published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

McMinn County Living Heritage Museum still collecting history after 30 years

The McMinn County Living Heritage Museum displays many of its 9,000-plus items in a series of rooms that also have a history. Part of the building was once McMinn Central High School.
The McMinn County Living Heritage Museum displays many of its 9,000-plus items in a series of rooms that also have a history. Part of the building was once McMinn Central High School.
Photo by Randall Higgins.

MUSEUM FOUNDERS

Below are the 18 founders of the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum:

Billy Akins

Mrs. William P. Biddle III

Mrs. Gary Brown

Jim Cheek

Fredrick J. Chester Jr.

Mrs. Howard Dennis

Col. W.W. Eledge

Maynard Ellis

Mrs. Shelley Griffith

Mrs. Kenneth D. Higgins

Mrs. C. Scott Mayfield Sr.

W.R. Selden

Mrs. Hoyt P. Smiley Jr.

Mrs. W.D. Sullins

Mrs. Robert Trotter

Louie Underwood

Mrs. Clyde Webb

Mrs. Hugh M. Willson

ATHENS, Tenn. -- Some McMinn County residents asked themselves in 1982 what it would be like to collect artifacts from the region's past and use them to tell the community's history.

Big cities had history museums. Couldn't America's story be told through local events and items, too?

"Well, I suppose we were visionaries," Mintie Willson said. But the whole community quickly got on board, she said.

"There were a lot of local people who were interested and were willing to give us money -- on faith, I guess, because we didn't know how this would go," she said.

On Wednesday, the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum turned 30. Athens and McMinn County celebrated the achievement with a luncheon reception.

Willson was one of the 18 people who convinced the community to start the museum.

"We started looking at every museum we could find to get ideas," she said.

Tennessee Wesleyan College donated a three-story brick building, but eight years later the museum needed more space. Mayfield Dairy Farms donated space in what had been a high school. The museum hired an Atlanta architect to design the exhibition spaces.

Then the group went into fundraising again, from the state, Chattanooga's Lyndhurst Foundation and locally.

"It was amazing how quickly we gathered things," Willson said. "And they are still doing that."

"Mintie is picking up on an important point," Executive Director Amy Blackburn said. "The strength of the support from this community is phenomenal. ... I have been in nonprofits for many years. I have never seen such a strong corps of volunteers."

There are about 80 of them, she said.

"We are here to celebrate something unique -- ourselves," Greg Moses, museum board vice president, told the large luncheon audience. "It's a celebration for all of us as McMinn Countians and East Tennesseans."

County Mayor John Gentry recalled how "I was blown away at the quality of the exhibits and the expertise" when he came home after being a young intern in 1991 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

From its first year, the Living Heritage Museum's signature event has been an annual quilt show.

"Women were getting interested in quilting, reviving that skill," Willson said.

"And in Southeast Tennessee quilting is a rich part of our heritage," Blackburn said.

The 30th quilt show anniversary is coming in September, said Lisa Chastain, museum curator.

"It's the 'Best of the Best: Quilting's Finest,'" she said.

As the luncheon crowd milled about, dulcimer music was in the background. Six women who call themselves Harmony and GRITS (Girls Raised In The South) -- played traditional tunes, mostly.

"They begin and end every time they play with 'Rocky Top,'" cabinet maker Johnny McGrew said.

McGrew crafted the dulcimers based on traditional instruments. The group plays here every Wednesday. His dulcimers are on display at the museum, as well.

One of McGrew's favorites is a "courting dulcimer" that has a wider-than-usual top to make room for two sets of strings. A young lady could sit on one side and harmonize with her beau opposite her.

"As long as they could hear the music, her parents didn't have to worry about anything," McGrew explained. "I love a good story."

And, he agreed, he came to the right place for that.

The museum now has software to catalog all its 9,000 artifacts and their backgrounds, board of trustees President Ralph Fenton told the guests. The process will take about a year, he said.

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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