A Few of Our Biographies:
The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
“She reached into a pocket of her apron and pulled out a little derringer. She said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘That looks like a pistol.’ She said, ‘That’s right. I carry it for you people that come around trying to buy my people’s stuff.’ Well now. That wasn’t real encouraging. So I figured it was best at that moment to stop talking about antiques.”
The Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, welcomes about 100,000 visitors a year to its 70 buildings, 100-plus acres, and tens of thousands of artifacts. John Rice Irwin, museum founder and president, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1989 for his effort to preserve the material culture of an extraordinary region of America.
Appalachia runs in a mountainous swath from New York State to the Deep South, encompassing parts of 13 states. Irwin’s museum focuses on Southern Appalachia, the Mountain South, largely rural, where, historically, the art of “making do,” as Irwin says, has been a cornerstone of life.
In the early 1960s Irwin embarked on a mission to find, purchase, and preserve objects that mountain people made and used over the centuries. “In the past,” he says, “any need that people of this region had, whether for shoes or a new fence or a butter churn, the first thing they thought was, ‘How do we make it?’ Today, invariably, the first thing people think is, ‘Where can I buy it?’”
Irwin traveled into hollows and valleys, up narrow dirt roads and along mountain creeks, knocking on doors, seeking items that people didn’t use anymore that they might wish to sell to him: objects connected with log cabin building, butter churning, soap making, cooking, hunting, trapping, herbal healing, quilting, blacksmithing, spinning, weaving, fiddles, banjos, guitars, wagon making, hog dressing, moonshining, beekeeping, tanning, coal mining, revivals, general stores, and so on.
Irwin is author of several books including “Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer” (1985).
Q. Mr. Irwin, when the MacArthur Foundation people notified you in 1989 that you had won a fellowship, how did you react?
A. I remember the day they called. My secretary, Andrea Fritz, said, “The phone is for you.” So I picked it up. They told me I had been chosen for this award. They explained how much money it was, over a quarter of a million dollars, with a little bit more to pay the taxes. They said, “Will you accept it? You can use the money in any way you wish, you don’t have to tell us what you do with it.” I said of course I would accept it, very honored. I hung up the phone. My secretary said, “Who was that?” I told her. “You mean you're going to get $300,000?!” I said, “Yeah.” She said later that my reaction was the same as if someone called and said we’ve got two nice pigs we want to give you. (Pause.) I’m not demonstrative. People on all these quiz programs that I happen to watch when I’m trying to get to another station - they win $500 and they grab the host and start throwing him around. That’s not my approach. It's not how I was raised. So, anyway, that was my reaction to the MacArthur grant. I was very honored. That’s an award you don’t apply for, it just comes to you, out of the blue. I put all the money into the museum. My first thought was, how much real estate for the museum can I acquire. I never thought of the new car I could buy, or taking an expensive vacation or whatever. What makes me feel good is to be parsimonious. My grandparents, if they had been extremely wealthy, would not have changed one thing in their lifestyle.
Q. You’ve got many generations of Appalachian roots, yes?
A. My people came into this area of eastern Tennessee in 1784. This is called Big Valley; it’s a rather fertile valley between the Cumberland Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains about 30 miles north of Knoxville.
My people – not just some of my ancestors, but all of them – were rural people, making their living by farming. They lived in Big Valley peacefully until 1935 when the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to construct a dam here, the Norris Dam, named for a senator from the Nebraska grasslands. Sen. Norris and President Roosevelt decided the TVA would be a great thing to do. (Pause.) Well, this affected me and my family very directly. We moved 30 miles southwest, to the area now occupied by the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
We bought a new farm of about 300 acres, and my father and mother, and uncle and grandparents, all lived there, and my brother David and I. He’s younger than me by one year and 13 months.
My Grandfather Irwin was getting up in years by that time; he was born in 1860 so he was now in his mid-70s. At that point he wasn’t out in the field working 12 hours a day anymore, so he spent some time with me and my brother. Not to “bond” necessarily but to do customary tasks, such as picking blackberries and seining for fish in the creeks. He was steeped in the customs and ways of his ancestors; he’d spent a lot of time with his elders as a boy; he knew things. We would wander together in the countryside. It wasn’t his intent to teach us, per se, but we learned a great deal anyway about the land and about how our forebears had lived. He taught us so many things - to give one small example, I remember learning from him that not all oak trees were alike, there are many different kinds - white oak, chestnut oak, and so on down the list. We also spent time with his wife, my Grandmother Irwin, another wonderful person. Not a day passes that I don’t think of these people in one way or another, and my other two grandparents as well.
We stayed on that farm until I was 12. So now we’re up to 1942. The United States government decides it’s going to build an atomic bomb and they want land for a laboratory. The Atomic Energy Commission visits our property one day and puts a sign on our door saying we have 14 days to move because they need the land.
So we moved again. This time we bought a farm between Oak Ridge and Big Valley. When my Daddy went up to the new place to set things up he left me in charge at the old place. I was 12 years old and I was responsible for the livestock and the household goods. I was pretty proud of being left in charge. My Daddy was - how would I say it - he was very particular about how things were done. He didn’t often trust others to do a job. I guess I have this trait myself. I remember one time, I was 13 or so, he saw that I could handle a team of mules. A little later we had to drive that mule team down the mountain road, with all those sharp turns, and he would not allow any of the farm hands to do it, he said, “Let Rice do it.” That was one of the greatest compliments I ever received in my life.
Q. He called you “Rice” rather than “John Rice” as folks say now?
A. When I was a boy everyone called me “Rice." Later, in the army, I was “John." So after the army I went with “John Rice.”
I went to high school in Norris. I was sort of active – I was president of the Future Farmers of America and the Student Council. I was on the debate team. I enjoyed accomplishing things. I would go trapping in the morning to make a little extra money for myself, then set to work milking cows for Daddy; we’d load the milk onto the truck and he would drive it to creamery, with my brother and me, and he’d let us off at a certain spot and we would walk the last mile to school, even though I’d already worked three hours and had a full day ahead. He wanted to save gasoline. That’s how he was. Parsimonious.
My Dad had a pretty serious heart attack when I was about 13 or 14; my brother and I took over operation of the farm, growing tobacco and hay, also dairy. I kept up with my trapping; by the time I finished high school I had about $2,000 saved up from muskrat pelts, also from walnuts and grapes that I grew on my own. I went off to college and my brother stayed on the farm.
I had planned to go to Maryville College near Knoxville, but to give you some indication about how I decided things sometimes, two of my high school friends came by one day in a coupe – you’re familiar with a coupe? – not a chicken coop – and said, “We’re going to TPI, we want you to go with us.” That would be Tennessee Polytechnic Institute, known as Tennessee Tech, or Tech, or TPI. It was in Cookville. I hadn’t thought about going there but it sounded like a good idea, so I went inside and told my mother, “I’m going to Tech.” She said, “Going where?” “To Tech, for college.” She said, “Well, I hadn’t heard anything about it.” She paused for a moment and she said, “All right then, I’ll help you pack your clothes.” I had a little cardboard suitcase, which I still have. She helped me pack, and I left, and that’s the type of planning that brought me to college.
I found a place to stay with an old lady, a widow, Mrs. Drake; she had an upstairs bedroom with no toilet facilities and no heat at all except the fireplace, which burned coal. These two friends of mine didn’t have anyplace to stay, so they stayed with me - I told them they could have the bed, I could sleep on the floor just as well. So I slept on the floor for a couple of nights.
A few weeks after I enrolled my Dad said, “Do you have to pay to go to that school?” I hadn’t said anything to him about money, I didn’t want to ask for any. I said, “A little bit.” He said, “Do you need any money? Let me give you something.” I think he gave me 65, 70 dollars, which he thought was being liberal.
I walked to school every morning. I would pick up apples on the way and have those for breakfast. At noon I ate in the cafeteria, which cost almost nothing - 20 cents would get me some lunch. I generally stayed in the library until it closed at 9 p.m.; I liked staying there as long as possible because it had heat. After it closed I would go to a little restaurant and for fifteen cents I’d get a bowl of beef stew and all the crackers I could eat. So that was a pretty good deal. My expenses were low. I was working hard and I was totally content. I wrote for the local newspaper for a while. I did gardening work. I was circulation manager for the school paper.
In the fall of 1950 I changed from Tech to Lincoln Memorial University. They called it LMU. It’s in the Cumberland Gap. I stayed there about a year. Then I joined the army, the infantry. This was during the Korean War, but you know, they ended up sending me to Germany to defend my country. I bought a car over there and when I got a three-day pass I would travel around. All told I visited nine different countries. I totally enjoyed it. I learned to speak a little German.
When I came back to the States I enrolled at LMU again. I was on the debate team and I became president of the veteran’s club. After college I got a job in Middlesboro, Kentucky, working for the Middlesboro Daily News writing feature stories. I loved that. Later on I worked as a school teacher and a school principal, and I did some teaching at the University of Tennessee. I was a school superintendent. And for 45 years now I’ve been with the museum.
Q. How did you get started with the museum?
A. (Pause.) I sometimes think about what factors led to my interest in collecting and exhibiting objects from this land that I love. One thing that happened when I was young was, my Grandfather Rice, and various other folks, had a lot of old tools, and I discovered I liked them, and I started collecting them - tools to shape wood, hand planes, and so forth. I stored them in a room we had at home. Grandfather Rice said to me one day, “You ought to keep all these old things that belonged to our people and start a museum someday.” So maybe there’s a seed for the museum right there. I might also mention, my Uncle Frank loved history, he would sit in the front yard with a history book and talk about the history of the Cumberland Gap, which loomed in my mind as tremendously interesting.
I was elected school superintendent in 1962, and soon after that, I heard about a public auction at the old Miller Place over on Clinch River. I was now married to Elizabeth, and we had two daughters, Karen and Elaine.
I went to the auction out of curiosity. They had an old wooden bucket for sale that they’d fished out of the river in a flood. I bought it. I also saw that someone was buying an old spinning wheel; I heard them talking about converting it into a coffee table or something like that. And I thought, “This is just terrible.” I just plain didn’t like the idea of that object being hauled to Terre Haute or Dayton and made into a coffee table, completely removed from the context of the region, and from the people who had used it.
Over the next few days I got to thinking that maybe I could buy a few artifacts from folks around here, and keep them here where they belong. I started buying things, and over the next couple of years I completely filled up our garage. I had a lot of hand tools, a churn or two, an old earthen crock - items that I had known as a kid. I had a loom. Eventually I got so much stuff, I piled it up outside and covered it with a tarpaulin from my Dad.
We’re up to about 1964 by now. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could get a log cabin moved in here and put these things in it.” A log cabin just seemed like an appropriate setting. A big coal company gave me a log cabin that was on their land, just to get rid of it, it was a fire hazard. So we moved the cabin onto my property, I rebuilt it, and we moved these artifacts into it. And then people started stopping by. The log cabin got their interest, it heightened their curiosity. They wanted to see what I had so I showed them. A couple years later I started listening to my wife and daughters, who were suggesting that I could charge some money for people to look at the objects. I thought, "Well, if I charge a quarter per person, I can get somebody to stay here and watch over things." I think 1969 was the first year we started having an admission charge.
Q. Was this activity taking place in your current location in Norris?
A. Yes. I had four acres at the time.
Q. Did you continue going to auctions to buy objects?
A. I didn’t go to auctions much, actually. To a very great extent I went door-to-door, house-to-house. I went into the hinterland, into the countryside, up into the mountains.
That’s something that’s....(pause)....well, frankly, it’s hard, going to a strange place and knocking on the door. It’s an art I think - buying things this way - and it’s a difficult art to master. People don’t necessarily want to sell objects to someone who just comes up to the door like that. Over the years I’ve hired various people who were quite knowledgeable about antiques, they knew their stuff all right, but they could never get people to sell them anything. Not very often at any rate.
I remember when I was a boy, we would have salesmen come by, selling insurance and all this kind of thing, and the first thing they did was, they’d say to my Dad, “Oh, Mr. Irwin, you’ve got a wonderful tobacco crop!” Various compliments like that. And it was so obviously baloney, you know. I would never say anything like that to any of these folks I visited. I kept it simple and straightforward. I’d go up to the door, introduce myself, tell them what I was doing, and try to establish a bond with them, based on respect.
You need to be honest. This extends even to clothing. Maybe it starts with clothing somehow. Some people who have gone out with me felt the need to dress up in overalls and patched pants and pretend to be one of the country folk. I never did that. I was a school superintendent at the time; I wore a white shirt, a suit, and a tie. I didn’t pretend to be something I wasn’t.
I would always get across to them that I knew what I was talking about when it came to tools and various objects. I think this was important, so that they knew I was serious. But you see, I would do this in a low-key, respectful way, I wouldn’t flaunt it, or come across as a know-it-all. They’d go into the barn and they’d bring something out, let’s say a Civil War bayonet that had been up on a shelf for years – I recognized it right away – they’d say, “I bet you don’t know what this is.” I wouldn’t just say, “Sure, I know what that is, that’s a Civil War bayonet.” I’d say, “That’s a very interesting item – say, that isn’t a bayonet, is it?”
I also didn’t want to leave the impression that I thought they needed money. These folks almost never sold just for money. They're much too proud for that.
Q. They’re not just selling, are they - they’re selling to you. They’ve decided you are someone in whom they can entrust their objects and memories. Their lives.
A. I think that’s exactly right. Now, I should tell you, I came across some people who would have sold their stuff to anybody who flashed a few dollars. But mainly it was just regular folks selling to me because they liked me and felt all right about it.
Q. I wonder if there's a connection here with your days as a newspaper feature writer. That’s what good feature writers do, right? They establish trustful connections with people and give them space to tell their story. And really that connection can’t be faked. It has to genuinely be there. There’s a vibe that passes between people in a situation like that.
A. Yeah! I think that people can sense if it's genuine. You don’t have to say it so much. I remember spending a whole day with a man in East Kentucky – his name was Hall – I can’t think of his first name now – we got along so well. I was just so interested in what he had to say. I suppose my interest came through, because as I was leaving - I’d been there all day, it was almost dark outside - he said, “I want you to come back and see me. I think you’re a good man.” That brought tears to my eyes. I thought he was a good man too.
There’s a neighbor here by the name of George Ogle. I said to him one day, “George, I’m sure you know of lot of the old homesteads. How about you going up there with me and introducing me to some of those people?” So we went up there. The first place we stopped was way back in the Smoky Mountains, at the end of a little winding road. George said, “This is the old Eledge place.” An older lady lived there, Mrs. Kelly Eledge, with her husband Rufus Eledge. As we drove up she was sitting on the porch breaking beans. I talked with her for a time. She was guardedly friendly; she was trying to figure out why I was there, what I was wanting. I said, “I’m starting a little museum in Norris. I’ve always been interested in old items, in the culture of mountain people, and I was wondering if you have any old relics around that you don’t use anymore that I could buy from you.” She didn’t say anything. She kept breaking beans. She had an apron on. She reached into a pocket of her apron and pulled out a little derringer. She said, “Do you know what this is?” I said, “That looks like a pistol.” She said, “That’s right. I carry it for you people that come around trying to buy my people’s stuff.” Well now. That wasn’t real encouraging. So I figured it was best at that moment to stop talking about antiques. I asked her about her people. Turns out her homestead had been in her family since pioneer days. I took a few pictures. And pretty soon George and I left. I didn’t try to buy anything that day. A lot of times I would try to buy something pretty quickly, just a little old something, a funny-looking rock by the gate, a piece of wood that had a curly knot in it, just so they could see I had money and would pay for things. This was a pretty good approach much of the time. But she was such a difficult prospect I didn’t even try that.
Several weeks later George and I stopped by the Eledge place and I gave her those photographs. She was totally enthralled. Fascinated. Very appreciative. I had gotten her husband in one of the photos and she said, “You know, I think that’s the only picture of Rufus I’ve ever seen.” However, I still held back on the notion of purchasing anything. I waited.
The third time I was there I brought along some enlarged copies of the photos. I was kidding around with her, I said, “I can’t believe you threatened you shoot me!” She said, “I wasn’t going to shoot you, I just wanted to scare you.” I said, “I know you’re not going to sell me anything but can I just look around some?” She had maybe 12 buildings on the property - barns, cribs, and the like. She said, “You can look around but you’re not going to get anything.” “That’s fine, I’ll just poke around a little bit and then we’ll be on our way.” I opened the door to the smokehouse and there was a soap stand right out of pioneer days. It was a barrel with wooden staves, they stored home-made soap there, in cakes, for laundry purposes. It had been there so long it was deteriorating, it wasn’t useable. I said, “That’s interesting. I’d like to buy that from you.” “That old thing? You don’t want that, do you? You can have it if you want it.” “No, I’d like to pay you for it,” and that’s what I did.
One thing I would note here that I find interesting - she didn’t feel that her soap stand had any value at all. A lot of folks think “antique” just means a fine quilt or a corner cupboard or some such. I myself don’t put such limits on the word. To me that soap stand was interesting. It sort of bothers me that most museums tend to focus on just the expensive items - you know, a piece of furniture, a high boy maybe, that somebody’s selling for $50,000.
I bought several things from Mrs. Eledge that day. Then she said, “You know, I have that old loom house back there." It was a shack where the old women did their spinning and quilting. We went on back and looked. It was full of beautiful quilts and blankets, all hand-made. She said, “Go ahead and get some of that stuff out of there, the rats and the possums have been getting in there.”
I spent several hours at the Eledge place that day. Every item had a story and I wanted to hear every story.
My philosophy is, an artifact becomes much more interesting if it’s connected to the story of human beings, to how people used it. I make a great effort at the museum to make that connection, and I must say, I get many a compliment about that approach. If you disconnect the item from the story and the context, I think it destroys the value of the item.
Anyway, I had a station wagon that day, Mrs. Eledge sold me everything I wanted, and I drove off that afternoon with the car loaded up, and you can see those items at the museum.
Maybe a year or two later I drove through that area, up that same road. I could tell nobody was living in the house anymore. I saw a cupboard lying on the front porch. A beautiful old handmade three-cornered cupboard. I knew then that the Eledges had moved away or died. I inquired among the neighbors and found that Kelly had died and Rufus had moved away and was living with one of his children.
I looked him up. He said, “I’m sure glad to see you, I didn’t know how to get in touch with you. I’ve got all that stuff up there, people are starting to carry it off, why don’t you buy what you want.” I called up one of my employees, John, and said, “I need you to bring the truck up here.” The ground was covered with six inches of new snow. John said, “I can’t get up there today” - like I say, this was way up in the mountains. I said, “Well, I need you. Get in the truck and come on up, we’ll just have to risk it.” John said, “Well, OK, but I think it’s a dumb idea.” Rufus and John and I went through one building after another. We spent the entire day there. John knew how to pack the truck properly and extend the sideboards and so forth, and that knowledge came in handy, because I bought a lot of items.
Toward the end of the day we were ready to leave. There was a piece of furniture on the backporch - a press, as they called it - a chest of drawers - and Rufus and I stood there and looked at it. He said, “How about that?” He wanted me to buy it. I said, “I don’t think we can get anything more on the truck.” He said, sort of dejectedly, “Well, you’ve bought the good stuff, you ought to buy that too, somebody’s just gonna come along and take it.” I said, “What do you want for it?” He named a price and I paid it. It turned out to be one of the best items we got that day.
Q. Could you talk a bit more about connecting an object to a human being, and your pursuit of that goal?
A. I visited an old lady not long ago in her cabin near here. I guess this was last year, 2007. She was the last surviving widow of a Civil War soldier - she'd married him in the 1920s when he was quite old and she was 15. I wanted to interview her and buy something from her, some object by which I could introduce her story to folks who visit the museum. She’d already sold quite a few things to antique dealers; she’d made some good money and was satisfied. I asked her if I could look around out back - the barn, the granary, the chicken house. I saw an old plank. Just an old moss-covered plank. It was a piece of poplar. It was still pretty sound. I bought it from her and took it along home.
Somebody who works for me at the museum looked at this old board and said, kind of sarcastically, “That’ll bring people in.” (Pause.) I understand his skepticism. But the thing is, it does have interest, if you connect it to the human being. It’s just a plank, but it tells a story. It shows that here, right here in these parts, in the 21st century, there was a woman living by herself in an old log house who was married to a Civil War veteran. A Civil War veteran! She’s got a very interesting story - for one thing, it shows you how young some of the girls were in those days when they married off. You can get at that story with the help of this old plank - you can draw visitors over to the display case and get them to ask, “Now what does that have to do with anything?” Then they’ll read the caption and they’ll find out something new and interesting. You’ve got to have something physical like that to grab their interest, and sometimes, almost anything will do.
Q. You’ve written a number of books about Appalachian culture. My favorite is “Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer,” published in 1985, an oral history of a man from Hancock County in northeastern Tennessee, who lived from 1891 to 1985, a man with apparently perfect recall, an astonishing storehouse of information about Appalachian life - as you write, he’s “straight from pioneer America” with a strong connection to the ways and means by which the people who founded this nation, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, survived and prospered. Could you tell how you got to know him and how the book came about?
A. In 1962 as I worked at collecting artifacts for the museum I met a couple named Ellis and Ruthie Stewart, at a place called Newman’s Ridge, not too far from Norris. They lived in a log cabin near the top of the ridge. They had an item called a piggin that I was interested in - it's a bucket, a vessel, with a design that allows it to be used for slopping hogs and so forth. They didn’t want to sell theirs, but they said a fellow named Alex Stewart could make me one, they said he was a very fine cooper. He was a cousin to Ellis. He lived nearby on Panther Creek. So one day I went over the Panther Creek to see if I could find this Alex Stewart. He was working in his sawmill. He was a little fella with a very pleasant manner; he would have been in his early 70s at that point. We got to talking and he said he hadn’t made a piggin in many a year, because plastic buckets were so popular, and besides, he didn’t have the proper cedar timber for the job. So a few days later I brought him a nice cedar log that I'd found. He said he’d see what he could do.
I went back a couple of weeks later. He’d turned that one cedar log into about 20 hand-made, perfectly-constructed vessels of various kinds - piggins, tubs, buckets, bowls. This project was his re-entry into cooperage, a very noble profession, which made him very happy. And today his work is on display at the museum.
Q. You started interviewing him around that time?
A. I did. We conducted a good many interviews over the years with the tape recorder. Finally I pulled it all together as a book.
Q. I want to say, John Rice, I'm a big fan of the book. It’s stirring really - it gives off a sense of resourcefulness, of connectedness to the earth, of using one’s hands and wits to survive. It covers so much ground, real stuff, from cooperage to herbal remedies to moonshining to the types of greens folks gathered for salad. I was thinking as I read it - this might sound a bit silly - I was thinking about a theme of Christopher Lasch, the historian, about the negative effects on the nation of consumer culture, of all our stuff being handed to us on a silver platter, our food, our entertainment, everything, which Lasch says contributes to a certain passivity and dependency, a loss of engagement in life. Alex Stewart was the exact opposite of passive. He was as engaged in life as any man who ever lived.
A. He was indeed. He was adept. He was so adept, at so many different skills, maybe this was what made him adept at life. I get so many comments about that book. One thing I’m proud of is, that book appeals to many different kinds of people. I’ve had academic professors say nice things about it, and I’ve had women come up to me and say, “You know, that’s the only book my husband has ever read, and he surely enjoyed it.”
One time it come a big snow, over a foot deep, and it froze and laid on the ground for weeks, and this family had run out of anything to eat, and it was so cold they couldn’t catch no game. They was awful good people and they wouldn’t ask you for a handout for nothing. But one of them little Maxie boys come over to our place one day through the snow, as barefooted as a crow. Pap had killed three rabbits the day before and had dressed them and had them hanging up in a tree - up out of reach of the dogs. When we wanted one to eat, we’d just go out and cut it down. Well, Pap give that boy one of them rabbits, and he started to cry he was so happy, and he said, ‘Oh, Lordy, we’ll live good now.’ And he started off toward his home a running, taking that rabbit for his family to eat.
A. I remember Alex telling that to me. He was sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe - he always had a pipe, always with homegrown tobacco - thinking about that Maxie boy.
Q. John Rice, the Firefox books, which started coming out in the early 1970s, delve deeply into Appalachian culture. What’s your view of them?
A. I'm very impressed with them. I guess Eliot Wigginton came to a bad end and all, but it must be said that he loved and respected mountain people and let them tell their own stories. He and I worked together on several projects. Those Firefox books get studied everywhere - Switzerland, even. He’s changed the world for the better with those books.
Q. I know you’ve been worried about the future of your museum. Could you talk a bit about your concerns?
A. Well, I guess anyone who starts an enterprise of this sort tends to think they’re indispensable. I’m 78, with all kinds of health problems, so I do think about these things. I don’t say I’m indispensable though. (Pause.) It’s so difficult to find someone who has the type of interest it would take - who has the burning element, if I could use that word. That extra passion you might say. My daughter is very good with certain aspects. (Pause.) There’s so much to do here. There’s the knowledge of the artifacts. There’s the imagination to see the possibilities of displaying them. There’s the business acumen. (Pause.) Is that pronounced a-CU-men or AC-umen?
Q. You know, I don’t know. Both, maybe.
A. (Laughs heartily.) Both! All right, now! That’s the first good laugh I’ve had in a week! (Laughs.) Anyway - yes, there are a lot of skills involved, and a lot of challenges that we face. We’ve become a non-profit institution, and that might be helpful for the long term. Can I mention in this interview that we accept donations, which are 100 percent tax deductible?
Q. Sure. If someone wants to donate, can they call you up with a credit card number?
A. Yes indeed.
Q. And of course, the same is true for any non-profit history museum, of which the world has many. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being maximum worry, how concerned are you about the museum’s future?
A. The first number the pops into my head is “8.” (Pause.) I would qualify that. There’s so many artifacts here - I don’t know how many for sure, but a reporter came up with the number of 250,000 - well, really, just from the sheer weight of numbers, the museum will continue in some form. But if we’re talking about the museum continuing as it has in the past, adding items, adding exhibits, adding new ways of arranging things, I would probably say "9" in answer to your question.
You know, people see all the cars here during our Homecoming celebration every October and they say, “John Rice is making a killing at that museum.” Well, the fact is, we just barely break even with Homecoming, and we just barely break even annually.
I had two old walking sticks here in the office yesterday that I’m going to put in the museum. They have no intrinsic beauty at all; as a matter of fact, they’re ugly. Somebody said to me, “You’ve got lots of beautiful walking sticks on display, why do you want two ugly ones?” The answer is, they’ve got stories behind them. One of them was made from wood cut down by a beaver. You can see where the beaver gnawed on a sapling, and this stick was the eventual result. So maybe a display consisting of this little stick, and a beaver hide, would give us a chance to tell about the beaver trade in this region, and also a chance to mention that the beaver has recently returned to these parts after an absence of more than 100 years.
The other walking stick is a “tobacco stick.” It’s tremendously strong. If you look closely at it, you see that one end of it is kind of bashed-in. That’s because it was driven into the ground and used to prop up drying tobacco leaves. So that stick has a story too.
My point here, if I actually have one, is that I seem to think of things that are unconventional. I think unconventional is good. I’ve visited a lot of folk museums; I get confused which museum I’m in; they’re all pretty much the same. Young people in the museum field, trained people - they’re very intelligent and informed, but they often follow the standard way of doing things. They tend to look in some book for what somebody else did with some artifact and take a cue from that. This approach doesn’t lend itself to originality and it doesn’t lend itself to sustaining the interest of visitors.
Q. Early in this interview you mentioned that it’s hard for you to trust others to do a job just exactly right.
A. Yes, that’s so. (Pause.) But, I guess that’s something I’m going to have to come to grips with.
Q. John Rice, I’ve enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you.
A. You’re entirely welcome, and thank you. Good luck to you.