When you research a single document, you never know where it might lead.
There is a section of the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge devoted to the process under which the area transformed from remote farmland to part of World War II’s Manhattan Project. In that section is a framed letter similar to the ones property owners in the area would have received in 1942.
“The War Department intends to take possession of your farm December 1, 1942,” begins the letter, written only three weeks before then. “It will be necessary for you to move, not later than that date.
It was a form letter, similar to those that would have been received by everyone else who lived in that part of Anderson County. The first time I read it, I thought about how much times have changed.
In 1942 and 1943, the U.S. government acquired about 60,000 acres in and near present-day Oak Ridge. Today, it is amazing to contemplate the government trying to obtain such a large area in such a short period of time. With television and the internet, news about the purchases would spread so fast that there is no way the government could possibly keep it a secret (like it did back then). Today, with the emphasis our society puts on individual rights and litigation, such acquisitions would drag on for years.
But who was Parlee Raby? How much land did she own? Was there a story behind her? And since there were about 3,000 people forced to relocate, why is this particular letter on the museum wall?
It took some digging. But as it turns out, quite a bit is known about the Raby land.
This isn’t because of the size of the parcel, or what became of the property. Paralee Raby—the government misspelled her name—owned about 15 acres at the edge of the rural valley (historically known as Bear Creek Valley) in Anderson County. Those acres weren’t the site of any of the major structures used by the U.S. government during the Manhattan Project. It was north and east of the main factory plants in what became the city of Oak Ridge. After World War II, the land was sold back for private development, and it is now part of a residential subdivision.
The Raby acquisition is remembered because of its connection to one of Anderson County’s legendary characters. Paralee’s farm, you see, had previously been owned by her stepfather John Hendrix.
Here the story gets complicated. Hendrix was born in 1865, and he and his wife were small farmers in Anderson County at the turn of the century. However, as the story goes, John Hendrix’s infant daughter died around 1900. His wife blamed him for the child’s death. As a result, she left him and took the rest of the kids with her to Arkansas.
John Hendrix became a broken man. He wandered into the woods and spent more than a month living alone, praying for long hours and sleeping on the ground. He probably would have died were it not for the fact that a local woman fed him chicken soup and brought a quilt to cover him.
When Hendrix came back from his self-imposed isolation, he told everyone that during his long time alone he had a vision. According to accounts, Hendrix said something along these lines:
“Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that will ever be,” he said. “Big engines will build big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things, and there will be great noise and confusion, and the earth will shake. I’ve seen it; it’s coming.”
John Hendrix remarried, and through his second marriage had a stepdaughter named Paralee Raby. He eventually deeded his 15-acre farm to her.
Hendrix died on June 2, 1915. At his request, he was buried on the top of the hill overlooking the little farm he had given Paralee Raby and her husband. That area is now a residential subdivision named Hendrix Creek.
After the government took their land, Paralee and Perry Raby moved to another part of Anderson County. As the extent of the Manhattan Project became clear to them, they remembered the strange predictions Hendrix had made years before. After the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were amazed. So was everyone else who had heard about John Hendrix.
Paralee and Perry Raby both died a long time ago.
Ray Smith, the official historian for the city of Oak Ridge, credits several people as helping to keep alive the story of the Rabys and John Hendrix. One of them was Grace Raby Crawford, the adopted daughter of Perry and Paralee Raby. Grace described her mother in a book called Back of Oak Ridge.
“Paralee’s house was not one of luxury but one of contentment and the love it takes to make a real home,” she wrote. “Paralee was a devoted wife and mother and also ‘loved her neighbor as herself.’ She went into the homes of her neighbors when there was sickness and cared for them, regardless of the type of illness or the weather.”
Ray Smith isn’t certain as to how it was that the Paralee Raby letter made its way to the wall of the American Museum of Science and Energy. But he feels fairly certain that it is because of the Raby’s connection to John Hendrix, who is often known as the “Prophet of Oak Ridge.”
In any case, that’s the story behind one letter hanging on one wall of one Tennessee museum.