Addressing poverty and substandard living conditions

Although the displacement of over 15,000 individuals was seen as a cost in the cost/benefit analysis of eminent domain, the move out of run-down shacks was sometimes spun as a positive benefit by TVA supporters.  Tenant farmers, renters, and even some of the farm owners were living in poverty.   The shacks and substandard living conditions had been documented by social service workers, public health workers, researchers, writers, and photographers.

National Archives, created by the Department of Interior, Division of Motion Pictures.
[30 minutes long—use 2–3 minute clip on poverty around minute 5:00]

Conditions of rural life were hard in the Norris Basin[1] and the TVA aimed to make a dramatic difference. But, the cost to local residents made the trade-off a difficult bargain.

"Norris was also built during the 30’s, so a lot of people were happy for the job. There were a lot of mixed emotions, a lot of people were very much in favor of what went on and of course even when Oak Ridge was built 8 years later, the war effort and the effort to get rid of the hard times of the Depression, a lot of people were in favor of those jobs and those conditions. And of course one of the things the TVA did very well, was it changed people’s lives. We in this valley, got electricity from that process and a lot of people were happy for that. A lot of people were happy for the way it changed lives. So most people have very good thoughts about the TVA and the process they did. But those people who were directly affected by the movement, they never forgave them. (Tommy Mariner)[2]"

While the rest of the country suffered from the Great Depression, the suffering of rural Americans in the 1930’s was compounded by entrenched poverty. In the Norris Basin 98 percent of the tenant farmers did not have electricity, whereas 90 percent of urban Americans enjoyed it. Among the Basin’s tenant farmers 41 percent had no indoor toilet facilities, and 78 percent had to travel at least 300 yards to get their household water.[3] The numbers were only slightly better for property owners in the area.

A Pre-Norris Dam Home.[4]

Farming conditions were notoriously poor in the region.[5] Former mayor and lifelong resident of Norris, TN Jerry Crossno explains that “at the time they [the TVA] came in here in the thirties, [the farmers] were on farms that had been farmed like crazy for years and years, and had no fertilizer. The land had gotten poorer and poorer. The hills had big gullies in them that had been washed out.” He adds:

"Tennessee particularly needed something. It needed something major that was going to be dramatic and big and TVA accomplished that.” Among the new industries added to the region after the Norris Dam was completed and electricity was widely available, was a new fertilizer plant."

In addition to using the mantra of industrial progress to justify its massive dam and electrification projects, the TVA used the descriptions and images of poor farmers and rural families to justify its dramatic interventions, including the taking of many square miles of land through eminent domain. As journalist Ernie Pyle wrote in his series on the TVA, “The TVA, as nearly as I can figure out, is an attempt to do the same thing to a whole section of the United States that a doctor does to a man who is all smashed up in an auto accident. And that is, fix him up.”[6]

When photographer Lewis Hine worked for the TVA and documented rural life in the Norris Basin in 1933 prior to the building of the dam, residents felt that contrary to his progressive image as the “photographer of America’s working people,” he and the TVA were trying to paint a picture of the “backwardness” of rural Tennessee. Rather than taking pictures of “larger and better schools” in the area he photographed Oakdale, a one-room school house near Loyston that would be no more after the Norris Dam reservoir inundation (see photo below). A soon-to-be-displaced resident complains:

"They wanted something like Oakdale; they didn't want something that looked good. They wanted to show the worst side. They took pictures. Well, you've seen them. I know why they do it. You see, movies are made about the South. They'll be hillbillies and the rough people of the South, when you see the movies. And, well, people outside of the South were viewing this community here. If it had been all spic and span and beautiful buildings, well, it wouldn't have been interesting to anybody.”[7]"

One can understand why residents affected by the Norris Dam displacement could be apprehensive about how they fit into the costs and benefits as calculated by TVA administrators in the dam and inundation planning process.

Lewis Hine photograph "Interior view of Oakdale School near Loyston, Tennessee. From 30 to 40 pupils usually attend."[8]

[1] The “Norris Basin” is used to describe the catchment area affected by the damming of the Powell and Clinch Rivers. The Norris Dam and the town of Norris were named after U.S. Senator George W. Norris from Nebraska, a staunch supporter of FDR’s New Deal and sponsor of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933.

[2] All subjects interviewed for the project are listed at the end of the page. For convenience, they will only be referenced by full name when they are first used. All other references after that will include only their last name. Respondents who did not want their name used will be referred to as “Anonymous”.

[3] New Deal Network, “Electricity for All.”

[4]National Archives, National Archives Catalog, Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1918–2000. Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), 1933–1933. “The home of Harriet Hankins in the area of the proposed town of Norris Dam.” Item dated October 25, 1933. https://research.archives.gov/id/532658. Accessed February 10, 2016.

[5] Patricia Bernard Ezzell, TVA Photography: Thirty Years of Life in the Tennessee Valley. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

[6] Pyle, Ernie. 1935. “Object of TVA is to ‘Fix Up’ Tennessee Area,” El Paso Herald-Post (December 28, p. 12). Retrieved February 19, 2016 (http://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/texas/el-paso/el-paso-herald-post/1935/12-28/page-23?&tag=el+paso+herald+post&rtserp=tags/el-paso-herald-post?ndt=ex&pd=28&py=1935&pm=12&psb=relavance)

[7] McDonald and Muldowny, p. 51

[8] National Archives, National Archives Catalog, Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1918-2000. Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), 1933-1933. “Interior view of Oakdale School near Loyston, Tennessee. From 30 to 40 pupils usually attend.” Photo. Item dated October 23, 1933. https://research.archives.gov/id/532648?q=hine Accessed February 10, 2016.

[9] National Archives, National Archives Catalog, Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1918-2000. Series: Lewis Hine Photographs for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), 1933-1933. "Washday at the Stooksberry homestead near Andersonville, Tennessee. This old estate of 350 acres dates back to the Civil War. It will be submerged when the Norris Dam reservoir fills. This family is very versatile and carries on all kinds of activities and construction." Photo. Item dated October 23, 1933. https://research.archives.gov/id/532642. Accessed February 13, 2016.