Appalachian Independence Day: Who Needs Fireworks When You Have an Anvil?

Half-hidden in the hills outside Knoxville, TN, the Museum of Appalachia is an amazing recreation of mountain life from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th Century. John Rice Irwin started salvaging buildings, tools, toys, everyday household utensils and supplies, and musical instruments in 1969 and the collection keeps growing. 

He moved them to a hillside to recreate a typical mountain community. While urbane sophisticates smirk at the “backward” ways of “hillbillies,” Irwin understood how much intelligence, adaptability, grit, and determination it took to survive, much less thrive, in the rugged, isolated, unforgiving country.

To him, it was vitally important that we recognize that “where, as a culture, we have been because that determines where we are and what we become.”

Along with all of the “stuff,” Irwin collects the stories behind it all. Most of the things were donated, so wandering through the barns and cabins is like exploring grandma’s attic. And just like each forgotten treasure packed away in a cardboard box is a reminder of something or someone, so too there are stories behind every saw or book or faded dress or coffee mill on display. Irwin tells them with carefully hand-written signage, which adds to the charm and authenticity of the place.

The stories are of midwives and mailmen, hunters and housekeepers. Most of the stories are of everyday folks, but the mountains have their share of the influential and eccentrics, and Irwin celebrates them, too. A Hall of Fame notes the politicians and businessmen who hailed from the hills. But the characters are more fun. There’s Harrison Mayes who was called by God to make large concrete signs extolling people to forsake sin. He planned to install them around the world, but they never got farther than the museum. The early days of country music earn a gallery of their own, with the legacy of John Hartford prominently told. Then there are tales of moonshiners, always dodging the law.

While crafters and musicians demonstrate their talents throughout the year, the 4th of July is the biggest all-around festival. The sawmill is running; the dulcimer-maker gives hands-on lesson; cloggers show off their dance steps; woodsmen split rails a la Abraham Lincoln.

But the biggest event is the anvil shoot. Launching an anvil into the air was a mountain version of fireworks. Anvils went airborne at Christmas, to celebrate Davey Crockett’s election to Congress, and – of course – to celebrate Independence Day.

Anvil shooting sounds like something from Myth Busters: fill a small cavity at the bottom of an anvil with 1 lb. black powder; place a metal plate over it and pack it down; put another anvil on top of the first. Install a long fuse, light it, and run. In about 20 seconds, the powder explodes, and the top anvil rockets skyward. The blast is heard as far as 15 miles away, or so say the locals. The anvil can go as high as 125 feet and bury itself a foot or more when it crashes down.

The anvil shoot is just one of a full day of traditional celebrations at the museum on Independence Day. The museum also stages a traditional music festival in the fall, Appalachian Christmas in December, sheep shearing and barn dances, and an antiques weekend with vendors, crafters, and living history re-enactors. For the full calendar, directions, prices, and the like, visit the website: www.museumofappalachia.org. To see a video of the anvil toss, go to: http://museumofappalachia.org/events-july4th.html

Photos from the Museum of Appalachia: Jack Williams, Nell Moore, Dick Doub

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