A look inside the museum
Step inside Cherokee’s newest museum, and the scent of freshly cut wood and tranquil lighting will immediately greet you with the knowledge that you’ve made the right choice.
“We’ve got more space than I ever dreamed, but it makes me think we could have twice this before it’s all over with,” said Alen Baker, who lives in Charlotte but masterminded the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians.
A collaboration of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce and an army of volunteers, the museum is a grassroots attempt to tell the stories of mountain ingenuity and self-sufficiency behind the art of fly fishing in the Appalachians south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“Our stories, if they’re told well, will show how people were creative around here to be able to go out and pull fish, put them on the table back then,” said Baker.
The museum tour begins with a small theater, its sides — like all the woodwork in the exhibit hall — made of repurposed barnwood that Baker and a group of volunteers took from a donated building they tore down themselves. Nearby, smaller screens affixed to the wall show rotating displays of iconic Southern Appalachian flies and insects, while a map delineates the region the museum seeks to cover.
Glass cases protect displays of rods, the oldest dating back to 1875, as well as a variety of reels. Various fishing paraphernalia, like old krill baskets and something that appears to be a miniature baseball bat — it was used to give fish intended for the dinner table a quick end to their misery — also have their place.
For Baker, though, the best part of the museum is the set of Streamblazer exhibits, displays that pay homage to the giants of the sport. Right now, the museum has 24 such exhibits, with at least one from each of the nine states included in its definition of “Southern Appalachian,” but that number is likely to grow.
“There’s probably 85 or 90 on my list,” said Baker. Each exhibit includes a narrative of the person’s life — their quirks, their importance to the world of fly fishing — as well as artifacts to bring their contributions to life. That includes everything from flies they tied to reels they used to paintings they made. For the late sportsman Cato Holler, of Marion, it’s samples of dyed polar bear fur scored from a successful 1972 Arctic hunt. It quickly became his favorite fly-tying material.
More cases show fishing-based nonprofits that work to help cancer victims and wounded war veterans, displays of fly-tying methods before the advent of modern tools and examples of Waynesville angler Roger Lowe’s 101 types of flies, tied by a group from Hendersonville.
“This is probably the Bible of Southern Appalachian flies,” Baker said of Lowe’s book Fly Pattern Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains. “This is the first exhibit I wanted to do.”
The museum also features plenty of exhibits that aren’t contained in a glass case. A fly-tying desk, strewn with thread, scissors and feathers as though the tyer had just stepped away from his workshop for a moment, shows what such a scene may have looked like during the “real golden age” of fly fishing right after World War II. Behind the desk stands a cabinet whose drawers hold preserved specimens of various aquatic insects, donated by Appalachian State University, that a fly tyer might try to imitate.
“All fly tyers become entomologists,” Baker said.
The back of the building holds the museum’s crown jewel, the first driftboat built and used in the Southeast, which was in operation from the 1980s up until the museum, using a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority, took it in exchange for purchasing the owner a new boat. A kids’ station, complete with hands-on games and worksheets, is in the adjacent corner.
And that polar bear hunting angler Cato Holler? A visitor turning around after a moment with the driftboat would find herself face-to-face with a mannequin dressed head to toe, save for the waders, in Holler’s original fishing gear, donated by his grandson Chris.
The museum has seen some degree of success so far, attracting 120 people to its opening day celebration June 6 and now seeing foot traffic of up to 75 people a day. But Baker’s job is far from done.
“We’ve probably got 10 years of research to do,” he said.
Plans are in the works to build an aquarium/mini-hatchery exhibit in a currently empty room. Baker would like to add a lot more Streamblazer exhibits and hopes for a grant to install a talking mannequin in the children’s corner, which would talk fishing to kids when approached. Guided museum tours, design-a-fly workshops, environmental exhibits, an angling hall of fame, subtitles in Cherokee syllabary and an exhibit dedicated to the Cherokee connection with fishing are all on his wish list — among others.
He’s hopeful that the museum will garner the support needed to make those ideas reality, both because the museum’s new status as an official nonprofit makes it eligible to write grants directly, rather than through the chamber, and because the cause has already seen some pretty staggering past success with fundraising.
“Just the idea of a museum seems to strike a good chord with a lot of people,” he said. “I can tell you it’s one of the easier things I’ve ever raised money for, because I’ve raised money for a lot of nonprofits.”