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Building History

Felix Winternitz

You’ll forgive Gary Sexton if he gets a bit exuberant about log cabins. And coal mines. And chicken coops. This energetic high school instructor is the middle-aged brain behind the teenaged brawn that built The Museum of Scott County, the nation’s only student-designed, student-curated, student-maintained museum of cultural and pioneer history.

“It was built by the kids from scratch,” says the MEd grad, who teaches at Scott High School in Huntsville, Tenn.

“There are actually three museums and a frontier village on a three-and-a-half acre complex. We have a blacksmith shop, a smokehouse where we smoke our own meats, and we raise our own livestock.”

Scott County itself is a fascinating anachronism. During the Civil War, the territory was so strongly pro-Union it formally seceded from the state of Tennessee—and, hence, the Confederacy. By 1861, it renamed itself the “Free and Independent State of Scott.”

The Scotts-men, long on defiance and short on patience, wouldn’t petition for re-admission to Tennessee until a full century later.

All this colorful past helps make the locality a terrific place to dig out artifacts from history’s dustbin.

“I teach anthropology, so our anthropology classes, for instance, joined on digs into coal mines when we built a replica of a Tennessee coal mine here.”

Everyone at the high school seems to contribute to the educational endeavor. Drama students dress in period garb for re-enactments during weekly public tours. English students write brochures for the general store. Carpenters and others from the trade vocation classes industriously craft new exhibits.

“This county has the highest unemployment rate in the state,” says Sexton. “So we’re trying to teach some valuable skills.”

The complex is 100 percent privately funded—and growing.

“We actually had to drain a swamp to start the first stage of the project back in 2001,” says Sexton. “People kind of thought I was a nut.”

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