During the summer of 1949 we moved 17 miles northeast of Oak Ridge to the small town of Norris, Tennessee in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. A year earlier Henry David Epstein, representing a group of Philadelphia businessmen, bought the entire town from the federal government (including 341 dwellings, a small business district, a large brick school building, a multi-purpose Community Building that housed a restaurant, library, a gymnasium and theater, as well as, an assortment of other structures on 1,284 acres). Epstein had out-bid the Norris Citizens Development Corporation (NCDC) that had been formed by a group of Norris residents to purchase the town.
The auction took place on June 15, 1948 in front of Norris’ only school building at the time; a large Georgian-style brick building that once was the largest electrically heated structure in the entire world. The NCDC’s maximum bid of 1.9 million dollars was not enough to secure ownership of the town. The auction bidding contest continued for several more back-and-forth-rounds between Epstein and a representative of J. W. Ferrell, a real estate company from North Carolina, before Epstein’s offer of 2.1 million dollars prevailed.
Until then Norris had been owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a corporation of the United States government. Congress established TVA in 1933 to address a wide range of technological, economic and environmental issues (including flood control, navigation, malaria prevention, reforestation, erosion control, and the production and delivery of low-cost electricity).
The town of Norris was originally built during the height of the Great Depression as a model planned community by TVA to house the workers who were constructing TVA’s first major hydroelectric project, a dam on the Clinch River.
The dam and the town were name for Senator George W. Norris, a Progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska who was a staunch supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives and the prime senate sponsor of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. He was also the prime Senate sponsor behind the Rural Electrification Act of 1935, which brought electrical service to rural areas across the United States.
Arthur Morgan, TVA’s first chairman, envisioned Norris as a model of egalitarian and cooperative living, as an independent, self-sustaining community. The responsibility for the town’s design rested with TVA’s Division of Land Planning and Housing and was loosely based on the English garden city movement of the 1890s.
Roads were made to follow the natural contours of the remote East Tennessee terrain, winding over the hills and through the valleys. Utilizing indigenous materials (native wood and stone, brick, cinder blocks, cedar shakes and shingles), the twelve basic house designs were also made to fit into the natural environment, without needlessly cutting down trees. Though a variety of exterior materials allowed neighborhoods to appear visually diverse, nearly every one of the all-electric homes included a porch and fireplace.
In addition, as a way to preserve the idyllic character of Norris the planners created a greenbelt surrounding the entire town, as well as, numerous patches of wooded areas and village greens. Just north of the town, TVA also acquired 5000 acres of pristine woodland, encompassing and protecting the Clear Creek watershed, the source of drinking water for the community. This sizable forest was (and still is) laced with an extensive system of old CCC hiking trails and shelters, leading north to the teal-blue, crystal-clear water of Norris Lake with its 880 miles of hardwood shoreline.
When Norris Dam was completed in 1936 many of the construction workers and their families who lived in Norris left, transferring to other TVA work projects. The plan to populate the town with the displaced rural families of the soon-to-be-flooded valleys of the Clinch and Powell River Basin would never happen.
Though the Southern Highlanders Craft Guild would open two outlets, one in Norris and the other at the Norris Dam Visitors Center, Arthur Morgan’s utopian dream to sell quality crafts made in Norris would never be realized. His belief that subsistence agriculture and small cooperative industries would one day form a part of the community’s economy was admirable but was never really adequately pursued.
As the construction of the dam neared completion, other more pressing concerns deposed many of TVA’s original plans for Norris and its residents. The building that once housed the cafeteria was taken over by TVA’s Division of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries. The Authority also opened a hydraulic laboratory where it built and tested scale models of its many impending projects.
Obviously, the employees of these operations and their families needed a place to live. Norris soon became a TVA company town, almost exclusively inhabited by college-educated professionals –engineers, foresters, wildlife biologists, chemists, lawyers, secretaries, teachers, writers and journalists.
In addition, with TVA’s headquarters in Knoxville only 20 miles away, a short 45-minute drive on the Norris Freeway, many of TVA’s professional leadership began to see Norris as an attractive alternative to city living and soon began moving into the remaining houses vacated by the departing construction workers (including David Lilienthal, one of the three original TVA directors, its third chairman and later the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Gordon Clapp, TVA’s first general manager and fourth chairman). Arthur Morgan and his wife Lucy also lived in Norris for a while. FDR and Morgan’s vision that indigenous people of the region would one day populate Norris was never to be realized.
Later, during World War II when Y-12, X-10 and K-25 began to be developed in Oak Ridge to separate, produce and purify uranium-235 from the natural uranium-238 for use in developing a nuclear bomb, another influx of non-indigenous people began to seek housing in and around Anderson County. By the end of 1943 nearly one-third of Norris households had a member working in the Secrete City.
From the very beginning TVA’s vision of Norris as an ideal model for an American community was flawed. Conforming to the so-called “customs and traditions” of the area, TVA officials excluded black families from living in the town. Needless to say, their supposition was false. As black leaders at the time were quick to point out, poor blacks and whites had lived and worked together in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee for generations, long before TVA came to the region.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Norris was still truly an idyllic place to live and raise children. And that is the reason that my parents, like many other Oak Ridgers after the war, chose to move there.
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A Beautiful Spring Day
My first memory of Norris is not pleasant. The experience must have scarred my psyche for life, given the fact that I was only four and a half years old at the time and I remember it as if it were yesterday.
In May of 1949, a month before we actually moved to Norris, my family and I, along with my Aunt Etta and Uncle Charlie, who were visiting us from Atlanta, Georgia, drove over to Norris to take a look at where we would be living.
The six of us were able to easily fit into the family car, a light blue 1948 Ford sedan. My eleven-year-old sister, Alice, was sitting in the front seat between my dad who was driving and my Uncle Charlie who was riding shotgun. I was sitting in the back seat between my mother on my left and Aunt Etta on my right.
It was a beautiful spring day. The sky was clear and blue. Expectations were great. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, psychologically prepared to have a good time.
However, before we had even left the city limits of Oak Ridge I began to complain that I needed to pee. By the time we got to Clinton, seven miles away, I was struggling not to pee in my pants. In spite of my pleas to pull over, my father continued to believe that I could wait until we got to Norris, another ten mile away, to relieve myself.
Unfortunately, though I almost made it, he was wrong. As we pulled into a parking spot in front of Gossett’s Hardware Store in the town center’s small business district, the pressure and pain in my bladder became too intense for me to continue to hold back the onslaught.
Though the bright sunny day allowed my soiled-soaked pants to dry rather quickly, the lingering stench emanating from my body, my clothes and the car seat must have been too offensive for my Aunt Etta to remain silent. For what I remember most about that beautiful spring day was her emotional reaction, her incessant, ill-tempered grumbling about how she had to endure sitting next to me.