Friday, August 14, 2009

The Norris [TN] Community Library

A number of readers have written to ask how it’s possible to create and publish blog entries while on the road. Well, the Mobile Studio is equipped with all of the necessary computer equipment. The only thing missing is a reliable, robust, connection to the internet. Therefore, searching for WiFi “clouds” has become a critical aspect of Mobile Studio Travel.

WiFi searching can be a frustrating, even irritating, procedure. As all of you know who travel with computers. But there are times when the WiFi cloud search turns up interesting places that otherwise might be overlooked.

(Click on photos for larger images.)

Front This visit to Eastern Tennessee offered just such an occasion. Discovery of the Betty Anne Jolly Norris Community Library. Now, longtime readers of this blog may recall that I’m just a little library-crazed. Maybe even border-line clinical. Some folks find it hard to pass a bar or night club without stopping in for a quick one. I find it hard to pass a library without stopping in for a quick shelf browse, or just to sample the feel of the place. Last month we visited the Richland County Public Library, right here in Columbia, South Carolina, for example. A wonderful place.

Now, the library in Norris, Tennessee, has neither facilities nor budget to compare with 1431 Assembly in Columbia. But it certainly compares favorably when it comes to the quality of staff and patron service. And, in the innovative application of limited resources. Both of my visits to the Norris Library turned into highlights of the Tennessee trip. And without the ever-pressing need to search out a reliable, robust WiFi cloud, I’d never have found it! 

I learned of the Norris Library during a late breakfast conversation at the Museum of Appalachia Snack Bar. Town of Norris Public Safety Director Danny Humphrey just happened to be at the next table. (That’s what we used to call a chief of police, OverHome.) He heard me ask Museum founder, John Rice Irwin, where I might find a WiFi connection.

Mr. Irwin had no idea. So, Mr. Humphrey suggested the Norris Library. He provided the Library’s address and hours of operation. It was obvious from his description that he was proud of the facility.

So, the following afternoon, Tuesday, I stopped by. Well! What a place. Now, you couldn’t tell with just a quick glance at the front door. The Library is housed in a few rooms of the McNeely Municipal Building. A former doctor’s office!

Shelves 2 But once inside, the contribution this facility makes to its surrounding community becomes obvious. Even elderly, suspicious-looking old parties like me are greeted with a cheery, “Now, how can we help you?” at the main desk, offered a clear explanation of internet access protocol, and a comfortable arm chair in which to sit.

Shelves 1 Space is very limited. But somehow the staff has managed to arrange the library’s 20-some thousand items in a way that avoids a sense of over-crowding. Emphasis throughout appears to be on the younger reader, as you can see in the photos above. Including an active Summer Reading Program. But the shelves also brim with high-quality adult materials, both fiction and non-fiction. Evidence of a modest acquisition budget carefully spent!

I talked with Library director, Patrisha Austin-Halsey, for some time about the facility. And with other members of the staff. The main theme of those conversations was the importance of “community involvement.” Not just “community service,” now. Everybody in the non-profit business does that. Or claims to. But community involvement in the Library’s many programs.

That community involvement was clear in the tone of the staff’s interaction with visiting Library patrons. I sat near the main desk eavesdropping shamelessly for a half-hour or so, as people came and went. It was a delight to hear.

Garden GnomeThe attractively arranged flower bed at the entrance is one good example of community involvement. Now, flowers like that don’t just bloom spontaneously.  They require a lot of work to plant, and even more to maintain. According to one staff member, this Library’s flower garden is the fruit of a Saturday community event. You can see the results of their efforts above.

Gnome Close And, in case you didn’t see him, note the bibliophile gnome in the corner!

 Jenny Dog Days One final thing I just have to mention. The “Dog Days” program. Click on the photo above to read the text. What an innovative way to get children to read! Especially children who may be withdrawn or self-conscious. “Since Jenny can’t read, please come by the Library and help us read stories to her. She loves hearing new stories to share with her other dog friends!” Another of what I used to call “High Bang; Low Buck” programs. One that other libraries might consider for adoption.

So, heartfelt thanks to the Staff of the Norris Community Library for your kindness and hospitality. I hope to be back to see you one of these days.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Museum of Appalachia Day 3: The Buildings

Click here for the first post in this series.

Most visitors to the Museum of Appalachia are likely to leave with memories of its diverse collection of early Southern Appalachian buildings. John Rice Irwin and his staff have assembled quite a number of them on the Museum grounds.

(Click photos for larger images)

Wheelright shop And I do mean “assembled.” Each building has been carefully disassembled at its original site. Every piece numbered and location noted. Then the building was reassembled at its new site on the Museum grounds. Making it look as much as possible like it did before the move.

Then the real work began! Furnishings selected and placed to give each building that “lived-in” feeling that characterizes the whole complex. Looking through the door the visitor can imagine easily how folks occupying the building lived their lives.

Cassidy Cabin 1 Before following the proper tour map out the back door of the Main Display Barn, however, let’s double back to Old Tom Cassidy’s house. Visitors often are surprised by how small dwellings were in early Southern Appalachia. The same holds true for Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s a good example.

Cassidy Cabin 2 I don’t remember this cabin from the last time I visited the Museum. Though it may well have been here. Just so much to see! According to the information plaque, a friend of John Rice Irwin’s Tom Cassidy, lived here comfortably until his death in 1989.

Cassidy Cabin Inside Take a peek inside. It reminds me in some ways of our Little Tin House, the Mobile Studio; our base camp while traveling. Irwin quotes Tom Cassidy’s assessment of his home: “I’ve got that little cot in there, a chair, a stove for heat and cooking, a frying pan, a bean pot, an old dresser, my fiddle (made by his grandfather Fate Cassidy), and my pistol; what more does a man need?” A question worth pondering!

Back through the Main Display Barn and out the back door. Passing reluctantly once again that fascinating gunsmith shop display. We’re on a well-marked path that will take us by most of the display buildings on the site.

Bunch Cabin I simply can’t cover all of the buildings the Museum offers for display in this blog entry. Even several entries wouldn’t cover them all. It would be nice to say I’ll cover the “most significant” displays. But that too proves impossible. At least for me. All of the buildings represent rare learning opportunities. Even the smallest. All of them are carefully arranged to provide visitors with information about a particular aspect of Southern Appalachian life.

So, I’ll swallow pride and select a few building displays to describe here. Interested readers will simply have to arrange a visit to this incredible historical resource. It would be hard not to enjoy the time spent.

Mark Twain Cabin Front Near the beginning of the Museum’s self-guided “tour” of its many buildings stands the Mark Twain Family Cabin. Mark Twain, or Samuel Clements, himself never lived here. But his parents and siblings did for a while. Not long before he was born. At “’Possum Trot,” Tennessee.

Twain Inside 1 This cabin, as well as any of the displays, demonstrates the attention and skill with which these buildings have been presented. The walls and floors of the building teach the close observer just how cabins of this sort were put together. Nearby shrubbery and other plantings help to give it a sense of place, so to speak.

Twain Inside 2 Inside, hundreds of artifacts from the Museum’s collection have been placed just as they might have been used by the cabin’s occupants. This doesn’t just happen!

Note, for example, the four or five different styles of chairs and benches displayed here. Illustrating the compromise between time and effort required to create them and comfort. Yes, and aesthetic appeal.

Click on the photo above and take a closer look at the tri-cornered display cupboard near the fireplace. With the fine pottery on its shelves. As well as what appears to be a white porcelain pitcher atop another cupboard to its left.

Then imagine the perils of transporting such a fragile item up and down difficult trails to its destination in a cabin at ‘Possum Trot, Tennessee. Can’t you just hear Mother wearying herself with calls to “Take a care with those crates!” And the pained looks of the care-takers as they responded, “Yes, Momma.”

Interior Southern Appalachian people had limited economic resources. But these displays demonstrate that those limitations didn’t dampen their aesthetic senses. They did what was necessary to live, and lived as comfortably as they could. With as many of the “niceties” as they could accumulate. At least, some did.

On this point, notice too the fiddle and banjo hanging over the four-poster bed. Anyone with a proper musical education can imagine the sounds those instruments in the proper hands would make of an evening. The hours of enjoyment they would provide for musician and listener alike.

music 1 This post is getting far too long. There’s just so much to show and tell. But one final point about music. The Museum of Appalachia makes an effort throughout the exhibits to illustrate the importance of music in Southern Appalachian culture. Rightfully so. Each day I visited the Museum I found a couple of very talented musicians offering up tunes from the porch of the Smoke House. Rain or shine. Literally!

music 2 On Monday, in the midst of a solid soaking rain, the performers were Tony C. Thomas and Bill. Bill, the guitarist, didn’t give his last name. But he certainly made some sweet music. I sat for more than a half-hour listening to the magical sounds of Tony and Bill. Using the rain as an excuse not to leave.

So, if at all possible, include the Museum of Appalachia in the travel plans for your next vacation.

I can’t imagine anyone, adult or child, not enjoying the time spent.

Museum of Appalachia Day 3: Main Display Barn

Click here for the first post in this series.

Today’s visit began in the Museum’s “Main Display Barn.” Well, began after some time devoted to further research on the Museum’s snack bar.

Snack Bar “Snack Bar” is what’s printed on the sign. And snack bar it appears to be. Food counter, sturdy tables, Styrofoam plates and cups, and flimsy plastic cutlery. But that “snack bar” appellation in no way describes the quality of the food served here. Most restaurants look better than their food tastes, in my experience. Here, the opposite is true!

All food is prepared fresh in the kitchen just behind the counter you see in the photo above. A good bit of the produce used is grown just steps away in the Museum’s large display gardens. It’s all prepared by cooks who know how good food should taste, and how to make fairly large quantities of it taste that way.

Snack Bar 2 All told I ate three full lunches in this “Snack Bar,” and two “snacks.” All were delicious. Chicken and dumplings; a stunning meatloaf plate; a casserole of meat, cheese, and vegetables; new potatoes; cucumber/tomato/onion salad; and more.

Normally I don’t order home-style dishes like that in restaurants. They’re just too hard to prepare in quantity. And quality ingredients cost more than most restaurant patrons would be willing to pay. Even expensive restaurants all too often resort to cans and pre-processed ingredients. So, dishes like meatloaf are best eaten at home.

Well, the Museum “Snack Bar” has it all. Order with confidence whatever’s on the menu. If you can’t make up your mind, go with the daily special (if you arrive early enough).

And we won’t even raise the issue of desserts. Such as cherry cobbler, chocolate cake, banana pudding, or Apple Cake. Which really does justify – even require! – capitalization. They’re all freshly made and outstanding. Or, so I heard from other diners, those less attentive to their diets ……

Jail Cells Then, properly fortified, on to the Main Display Barn. Another huge building. With displays that begin well before the front door. The two four-person cast iron jail cells from Madisonville, Tennessee, off to the right of the main entrance stand as grim reminders that early Southern Appalachian society was not all joyful Communitarianism. Imagine having to survive East Tennessee weather with three other cellmates in one of those! In any season.

Once inside the Main Display Barn – it takes a while – the visitor is overwhelmed by the number and diversity of collections. Each one with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of interesting individual artifacts.

There’s no easy way to work your way through the collections of the Main Display Barn. And that isn’t only from lack of air conditioning. The treasures displayed tend to overwhelm all but the most frivolous of museum visitors. Just turn right or left once inside the screened door, and try to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. A notebook or tape recorder isn’t a bad idea.

Diverse Collection Most of the displays, like the leather shop mentioned in the last post, have a single obvious theme. Not all, though. For the life of me, I couldn’t determine the overall theme of the collection you see above. Beyond “items used”! Though the ballot box, calf weaner, wash boards, leather-covered trunk, gourd bucket, sausage mill, and other items all were interesting.

Gunsmith 1 Right across the aisle from that eclectic display is the most interesting display in the whole Museum. At least for me. It’s a complete gunsmithing shop! Click the photo above to see even a rifling machine. A rare piece indeed. The first I’ve ever seen. And all of the other tools of the trade. Really a remarkable display.

Wall Display On the back wall are hung some beautiful examples of flint and cap lock rifles of the sort you could imagine coming from a shop like this. And not only long guns. Click on the photo below to see the details of a flint lock pistol created by renowned Tennessee Gunsmith, Hacker Martin. Martin Pistol It would be easy to spend the whole day at this display. Going through each piece of the gunsmithing exhibit. There’s just so much to see. So many items one no longer finds in other museums. How nice it would be to raise one of those long guns to the shoulder. To test its balance. To run an appreciative hand along the stock. Maybe even to fire off a ball or two. That’s not possible, of course. But it doesn’t cost extra to dream!

Axes Other displays in this Main Display Barn, however, demand attention. The collection of axes and log-handling pikes, for example.

Woodworking Shop Or the near-complete woodworking shop nearby. That includes an early lathe, looking for all the world as if it were ready to shape one more chair leg or axe handle.

There’s much more to see on the first floor. But don’t spend so much time here that you neglect a visit to the second floor. Here, somehow, I sense a qualitative difference in the collections. But for the life of me can’t define that difference. Maybe the items are smaller, more personal, or closer to the house than to the barn. But those generalizations don’t survive closer examination.

Canes Here, for example, is a huge selection of walking canes. Only part of the whole collection.

Traps And here a collection of animal traps. Again, only part of the much larger animal trapping and pelt preparation display. You’ll get to see this, and the explanations of the processes involved in harvesting animal pelts, only if you take the time to visit the second floor of the Main Display Barn.

Vet Tools On the other side of the aisle be sure not to overlook the collection off veterinary tools in the glass case. These too are very rare. And illustrate the importance of the medical arts for farm animals in early Southern Appalachia.

Yokes There’s so much more to see in this building alone that I’ll simply have to stop trying to describe the experience. I’m confident, however, that a trip to the Museum of Appalachia would be time and resources well spent were you only to visit this second floor of the Main Display Barn. There’s enough here to keep the serious museum visitor occupied for several days.

More in the next post on the many of the historical buildings displayed on the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia. So stay tuned!

Click here for the buildings.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Museum of Appalachia Day 2

Click here for the first post in this series.

Back again for a second day of enjoying this remarkable Museum and its effort to preserve and explain the culture of Southern Appalachia.

[click each photo for larger image]

Boone Cabin So many things – so many different things – are assembled and displayed here that it’s near impossible to divide the Museum’s collection into two or three discreet categories.

Spears But for the sake of convenience, I’ll give it a try in this post and one or two more. This one devoted to the Museum’s countless collections of artifacts, for want of a better word. And the second devoted to the 28 or 30 buildings on the grounds displayed to represent early Southern Appalachian life. Each of those buildings, of course, is an “artifact.” And each of those buildings houses its own collection of “artifacts,” meticulously selected and placed to help the attentive visitor better understand what life there was like.

Hall of Fame Two large utilitarian structures house the majority of the artifact collections, as I’ve used the term here: the “Appalachian Hall of Fame,” and the “Display Barn.” That’s the Hall of Fame you see in the photo above.

I spent hours walking through two of the Hall of Fame’s three floors. Its 15,000 square feet “ … house personal and interesting relics which belonged to unusual, outstanding, interesting, and/or colorful persons closely connected, one way or another, with the Southern Appalachian Mountains,” to borrow John Rice Irwin’s words from The Museum of Appalachia Story (p. 27).

That’s the guiding principle, anyway. Memorabilia from individuals as diverse as Cordell Hull, U.S. statesman, Sgt. Alvin York, World War One hero, and Enoch Houston Williams, an illiterate mountain tinkerer who built a highly functional telescope from scrap metal and glass that he ground into lenses, are included here. Yes, as is Enoch’s telescope! Each display is chuck full of personal items. Most, meticulously annotated with details that provide the “context” mentioned in the last post.

Musicians, as one might guess, are prominent here. As is the role of music in Appalachian culture throughout the Museum. Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and the Carter Family have their own corners.

Roy Acuff Bill Monroe Carter Family All names familiar to anyone with a proper musical education. And some whose names might not be quite as familiar. Like Carlock Stooksbury and his mouth bows.

Carlock Stooksbury In addition, the collection includes unusual or humorous instruments, such as this rare “Ukuweewee,” or bedpan banjo. Perhaps one-of-a-kind. One can only hope ….

UkuweeweeBasket making too receives special attention at the Museum of Appalachia. Anyone interested in this exacting craft, and in the importance of baskets in Appalachian life, could spend hours here learning more about technique and style. Below is just one display of various types of baskets made and used in Southern Appalachia.

Basket Making Display And here is an example of the detailed annotation provided. One of the few I saw not written by John Rice Irwin himself.

Basket Annotation Not far from the basket display is preserved the “medicine house” of Dr. Andrew Jackson Osborne, who treated the ills of people in Blackwater, Virginia, until his death in 1937.

Osborne Medical The modesty of this facility testifies to Dr. Osborne’s lack of interest in accumulating wealth. The annotation, in part, reads, “He ministered to the sick and dying, all his life, night and day, and when he died the preacher who conducted the funeral had to furnish him a suit for his burial.” It’s hard to imagine a teaching device that would more effectively explain medical care in much of early Southern Appalachia.

For me, one of the most interesting exhibits in the whole Museum, and the one that required the most time to visit, is devoted to the American Indians who occupied the Southern Appalachian region well before the arrival of European and African immigrants.

Indian Display Cases Now, I’m only an avid consumer when it comes to archeological scholarship. And therefore don’t presume to write as an expert. But this collection includes some of the most remarkable pieces I’ve seen. Well beyond the usual rows arrowheads, spear points, and broken pottery.

Stone Head

Apologies for the photo. Click on it to see a little more detail. It’s a very rare item, dating from the 15th century, found near a large burial mound in nearby Sevier County. The back portion (that I forgot to photograph!) is shaped like a wedge. Leading some authorities to speculate that it may have been stuck in the ground with the face pointed upward as part of preparations for burial.

Sunflower Pot Here’s another extremely rare item in the Museum of Appalachia collection of American Indian artifacts. It’s labeled “The Great Indian ‘Sunflower’ Pot.” The pot was made and used some time during the 16th century, and found intact under an uprooted tree near the Museum.

This vessel is especially unusual in that the markings you see on the front depict a flower, a sun flower, rather than an abstract design. And, according to the annotation on the side, sunflower seeds were found in the bottom of the pot when it was unearthed.

I could go on and on here. Just in the American Indian exhibit alone. But we’re well past our time. More on the collections in the “Display Barn” in the next post. So stay tuned!

Click here for the next post.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Museum of Appalachia: Day 1

I’ve been planning this Mobile Studio trip for some time now. With the hope of spending a few days at the remarkable Museum of Appalachia. If you haven’t yet visited, have a look at their website at The website is nicely done, and offers a solid introduction to the Museum and its collection. Be sure while there to click on the “virtual museum” section. More to come soon, I’m told.

Year before last we visited this part of Tennessee. During that trip I discovered the museum and spent a half-day looking around. Well! That was hardly long enough to do justice to the gift shop!

Entrance Sign

John Rice Irwin is the Museum’s founder and dominating presence. His daughter, Elaine Irwin Meyer, now serves as executive director. But John Rice, as I heard him called by Museum staff, remains the unmistakable leader.

Field 1 This Monday, I arrived at the Museum’s entrance just after 10:00 a.m., and met Mr. Irwin walking toward the office. Accompanied by his ever-present beagle, Fred.

During just that brief brief conversation in the parking lot, a staff member driving a tractor stopped by with questions about maintaining one of the Museum buildings. Another called on his cell phone with what sounded like a similar request. Mr. Irwin then invited me to join him in the Museum restaurant for a cup of coffee. More on the restaurant later.

Restaurant 1 There I explained my interest in his project, and asked the usual questions about the origins of the museum. Mr. Irwin had heard every question before, it was obvious. But he was polite, patient, and helpful. After offering a few general answers, he suggested I spend some time looking through the collection, read one or two of the books he has written on the subject, and said we should talk again later. Good advice! More on the books too in a moment.

Field 2 This museum is huge. Covering at present between sixty and seventy acres. Nearly all accessible to visitors. The whole collection, as the name suggests, relates to the people of Southern Appalachia. From early times onward. Each artifact – whether a tiny household tool or a whole barn – offers insight into some aspect of how those people actually lived. What they were about. How they survived. How they understood their physical environment. Their religious beliefs. And, how they entertained themselves.

Field 3 All presented in an unpretentious, informal fashion, designed to inform rather than to impress visitors. The whole Museum has what the Official Tour Map describes as a “lived in” appearance rather than that of a formal exhibit. By design! No easy task.

Another guiding principle at this museum might be described as emphasis on “context.” Artifacts, no matter how many there are, give a visitor more insight when the context within which they were used is explained. Irwin wrote in The Museum of Appalachia Story that “A conscious effort is made to tie the objects to the people so that the artifacts become a sort of extension of that person who made, used, and cherished it” (p. 29).

This alone is an enormous undertaking! The photo below is of one collection. The leather shop. A Museum associate responsible for cataloging told me there are over 3,000 significant pieces in this single exhibit alone!

Leather Shop Imagine what that amounts to when the hundreds of collections that make up the Museum’s holdings are combined! So, read the information placards posted around each exhibit. They’re well worth the time.

In subsequent posts I’ll try to describe two different offerings of this remarkable place. The countless collections of particular artifacts – everything from arrowheads to exotic musical instruments. And the 35 or 36 buildings within which these artifacts are housed and displayed.

So stay tuned! Click here for the next page.