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From the Publisher’s Desk – Passion keeps heritage alive for all

By Keith Whitson

Merriam-Webster defines passion as “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” Often there are things we do that amay start out with passion but it declines as time goes along. This decline may be from the difficulty of the task, from getting support, getting funding or any other numerous hindrances.

True passion is one that prevails even in hardships. True passion is one that becomes a life commitment to a cause you believe in so strongly that you often put the needs of it above your own.

Unicoi County has been fortunate to have some citizens with true passion. They have seen dreams become reality. They have been in on the beginning of an idea and seen it to fruition.  For some, there is no finish. The commitment to their passion continues. They become the heartbeat and pulse to keeping something alive and well.

One such person is Martha Erwin. We are very blessed to have our Unicoi County Heritage Museum and our Clinchfield Railroad Museum. These two facilities house our heritage on so many levels.

If visitors to our county make only one stop, the museums are the one place to sample a full menu of what has made and makes our community great. I am sure there are many who live in our county who still haven’t experienced the offerings of these two facilities located on the grounds of the hatchery. These people are missing out on one of the closest and most interesting offerings we have.

The growth of these two museums has taken place before my eyes as an employee of this newspaper. I remember the initial discussion for the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, the planning, the work days, and the time  Lamar Alexander and his wife Honey, came to town and helped paint on a community work day. They auctioned off the black and red plaid shirt Alexander was wearing, for museum funds, to the highest bidder Emmett Hampton won the bid.

Getting this started was the passion for some and they saw it come to pass. Initial desire gets the job done, but continued desire keeps it alive. At one point, Martha Erwin stepped in as director and has not only kept the dreams alive, but has taken them to a new level.

She has seen to it that rotting wood was replaced, roofs were replaced, a declining porch was replaced, damaged and hazardous walks were replaced, museum displays were expanded and the Clinchfield Railroad Museum was built.

Martha was able to acquire many of the items that visitors see at the site. She is also a wealth of information on the pieces and has many railroad and local stories to share from her own experiences and those of others, including her father, who worked for the railroad.

So how does Martha keep necessary funding for this passion alive and get work done that needs to be? She has stood up to officials when budgets were being planned and pleaded on behalf of the museums’ needs.  She has gotten inmate labor for many projects. She has called on numerous resources and state officials. She has also planned numerous fundraising events.

I usually go to most of these events. After all, who can say “no” to Martha? When something is planned, she gets on the telephone and makes personal calls and invitations. Lots of times the event is sold out before the date it takes place.

One such event was this past Saturday night at Erwin Town Hall. A delicious meal was catered by Toby and Donna Gardiner, consisting of chicken or ham, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, roll and dessert.

Jerry Pierce and Libby Hatcher provided entertainment for the evening. They offered a musical variety with keyboard, saxophone and a wide range of songs and styles. It was truly wonderful and everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy the evening. For many, it was a stroll down memory lane as they sang along with the entertainers from their seats. A few even found a clear spot for some dancing.

Every event that Martha is involved in is a success, just as the museums are a success. She has a way for getting things accomplished because it goes toward improving or maintaining her passion – the museums.

These facilities are like children to her. They need her and she has played a large role in the fact that they are in existence and still thriving today. Martha is a good friend to them, a friend to our community and a good friend to me.

It is good to have Martha on your side. She calls me with news tips to look into and stands up for me in the community. She always has an interesting story about something historical and is currently working on writing these down for a possible book.

One other thing about Martha is she doesn’t take the spotlight. The work is more important than the recognition. She usually refuses to be in photographs. Even with that, her image is ever present in the work of the museums.