The Mountain Culture of Tennessee

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Tennessee is gorgeous in the fall. The eastern third of the state, which sees the Smoky Mountains rise to heights of almost 7,000 feet, is stunning. The fall colors peaked just last week, and as you remark about the crisp weather and the fallen leaves, don’t be surprised when you discover that fall’s harvest season carries with it a sense of community and, in rural parts of the state, a throw-back to simpler times.

I have spent the last two weekends taking in a sampling of this culture firsthand, albeit in somewhat of a staged environment. Mountain Makins’ is an annual fall festival of music, arts and crafts, and food. The Museum of Appalachia, meanwhile, is an open-air museum of highland culture that ranks as one of the best folk museums in the world.

Mountain Makins’

Morristown, TN is a large town of 29,000 Tenneseeans and an eastern suburb of Knoxville. Although Morristown is most famous for its “Sky Mart” – a double-decker sidewalk that spans its four-block downtown Main Street – the city’s Rose Center for the Arts hosts a variety of cultural and civic events. Two weeks ago, the Rose Center grounds played host to Mountain Makins,’ a three-day festival dedicated to exhibiting the fine craftworks, rich foodstuffs, and diverse musical culture of the region. If you were to think of handcrafted wooden cardinals, savory boiled peanuts, and jubilant Southern Gospel, you wouldn’t be far from the mark.

Mountain Makins 12

I went with my parents, who immediately scoped out the food vendors. They decided that the Crazy Good Burgers food truck had offerings to their liking (and a long line to match its namesake reputation). I opted for a heart attack-sized plate of fried pickles (a southern specialty) from a vendor across the lawn, and washed down those breaded gherkins with a giant bag of kettle corn. Below is a picture of my parents, settling in for lunch at Mountain Makins’ 2015. If my dad looks grumpy, it is simply because nothing gets between him and his food. I tease…but I do so with love.

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We ate our lunch as Clinch Valley Bluegrass wrapped up its gig on the outdoor stage. They were followed by an award-winning duo, The Katts, who dressed in Appalachian attire and sang an array of songs straight off the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I am no fan of country music, but this was something else altogether.

Mountain Makins 10

After lunch, we browsed the various artisan booths.One stand included an exhibit on beekeeping, and the jolly beekeeper with whom I spoke bore a “Sling Blade” accent so thick that it made any conversation beyond basic pleasantries almost impossible. The crafts tables continued inside the Rose Center’s Prater Hall, where you could find your share of handmade, Etsy-caliber necklaces, nature photographs, Thanksgiving baskets, etc. I was particularly taken by the seasonal miniatures designed by Carol Vanderzee, owner of CarolsFaerieGardens. Check out her online shop and give her a “like” on social media.

Mountain Makins 15 - Carol VanderZee of Carol's Faerie Gardens

The Mountain Makins’ Festival takes place annually the third weekend in October. Tickets are $5.00.

Museum of Appalachia

The Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Appalachia is located 20 miles north of Knoxville, midway between the historic towns of Clinton and Norris. Clinton is more famous as the location of the south’s first racially-integrated public high school, while Norris is home to the 80-year-old Norris Hydroelectric Dam.

The museum itself occupies hundreds of acres on the edge of a forested hillside. Like other open-air museums, the site features dozens of relocated farm houses, wooden churches, log cabins, and one-room schoolhouses brought in from elsewhere – in this case, the corner where Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina meet.

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The gravel road that marks the entrance to the museum passes a large weeping willow and several acres of picture-perfect farmland. Goats and highland cows graze behind a wooden fence. A birdhouse carved from gourds stands next to a farmhouse that has power lines running to it but otherwise appears to be something from a simpler time.

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Entrance tickets (a steep $18.00) are purchased inside the barn-shaped gift shop and restaurant. Collectors of antiques, jams, and jellies will find a treasure trove of items for sale. My mom and I visited the on-site restaurant, which featured such Halloween-themed entrees as “creepy parmesan chicken” and “ghoulash.”  Ooh, and hot apple cider, too. Most of the ingredients were harvested on the museum grounds, and everything was delicious.

The self-guided walking tour takes visitors past (and sometimes through) several buildings, the first of which contains more history about the people of Appalachia – famous and anonymous both – than can comfortably be housed within its walls. Have you heard of Sergeant Alvin C. York, the most-decorated hero of World War I? He grew up near here, and a German machine gun that he captured is on display inside the museum, as is his family’s round dinner table. Do you remember Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and two-time (1996 and 2000) Republican presidential candidate? Alexander currently serves as Tennessee’s senior senator, and a museum exhibit about his life includes a collection of the politico’s Boy Scout medals.

Museum of Appalachia 15 - WWI Light Machine Gun

And then there are the Appalachian locals about whom you have never heard of. There is Tyler Bunch, for one, a rural farmer and personal friend of museum founder John Rice Irwin. Bunch’s cabin is on display here, and a collection of pictures shows him smiling next to his outdoor privy, fedora on his head and overalls covering leathery skin. There is Mary Jennings Bumgardner, of Foust Hollow, who was photographed on her front porch, looking like everyone’s favorite grandmother with her sweater, housedress, and sunken smile. And then there is Raymond Fairchild, a local fiddler who used the jawbone of his favorite mule as a shoulder holster for his hand-carved fiddle. Lest I forget Felix “Casey” Jones, a Virginia mail carrier, WWI veteran, and amateur woodcarver, who found an enormous block of walnut that resembled the Devil. Jones added eyes, and a set of horse’s teeth for the mouth. The end result is shown below:

Museum of Appalachia 34 - The Devil - walnut with horse teeth

The star attraction, I think, for most visitors to the Museum of Appalachia is touring the preserved cabins and other historic buildings. An easy dirt trail takes you past many such structures, although you may find yourself sharing the trail with peacocks, or being bleated at by goats from one of the nearby pens.

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I learned during my visit that Missourian Mark Twain was actually conceived in Tennessee. The Twain Family Cabin, on display here, is perhaps the best-preserved cabin on the grounds. The nearby Arnwine Cabin is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is believed to be the smallest building on said list. A one-room school house from a place called “Big Tater Valley” and a whiskey still built by notorious moonshiner “Popcorn” Sutton, who committed suicide in 2009 rather than go to prison for manufacturing illegal liquor, are just two of the other points of interest along the trail.

Museum of Appalachia 72 - Arnwine Cabin - on Ntl Register of Historic Places

Visitors can expect to find various farming implements scattered about the grounds as well, such as an enormous bark grinding stone or – and I’m not making this up – a hog scalding kettle. Seeing the latter horrified me, but only for a moment, as I quickly realized that it is from such traditional tools that we get crispy, delicious bacon. And who doesn’t like bacon?! 😉

Museum of Appalachia 93 - bark grinding stone

I was hoping, and half-expecting, to see live music performances considering that it was a Saturday when we came. I later learned that most live events take place during the summer months, when crowds are thicker. That being said, folding chairs were set out on a green swath of lawn, in front of several hay bales adorned with pumpkins – a harvest-themed wedding! Guests were arriving as we concluded our visit, and they were all decked out in imaginative Halloween costumes. I don’t know if marriage is my thing, but with fall colors at their peak, with peacocks roaming free, and with such an idyllic, pastoral setting, I would be hard pressed to think of a better venue at which to tie the knot.

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Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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