Scouring the back roads of Southern Appalachia, John Rice Irwin amassed thousands of historic artifacts before opening the Museum of Appalachia in 1969. A Smithsonian Institute affiliate since 2007, the 501-(c)3 museum now consists of more than 30 historic structures that recreate an Appalachian village, complete with farm animals and gardens flanked by split-rail fences. Along with two large exhibition halls, the museum's pioneer buildings house an extensive collection, which ranges from Appalachian baskets and quilts to folk art and toys.
Elsewhere, rustic paths wind through pastoral sites, a Hall of Fame honors Appalachian notables, and live musicians play old-time Appalachian tunes. In addition to weddings, the museum's grounds host several events throughout the year, including Tennessee Fall Homecoming, Sheep-Shearing Day, Days of the Pioneer Anitque Show, and an anvil shoot every Fourth of July.
Founded in 1973 as a Girl Scout project, the Children's Museum of Oak Ridge first opened inside Jefferson Junior High School with little more than 2,000 square feet of rented space to its name. After a meteoric rise in popularity, the museum moved to its current 54,000-square-foot facility, which brims with more than 20 educational and interactive exhibits designed to help children learn and grow.
Kids and parents can explore a simulated Amazonian rainforest, which reverberates with jungle sounds in air thick and heavy with moisture from the running waterfall. Little tykes become little tycoons in the World of Trains, which features a full-size Norfolk Southern caboose and a hands-on playroom where kids adopt the role of conductor, steering tiny locomotives and apologizing to their peers when their toy train doesn’t arrive on schedule. Otherwise, they can educate themselves on the history of playthings with some of the most impressive and entertaining gizmos from the museum's collection in the Century of Toys exhibit. Static exhibits aren't all the venue has to offer; the staff often organizes events such as performances by storytellers and controlled playtime with live monkeys.
At Wheat Union Station, volunteers restore and maintain the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum's four diesel engines. Authentically outfitted conductors and staff keep one shiny shoe firmly in the past as air-conditioned coach cars and an open-air baggage car rumble past Poplar Creek, Watts Bar Lake, and Highway 327. The museum conducts seasonal rides and theme rides, including dinner trains and murder mysteries. Secret City Scenic Excursion train rides chug along rail lines that stretch out from K-25, a site of World War II's Manhattan Project.