Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading

Bench-Marks in the Tennessee Valley

I. Strength in the Hills

by Arthur E. Morgan

Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority

January 1934

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

When it comes to long run planning for the Valley—or for the United States as a whole—increase of production is not enough. We do not want merely to duplicate here on the Tennessee the industrial set-up that has broken down in Detroit and Pittsburgh and the other cities that have sent back penniless the quotas they were at such pains to draw from these parts during post-war prosperity. We must try to get another picture of what to do about the two million people in this watershed—of what they can do for themselves.


Norris Dam Site
Photographs for TVA by Lewis Hine

Week-end at Norris damsite on Clinch River where 2000 men are at work on preliminary construction. Nowhere in America, says Mr. Morgan, has he found a superior labor force in adaptability, intelligence or workmanship.



The nascent talent that is hidden away in the hills is as important as the potential energy of the stream flow. Here is a typical farm boy who has a place near Piney Flats and who has mastered the craftsmanship of casting and finishing plates at the Kingsport Press

ECONOMIC surplus does not necessarily result in a prosperous and happy people. In many other regions and epochs the world has seen such a surplus produce, not freedom and leisure and well-being, but tyranny, servitude and oppression. Take, for example, the case of ancient Egypt. During the time of the Pharaohs there was a great surplus of food and of men. That surplus might have been used to build wholesome and sanitary dwellings for the whole people. It might have been used for public hygiene, for public education, for research, for useful public works. It actually was used to build up the greatest piles of stones on earth—the Pyramids; to create heartless oppression.

Throughout the long centuries that story of surplus bringing misery has been repeated again and again. In America today we do not build pyramids. We go in for competitive social expenditures. Our big houses are too large and our little houses are too small. A few years ago I was visiting in one of the mountain districts of the Tennessee watershed and spent the night in a little cabin in the hills. There were the father and mother and six children. I suppose the entire family did not see a hundred dollars a year in cash. Yet all were neat, courteous and intelligent. On leaving I wondered how I might express my appreciation. It would have been an offense to offer money to my hosts, but I sent $25 to a wise mutual friend in the mountains. That $25 produced the following: one child had tonsils removed by a publicspirited surgeon, one girl had her eyes fitted with glasses, and one child got six weeks in a boarding-school (there was no school near home).

A member of the faculty of a southern university has recently made a study of the cash incomes from farms in a mountain county. The average total cash income this last year was $45 for each farm in the county—$10 from relief and the balance from the farm. In North Carolina, two hundred mountain farms in four counties were similarly studied. Taking out taxes and the cost of fertilizer they had left, on an average, $86 in cash. Such low levels of income do not indicate low levels of innate capacity. There is a good breed in the hills that drain into the Tennessee. It deserves a good chance. Many lives are rusting away, many hopes are fading, because there has been no chance. This is not primarily a problem of economic theory. The South's greatest poet, Sidney Lanier, put it clearly:

Alas, for the Poor to have some part
In yon sweet living lands of art
Makes problems not for head, but heart.
Vainly might Plato's brain revolve it:
Plainly the heart of a child could solve it.

We need social-economic planning in the Tennessee Valley. We need kilowatts of electric power and tons of potash, phosphates and ammonia. We need forest policy and production policy. But we need something more than all thcse. We need the desire and the will that this productiveness shall not be segregated so that a few compete in ostentation while the many strive hopelessly against fate. We need a greater sharing here and in America everywhere.

When in June the Congress and the President set up the Tennessee Valley Authority, the general purpose of the act comprehended such a social goal, but it was but generally defined and only slightly provided for. Most of the present appropriation is for specific work, to build dams, transmission lines and fertilizer plants. The law provides that the President may from time to time outline his plans to Congress and request further funds. In the meantime our board of three directors, under the direction of the President, as provided in the law, must discover means for working out its purpose. The chief means must be cooperation with the people of the Tennessee River region and of the nation. Only as they have hopes and desires can much be accomplished. The Tennessee Valley Authority must chiefly be an instrument which can be used by the people of the region and of the United States.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003