drawer, I was in disbelief as my eyes examined hundreds of meticulously organized documents all related to Alex Haley — Haley’s will, scores of letters, unpublished manuscripts, travelling schedules, and numerous articles I had yet come across in my research.

Not wanting to overextend my visit, I asked Mr. Irwin if I could come again to peruse his papers.

“Sure,” he said nonchalantly.

A month later we returned.

This time I was prepared. Before we arrived at the museum, we drove to Office Max and bought a printer with a copier, several print cartridges, and two reams of paper. I also took along an empty duffle bag for the hundreds of copies I was planning to make.

That day Mr. Irwin and I spoke more about Alex, despite the fact that he was nursing a wound on his arm from a fall that had occurred hours earlier.

Nevertheless, he was still filled with humor and even shared a bottle of his Moonshine. I took a sip and cringed. I felt I had ingested gasoline. With reluctance, I took another sip to show him I wasn’t a wussy Yankee.

Author Adam Henig (left) enjoying a chat along side Mr. John Rice Irwin in his office at the Museum.

I wish I could say that Mr. Irwin and I kept in touch, but we didn’t. I had sent him a bottle of white wine to thank him for his generosity. We exchanged a couple of letters, but that was all. Life has a way of getting in the way. I had hoped to attend the museum’s annual celebration that fall, but was unable to make it.

A year and half after our second visit, Mr. Irwin suffered a stroke. He survived, but currently is living in a nursing home and has limited mobility.

I hope to see Mr. Irwin again and share with him a copy of my book. Maybe he’ll put it on his bookshelf, next to Roots.

Whenever you are in East Tennessee, visiting the Museum of Appalachia is a must! Say hi to the chickens for me.

    Adam Henig

    Written by

    Author. Speaker. Superhero Dad.

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