During the construction of Norris Dam (1933-1936), the Norris Community Building provided a recreation center for all persons (male and female) hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to build the dam. The structure consisted of a large lounge, a refreshment area, an auditorium-gymnasium with a stage at one end and a projection room at the other, a lending library and reading room, a barber and beauty shop, restrooms, an administrative office, including committee and lecture rooms.
The Norris Community Building (U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division)
The facility was built on the west side of Ridgeway Circle opposite a sizeable cafeteria. On the north and south sides of the circle were two dormitories for single men. Northeast of the circle along Ridgeway Road were four other men’s dormitories. Southeast of the circle at the north end of Oak Road across from another men’s dormitory (destroyed by fire in 1936) was the lone women’s dormitory. Most of the women who resided there worked in the cafeteria.
Once the dam was completed and construction workers began to move to other TVA projects, many of these buildings were used by TVA in other capacities. For example, early in 1937 the cafeteria became the Forestry Building and the town’s primary employer. Until then, TVA’s Division of Forestry was in Knoxville. The women’s dormitory became an inn for visitors, and then later, after Norris was incorporated, a nursing home.
By the time we moved to Norris (in 1949) the Community Building had been serving the needs of the permanent residents of the town for over a decade. The Community Building’s refreshment area had become a restaurant, a county art center had replace the library and reading room, which had been moved to the Norris School building in 1936 (later moved back to the Community Building in 1954), and the space formerly occupied by the barber and beauty shop had become the offices, display room, and storage room of the Southern Highlanders Craft Cooperative.
In 1934 TVA asked the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild to help them form a craft-marketing cooperative. Soon TVA began promoting Appalachian crafts through a cooperative called Southern Highlanders that was officially incorporated in the State of Tennessee on May 7, 1935. That same year, as part of TVA’s mission to create sustainable economic development in the region, the cooperative opened its headquarters in Norris, as well as its first retail shop.
For a brief time the cooperative maintained five shops in the United States. However, due to disappointing sales at the Patton Hotel in Chattanooga, the Chickamauga Dam site, and the Palmer House in Chicago, the cooperative soon reduced its retail outlets to Norris and Rockefeller Center in New York City. In order to reach a larger buying public it produced and published a 24-page catalog offering a variety of craft items, including hand-woven textiles, furniture, baskets, toys, and jewelry.
Soon after TVA sold the town in 1948 the cooperative's headquarters and shops closed. Once the town was incorporated in 1949, the offices of the city government were in the Community Building.
My first vivid memory of the Norris Community Building occurred one evening in the fall of 1950. The jukebox was playing a song by The Weavers:
To this day, whenever I hear that haunting melody, my mind flashes back to that moment. The lights of the restaurant are dim. There are several couples on the floor dancing to the song.
The origin of the old folk standard is unclear. The American blues musician Huddie Ledbetter ("Lead Belly") had been singing a version of the song as far back as 1908. By the 1930s he had made the song his own, rewriting most of the lyrics. The musicologists John and Alan Lomax first recorded "Lead Belly" singing the song for the Library of Congress in 1933 while he was still in a Louisiana prison.
Despite the song’s popularity within the New York City blues community, it never was a commercial success until 1950 when the Weavers recorded their version of the song, six months after "Lead Belly" had died. The song was on the Billboard Best Seller chart for 25 weeks, peaking at number 1 for 13 of those weeks.
The Greenwich Village-based folk quartet was made up of Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger. Formed in November 1948, by the early 1950s the group had become a commercial success, selling millions of records under the Decca label.
Unfortunately, during the McCarthy era and the Red Scare, an FBI informant (who later recanted his testimony) denounced Pete Seeger and Lee Hays as Communist Party members. Eventually, both Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Hays took the Fifth Amendment while Seeger refused to answer on grounds of the First Amendment.
Seeger was found guilty of contempt by the Committee and placed under restrictions by the court pending an appeal. Finally, in 1961 his conviction was overturned. Nevertheless, Seeger was blacklisted by the entertainment industry and prevented from performing on television and radio throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s. All of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance.
Late in 1953 Decca Records terminated The Weavers' recording contract and deleted their songs from its catalog. The group’s records were also denied airplay, which greatly limited their income from royalties. With their economic viability on the wane they disbanded.
However, in December 1955 the group reunited to play a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. A recording of the concert was produced and distributed by Vanguard Records. Despite a surge in popularity of folk music and a backlash against McCarthyism, the group never really recovered from the witch-hunt. It was not until 1968 that Pete Seeger was finally able to appear on a nationally syndicated television show – The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Over the next 13 years while I lived in Norris there would be many other memorable moments, events, and activities at the Norris Community Building. One of the longest reoccurring was the annual Birthday Ball, later becoming the Polio Ball, and then the March of Dimes Ball. Held in late December on or near Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday, it was a highly successful fund-raiser for polio research and later for the Cripple Children’s Foundation. Attendance was often so large that there was hardly room in the auditorium to dance.
The President's Ball 1948 (Knoxville News-Sentinel – 1948)
Another annual event held at the Community Building was the Norris Religious Fellowship’s Church Bazaar. It was the Fellowship’s biggest fund-raising event of the year. There were all kinds of games and activities, as well as food and donated items for sale at the White Elephant Booth. Everyone in town came. The Fellowship’s Young Peoples Group ran many of the booths.
Perhaps the town’s longest running and most prominent cultural activity at the Community Building was the Norris Little Theater. It began in 1937, staging as many as three plays a year. It was truly a community endeavor. There was never a paid director. Everyone was involved in the productions – either as actors, set designers, stagehands, make-up artists, or merely audience members.
For a number of years in the late 1950s the young people in town also began staging their own productions as the Norris Summer Players. In 1958 they performed an original play – “Throw the Rascals Out” – by Sandy Brandt (a writer for both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge and a long time resident of Norris). My senior class performed the play again in 1963.
In 1998 as part of the 50th Anniversary of the incorporation of Norris, the Anderson County High School drama club performed Mr. Brandt’s three-act political satire. I was invited to the performance because I had played one of the leading characters in the original Norris High School production. Mr. Brandt (who was by then suffering from dementia) was accompanied by his son Chancellor Robert (Bob) Brandt. At the end of the performance the students called Mr. Brandt to the stage and gave him a standing ovation and a bouquet of roses. It was a very memorable occasion, one I will never forget.
Early on, what brought me to the Community Building most often were the Boy Scout meetings of Troop 73 sponsored by the Norris Religious Fellowship. I joined the scouting program first as a Cub Scout. At age 11, I became a Boy Scout, advancing toward the goal of becoming an Eagle Scout. Though I fulfilled the requirement of at least 21 merit badges, I never did an extensive service project. By the time I became an Explorer Scout at 14, my interest in rising in the ranks of the scouting program had greatly diminish.
I still remember and can recite the Scout Law – "A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" – and the Scout Oath – "On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." What I remember most, though, about Troop 73 are all those incredible outdoor adventures – from exploring the Outer Banks along the North Carolina coast to the camping and backpacking trips in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
I have very fond memories of our annual fall camping trip to Greenbrier Cove: rock-hopping up and down the Little Pigeon River, taking baths in the river with snow on the ground, hiking to Ramsey’s Cascade and off trail to Wooly Tops where we discovered the wreckage of a small plane, being dropped off at the Alum Bluff trailhead and hiking up and over Mount Le Count and back down through Trillium Gap to our campsite along the Little Pigeon in Greenbrier – a hike of over 18 miles.
I remember our annual encounters with "V-neck," a black bear with a white V-shape marking on her chest. We thought she was a male until one year "V-neck" showed up at our campsite with two cubs. I remember returning from an all-day hike to find her sitting in Fred Lewis’ tent. She was hovering over a chessboard and an unfinished game, seemingly contemplating a move.
I remember another year when my tent mate, Dewey Grieve, brought a lockable, small metal chest for non-perishable food, thinking it would prevent wild creatures from eating our food. Unfortunately, we were awakened in the night by loud grunts and thuds. Scrambling from our tent we found "V-neck" heaving the metal chest into the air. The loud dull sound was the chest impacting the earth. Though it remained intact, the contents were a sordid mess.
I vividly remember a weeklong canoeing trip on Norris Lake northeast of Pellissippi Pointe at the confluence of the Powell and Clinch Rivers along the shoreline of Central Peninsula. It was on that trip that I saw alligator gar in the wild for the first time (the largest fresh-water fish in North America). A small school of them (all at least six-feet long) actually rubbed up against the bottom of our canoe. A year earlier while on my eighth-grade trip to the state capitol in Nashville I had seen a stuffed alligator gar nearly 10-feet long at the state museum in the old War Memorial Building.
On that same canoeing trip I had an experience that I will never forget. On the evening of our last night we pulled our canoes ashore near a freshly mowed field. As we were setting up camp someone suggested gathering the hay and using it as bedding in our tents. Around four o’clock the next morning I awoke with chigger bites all over my body. For the next two weeks I tried every home remedy known to man to relieve the intense itching – from calamine lotion to nail polish. Nothing worked.
Chiggers are the larvae of harvest mites. They begin as eggs, hatch as larvae, develop into nymphs and then become adults. Nymph and adult harvest mites are vegetarians. But in their larval stage they are parasitic.
Too small to see with the naked eye, chiggers do not burrow under the skin as many people believe. They feed on skin cells. After injecting a digestive enzyme that ruptures the cell wall, they suck up the cells' fluids. Obviously, the process irritates the skin, causing a discomfort that can last for weeks.
What I should have done was grab a bar of soap, dive into the lake, and scrub every inch of my body. On further reflection, what I should not have done was use freshly mowed hay as bedding. But at the time I was naive and ignorant.
The original Norris Community Building remained the social and cultural hub of the town for many years, until a horrific fire of a suspicious nature and undetermined origin destroyed it in 1978. Fortunately, volunteers were able to save many of the city records and library books. A number of residents wanted to rebuild the structure on the same site utilizing the original design. However, (to the dismay of many of us) the new Community Building, completed in 1983 at a different location near the town center, was not at all like the old.
For those who would like to read Chapters 1-8 of My Memoir click here.