A couple of weeks ago, I drove to the mountains of North Carolina, far up into the northwest corner of the state. I wanted to talk with some people about a museum, closed now, never to reopen.
My first stop was an overlook more than 3,000 feet high. Deep valleys rolled below. Charles Watkins, director of the now-defunct Appalachian Cultural Museum, met me there, overlooking the hills.
"You can understand how people would have looked at that and said, 'Oh, what an ocean of mountains,'" he said. "I imagine if you squint you could see the 18th century."
Back then, the settlers of this region — mostly Scotch-Irish — came though these mountains. Some pushed on into Tennessee and eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian Cultural Museum was set up to tell the story of the ones who stopped and stayed.
You'll find their descendants on the campus of Appalachian State University, in the small town of Boone.
From Students, An Appreciation Of Their History
Today the contents of the museum are packed up in boxes and crates, hidden away behind a chain-link fence, on the lonely top floor of a building on Appalachian State University's campus.
The museum was originally closed five years ago with the intent to reopen later, but this spring, the school announced it was changing its plans and the museum would remain closed permanently.
The university says it can no longer afford the money and space the museum requires. State aid has been cut, it says, and with 17,000 students on campus, real estate is getting tighter each year.
But the students I met there said there should be a museum to help people learn about this part of Appalachia.
Nicole Diggins was aware of the budget problems. "But it is still unfortunate," she said.
"They should find a place on campus for it," said Adrian Stefan, another student.
"I initially started school at University of Nebraska, where they actually had a museum," he said. "They had something called an 'Elephant Hall,' where they had several full-size mammoths. I frequented it two, three, four times a month."
The Fate Of A Museum And The Future Of A School
"There are a lot of people who gave things to the collection that say, 'No, I didn't give it to be scattered, I gave it to the museum,'" Betty Bond told me. She's a former history professor at Appalachian State, and did some volunteer work at the museum after she retired.
For example, she says, a good friend called, asking after a cherry cradle crafted by her grandfather. The cradle once held dolls in the museum's gift shop. Her friend wanted the cradle back.
Bond is confident all items loaned to the museum will find their way home. She's more concerned about what might be happening to the university she's worked for and loved as it grows into a new century.
She worries the reason the school chose to close the museum is "because it doesn't rhyme with football." The school, however, says it's not a matter of prizing athletics over history.
School communication director Jeff Lowrance says it's the combination of shrinking state funds and a growing student population that "led this university to decide that we really need to focus on our core mission — and that's teaching students through our academic programs."
One Last Tour
When it was still open, the Appalachian Cultural Museum wanted to highlight how people in this part of North Carolina made a living. The leading industry in these parts has long been tourism, and that's why the Land of Oz, a theme park that once thrived on nearby Beech Mountain, was featured at the museum.
Associate Dean Neva Specht showed me a pair of red-and-white striped legs with black buckle shoes — the remains of a crushed Wicked Witch of the West.
Not far away sat an old moonshine still. Illegal whiskey was another big money-maker. "Lots of people are always interested in that piece," Specht said.
As it turns out, some of the guys who drove the whiskey in the prohibition era went on to become NASCAR racers — including Junior Johnson, who donated two of his cars to the museum.
Other relics include an old piano from a camp for boys run by Vera Lachmann, who taught classics at Brooklyn College.
The camp, Specht said, started off as a place for young Jewish kids who came to the U.S. during World War II. "Their parents would send them down to escape the city," she said, to busy their minds with art and Shakespeare. "And every night, Lachmann would read either the Odyssey or the Iliad."
Boxed Treasures Await A New Home
Specht is leading a committee to distribute the museum's collection. The loaned items, she says, will go back to their rightful owners. Junior Johnson came and got his stock cars. Otherwise, a lot of people seem to want to find out what's there and what they can have.
"We have so many," she said. "I had a call from a museum in Gaston County who said, 'What can we do to help you?'"
That extra support leaves Specht hopeful the museum's mission won't be lost for good. Much of the Appalachian State material will stay on campus, including the collection people speak of as a treasure: more than 50 self-portraits done by local artists.
"This is an opportunity to make new partnerships, to find new places on campus that can be used, and really have a renewal for what we do for Appalachian culture," she said.
NOAH ADAMS, host:
A couple of weeks back, at the start of April, I drove to North Carolina, to the mountains, far up into the northwest corner of that state. I wanted to talk with some people about a museum, which is now closed and will never again be open.
The Appalachian Cultural Museum indeed had the quilts and the plows and the banjos and the looms, but you could be surprised walking in: the idea was to counter stereotypes and to show the way people really lived.
My first stop was an overlook in the North Carolina mountains, more than 3,000 feet high. Deep valleys out there below, the museum was of this region, this part of Appalachia.
Charles Watkins was the director.
Mr. CHARLES WATKINS (Former Director, Appalachian Cultural Museum): We're looking at ranges of mountains, blue, passing one behind the other. You can understand how people would have looked at that and said: Oh, what an ocean of mountains.
ADAMS: How far do you think you can see here?
Mr. WATKINS: I imagine you can see - if you squint, you could see the 18th century through there.
ADAMS: In those times, the settlers, mostly Scots-Irish, came through these valleys, some pushing on into Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, but many stopping and staying. And you'll find their descendants on the campus of Appalachian State University in the small town of Boone.
Mr. ROBERT LAYMAN(ph): Play you something on this ukulele? Oh, god, I've never been recorded before.
Unidentified Man: Just play it.
Mr. LAYMAN: All right. Hold on.
(Soundbite of music)
ADAMS: Robert Layman, ukulele player; he's a sophomore at Appalachian State. I talked with Robert Layman and some of his friends, others walking by. The Appalachian Cultural Museum is still part of this university, even though the collection is packed in boxes and crates and hidden away behind a chain-link fence on the lonely top floor of a campus building.
It was five years ago when the museum closed. The university was saying then, we'll find you a bigger, better space. But last month, the school decided against reopening. It's shut down for good. The students I met politely said, yeah, there should be a museum.
Ms. NICOLE DIGGINS: Oh, well, I know we're having budget problems, so I guess that would be the biggest factor. But it is still unfortunate, I guess.
Mr. ADRIAN STEFAN: They should find a place on campus for it.
ADAMS: These students have heard the two reasons for not having a museum: budget troubles, lack of space. Adrian Stefan isn't sold.
Mr. STEFAN: I initially started school at University of Nebraska, where they actually had a museum. And they had something called an Elephant Hall where they had, like, several full-sized mammoths, the fossils. I frequented it, like, two or three, four times a month.
(Soundbite of bells ringing)
Professor BETTY BOND (History, Appalachian State University): There are a lot of people who, you know, quote, gave things to the collection that say, no, I didn't give it to be scattered. I gave it to the museum.
ADAMS: This is Betty Bond, history professor at Appalachian State. After she retired, she did volunteer work at the museum.
Ms. BOND: For example, a good friend of mine called me and she said, you know, I had loaned you all that cherry cradle that my great-great-grandfather had made, and you all have used it in the gift shop. It was full of dolls. And she said, how do I get that back?
ADAMS: Betty Bond figures all the loans to the museum will find their way home. She's more concerned about what might be happening to the university she's worked for and loved as it grows into a new century. You might put the question this way:
Why can't there be a museum of a culture in Western North Carolina? How can you answer that question?
Ms. BOND: Well, it doesn't rhyme with football.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JEFF LOWRANCE (Communications Director, Appalachian State University): Well, Appalachian does have a well-known football program, particularly since it defeated the University of Michigan a few years ago. It is a source of pride for the university, but the academic reputation of the university is stellar as well.
ADAMS: Jeff Lowrance is the school's communications director. Appalachian State, a surprising football powerhouse, now has 17,000 students on a vibrant, crowded campus right up against the mountains.
Mr. LOWRANCE: When you combine shrinking state funds with the need for increased space for academic programs, that leads the university to have to make some tough decisions, and led this university to decide that we really need to focus on that core mission, and that's teaching students through our academic programs.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actress): (as Dorothy) Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
ADAMS: The cultural museum in Boone wanted to show how people made their money in this part of North Carolina. The leading industry has been tourism and that's why the Land of Oz was featured at the museum.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")
Ms. GARLAND: (as Dorothy) We must be over the rainbow.
ADAMS: Oz was an amusement park on nearby Beech Mountain. And after it shut down, some of those displays came to the museum.
Another big local moneymaker, the illegal whiskey, moonshine. Neva Specht, an associate dean, shows me the real thing, a moonshine still - provenance not to be revealed.
Ms. NEVA SPECHT (Associate Dean, Appalachian State University): There's the still...
Ms. SPECHT: ...right there. Lots of people are always interested in that piece.
Ms. SPECHT: Big copper pot, yeah, with the tubing that went into the barrel.
ADAMS: And some of those guys who drove the whiskey for their dads went on to NASCAR racing, including Junior Johnson, who donated two of his stock cars to the Appalachian Museum.
(Soundbite of piano)
ADAMS: There an upright piano in the collection storage space. It comes from up near the Blue Ridge Parkway, Camp Catawba. It was a camp for boys started in 1944 by Vera Lachmann, who taught classics at Brooklyn University.
Ms. SPECHT: It started off as a place for young Jewish boys who'd come over after - during the World War II. Their parents would send them down for kind of escape the city. They ran that camp for them and then later on for other boys. And it was art and Shakespeare and they - every night, Vera Lachmann would read "The Odyssey" or "The Iliad."
(Soundbite of music)
ADAMS: Neva Specht of Appalachian State is leading a committee to parcel out the museum's collection. The loaned items will go back. Junior Johnson came and got his NASCAR racers, and other museums want to find out what's there and what they can have.
Ms. SPECHT: We've had so many. I had a call from a museum in Gaston County who said, what can we do to help you? You know, I guess I tend to be more on the positive side that this is an opportunity for the university to make these partnerships to find new places on campus that it can be used and really have a renewal of our, you know, what we do for Appalachian culture.
ADAMS: Much of the Appalachian State material will stay on campus, including the collection people speak of as a treasure: more than 50 self-portraits done by local artists. It represents how the people of northwestern North Carolina see themselves.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.