If you are learning about Tennessee history and some of the things that shaped it, you may be astounded about how much you can find in a small section of Anderson County.
In building Norris Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority brought on line an enormous source of electricity; tamed the Clinch River; created a lake that includes parts of five counties; paved a scenic highway; and built the planned bedroom community of Norris. All of this changed, overnight, the culture of this once remote part of Tennessee. And it is perhaps because the change was so sudden that you can find museums here that tell you all about the lifestyle that disappeared because of it.
The federal government formed the Tennessee Valley Authority at the height of the Great Depression. Among its purposes were flood control, navigation along the Tennessee River, and the creation of hydroelectric power.
Although the TVA took over several existing dams when the organization was formed, its leaders planned to build this dam — originally known as Cove Creek Dam — as their prototype. So TVA wanted to do more than just build the dam. They wanted to demonstrate to the entire country how their new organization could help the region and its residents.
Construction started in October 1933 and it was completed in March 1936. This was, in all likelihood, TVA’s best publicized project. Even President Franklin Roosevelt came to see it under construction. It was named for Nebraska Senator George Norris, the legislator who many consider to be the father of TVA.
The workers created a dam that is 1,860 feet wide, 265 feet high and holds back a lake that has 809 miles of shoreline. Norris Dam is an awe inspiring project of tremendous magnitude. Today when you approach it by car you can still get some sense of just how massive it must have felt to the people who saw it completed in the 1930s.
In fact, as you take the short ride along Highway 441 to get to Norris Dam, there are other interesting historical things along the way. First of all, you may notice that there are no billboards on the road to Norris Dam. That is by design: TVA’s planners wanted it to be scenic and free of advertisements. Second of all, you will pass many planned orchards as you head up the Clinch River Valley. These are the remnants of the time, not long ago, when agricultural experimentation was one of TVA’s functions (this is no longer the case).
Along the way, you may also find it worthwhile to drive through and stop at the community of Norris. This is a place unlike any other in Tennessee. The homes in the residential community of Norris were originally built for the workers who built the Norris Dam. At one time, TVA owned the community of Norris.
Today Norris is unique in that there are few commercial operations (such as stores) there. There are, however, a lot of nice, modest homes, many of which are the original homes built in the 1930s. Its lack of commercial development, proximity to parks and trails and other things have made Norris, in the words of one man who grew up there in the 1950s, one of America’s prettiest towns and most pleasant places to live.
“If I had to select one word to characterize growing up in Norris, it would be ‘freedom,'” says Robert Brandt, a former Davidson County chancery court judge and the author of the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Hiking Guide. “We had the run of the town, the vast forest, the creeks, the Clinch River, and the lake. We lived outside mostly, as I guess all boys did everywhere, in those days. The houses weren’t big enough to play in, and besides, kids weren’t allowed to play inside.”
TVA continues to own the dam and the lake, but lots of the land it once held is now part of Norris Dam State Park. Today people come to Norris Dam State Park mostly to dock their boats and stay at the cabins. But here are a few of the historical attractions that are part of this place:
* Historic Trails. In addition to the Norris Dam operation, a Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) unit operated in this area, building many of the structures still located at the state park.
One of the trails, known as the Camp Sam trail, takes you to where a CCC camp used to be. Talk about ghosts! You can see the foundations of CCC cabins; you can see where they used to have a basketball court; you can even see what we think used to be the place where they worked on cars!
* The Lenoir Museum. Do you collect things? Will and Helen Lenoir, who lived in this area, collected all sorts of things that were reflective of the disappearing culture of Tennessee, from arrowheads to farm implements to scrip from coal mining company towns. Most of this stuff — including an early 19th century barrel organ — is now on display at the Lenoir Museum.
* Threshing Barn and Rice Grist Mill — Neither one of these structures was originally here; both were moved and rebuilt at this location. But today you can explore both of these buildings to better understand just how it was that mountain people used the limited resources at their disposal to survive.
* Old cemeteries — There are three old cemeteries at Norris Dam State Park, and there really isn’t anything unusual about them. Nonetheless, these cemeteries serve as a reminder that, when Norris Dam was built and the lake created, 5,226 graves had to be dug up and relocated. For more information about this process, click here.
No tour of Norris Dam and Norris Dam State Park would be complete without mentioning the Museum of Appalachia, located along Norris Highway. This private attraction reflects the life work of John Rice Irwin, a native of this area who (like the Lenoirs) gathered artifacts and stories about the culture that vanished after TVA modernized the South. In the 1980s, Irwin’s collection became a living museum which today consists of dozens of structures, collections of various kinds, farm animals and wonderful stories that Irwin amassed and collected over the years.
On our visit to the Museum of Appalachia, we met some bluegrass musicians, had a bowl of apple cobbler, were followed by goats and walked into jail cells that were once used in Madisonville. But the best part of the museum is the stories that Irwin has amassed over the years about people such as Old Jim Smith (who lived in a cave) and Bush Breazeale (the Roane County man who planned and attended his own funeral).