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Appalachian Women’s Museum anticipates pivotal year ahead

Appalachian Women’s Museum board members stand on the porch of the building in Dillsboro. Pictured left to right are treasurer Debi Sullivan, past president Cathy Monteith Busick, current president Sharon Sullivan and vice president Marty Greeble. Appalachian Women’s Museum board members stand on the porch of the building in Dillsboro. Pictured left to right are treasurer Debi Sullivan, past president Cathy Monteith Busick, current president Sharon Sullivan and vice president Marty Greeble.

It’s shaping up to be a big year for the Appalachian Women’s Museum in Dillsboro. The nonprofit is preparing for its second annual Airing of the Quilts event, will get an artistically designed storytelling installation on its grounds if a grant Western Carolina University is working on goes through, and hopes to start regularly opening its doors to the public during Saturdays summer. 

And, as of Jan. 25, it owns the building outright. 

“We’re really excited about this year,” said Sharon Sullivan, board president for the museum. “It’s like an overnight success that has taken 15 years.”

The town of Dillsboro gave the organization the deed to the Monteith Farmstead where the museum is located for $10 — a gift that came after years of hard work. In 2013, the town agreed to lease the building to the museum for five years. If the group could raise its own money and fix the place up, the town said, they could have the deed. 

“When we got the price for doing what we’re doing, it was so out of our price range it was like, oh no, that will never happen,” said Cathy Monteith Busick, a current member and past president of the board. “So we just did it the old-fashioned way. We did it a little bit at a time.”

The canning house was restored in 2010, the roof repaired in 2014, the exterior painted in 2017. In 2008, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following a blitz of volunteerism from Western Carolina University students, the interior now also bears a fresh coat of paint, colors chosen to be true to the period. 

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All that has happened on a shoestring budget. Sullivan said she doesn’t have a hard number on how much money has gone into restoring the building thus far but says it’s less than $200,000 spread over nearly 15 years. 

“What we can tell you is we have hundreds of thousands of dollar equivalents in volunteer time,” she said. “On an average year we’re pulling in more than 1,000 volunteer hours.”

Built in 1908, the three-story house was the home of sisters Edna and Edith Monteith, both of whom declined the traditional marriage-and-kids route and lived together in their childhood home until their deaths. Their father was a postmaster, and the property was a working farm. When their father died, Edna took over the postmaster duties, and together the sisters kept the farm running. 

“The Monteith sister who was over the post office actually served as a postal clerk,” said Busick. “She got ready to retire and she said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not right.’  So she wrote the postmaster general and said, ‘I do this and this and this and this, the same as a postmaster. I want postmaster retirement.’”

Amazingly, she got her retirement.

It’s stories like that that made the place seem the perfect location for the only museum in existence honoring Southern Appalachian women. Currently, the building is staged mostly with early-1900s furniture and décor that was left in the house after the sisters passed away. But the museum won’t simply be a shrine to the Monteith sisters. Board members have been working to collect a diverse stock of stories from across the community and region about the women who have made the Southern Appalachians what they are today. 

When it’s all done, the Monteith family will have a dedicated room — the “green room,” the sisters’ favorite color — but the other rooms will explore the lives of women who were important to education, health care, politics, arts and crafts, music, community leadership and more. 

The museum has also landed a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation to plan a Cherokee women’s room. Using the grant money, the board has hired a designer to start work on it.

After so much time, things are finally starting to come together, and Busick is excited to get those stories out in the open. 

“You really have no idea the contributions that women have made over the years and in the formation of your communities because most of those stories are undocumented,” she said. “They pass down in families and that’s great, but unfortunately families die out or kids don’t listen. Those stories get lost.”


Airing of the Quilts returns

The second annual Airing of the Quilts will return to the Appalachian Women’s Museum in Dillsboro 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 4, in Dillsboro.

The airing-out of quilts is a traditional rite of spring in the mountains, a chance to give the blankets a freshening-up after a long winter indoors. Quilts of different types and eras will be on display along with demonstrators, children’s activities, a raffle, a fabric scrap exchange and music on the porch from local musicians. New this year will be a demonstration from nationally known quilter Laura Nelle Goebel.

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