NORRIS, Tenn. (WATE) — The founder of the Museum of Appalachia, John Rice Irwin, died on Sunday surrounded by his family. Irwin was 91.

According to the museum, Irwin was “captivated by the rich cultural history of East Tennessee and its people.” This fascination led him to begin collecting “old-timey things” from around Southern Appalachia and the stories behind them. This eventually lead him to buy a historic cabin and recreate what it would have looked like when it was first built.

This cabin is what would eventually become the Museum of Appalachia which would officially open in 1969. In its first year, around 600 people came to the museum, today the museum says tens of thousands of guests visit each year.

Irwin would retire from teaching in 1980 and devoted all of his time to the museum until he retired in 2009. Irwin won a variety of awards throughout his career, including honorary doctorates from Lincoln Memorial University, Carson Newman University, and Tusculum University. He also got to see the museum become a Smithsonian affiliate.

When asked about his friend’s passing, Lamar Alexander said,

“John Rice Irwin displayed Appalachian pioneer history in a way that no one else ever has. His tens of thousands of items in the Museum of Appalachia remind us that we don’t have to go outside our own backyards to find interesting people. For sixty years he stayed up late into the night writing books and matching artifacts with stories so that we could better understand who we are. He taught us about ancestors who made or grew things instead of buying them. He was an engaging genius and a generous friend. Honey and I will miss him greatly.”

Irwin was also the youngest superintendent of schools in the state when he was elected to the position in Anderson County at the age of 31 in 1962. He also served in the Army after graduating high school. According to the museum, he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War.