This hearse and coffin from the Butler of yesteryear is on display at the museum

Butler Museum

Across Tennessee there are towns that no longer exist, buried under man-made lakes that were created in the name of progress, flood control and cheap electricity. There are also communities moved to make way for lakes.

One of those is Butler, a small community located in upper east Tennessee that was moved to higher ground to make way for Watauga Lake. Today there is a small museum in Butler that contains artifacts and pictures from the way Butler used to look. This snapshot of a small Tennessee town tells you a lot about life in small town Tennessee in a bygone era. It also reminds us of the price paid for the luxuries we enjoy today.

Watauga Academy, a school in old Butler
PHOTO: Butler Museum
Butler was originally located where the Roan Creek and Watauga River meet in Johnson County. It was, in the early 1900s, a typical east Tennessee farming and lumber community with about 600 residents. Among other things the town had a post office, schools, grocery stores, a furniture store, a drug store, a doctor's office, three gas stations, and hundreds of houses.

But the city also had a flooding problem, as did many towns located along rivers in Tennessee in the days before the Tennessee Valley Authority. According to one Butler history, the town experienced floods in 1867, 1886, 1901, 1902, 1916, 1924, and 1940. That's a lot of floods!
These two pictures at the Butler Museum show what Butler, Tennessee, looked like before being flooded (above) and after the flood (below).
In the 1930s and 1940s, a series of man-made lakes were created along the Tennessee River to reduce flooding, help commercial boats navigate the river, and produce fertilizer. (Click here to read more about this program, known as the Tennessee Valley Authority). Eventually the TVA worked its way to Johnson County, in upper east Tennessee. In 1942 it began construction of Watauga Dam. Building it took longer than expected because of World War II.

In December 1948 the dam was completed and its gates closed. Water began to slowly rise until it had covered all of Butler. By this time, of course, the town's citizens had moved to higher ground and taken everything of value with them. In the process, Butler developed a new nickname: "The town that would not drown."

Here at the Butler Museum you can see many of the things that were moved to higher ground when the water started to rise. There are, for example, things that were used in the Butler post office.

Equipment used to cut trees in the town's lumber mill. 

Even the barber's chair that was used in old Butler.
Chances are, someone you meet when you visit the museum remembers old Butler and grew up there. Here you see a tour guide pointing out where he used to live.
Here is a road map that shows the location of Butler.

The Butler Museum can be reached at 423-768-2911. It is only open on Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment.