Please enjoy the following selections from the "Artifact of the Week" series featured on the Museum of Appalachia Facebook page.
"The Tragic & Mysterious story of George Price's Unfinished Monument"
This unfinished stone carving was created by George Price, a resident of White County, Tennessee. It is our understanding that George had no training as a stone mason, and that he created this piece using only a hammer and a small iron chisel. The angelic carving was reputed to be for the grave of his recently deceased wife.
The angel rests on a cross upon which is embossed what may bedescribed as “The Tree of Life.” The column on the left seems to be pretty much complete, which the right column is in the early stage. One may assume that Price intended to remove the mass of stone to the right.
In 1922, George was found dead, and the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery (At least as of 1998, when this article was written). Some said that George took his own life out of despair—the grief that he suffered due to the loss of his wife was too much for him to bear. Others said that the kinfolk of George’s late wife blamed him for her death, and they had taken justice into their own hands….
Whether the laborious task of carving this massive stone was an act of contrition or an act of undying love is not known—nor is it likely that we will ever know.
But, for more than a decade, the stone lay lost and unclaimed in the east corner of White County. Eventually, a resident of the area, Clay Holman, retrieved it from the elements and from the growth of vines and bramble. In 1991, Clay, with the encouragement of his son Will Holman, agreed to sell John Rice Irwin this enigmatic, and historical piece.
(All of the above information was furnished by Will and Clay Holman, and based partly on the writings of White County historian, E.G. Rogers.)
Nancy Rose, a talented “old-time” basket-maker, made several of these peculiar, unusually-shallow baskets. However, she came up with the design for the original “stomped-on” basket by accident.
“Well, I was trying to get a basket finished up one day and I was in a big hurry to get it done,” said Nancy. “I kept having trouble with it. Finally, I got so aggravated that I just throwed the dogged thing down and stomped on it. After I got through stompin’ it, I picked it up and it was all flattened out and it looked purdy good, and I says ‘Well, I’ll just make some flat ones on that order and see how people like ‘em.’”
Most of the early ballot boxes in Southern Appalachia were created out of make-shift wood or cardboard, so we were most surprised to discover this heavily fortified metal ballot box.
In 1955, W.R. Mays purchased the ballot box for $5 at public auction in Barbourville, the county seat of Knox Co., Kentucky. W.R. stated that the box had four padlocks—each of them requiring a different key. Furthermore, each of these keys were distributed to different people, in order to ensure that no one tampered with the ballots. W.R. further stated that in the early 1900s, the state of Kentucky mandated that all counties in the state take these precautions.
This piece was added to the Museum collection on July 1, 1997. It is located on the second floor of our Hall of Fame building.
"The Thieving Pig and the Pie Safe"
Around 1978, Museum founder John Rice Irwin purchased this pie safe from Ethel Freytag. Ethel was a historian and retired school teacher who lived on a farm a couple miles southwest of Wartburg, Tennessee. Upon purchasing the piece, John Rice asked Ethel about its history. In reply, Ethel told John Rice the following story.
“That old pie safe belonged to my great uncle, William Sterling Neil, who operated the old Hotel Cumberland on the main street in Wartburg. He ran it in the late 1800s—on into this century.
He was my mother’s uncle, and my mother, Maude Neil Freytag, came to live there at the hotel when she was a girl. When court was in session, a lot of people stayed there, and of course, they took their meals at the dining room at the hotel. My uncle would buy butter from the local farms and keep it in this old pie safe.
Well, Morgan County didn’t have any fence laws back then, and cattle and pigs could, and did, legally run wild. There was a big old sow hog that ran loose there in Wartburg—just eating scraps and garbage as she pleased. That old sow also smelled our fresh butter, and would often try and steal it from the pie safe. Eventually, she learned how to open the front door with her nose; she would run in and root open the safe door and grab her a pound of butter. My uncle and my mother would hear her and would run down the hall with a broom after that old sow, who would run through the hotel with the butter in her mouth.
Well, they added an extra latch to the pie safe door, and later on another one, but they still couldn’t keep the pig out. Lord, I’ve heard my mother say many a time that she’d run through the hotel chasing after that old sow. It sounds funny now, but mother sure didn’t think it was funny.”
The pie safe is on display in the second floor of our Hall of Fame building.
"Moonshine is a Bad Thing"
The twisted piece of wood on the right was once as straight as an arrow—just as straight as the piece shown on the left. Harve Donahue of Powell, Tennessee made the claim that he stuck a straight stick in a jar of moonshine whiskey, and when he pulled it out, it had transformed into the curled, contorted piece that you see on the right.
James Bunch's Wooden Motorcycle
James Bunch of Madisonville, Tennessee used his pocketknife to create this wooden motorcycle. Every piece of the motorcycle is made of scrap wood—right down to the spark plugs. This extraordinary piece was created without the use of a model, as James whittled it while sitting by the side of his bedridden wife. He quit his job to take care of her, and tended to her every need for 15 years until she passed away. James followed his wife last year.
This motorcycle is among the 175 wooden pieces that James whittled from memory—many of which are on display in the Museum.
The Sweater that Granny Toothman Made from the Hair of Her Dog.
Pictured here is the sweater that Granny Toothman knitted from the spring shedding of her Samoyed dog. The dog is named after the Samoyedic people of Siberia. The Samoyed is still used to guard reindeer and is also used as a sled dog. Granny said that four of these dogs were brought to England, and then the stock were taken to West Virginia where they were used to herd sheep.
While it is known that this breed of dog is extremely intelligent, Granny would go as far to say that the Samoyed was smarter than some people that she knew. Granny also claimed that the coat of the Samoyed is 100% waterproof. Granny stated that it took a long time to spin the thread the knit the sweater. When we asked her how long, she said: “Well, all I can tell you is that the dog wore the coat one year, and I wore it to the next.” The dog belonged to Granny and weighed about 60 pounds. The buttons are Cowry shells which Granny had found on the seashore.
Creating clothing out of dog fur was Granny’s specialty; however, dog fur was quite difficult to obtain. Granny would often offer to spin or weave an item of clothing for anyone who would give her enough dog fur to make two items—one for them, and one for herself. But Granny rarely held on to the items that she made for herself, as she would often give away her hand-woven garments to friends and relatives.
The Remarkable Story of ‘Saupaw’ the Cave Dwelling Hermit and his Cupboard
The peaceful little village of Old Loyston, Tennessee was located less than 10 miles from where the Museum now stands, and it was often said that everyone who lived in this tight knit community knew everything about everyone—everyone, that is, except old “Saupaw,” the hermit who lived in a cave down by the river.
It was rumored that Saupaw was part Native-American, and that he sometimes carved tombstones, but in reality, no one seemed to know who Saupaw really was—nor did they know where he came from. Nevertheless, he seemed harmless, and he came to be accepted by the community—especially so by Aunt Sis Irwin and her husband Maynard, who often gave him food and otherwise befriended him. Saupaw was touched by Sis and Maynard’s many acts of kindness, so with his own two hands, he made them a cupboard. This wonderful little piece of folk art includes, in raised lettering, the words “God Bless Our Home,” and a relief of vines and fruit.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority purchased land for the building of Norris Dam in 1934, the tiny community of Old Loyston was covered by the waters of the resulting lake. Aunt Sis moved her household effects to her new home in Andersonville—except the little Saupaw cupboard, which was attached to the house. When she returned to retrieve it, she found that it had vanished. That cupboard was likely the only remembrance anyone had of the kind, cave-dwelling hermit, and it seemed as though it would be gone forever.
Several years later, however, the son of Aunt Sis and Maynard, Conrad Irwin, was shocked to see a photograph of this lost piece of art in The New York Times. He wrote to the purported owner of the cupboard, and to the surprise of his family, Conrad was successful in regaining possession of it.
Aunt Sis kept the memento until her death. Then, it was passed on to Conrad, and later, to his only daughter, Barbara Jean Irwin Stooksbury. On May 1, 1988, Barbara presented this most interesting piece to the Museum, to be displayed in honor of her parents, Conrad and Mary Meredith Irwin.
NOTE: In 1994, Gertie Stooksbury George, a granddaughter of Aunt Sis, donated to the Museum an old, worn and torn store ledger from her father’s store in Old Loyston. Inside the ledger, we found an entry dated 1905, in which Saupaw’s real name was recorded. It was: George Saulpaugh, Sr.
Granny Irwin's Christmas Quilt
Sarah Irwin, or “Granny Irwin,” was one of two girls in a family with eleven children. Her sister, who was much older, married and left home when Granny was young. Hence, she and her mother cooked, washed, and sewed for her nine brothers and her father. They also did the milking, much of the gardening, and the canning and drying of all the food. Granny was a prodigious worker, even in her eighties, and had little time to pursue her own personal interests. Therefore, it was surprising to find this purely aesthetic Christmas quilt which she had made.
Her son later commented, “I always thought it was the prettiest quilt I ever saw. But, the only time she ever used it was around Christmas time. She’d get it out a few days before Christmas and use it as a bed cover until around the first of the year; then, she’d put it away for another year. She made it, I think, about the time she was married in the late 1890s.”
The embroidered subjects on this typical Victorian crazy quilt are in relatively high relief and include a number of symbols that related to Granny Irwin’s life. The Lord’s Prayer occupied the center portion of the quilt, and she was sure to include some of the names of her kith and kin. For as long as she had lived, she raised chickens, and their eggs were her only source of income. Therefore, she included chickens, ducks, and a strutting rooster on her beloved quilt. Granny Irwin adored music, so she was sure to include several musical instruments—including a fiddle and a Jew’s harp. I had heard that in her youth, she loved riding side-saddle; so, it was not surprising to see a horse included in the collage. The quilt also contains a dog, a butterfly, a bird, and the phrase, “God Bless Our Home.” But, the most powerful feature on the quilt is a terse, revealing, and somewhat sad sentiment expressed in two simple words, “Remember Me.”
Like many women of her era, Sarah Irwin had little identity of her own. Her home was “Uncle John Irwin’s place,” and she was “Uncle John Irwin’s wife.” Although she was happy and content to love and work for others, she had little to leave behind for which she would be remembered. There would be no legacy, and had it not been for this Christmas quilt, there would be nothing personal or physical to indicate that she ever lived. It seemed that she sensed this, and was—perhaps unknowingly—crying out that she not be forgotten.
Ever since Granny Irwin first displayed her quilt in the front room of her home, it has served as a sign of the Christmas season. Over 120 years later, her creation continues to serve this purpose, as every December, it is prominently displayed in the Museum’s Hall of Fame for all to see. Sarah, the jolly, energetic woman who spent her life doing for others, has not been forgotten, and by carrying on her tradition, we hope she never will be.
Civil War Buttermilk Jug
During the Civil War, Lane Cunningham left the rural but beautiful hills of White County, Tennessee to join the Army. Before his departure, Lane hid his only milk cow in a nearby cave. He did so out of fear that foraging soldiers might steal or slaughter his cow while he was away, which would leave his wife, Catherine, and their children without milk or butter.
Because a large, cold stream ran from the mouth of the cave, Catherine kept her buttermilk jug there so that it would stay cool. Lane’s prediction proved to be true, and his family’s efforts to conceal their cow and buttermilk failed, as soldiers would often find the buttermilk jug and subsequently, drink from it. However, they never destroyed the jug, nor did they steal the cow. The weary soldiers assumed that they would likely pass through this territory again, and they would likely be in need of a cold drink.
This jug, which was likely made in White County by a local potter, is said to have originally belonged to Lane’s father, Edward Cunningham. The Museum acquired it from the great-granddaughter of Lane Cunningham, Ruby Henry Pinner. Ruby lived in Waterford, Michigan, and used the jug for many decades.
This banjo was owned by Henry Dobson, an African-American musician from South Carolina. One night in 1895, at a party held near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dobson played his beloved instrument for the last time. During his performance, a vicious fight broke out, and Dobson’s best friend was killed. As the man was fatally stabbed, both Dobson and his banjo were splattered with blood. He vowed never to play it again, and traded it to Charles Ross Schrecengost for a guitar. In 1989, Museum founder John Rice Irwin obtained the banjo from Schrecengost’s son, Haven, who lived in a remote hollow near Grainger County, Tennessee. The banjo, in two places bears the name of Henry Dobson. Two dates are inscribed: 1878 and 1881.
This item is located on the first floor of our Hall of Fame Building.
Marcellus Rice's Friendship Quilt
In 1888, a group of unwed girls from Union County, Tennessee made a friendship quilt for Marcellus Moss Rice. The girls spent a good deal of their spare time making quilts for the eligible young bachelors of the community. Each girl would make a square, embroider her name upon it, and incorporate it into a quilt. Over a period of time, they had a number of these quilts; enough, it was said, for every young man in the immediate area—except for Marcellus Moss Rice.
He was younger than the other boys, and not quite old enough for marriage (The girls may have been concentrating on the more marriageable men). The young men who had received their quilts noted that Marcellus had not gotten one, and “made fun” of him because the girls had ostensibly, left him out.
When the girls learned that Marcellus was being ridiculed, they got busy and made him not just one, but two friendship quilts—the second one no doubt as an admonishment to the other boys who had ridiculed him. Marcellus treasured these quilts for years, and eventually gave one to each of his two daughters, Ruby Rice Little and Ruth Rice Irwin.
The making of friendship quilts was quite common in most areas of Southern Appalachia, as well as throughout the country. This all-pieced quilt, with squares set on the diamond, has been called the Lily pattern and is generally called Tulip in Vase. Although there are three tulips in each vase, the singular form is used.
This artifact is housed in our Hall of Fame Building, and is also featured in the book, A PEOPLE AND THEIR QUILTS, by John Rice Irwin.
Hennie Copeland's Side Saddle
Cookeville-native Hennie Copeland was once known as the "Midwife of the Cumberlands." She rode through the rugged Cumberland Mountains on this side saddle, helping to bring more than 1,000 babies into the world.
This artifact is on display on the second floor of the Hall of Fame building.