CLINTON, Tenn. (WATE) — John Rice Irwin was 91 years old when he died Sunday. He’s leaving behind a legacy that’s sure to live on for years to come.

Will Meyer serves as the marketing director at the Museum of Appalachia. He’s also Irwin’s grandson.

“It was a little bit of a slow deterioration so he’s definitely in a better place now though,” Meyer said of Irwin.

Irwin was a lifelong curious East Tennessean.

“He taught in schools but at the same time went and collected all these artifacts so a little bit like Indiana Jones,” Meyer said with a chuckle.

Irwin spent his life not only building his own legacy but a place where people all over the world could see and touch his heritage. He opened the Museum of Appalachia in 1969 after his family encouraged him to look deeper into his past.

“He started in the 1960s with a cabin and with artifacts he collected throughout the hills and hollers of Southern Appalachia (and) filled them in his cabin,” Meyer said. “People started stopping by, and then he started charging a nominal fee. And after that, it just grew and grew.”

In the first year, about 600 people visited the museum. Currently, tens of thousands come yearly to take a step back in history.

“Now there’s thirty authentic log cabins including Mark Twain’s family cabin,” Meyer said. “We have a quarter of a million artifacts in three different buildings and it’s a Smithsonian affiliate now. It’s really just his vision that he helped to fulfill throughout his life. Now it’s just this massive operation.”

Meyer would tag along with his grandad on some of his artifact hunts when he was kid. He said his grandad was a great communicator.

“He taught me respect of people of all walks of life,” Meyer said. “We would travel to some of the poorest most remote places in the country, and he treated them with the same respect that he treated presidents that he met.”

Irwin will be laid to rest this week and the Museum of Appalachia will host his celebration of life ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday.