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Swain’s museum offers new attraction, old relics

fr swainmuseumInside and out, the Swain County Heritage Museum is an ode to history. The very building that houses the museum long served as the courthouse in Bryson City, and now serves to usher visitors through all those many years gone by.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Swain County Commissioner David Monteith stood looking at a an old barbershop chair in the museum. A man had brought it in recently. It’s from the Parkway Barber Shop, and it’s a piece of history that the commissioner is familiar with.

“We all sat in that chair as a kid,” Monteith smiled. “His grandpa use to cut my hair when I was a baby.”

This isn’t the only piece in the museum that Monteith is familiar with. He donated some of the exhibit pieces himself — a camera, some ancient car tags. Others, he can point you toward their origin, years back down the road.

“The blade came from the sawmill at Forney Creek,” Monteith said, motioning toward a large, rust encrusted testament to Swain’s timbering past.

Assembled in the museum is a growing collection of touchstones with history. Items of interest brought forth from the community are spread out across a large, airy room upstairs in the historic courthouse.

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“This has been a personal project for me for about 17 years,” said Monteith, standing inside the museum.

Swain’s heritage museum opened its doors this past spring. Since that time, the attraction has proven to be a significant draw.

“Average, close to a hundred people a day,” Monteith said. “All summer long we’d have a hundred people a day, and that’s just word of mouth advertising.”

As hoped, the museum — as well as the visitors center and Great Smoky Mountains Association store located in the old courthouse — are drawing foot traffic closer to the main highway, balancing out the disproportionate amount of action seen on the side of downtown boasting the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

“We see’em all over town,” Monteith said. “You didn’t see’em early in the season, and it’s because they’re coming down to the museum.”

The commissioner expected as much. He’s actually expecting more.

“We hope in another year to see it double,” Monteith said of the traffic the museum currently sees. 

In addition to the offerings of the museum, the old courthouse is also now home to the Swain County Chamber of Commerce’s visitor center and the GSMA store. 

“We felt like this was the center now,” said the chamber’s Frank Calhoun, of the decision to locate the visitor center in the courthouse. 

Correna Barker, with the GSMA, said that it just seemed to make sense to jump into the mix.

“I’m glad that we did,” Barker said. “There was really nothing here. The park didn’t have anything over here.”

Both the visitor center and GSMA store are located downstairs in the old courthouse. Also downstairs are a few museum exhibits — one focuses on the Cherokee, while the other depicts an old-timey one-room schoolhouse.

But it’s not until a visitor ventures upstairs that they will see the wealth of history assembled at the new museum. There are old tools, photographs and newspapers, ancient kitchen utensils, and aging electronics.  

“This was found in the basement under here,” Monteith explained, motioning to an old wooden ballot box. “When they were digging out they found two of these.” 

Under a glass case is an old fishing license from the 1930s. Monteith explained that the license belonged to a man who obtained it to go fishing on property he once owned, prior to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

“In order to go back and camp where he use to live, he had to get a permit from the park service,” said Monteith.

The museum also has a viewing room in which visitors can watch a short video retrospective on Swain’s history. Across the room is an area designated for children. It features exhibits focusing on both history and wildlife; soon, there’ll be historically-based dress-up clothes for the kids to try on.

Most of the items on exhibit in Swain’s museum were donated from local residents. On exhibit for the public to enjoy, they serve as relics revealing lives of the past in Swain County.

“Most people, when they give it to us, they say ‘we don’t want it back,’” Monteith said, explaining that the museum is receiving new donations weekly. “It may just be something small to them, but it’s big for us because this is our history.”

One addition to the museum was not small at all. It was rather large. A window was removed to accommodate its arrival.

“The cabin was donated,” Monteith said, pointing to a partial cabin rebuilt in the middle of the upstairs gallery. 

The cabin, built in the 1880s, was donated by a local resident. It had to be taken apart and brought in through a large window. The structure was then recreated in the museum. 

“We had the lady that was born in it come in the first week we were open,” Monteith said. “Stood in there and had her picture made in it.”



Want to go?

The Swain County Heritage Museum is located at 12 Everett St., Bryson City. The museum is open seven day a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information call 828.488.7857.

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