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A Museum without Walls: Appalachian Women’s Museum

By Justin C. Hornsby and Elizabeth J. Nissly


The Appalachian Women’s Museum is a volunteer-based organization located on the Monteith family’s former farmstead in Dillsboro, North Carolina.  Originally conceived as a means to provide monetary coverage of the farmstead’s restoration, the museum, while still maintaining the original purpose, has now grown to be an entity in itself.  Emma Wertenberger, curator of a local bed and breakfast, provides the volunteered services of spokesperson, organizer and active president of AWM.  She works hand in hand with the many volunteers from Western Carolina University and elsewhere to push the museum towards a positive and prominent future.  Much has changed and grown since the beginnings of the project, and, though economic resources are still greatly needed, continued efforts push forward with undiminished vigor.


Encouraging young women to discover and embrace the rich history of women in the Appalachian region stands as a primary intention of the museum.  As western North Carolina has no similar museum, AWM hopes to fill the void and provide a location where such information is readily available to all who wish to indulge their intellectual appetites.  Awareness stands as an important first step, and, as many older women will remember a great deal more about women’s history, youth remains a primary target; however, all audiences — men and women, old and young — can appreciate the atmosphere generated by the location and content of the museum.  Towards such an end, AWM makes it a point to regularly spotlight influential women of history, bringing to light figures otherwise overshadowed in traditional education.


Nestled in the lush mountains of western North Carolina, the quaint town of Dillsboro plays host to the museum’s past and present progress.  “A museum without walls”— such is the nickname of the location gifted by its owners.  The nickname stems from the current efforts of the AWM’s advocates working outside of literal museum walls. Currently a work in progress, the museum stays more a concept than a physical location; however, the Monteith Farmstead provides the soil for this seed to grow.  Just off to the side of Dillsboro, the several original structures are surrounded by field and forest, the rural surroundings helping to preserve the rustic ambiance.  Renovations are still underway to return the buildings to a more presentable state, but much potential rests atop the aging foundations. 


The Monteith Farmstead was acquired by the town of Dillsboro in 2003 after the final two members of the Monteith family, Edna and Edith, passed away leaving no heirs.  Following the property’s acquisition, Dillsboro appointed the Monteith Farmstead Restoration Committee to generate methods of funding maintenance and restoration of the farmstead; subsequently, the museum was established to provide a means of rebuilding and keeping the location alive.

More recently, the museum has been able to secure adequate funding that will allow the restoration of the farmstead’s facilities to continue for the time being.  Throughout the process, numerous artifacts including furniture, clothing, tools, business records and childhood toys, as well as ephemera such as personal letters, photographs and homework, have been discovered and restored to be later used for display purposes in the museum.  These items were left behind from the lives of the original owners, pieces from their childhoods and later lives, so they provide great insights into the time.  The Appalachian Women’s Museum has employed the talents of over 100 volunteers from Western Carolina University.  These volunteers have supplied the elbow grease necessary to rescue artifacts, restore various parts of the farmstead and assist with the area’s yearly grower’s fair.

The Present

The primary promotional event providing publicity for the museum remains Dillsboro’s annual Appalachian Grower’s Fair.  The fair allows local green-thumbed enthusiasts to share their plants, produce and products, and provides a stage for the AWM to share their plans and progress with the community.  WCU student volunteers, besides aiding in the restoration processes, assist in the conceptions and subsequent erection of exhibits at the fair.  Students have become an integral element of the AWM’s efforts, also helping with the establishment of the “Traveling Trunks” program, which will organize visits to local education centers and include portable exhibits and speakers.

History majors at Western Carolina University receive a unique opportunity by working with the museum.  The experience offered by the Monteith Farmstead’s unique collection of history is one nearly unmatched in other areas of historical studies, especially for a university located in Appalachia, as the location and artifacts offer hands-on opportunities.  Specific volunteer opportunities include collections, researcher, museum educator, marketing and publicity, clerical, seamstress, grounds, maintenance, special events coordinator, volunteer coordinator and membership coordinator.


The museum hopes to serve as a model for projects of a similar nature among other communities, educators and students, with an aim of stimulating cooperative workmanship and decision making.  Producing a social atmosphere that will assist in the continued preservation of Appalachian history as well as other histories, has the potential to open new career and education possibilities; the AWM is very eager to catalyze such a process.  Raising the level of public awareness about women’s history is an integral element in effecting such a change and is a primary goal of the museum.

The museum plans to help preserve the heritage of the area by forming partners in the community who will provide needed assistance, such as additional volunteers and possible donations, as well as expanded promotional abilities.  The museum is now seeking grants totaling $1,000,000 to fund the ongoing restoration of the farmstead.  With these funds, the Monteith Farmstead Restoration Committee hopes to complete the construction of the museum, transforming the aging structures into functional museum facilities fit for daily operation.  Artwork, clothing, furniture and remnant documents are just a few of the items to be included in future displays, and the museum hopes to maintain variety and originality in their presentation.


For more information, please visit the web site at www.dillsboronc.info/monteith.html, or contact Emma Wertenberger at (828) 586-5244 or ew.awmuseum@gmail.com.

These profiles were created by the students in Mary Adams's English 303 (spring 2010) class