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Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin dies at 91

Irwin is remembered for his dedication to the preservation of Appalachian history and culture.

ANDERSON COUNTY, Tenn. — The Museum of Appalachia announced its founder, John Rice Irwin, died on January 16th. He was 91 years old.

The Museum of Appalachia made the announcement on its Facebook page Monday afternoon. It said it will announce details for a celebration of life.

Irwin was a renowned historian and writer whose main mission was the preservation and collection of the history and culture of the Appalachian Mountains.

Irwin began his collection of Appalachian artifacts in 1962. He would travel southern Appalachia collecting and documenting stories of the Appalachian community. In 1969, Irwin established the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. 

Since then, the museum has grown to be over 65 acres in size with restored buildings and houses, containing over 250,000 historical artifacts.

Irwin had also written multiple books about Appalachian lifestyles and customs, including A People and Their Quilts (1984) and A People and Their Music: The Story Behind the Story of Country Music (2000).

Credit: Museum of Appalachia

In 2009, after serving as the head director of the Museum of Appalachia for 40 years, Irwin retired from his position. However, he still continued to act as a consultant and a promoter for the museum.

Credit: Museum of Appalachia

On his 90th birthday on December 11, 2020, the Museum of Appalachia wrote, "If not for his extraordinary vision and life-long passion many of the memories and artifacts of our unique southern mountain culture would be lost to time. His collection became a museum that is recognized across the nation and the world."