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Bench-Marks in the Tennessee Valley

I. Strength in the Hills

by Arthur E. Morgan

Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority

January 1934

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AS a small boy, it was my duty each evening to carry in the firewood and to fill the wood-box by the kitchen stove. In order to avoid monotony, I varied the task by different ways of piling the wood. Sometimes it would be in neat horizontal layers; sometimes on end; sometimes the sticks would be matched as to size and length.

Let me do something of the sort in this series of articles through which I hope to share some of our adventures in the Tennessee Valley. They will be in the nature of an informal log of the work in process; less of a log, however, in another sense, than armfuls of situations, encounters, possibilities, plans and developments. The instalments will be written as we go along, but are less likely to stick to the calendar than to follow the bench-marks of our planning—to employ a term we use in civil engineering when we mark and record the elevation of points for future reference. I shall draw on letters, memoranda, notes of staff meetings, reports and addresses.

In Antioch Notes, I was able to share periodically with faculty, students, graduates and friends of the college the stream of impulse and discovery that have gone into our educational experiment there, so that we had the reinforcement of their understanding and criticism. It is in much the same spirit that I shall try to put before one group of Americans outside the Valley the running story of what is going forward, and invite the interest of your readers.

WHEN the President proposed the organization of the Tennessee Valley Authority his action was not in response to a happy thought without relation to his program as a whole. Rather, he saw it as a normal and integral part of that program. Some of the policies he proposed must of necessity be worked out on a national scale, such as the banking system and the NRA. There are others which can best be dealt with on a smaller scale before giving them national application, or which have regional variations and can best have regional solutions.

The President sees the Valley Authority as a means for displacing haphazard, unplanned and unintegrated social and industrial development by introducing increasing elements of order, design and forethought. Some problems of other regions are absent here. For instance, with only half of one percent of the population foreign-born, the issue of making Americans out of immigrants is not present. Other problems like soil erosion are more acute than elsewhere. Yet in the large, the problems of the Tennessee Valley Authority are the problems of America.

There are more than forty thousand square miles in the area drained by the Tennessee River. Its watershed overlaps seven states, the larger part in Tennessee, next Alabama, and then North Carolina. There are steep mountainsides where corn is hoed; and flat reaches of bottom-lands in the cotton belt. There are districts where, before the coming of the auto, people lived their lives without ever seeing a Negro; other districts where a third or half of the population are of African stock. There are cities and towns built upon our new industrialism; regions of up-to-date farming, and regions which still lag in their isolation.

We can imagine Daniel Boone in his time sitting down at one of the fords of the river to discuss things with an Indian hunter; imagine him saying, "There is ten times as much wealth here as you are getting out of it." The red man would not have believed him; he could not have envisioned the possibilities that the people of the region have realized in the last century. With no element of romancing we can say today, "There is ten times as much potential wealth in this region as we are realizing." We must endeavor to see those possibilities and see that they are realized—to determine where the waste is and eliminate it; and to transmute that wealth into well-being. That, I think, constitutes social and economic planning. To some extent it means legislation and legislative programs, but it also means a change of outlook and a change of spirit.

BY waste I mean the spilled energy of the streams themselves that has been allowed to run unused. I mean the farming methods in the rolling uplands of our southern states that are causing the soil to wash away so fast that, in the very real sense of wealth in the soil, the country is far poorer than it was in the time of Daniel Boone. Here in the Tennessee Valley we see evidence of waste in the million or more lots plotted by real-estate promoters within reach of Muscle Shoals and sold to unsuspecting persons; and in the ghosts of old lumber towns that mark the regions where the primeval forest growth was sawed and sent out with no forethought of later tree crops.

For this is a region where raw materials have been handled chiefly as just raw materials and exported as such—forests as timber, minerals as ores—a country to exploit rather than a country to build. By waste I mean, also, the useless duplication of local government; our old units dating back to when the court must be reached on horseback down the branch or over sticky clay roads. In some counties all the work in the court house can be done in one half day a week. A quarter as many counties would be enough today, and a large tax burden would be relieved. I once asked a Swiss why certain unprogressive methods were being used on a construction job in the Alps. He replied, "It is hard for a man to think large in a small country." Thinking and planning in terms of a rivershed may help us in getting away from petty issues and in setting up more vital human objectives.

But especially I mean those wastes of the energies, ambitions and hopes of vast numbers of men and women which are almost killed through lack of opportunity. The Tennessee Valley contains twice as many people in rural areas as are necessary for agricultural work. It should be possible to develop local industries with the help of cheap power, that will enable those communities to manufacture what they would like to buy. With an intelligent and ambitious population, with great natural resources, and with cheap power, human ingenuity should bring to an end the present widespread want and idleness. Greatest of all wastes is that which comes when people fail to see the great possibilities and opportunities around them, and when, in that failure to see what might be, they resign themselves to things as they are.

The elimination of these wastes cannot be achieved overnight. That fact lies back of our warnings that people should not now come to the Tennessee Valley region to seek employment, or to find Utopia. By mid-fall we had received, altogether, more than a hundred thousand applications, about half of them from persons in the Valley area. In some of the counties 75 percent of the population is unemployed and on public relief. The relief facilities have been under great strain. Vast numbers of Valley people had gone to Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh during good times, and came home only when they had no money. Hundreds of thousands are in idleness. By working day and night and using four shifts during the twenty-four hours, we are employing about two thousand men on the early Norris Dam construction. The Joe Wheeler Dam is giving work to more, and so are our housing enterprises and other outlying activities.

During recent months the TVA spent about a million and a half dollars for equipment, but about three quarters of this went to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York and other manufacturing centers. It has been spent for steam shovels, cableways, structural steel, copper wire, electric pumps and dynamite. The building of a modern dam is largely done in distant factories, and such unemployment relief as is afforded by the new Tennessee structures is thus nationwide. Every man employed in Tennessee makes work for two men outside. But under present industrial organization government work alone cannot bring back prosperity. It can only be like the starter in an automobile that gets the engine going. The TVA hopes to start this region to self sustained productiveness.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003