In the first half of the 20th century, many man-made lakes in Tennessee were created in the name of progress, flood control and cheap electricity. When this happened, homes, farms. businesses, roads and cemeteries had to be moved to higher ground. In some cases, entire towns had to be moved.
One of those is Butler, a small community that was moved 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.
Butler was originally located where 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 town also had a flooding problem, as did many towns located along rivers in Tennessee in the days before the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The town, along with other places along the Watauga River, flooded in 1867, 1886, 1901, 1902, 1916, 1924, and 1940. That’s a lot of floods!
In the 1930s and 1940s, TVA created a series of man-made lakes along the Tennessee River to reduce flooding, help commercial boats navigate the river, and produce fertilizer. 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. Some of them built new homes, while others actually moved their houses to higher ground.
They originally called their new community Carderview, but later decided to go back to the name Butler. And as time went on, they began calling their community “the town that would not drown.”
This hearse and coffin from the Butler of yesteryear is on display at the museum.
Equipment used to cut trees in the town’s lumber mill.
Chances are, someone you meet when you visit the museum remembers old Butler and grew up there.
Here is Herman Tester, one of the volunteers who helps keep the Butler Museum open.